UConn baseball’s final season in the American Athletic Conference was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The American, with its 24 conference games full of strong RPI opponents, was an ideal baseball location for a school in the Northeast like UConn, where there are few high-end baseball programs with which to compete.
Overall, the Big East is a better regional fit for all sports and a cultural fit for the Huskies’ men’s and women’s basketball teams. The move also allowed the football program to go independent and play more relevant opponents.
The only program that doesn’t benefit from this move is the baseball team, who will shift from one of the best baseball conferences in the country to one of the more mediocre. While some of the Huskies’ new conference mates have a history of success, UConn’s league competition leaves something to be desired compared to its old stomping grounds, where several of the schools regularly made and succeeded in the NCAA Tournament.
The Big East has not appeared in a Super Regional since 2012 when St. John’s advanced out of the Chapel Hill Regional to the Tuscon Super Regional. No Big East program has hosted a regional since the realignment in 2013.
Meanwhile, two AAC programs, Houston (2014) and East Carolina (2016 and 2019), have advanced to Super Regionals. Additionally, Houston (2015, 2017) and East Carolina (2018, 2019) have each hosted a Regional. This gulf in competition also extends to tournament bids.
NCAA Tournament Bids by Year
Of the 10 schools that have played a game in the American Athletic Conference, including UConn, eight have earned a tournament nod. Meanwhile, only three of the seven Big East schools can say the same, with St. John’s and Xavier accounting for six of the conference’s seven bids since 2014.
Even if schools aren’t making the NCAA Tournament regularly, they can still be solid programs that provide a good RPI opportunity, helping the conference at large succeed as RPI is the primary ranking used to compare teams without head-to-head results.
The American regularly posts a high conference RPI with each school ranking in the top 130 in the RPI in 2019. That was good for No. 5 out of 31 Division I conference, just .004 points behind the Pac-12 for the No. 4 spot. Three of the seven Big East baseball programs ranked as high as No. 130 but three ranked below 200. That slotted the Big East No. 17 in the rankings, sandwiched between the Southern and Ohio Valley conferences.
Since 2014, the first year after realignment, the Big East has consistently ranked in the teens in conference RPI, while the American has been slotted no worse than sixth, peaking at third in 2015. The Big East’s best mark was No. 10 in 2017, the only year in which a team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
This is particularly important for UConn, as regional opponents with a strong RPI are few and far between. Given the randomness of a single baseball game, it’s inevitable that UConn will drop a contest or two to inferior competition, dinging their RPI. Thus, minimizing the appearances of sub-200 teams on the schedule is key.
A few games with those strong RPI schools — St. John’s and Seton Hall — will now be part of the conference season, cutting into that already small number. This shift is likely to change UConn’s scheduling strategy moving forward.
While the Huskies were always aggressive in the non-conference, they had a grueling 24-game conference slate to help keep RPI high. UConn will now have 21 contests against Big East competition, leaving 35 non-conference games to fill out.
UConn’s 2021 schedule showed how it plans to go about the non-conference season moving forward. The Huskies added a four-game series on the road against Texas Tech, who appeared in the 2018 and 2019 College World Series and is ranked No. 4 in the preseason coaches poll. They will also begin the year with a three-game set against No. 14 Virginia and visit 2016 National Champion Coastal Carolina for a pair of contests in early March.
Ultimately, the move to the Big East was the right move for the athletic department as a whole and has reinvigorated the fanbase. However, baseball was a program that benefitted from life in the American and now that it has returned to the Big East — sans some of the programs that made it a high-end baseball conference prior to the realignment — the Huskies will regularly be aggressive in non-conference scheduling to offset the weaker conference slate.