Return to Big East conference revitalizes UConn men’s basketball program, fans

With 3:58 remaining in the first half of Thursday night’s game between the University of Connecticut and Seton Hall in the Big East men’s basketball tournament quarterfinals, the Madison Square Garden video map showed the ex-UConn coach Jim Calhoun who was in attendance.

It drew loud cheers across the arena for a man who revitalized the Huskies from a moribund program into one of the best in the nation. During his 26 years at UConn, Calhoun won 629 games and three national titles before retiring in 2012.

It was also the last time until Thursday that the Huskies played to a sold-out crowd in the Big East Tournament. They played in two games at last year’s Big East tournament, but those crowds were limited to around 100 family members and athletic department officials due to the coronavirus pandemic.

There are no capacity restrictions this season, and UConn fans turned out in droves Thursday to support their school, whose campus is about 135 miles away in Storrs, Conn. And they weren’t disappointed, as the Huskies won, 62-52, to advance to Friday night’s semifinals against Villanova. For many fans, Thursday brought back fond memories of previous Big East tournaments, including the seven times UConn won the event.

“Having been at UConn for six years now, probably the thing I’ve heard the most from our fans is their stories and how much they’ve enjoyed coming to this event over many, many years,” said David Benedict, who took over as UConn’s athletic director in 2016.

UConn was one of the original seven members of the Big East in 1979. The Huskies then left the league in 2013 along with other Big East schools that had football championship subdivision programs and formed the American Athletic Conference (AAFC). The seven schools that did not have major football programs retained the Big East name, and they joined with three other colleges and continued as one of the top men’s basketball leagues in the nation.

Meanwhile, UConn’s football program has ranked among the worst in the FCS, ranging 20-65 from 2013 to 2019. And although the Huskies won the men’s national basketball title in 2014, its first season in the AAC, they only made two NCAA Tournament appearances. since.

This lack of success on the field, but more importantly a growing apathy among fans, alumni and donors, led UConn in the summer of 2019 to accept the Big East’s invitation to join the conference beginning in the school year. 2020-21 in all sports except football and hockey. The football program is still sinking, having become independent, but the move to the Great East has benefited the men’s basketball program and other sports.

“There was a lot of unrest within the fanbase about the situation with our conference,” Benedict said. “I think people missed the Big East. It didn’t necessarily have to do with competitiveness as much as with affinities and rivalries. There wasn’t a lot of interest in the league we were in when I came to UConn.

This is no longer the case. This season, UConn had 4,164 season ticket holders for its men’s basketball games at Gampel Pavilion on campus and 7,009 season ticket holders for its games at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., according to a spokesperson. from the athletic department. That was up from 2,634 and 4,895, respectively, in the 2019-20 season.

The Huskies’ average home game attendance, meanwhile, is up 12.5 percent to 10,345 this season from 9,199 two years ago. This season’s numbers would almost certainly have been higher, but many fans stayed home in January due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. As the number of COVID-19 cases declined last month and this month, the Huskies had four straight home sales to end the regular season.

Starting next season, these season ticket holders will see an increase in the prices they pay. This week, the University announced it will raise season ticket prices for men’s basketball over the next three years, from $2,400 this season to $3,700 for the 2024-25 season. Women’s basketball season ticket holders will also see their prices increase over the next three years.

Benedict wrote in a letter to UConn fans that the increase coincides with rising costs associated with running the department. It also comes as the athletic department suffers heavy losses. For fiscal year 2021, which ran from July 2020 to June 2021, the department had a budget shortfall of $47.2 million. While the pandemic surely had an impact, the department also lost $42.3 million in fiscal year 2019 and $43.5 million in fiscal year 2020. The department aims to reduce the deficit to $33.6 million for fiscal year 2022.

The move to the Grand East came at a steep price, as UConn paid a $17 million fee to leave the AAC and a $3.5 million fee to enter the Grand East. Still, Benedict sees the move as necessary to re-engage fans, alumni and donors.

“The interest, the activity and the environment are different (than when the Huskies were in the AAC),” Benedict said. “Bringing rival schools and schools that you have a history with brings a different kind of element to an event like this. of our fans are very different from what they were when I first came here, I’m sure it’s probably becoming similar to what it was when we were in the (old) Big East.

Prior to Thursday’s game, the UConn Department of Athletics and the UConn Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on promoting the University and engaging alumni, hosted a “Husky Hangout” at Legends Bar. near the corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Hundreds of fans were expected, making it the UConn Foundation’s largest in-person gathering since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to Josh Proulx, a 2005 UConn alumnus and senior director of engagement for the UConn Foundation.

Proulx remembers hosting fan and alumni events that coincided with some Huskies’ games when they were in the AAC, including in Houston when they played the University of Houston and in Dallas when they played against Southern Methodist University.

“It was nothing compared to what happens when we go into a Big East game,” Proulx said. “There’s a different kind of exhilaration that comes from (Big East games), and I think our fans are ready for that.”

UConn players were also prepared for the big game environment on Thursday. The Huskies led by 11 points at halftime and had a comfortable advantage for most of the second half. They held Seton Hall to 35.7 percent shooting and had a 46-33 rebounding advantage.

The Huskies, the No. 20 ranked team in the Associated Press poll, improved to 23-8. They are projected as the No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, which would be their highest seed since winning the 2011 national title as the No. 3 seed.

Still, Thursday’s performance came as a pleasant surprise for UConn coach Dan Hurley, who said he wasn’t sure how his team would react to playing in such a post-season setting. . The Huskies only had a few fans in the Big East tournament last year, the 2020 AAC tournament was canceled due to Covid and the 2019 AAC tournament didn’t attract many UConn fans as the Huskies have lost 80-73 in the first round.

“I was a little worried today about how they were going to handle it,” Hurley said.

He added, “This is our first real live conference tournament game in a few years in front of fans. It was just electric. These guys, that’s why you come to a place like UConn. The big dogs play in the quarters and semis. We’re just excited. The place was shaking. We had so many UConn fans. Tomorrow it’s going to be crazy here.

On Friday, the Huskies will face Villanova for the sixth time in Big East tournament history, with the Wildcats holding a 3-2 advantage. This season, the teams have split their regular-season matchups, with Villanova winning, 85-74, at home on Feb. 5 and UConn winning, 71-69, at Hartford on Feb. 22.

Many UConn fans will be in attendance on Friday. About 16,000 UConn alumni live in New York’s five boroughs, while more than 100,000 additional alumni live in Connecticut. And so, expect several familiar “Let’s Go Huskies!” and the “UCONN, UConn, UConn, UConn” chants that fans love to do every time the Huskies play.

“This creates an incredible opportunity for UConn fans and alumni to really come together again and say, ‘Okay, we’re back and it’s our time,'” Proulx said.

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