Return To Big East Conference Revitalizes UConn’s Men’s Basketball Program, Fans

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

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

That was also the last time until Thursday that the Huskies played in front of a sold-out crowd in the Big East tournament. They did compete in two games in last year’s Big East tournament, but those crowds were limited to a hundred or so family members and athletics department officials due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This season, there are no capacity restrictions, and UConn fans came out in droves on 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, the thing that I’ve probably heard most from our fan base is their stories and how much they enjoyed coming to this event over the course of many, many years,” said David Benedict, who took over as UConn’s athletics director in 2016.

UConn was one of the seven original members of the Big East in 1979. The Huskies then departed the league in 2013 along with other Big East schools that had Football Championship Subdivision programs and formed the American Athletic Conference (AAC). The seven schools that didn’t have major football programs kept the Big East name, and they joined with three other colleges and continued as one of the best men’s basketball leagues in the country.

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

That lack of success on the court, 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 with the 2020-21 school year in all sports except for football and hockey. The football program is still founding, having become an independent, but the move to the Big East has benefited the men’s basketball program and other sports.

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

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

The average attendance at the Huskies’ home games, meanwhile, increased by 12.5% ​​to 10,345 this season from 9,199 two years ago. This season’s numbers would almost certainly would have been higher, but many fans stayed at 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 consecutive home sellouts to end the regular season.

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

Benedict wrote in a letter addressed to UConn fans that the increase coincides with rising costs associated with operating the department. It also comes as the athletics department experiences deep losses. For the 2021 fiscal year, which spanned from July 2020 to June 2021, the department had a $47.2 million budget deficit. Although the pandemic surely had an impact, the department also lost $42.3 million in the 2019 fiscal year and lost $43.5 million in the 2020 fiscal year. The department is aiming to reduce the deficit to $33.6 million the 2022 fiscal year.

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

“The interest, activity and environment are different (than when the Huskies were in the AAC),” Benedict said. “Bringing in rival schools and schools you have a history with, it brings a different type of element to an event like that. There’s no question the passion and the energy right now we’re feeling from our fan base is much different than it was when I arrived here. I’m sure it’s probably becoming similar to what it used to be when we were in the (old) Big East.”

Before Thursday’s game, UConn’s athletics department and the UConn Foundation, a nonprofit focused on promoting the University and engaging alums, hosted a “Husky Hangout” at the Legends bar near the corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Hundreds of fans were expected to attend, making it the UConn Foundation’s largest in-person gathering since the coronavirus pandemic began, according to Josh Proulx, a 2005 UConn alum and senior director of engagement for the UConn Foundation.

Proulx remembers hosting fan and alumni events coinciding 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 Southern Methodist University.

“Those were nothing in comparison to what happens when we step into a Big East game,” Proulx said. “There’s a different exhilaration that comes from (Big East games), and I think our fans are ready for that.”

UConn’s players were prepared for the big-game environment on Thursday, as well. 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% 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 a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, which would be their highest seed since they won the 2011 national title as a No. 3 seed

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

“I was a little worried today just how they’d handle it,” Hurley said.

He added: “This is our first real, live conference tournament game in a couple of 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 the semis. We’re just excited. The place was rocking. We had so many UConn fans. Tomorrow’s going to be insanity in here.”

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

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

“This is creating an incredible opportunity for UConn fans and alumni to really come together again finally and say, ‘Alright, we’re back and this is our moment,’” Proulx said.

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