This article is not about Kevin Ollie. It is important to make that clear up front because the iron law of UConn discourse is that no matter what you say, people are going to use it as a starting point to argue about Ollie’s job performance. That is, in many ways, understandable. UConn basketball has not lived up to expectations, and a number of the reasons why—player retention and development, lack of game planning, the steadfast refusal to launch players into the sun after they pass up three-point shots to launch long twos — are directly attributable to Ollie. But not everything is. Injuries have taken an outsized toll, his early recruiting classes were hampered by NCAA sanctions and his interim status, and the athletic department has never been particularly stable. And, there is, of course, the 2014 National Championship. Wave it away if you want, but you will never convince me a man who won the NCAA Tournament — beating a 1, 2, 3, and 4 seed along the way — somehow forgot how to coach a basketball team.
But like I said, this article is not about Kevin Ollie. One way or another, Athletic Director Dave Benedict will resolve the Ollie question this spring. If Ollie is replaced, I will understand. If Benedict decides to retain Ollie — either on merit or because UConn cannot afford his buyout — I will understand too. But no matter what Benedict does, it will not fix UConn’s biggest problem, because UConn’s biggest problem is not Kevin Ollie. UConn’s biggest problem — a problem that will hamper any coach leading this program — is the American Athletic Conference.
The American Problem
The problems with the American are legion, and while each is torturous in its own way, I have grouped them into three interrelated categories that highlight how the league acts as a drag on UConn’s ambitions: geography, recruiting, and perception.
As a factual matter, UConn did not change conferences in the last round of conference realignment, but the conference UConn is in dramatically changed underneath the school. No longer a northern school in a northern league, UConn is now the sole New England representative in a league anchored in Texas and the South. Temple is the only other school in the American with a campus above the Mason-Dixon line, and as the map below shows, the geographic midpoint of the 11 schools that play basketball in the American is Huntsville, Alabama (if you include Navy, which only plays football in the American, that midpoint moves slightly northeast to Sewanee, Tennessee):
This is not a small point, and while it may be tolerable for football (which makes only four conference road trips, generally to the eastern schools in UConn’s division), it imposes a significant travel burden on the basketball program. Eight conference opponents are more than 1,000 miles from UConn’s campus, and this year the basketball team will make trips to six of them: Tulsa (1,497 miles), Tulane (1,451), Memphis (1,277), Central Florida (1,222), Wichita State (1,538) and Houston (1,774) (the two others, SMU and South Florida, only visit Storrs this year because of the league’s unbalanced schedule). Even worse, those road games are generally not scheduled in a way that would allow UConn to construct a true road trip — i.e. scheduling games at Tulsa and Wichita back-to-back — meaning that the Huskies are often taking 2,500- or 3,000-mile long round trips to play a single game. And the one true road trip UConn could construct with these remote school, pairing a Saturday game at Tulane with a Tuesday trip to Memphis, still resulted in more than 3,100 miles in travel.
Even on chartered planes, this is an excessive amount of air travel, especially for a collection of very tall individuals. Travel fatigue is real, and it probably is not an accident that UConn is a horrific 1-11 in games played at Tulsa, Houston, and SMU since joining the American (UConn is 6-4 against those teams at home in the same period). It is also an asymmetric burden. Refer again to the map. While only Memphis can claim to be centrally located, every other school in the league has more geographically sensible schedules, and they each only have to travel to Connecticut once. No other school in the league is as isolated, or faces the same volume of travel, as UConn. Even Temple, which faces the second largest burden, is an hour closer to every conference opponent by air. (And this is to say nothing of the academic challenges that are exacerbated by time away from campus — returning to campus on Thursday after a 9 p.m. tip the previous night, as the team did earlier this year following its game at Memphis, cannot be terribly productive.)
But geography is the obvious part, and travel concerns are not insurmountable. Indeed, if UConn was in the Big XII, they would be traveling just as far, if not farther, and I would not be writing this article. The real issue with the distance, and the schools at the other end of it, is its ancillary effects on the basketball program, which brings us to the second category, recruiting.
There are two ways to succeed in big-time college basketball, having a great coach, and having great players. Ideally you would have both, and UConn unquestionably did when Jim Calhoun was roaming the sidelines, but if you had to pick just one, you should take the players (John Calipari’s coaching and player development gets criticized fairly regularly, but no one questions his recruiting, and in the last eight years he’s been to six Elite Eights and four Final Fours). UConn happens to sit in one of the most fertile basketball recruiting areas. Situated between Boston and New York, it has easy access to northeast prep powerhouses, and when it was in the Big East, could promise kids at those schools that they would be staying relatively close to home, competing against top schools in the region, and then playing their conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, the crown jewel. It should come as no surprise that UConn took advantage and mined the region. Below is a list of every four- or five-star recruit since the class of 2004 (excluding transfers) broken up by conference footprint. See if you can spot the pattern:
|Big East Footprint||AAC Footprint||Other|
|Rudy Gay (MD)||Stanley Robinson (AL)||Marcus Johnson (CA)|
|AJ Price (NY)||Nate Miles (OH / NC prep)||DeAndre Daniels (CA)|
|Jeff Adrien (MA)||Jonathan Mandeldove (GA)||Daniel Hamilton (CA)|
|Curtis Kelly (NY)||Jeremy Lamb (GA)||Vance Jackson (CA)|
|Jerome Dyson (MD / NH prep)||Alterique Gilbert (GA)||James Akinjo (CA)|
|Doug Wiggins (CT)||Juwan Durham (FL)|
|Kemba Walker (NY)|
|Ater Majok (VA)|
|Alex Oriakhi (MA / NH prep)|
|Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (MA / NH prep)|
|Darius Smith (IL)|
|Shabazz Napier (MA)|
|Ryan Boatright (IL)|
|Andre Drummond (CT)|
|Omar Calhoun (NY)|
|Kentan Facey (NY)|
|Jalen Adams (MA / NH prep)|
|Steven Enoch (CT)|
|Mamadou Diarra (CT)|
The problem is that now that UConn is in the American, its sales pitch no longer includes playing against the best players and the best schools in the northeast and then going to MSG. Instead, it is playing an AAC schedule, against mid-tier opponents, with mid-tier talent, far from the northeast. UConn undeniably still has a #brand and can attract some level of talent, but what it offers to recruits is materially less-compelling than what it could five or ten years ago. From 2004-2013 UConn landed 16 four- or five-star recruits from the “Big East Footprint” out of high school. Barring any additions to the 2018 class, they will have landed just three in the past five years. And while they have supplemented those classes with highly regarded players from the south and California, they have had difficulties retaining those players once they were on campus.
I, like any self-respecting UConn fan, can rattle off dozens of reasons why a major recruit should consider UConn, but if I am being honest with myself I would have a hard time articulating to a top kid from New York City why they would be better served playing an AAC schedule from Storrs than they would facing off against teams in the ACC or the Big East. Five years ago the New Haven Register’s Dave Borges surveyed local prep coaches about the challenges UConn might face in their new reality. Reading it today, it sure looks like Kareem Memminger, the then-coach of AAU powerhouse NY Rens had it right:
When asked if being in a new conference with a tournament not at Madison Square Garden would hurt UConn’s ability to recruit the Big Apple, Meminger responded: “Yeah, of course. Not being a high-major conference that gets six, seven teams into the tourney, now being a conference with maybe one automatic bid? Of course it’s gonna hurt recruiting.”
“Let’s face it, man,” he added. “It’s Conference USA.”
That feels damning, and it feels damning because it is true. The American is Conference USA plus UConn, which brings us to the third problem: perception.
Perhaps the most damning thing about the American is the amount of time broadcasters spend trying to convince their audiences that, actually, the American is a tougher league than you think, and well, it really does have some great schools, and they might surprise you. It is not, it does not, and they will not.
Confined to this league, UConn has been stripped of each and every one of its historical rivals and had them replaced with a hastily assembled grab bag of allegedly-accredited institutions (looking at you ECU and Wichita State) that the fanbase does not know, does not interact with, and if ticket sales are any indication, has absolutely no desire to see. We are a collective advertisement for the human tendency toward loss aversion, and the mental scar left by conference realignment on the psyche of UConn fans is deep and glaring.
I am loath to rely on anecdote instead of argument, but the numerous times I have had to explain to casual college fans outside of Connecticut that “no, UConn is not still in the Big East, and actually, they are not in the ACC either, but rather this rump league called the American,” has instilled in me the very real sense that UConn is truly lost at sea in the college sports landscape and drifting further from the shore by the day.
The TV contract is horrendous, and Big Monday games on ESPN have been replaced with Thursday night tips on something called CBS Sports or Sunday afternoons on ESPNU. The monetary values may show that the TV networks value big time football at 10 or 20 times what the AAC product is worth, but the TV schedule reveals that the basketball product gets just as little respect.
UConn loves to tout its alumni connections to New York and Boston, and indeed, it does send plenty of graduates to those cities, but our so-called rivals sure do not. Have you ever met an ECU alum in the wild? Are you really sure that Wichita State is not actually in South Dakota? The next time I run into a Tulsa alum at a networking event will be the first.
Perception is ephemeral, which makes it the hardest flaw to document and demonstrate, but the easiest one to feel. The American is a mid-major conference. It is made up of mid-major teams. It has to pitch itself as part of a “Power Six” because it is so obviously and clearly not a part of the Power Five. UConn can be good in this conference, but it will never be great. It will never be a destination. Just as the Big East provided the platform that allowed Jim Calhoun to lift a regional program into a national powerhouse, the American — because of its geography, because of its impact on recruiting, because of its members, and because of its perception — is providing the anchor that drags UConn back down. As I said at the top, this article is not about Kevin Ollie, and a new coach may well produce better results, but I fear he will eventually bump against the ceiling provided by the league, and neither he, nor the new coach after him, nor the new coach after that coach, will be able break through.
The Big East Probably Makes More Sense for UConn
This article is titled “Firing Kevin Ollie Will Not Fix UConn’s Biggest Problem” and not “UConn Should be in the Big East” for a reason: we lack complete information about exactly what UConn’s options are. I cannot tell you exactly how the funding lines up, or what political factors, like the state’s investment in Rentschler Field, mean for the future of UConn athletics. What I can tell you is the following: The AAC’s television contract pays $21 million per year, which is $1.75 million per football playing member. That deal is up in 2019, but ESPN, the current rights owner, is facing myriad financial pressures, linked to what it pays in TV rights fees, and it is at the point where it “may not balk” at the idea of giving up its lone NFL playoff game. Maybe ESPN will substantially up the contract, or maybe someone else — Fox, Amazon, Twitter, who knows — will break the bank to get the AAC rights, but if it does not, UConn will continue to be in serious trouble. Benedict has acknowledged that “everybody knows [UConn is] challenged from a budget standpoint” and UConn’s athletic program is subsidized to the tune of $33.9 million dollars in school funds and $8.3 million in student fees, for a total of $42.2 million, a figure that represents more than 50 percent of the school’s $83.4 million in athletic revenues. Describing those numbers pushes the word profligate to its limits, and they are probably better categorized as immoral.
At the same time, last year Jon Rothstein reported that “UConn has consistently looked into joining the Big East as a basketball only member as long as it could find another home for its football program” and Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said she would not “shut the door” on UConn joining the Big East if UConn ever changed its desire to “pursue a serious football agenda.” The Big East also has a TV contract through 2025 that pays $50 million per year ($5 million per member) — more than double what the AAC earns — a figure that reportedly will increase pro-rata if additional schools join the league, and which does not account for NCAA Tournament credits — worth $1.7 million per played in the tournament — that the Big East collects far more readily than the AAC.
But again, I’m not privy to closed-door conversations or the necessary books and records, so I cannot tell you today that returning to the Big East makes the most financial sense for UConn. But what I do know is that when it comes to the three categories I discussed above, the Big East would be undeniably better for UConn basketball.
Let’s start with the map I posted before, but this time let’s compare it to a map of Big East schools:
The difference is night and day, but just to drive it home, let’s compare UConn’s schedule to Providence, its geographical analogue in the Big East. As detailed above, UConn has six in-conference road games more than 1,000 miles from campus. Providence has two, at Marquette (1,068 miles) and at Creighton (1,433 miles). If you assume each road game is a round-trip (it is rough and inaccurate, but gets you a fair ballpark number), Providence will travel 12,700 miles this year. UConn will travel 20,880. Creighton, by far the biggest geographic outlier in the Big East, is closer to Storrs than five AAC schools (Houston, SMU, Tulsa, Tulane, and Wichita State). Marquette is closer than eight. Put another way, only Temple, Cincinnati, and ECU are closer to UConn than the second-farthest Big East school.
Beyond saving on airfare, the condensed geography would mean that UConn could once again credibly promise kids from the northeast that they would once again be playing in the northeast. The Huskies would also have guaranteed dates in basketball hotbeds Chicago and Washington D.C., to say nothing of the return to the Big East Tournament in MSG and an extra game against St. John’s in the same arena.
More importantly, UConn could promise substantially more games against high level teams, and high level players. You would not have to dig hard to find loads of tweets from me predicting that Big East basketball would fall off a cliff when the Catholic schools struck out on their own. I could not have been more wrong. According to KenPom, the Big East has been a significantly stronger league than the AAC each year since the split, and the Big East has been either the second- or third-best conference in each of the past four years. Last year seven of the 10 Big East schools made the NCAA tournament. In the last two years Big East teams earned 12 bids to the Big Dance. Since 2014, current AAC teams have earned, well, 12. And that is no accident. It is a function of the quality of players coming into the league. The chart below, compiled with data from 247, compares the amount of 4- or 5-star recruits committing to Big East schools, AAC schools minus UConn , and UConn:
|Year||Big East 4/5* Recruits||AAC 4/5* Recruits (minus UConn)||UConn 4/5* Recruits|
And the above table likely overstates the strength of AAC recruiting. Three of the seven AAC recruits in 2015 were part of an impressive Memphis recruiting class anchored by Dedric and KJ Lawson, whose father, Keelon Lawson, was hired by Josh Pastner. When Pastner was fired and Keelon pushed out of a coaching role, both Dedric and KJ immediately transferred to Kansas. And together, Cincinnati and Memphis are responsible for eight of the 13 players committed to the American, meaning the entire rest of the conference outside of UConn and those two schools averages just one prime player per year. Wichita State is not included in the table except for 2018, but they will not move the needle either. From 2014 to 2018 the Shockers signed just one four-star player, Markis McDuffie in 2015.
The AAC is, simply, not a league where great players come to play, and great players want to play with and against other great players. I am fully aware that some will look at the chart above and marvel at how UConn has underachieved relative to the talent it has brought in, but when I look at it, the two questions that come to mind are (1) will UConn, whether with Ollie or someone else, be able to consistently bring in great talent to a league that is decidedly below par, and (2) how many additional good players did UConn lose because of the league around it? To take three recent examples, does Makai Ashton-Langford flip from UConn to Providence if UConn is in the Big East? Does Sidney Wilson originally go to St. John’s, forcing him to sit out this season? And does Montez Mathis wind up picking Rutgers over UConn if his options are Big Ten vs. Big East instead of Big Ten vs. AAC? Those questions are unanswerable, but it is hard not to feel UConn would have been in a better situation for all three if it was not in the American.
And so we return to perception. The Big East is not a cure all. Players would still need to be recruited. Game plans would still need to be executed. The team would still have to win. But losses would sting less, and wins would feel better, if they came in the Big East. Sold out crowds for games against Wichita State and Villanova show that the UConn fanbase will still turn out for big games against good teams, and there are simply more of both to be had in the Big East.
According to KenPom, Houston is slightly better than Seton Hall this year, but because of our shared history with the latter, a loss to the former feels worse, and a win over the Pirates would feel better. The same is true with Villanova and Cincinnati, or UCF and Georgetown, or any AAC/Big East pairing you want to concoct.
And good games against good teams are about to become rarer. The world UConn finds itself in now, where it can book a strong non-conference schedule (like this year’s games against Syracuse, Arizona, and Auburn) to balance out the dregs of the AAC slate, is fast disappearing. Next season the Big Ten will move to a 20-game conference schedule. The year after the ACC will do the same, and the SEC and Pac-12 are considering it as well. With two fewer non-conference spots to fill, and with a beefier conference schedule on tap, the first games on the chopping block are likely to be home-and-homes against opponents like UConn, as opposed to easy wins in profitable home buy games. Not for nothing, but UConn joining the league would allow the Big East to also play 20 conference games.
The excitement and enthusiasm that would accompany a return to the Big East would be immense. Is it the same league UConn left? No, but it is close enough, and the basketball is so much better than where UConn finds itself now that a lack of history with Xavier can be overlooked.
Thirty two years ago, when Jim Calhoun was hired, he was asked if UConn could ever compete for the Big East title, or for national championships. “It’s doable,” he replied, and he was right. Now, in 2018, I cannot say for sure that it is doable for UConn to return to the Big East, but I damn sure hope it is, because if it is not, I do not think it is realistic to expect UConn to be competing for a national championship again.
Bonus Section: The Counterarguments
If you spend enough time loudly braying about UConn’s conference affiliation online. Since this piece was threatening to be merely “too long” as opposed to “unbearably long” I decided to put it over the top by addressing the three most popular:
What about Cincinnati?
Remember the thing I said in the recruiting section, how there are two ways to succeed in big-time college basketball, having a great coach, and having great players? Well, as much as it pains me to admit it, Mick Cronin is a great coach. According to KenPom he currently has the number 3 team in the country, and his last four recruiting classes ranked 31st, 53rd, 63rd, and 57th nationally. Each had only one four-star recruit. He is, as the kids say, good as hell, and Cincinnati fans should be thrilled they have him. He’s also only made one (1) Sweet 16 in eleven seasons with the Bearcats, and had exactly one (1) player taken in the NBA draft (Lance Stephenson in 2010), so I would still rather have better players. Oh, and two years ago he reneged on a verbal agreement to take the UNLV job, so I question just how long he will stay in Cincinnati, and if he does leave, I have serious doubts about Cincinnati’s ability to maintain their current level of success — such as it is. But let’s stipulate that UConn could replace Kevin Ollie with a Cronin-level coach who would stay in Storrs, something that is far from guaranteed. Would that really appease UConn fans? Would the fanbase currently calling for Ollie’s head four years after a national title be content with annual first-weekend exits in the NCAA tournament? I doubt it. It also has to be said that conference realignment did not impact Cincinnati like it did UConn. The Bearcats were in Conference USA, spent less than a decade in the Big East, and are now functionally back in Conference USA. They are hardly geographic outliers in the American. They are, in short, where they belong, and with a great coach they have been topping out with relatively successful seasons. It is good for them, but it is not good enough for UConn.
“The basketball is also making strides. . . . You can’t deny that things have improved on an annual basis in [the AAC].”
The above is a quote from Benedict, who, while rightly recognizing that UConn fans are frustrated, is wrong in his assertion that the conference has improved. It has not. KenPom measures conference strength by comparing the adjusted efficiency margin of a hypothetical team that would go .500 in league play. With the exception of a truly abysmal year in 2015, the AAC has consistently been rated as the seventh best conference, and outside of an impressive 2014 (largely thanks to Louisville), it has never been even remotely close to overtaking the six leagues above it. Nor is there any sort of trend in the overall numbers indicating that the American is on the upswing, which has been reflected in the leagues’ relative paucity of NCAA bids:
|Year||Adjusted Efficiency Margin||Rank||NCAA Tournament Bids|
|2018||6.09||7||3 (Bracket Matrix Projection)|
In fact, the focus on the median likely overstates the league’s strength, because it reduces the impact of outliers and in the AAC those outliers are almost uniformly on the bottom end. Back when UConn was in the Big East, “DePaul” became a byword for college basketball futility, but the Blue Demons would be right at home in the AAC. In DePaul’s worst season — the 2009 campaign in which they went winless in regular season conference play — they ranked 206th in KenPom. Since 2015, eleven AAC teams have posted, or are on pace to post worse rankings than that DePaul squad, and multiple teams have done it in each season. This year, both East Carolina and South Florida both rank below 300. If they were not conference opponents, scheduling them would be coaching malpractice seemingly designed to sink a team’s RPI and Strength of Schedule metrics come NCAA Tournament time. The league, simply put, is not getting better, and while the addition of Wichita State does supply one more basketball program with a pulse, it is not obvious that it is anything more than a bandage on a broken leg.
If UConn was good this would not be a problem.
This is my favorite counterargument, because not only is it tautological (of course the American would be better if the teams in it were better), but it also gets the problem backward: the American is making UConn worse, for all the reasons described above. If UConn had been playing at an elite level for the past few years, I would probably hate the American less, but that would be because UConn’s success was masking the conference’s flaws, not because they were not there.
Even if we assume UConn had made the NCAA Tournament every year it was in the AAC, the conference’s bid numbers would have been awful. I’ve listed that hypothetical below, with a comparison to the actual Big East for reference:
|Year||Hypothetical American||Big East|
|2018||4 (Bracket Matrix Projection)||6 (Bracket Matrix Projection)|
As you can see, even if UConn was “good” the conference would still be bad, topping out at four bids. Indeed, only twice has the AAC received more bids than another “power” conference (in 2014 and 2016 when the SEC received just three bids), and that 2014 total includes the since-departed Louisville. The AAC is, in every way, a mid-major, and UConn, no matter how good it is, cannot change that, just like John Calipari’s Memphis teams could not make Conference USA into a power league.
And Finally, A Word About Football
This is nominally a piece about how the American hinders UConn basketball, but to leave it at that would ignore the elephant in the room, football. UConn has made a substantial investment in the sport, but even the most diehard football supporter (and as a football season ticket holder despite not living in Connecticut I would count myself in that group) would be hard pressed to argue that it has paid off. If UConn were to attempt to join the Big East its football options would boil down to, (1) calling Mike Aresco’s bluff and seeing if the AAC would really replace UConn (Army would be the most palatable option, but they come with logistical issues and would likely be a football-only member themselves), (2) dropping football down to a lower league, likely the MAC, or (3) dropping down to the FCS, or scuttling football all together. None of those are obviously workable, and the third is basically a non-starter given the state’s investment in Rentschler Field, but rather than litigating the hypothetical, I would like to address the reality, which is that the current arrangement is not working for football, with the side effect of actively harming every other part of UConn’s athletic ambitions.
In January Rhett Lashlee, UConn’s (best) offensive coordinator (ever) left after one year. He did not leave to become a head coach, nor did he leave to take a job at a P5 school. He left to take the same position at SMU, a school in the same conference. This was, to put it mildly, a humiliation, and though the story at the time was that he perhaps missed living in the south, that was almost immediately undercut by the fact that he also interviewed to take the same position at Rutgers. The Rutgers job, positioned as it is in the Big Ten, is admittedly a different beast than UConn, but the entire saga underlined what UConn’s performance on the field has shown: it is going to be next to impossible, if not actually impossible, for UConn football to compete in any serious way. Lashlee went to a private school, so his new salary was not disclosed, but he was making $350,000 at UConn. Around the same time he was hired, Houston, another conference foe, hired a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach, paying them $400,000 and $290,000, respectively. Lashlee’s replacement, John Dunn, may work out great, but UConn is paying him just $300,000, and it is hard to look at those numbers and not see a step back.
Looking at the bigger picture, UCF just went undefeated, won the American, and was never even close to being a realistic candidate for the College Football Playoff. If that is the absolute ceiling for what a team in the American can do, and if UConn cannot even credibly compete in the American for coaches or recruits (the Huskies’ last four recruiting classes have been ranked 10th, last, 10th, and last in the AAC by 247), then UConn needs to ask, and ask soon, what the point of this all is. Randy Edsall had a remarkable amount of success the first time he was here, but he also was able to recruit from a position within a BCS conference, and offer kids that Syracuse and Rutgers overlooked the chance to suit up for the Huskies and beat Syracuse and Rutgers. His job now is immeasurably more difficult. I want very badly for him to succeed, but UConn does not appear to have a winning hand, and at some point it becomes prudent to seek to reshuffle the deck, or change the game, because if you go all in, you don’t just risk losing the round, you risk losing everything you have.