What UConn's return will mean for the rest of the Big East Conference

Chante Stonewall, DePaul's leading scorer at 17.2 points per game, and the No. 11 Blue Demons are 9-0 in the Big East. AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski

Geno Auriemma hardly sounded giddy with nostalgia when asked earlier this season about the throwback tour that UConn was about to commence. The Huskies would play consecutive games against Seton Hall, Notre Dame and DePaul, all former Big East foes.

"My stomach's already bad," Auriemma groused. "It just got worse. Thanks for asking."

Imagine the flashbacks that UConn's impending full-time return to the Big East inspires in those that will have to play the Huskies on a regular basis.

The Big East title race unfolding this season is different than any other race in the country. The league's 10 current teams are competing against one another, sure, but they're also competing against the clock -- scrambling like Indiana Jones to claim one last prize ahead of the UConn-sized boulder rolling relentlessly toward them.

For seven seasons, since UConn, Louisville, Notre Dame and five others left amid conference realignment, the Big East has been a land of opportunity. Five schools won at least a share of a regular-season title or a conference tournament in the past six seasons. UConn's return next season promises a return to one-party rule. The Big East will be less competitive. It will be more predictable. Yet those involved are convinced that it will also be better for it.

"The individual person who stands to lose the most by UConn coming back in the league is Doug Bruno," the DePaul coach said in a rare foray into the third person. "Because winning a Big East championship now becomes very, very difficult."

"This is going to make our league a better league with UConn in it. So why wouldn't you want the best program in the history of the game in your league?" Doug Bruno, on UConn's impending return to the Big East

In a joke repeated often by both Bruno and Auriemma, usually in relation to who picked up the dinner check, DePaul's coach was surprised to learn after UConn departed that his contract included bonuses for Big East titles. And though the Blue Demons are the closest thing to a superpower the league has had in UConn's absence, winning at least a share of five regular-season titles in the past six seasons, Bruno is among those arguing against their immediate self-interest.

"I want UConn in," Bruno continued. "This isn't about the I and the me, this about the league. This is going to make our league a better league with UConn in it. So why wouldn't you want the best program in the history of the game in your league?"

The UConn influence?

Bruno said the Huskies' return would take a good league and make it better. But the truth is UConn is the best way to make the league matter. Big East women's basketball has existed in limbo since realignment, when so many schools left, and Butler, Creighton and Xavier arrived.

Ranked No. 11 in this week's AP Top 25 poll, DePaul was the only Big East team to receive votes. And when it comes to NCAA tournament berths, the league maxed out at four teams in 2018 and otherwise settled for two or three bids every season, Big East women's basketball morphing into something more than mid-major but less than Power 5.

But that doesn't mean its basketball profile hasn't changed. A standout player at Notre Dame and assistant at St. John's during some of the league's best years in women's basketball, Megan Duffy returned to the Big East this season to take the coaching reins at Marquette. After nearly a decade away at other coaching stops, she says she believes the Big East name still opens doors in a way that other non-Power 5 conferences can't match (national television exposure through a deal with Fox doesn't hurt).

"The styles are a little different," Duffy said. "The size of some of the teams maybe isn't as great as it was back when I was a player. A lot of teams are evolving into the positionless basketball, so right now in the league you've got Creighton and Villanova, you've got DePaul, who are playing four-guard lineups, sometimes five-guard lineups. And the so-called post players can step out a lot more and shoot 3s and handle it like guards.

"I still think that's a little bit different from some of the Power 5 leagues right now."

Some of that is philosophical. Bruno's teams have played a style that valued 3-pointers and pace before they became cornerstones of the analytics revolution. And no program in college sports is as idiosyncratic as Harry Perretta's Villanova (the one that ended UConn's then-record winning streak in 2002).

But it's also because playing four guards makes more sense when you aren't able to recruit the likes of South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Baylor's Lauren Cox or Oregon's Ruthy Hebard to run things through the post. And as any number of mid-majors can attest, 3-pointers are a leveling tool against superior talent.

Proximity to UConn doesn't imbue programs with magic powers. There is little in the rankings or NCAA tournament results to suggest that the American Athletic Conference improved markedly during the Huskies' stay.

But there were examples from the old Big East, whether Notre Dame emerging as UConn's equal on an annual basis or St. John's emerging under Kim Barnes Arico, of programs rising to the challenge set by the Huskies. Even in the AAC, the remaining programs have more top-100 recruits arriving next season than do the current Big East programs.

"I think we bring more attention to the games that are going to be played. There's going to be more scrutiny of the games being played," Auriemma said. "So other teams now will be recruiting to beat Connecticut. So that's a different recruiting philosophy than maybe you might have had -- I don't think that's going to change DePaul's recruiting strategy, that's the way they've been recruiting. That's why they're in the NCAA tournament every year.

"But I think the league itself will get better as more teams go back to what I remember seeing just a couple of years ago."

A chance to play the best

After realignment, former Creighton guard Marissa Janning went from Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year to Big East Player of the Year as a sophomore -- immediately preceded on that list by Angel McCoughtry, Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Skylar Diggins. Good company.

A fearless scorer who ranked among the conference's statistical leaders in just about every category, she wasn't out of her depth in the new surroundings, even if she had no idea when she committed that she would soon be playing in the league with such a famous name.

But looking at her old program these days, Janning isn't even sure Creighton could have landed a player as coveted as Jaylyn Agnew, the All-Big East senior currently averaging nearly 20 points, if it were still in the Missouri Valley.

Playing in the Big East, even the realigned Big East, forced Creighton to grow and evolve.

Those in the Big East believe that is what UConn will do for everyone -- or at least can do.

It's a hypothetical Janning still ponders. She knows a UConn player probably would have won player of the year in 2014 (Breanna Stewart was, after all, kind of good). And a UConn team bound for yet another Final Four probably would have relegated Creighton and DePaul to a second-place tie in the 2017. It would have been a different league with the Huskies around.

One that offered the chance to test yourself against the best there ever was.

"I think it would have been really fun having them in there," Janning said. "We played them once [out of conference] and, yeah, we got our butts kicked, but it was fun being able to play them.

"It was great winning a Big East championship with my team. I'd like to keep that part of it. But if it meant taking away some of the personal accolades or taking away that [championship], I think it would have been worth it to be challenged at that level."