When it became clear to UConn that its immediate future would not be in the ACC or Big Ten, but as a charter member of the American Athletic Conference, Geno Aurieimma immediately looked for the bright side.
“We told every school [in the conference] this is the way they have to think,” Auriemma said. “There’s an opportunity here. Some other school has the opportunity to do in the next 10-15 years what we’ve done.”
That process begins Dec. 28-29 when the inaugural games in The American are played. UConn’s opener is Dec. 29 at Gampel Pavilion against Cincinnati.
The 10-team league consists of Big East carryovers UConn, Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida — along with Temple, Houston, SMU, Memphis and Central Florida.
Next season, Louisville moves to the ACC and Rutgers joins the Big Ten. They will be replaced by Tulsa, East Carolina and Tulane.
As far back as the spring, Auriemma reminded fellow coaches how poorly the Big East was viewed before the Huskies, Rutgers, Louisville and Notre Dame forced it into national prominence. The 2013 Final Four featured three old-school Big East teams — UConn, Louisville and Notre Dame. The Huskies beat the Cardinals for their eighth championship.
“And this group reminds me of when I first joined the Big East [in 1985],” Auriemma said. “Over time it became the best league in the country. Everybody tried to reach the standard we set.”
That is the hope that carries The American into its first season. But right now, only No. 1 UConn and Louisville represent it in The Associated Press’ Top 25 national poll.
“It’s an exciting time for the conference as we start our inaugural league season,” said Danielle Donehew, The American’s associate commissioner for women’s basketball. “It’s a new family. And I think the start of conference play is going to be the celebration of that. There will be a lot of energy, emotion and very good women’s basketball.”
So far, the lone team highlights have been provided by unbeaten UConn, once-beaten Louisville (lost to Kentucky) and Cincinnati, coached by UConn’s Jamelle Elliott, which beat Ohio State for the first time since 1988.
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association selected Bearcats forward Jeanise Randolph as its Ann Meyers Drysdale women’s player of the week after she scored 17 points with 11 rebounds in a 64-49 win Dec. 15 in Cincinnati.
In a more fundamental way, Cincinnati’s games with Temple, Jan. 18 and Feb. 15, will probably be more emotional for Elliott because she will be coaching against Tonya Cardoza, another longtime UConn assistant and one of her closest friends.
“We’re like best friends,” Cardoza said. “We really do talk to each other about three times a week. We’re both very competitive. So I know both of us are going to do everything in our power to make sure we beat the other guy. But at the end, we’ll enjoy it and we’ll make a bet that the winner has to pay for dinner. Winner has to pay.”
On the individual end, SMU guard Keena Mays, The American’s leading scorer, has already been its player of the week three times. And Memphis freshman Mooriah Rowser is a two-time rookie of the week.
But Louisville senior guard Antonita Slaughter is out for the season after being diagnosed with a blood clot in her lung that caused her to pass out on the sideline Dec. 3.
This conference introduces new cities to UConn fans. The Huskies will play at the FedExForum in Memphis, home of the NBA Grizzlies, at the end of the doubleheader with the Tigers men on Jan. 4.
That same day, SMU’s Moody Coliseum in Dallas will reopen after a $47 million renovation. And the Central Florida campus in Orlando is one of the most beautiful in the nation.
“I’ve made my rounds, been to every campus already,” Donehew said. “I sense a great commitment from the athletic directors around the league. There will always be room to grow, just like in any situation and in every family. The challenge is to be able to pull everyone together in a united way so we can create a special experience for the student-athletes and the fans who watch them play.”
Each team will play 18 conference games, so everyone plays each opponent twice. This will ensure familiarity as The American heads to its first postseason tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena March 7-10.
But in the end, The American is represented by the program that best exemplifies greatness in the sport.
“UConn not only is a valuable member of the conference but a major entity,” Donehew said. “Geno is one of the most talented coaches many of us will ever have the honor to see. The players UConn recruits and develops are some of the best in the game.”
“It’s important we continue to raise the expectations of our players; the way they play on the floor, the way they represent themselves, the way they give back to their communities. That’s what UConn does, not only in Storrs, in Connecticut, but as an ambassador for the game.”