On Monday, the American Athletic Conference – heretofore to be known as The American – takes its place along the terrain of collegiate athletics.
While it will begin as a temporary union of 10, it will gain permanence in 2014 when Louisville and Rutgers depart and East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane join.
At that point, UConn, with its 11 national championships in women’s and men’s basketball, will have added status in a league that not only hopes to stay together but grow together.
Speaking to the Courant on Wednesday, The American’s commissioner Mike Aresco said he looks forward to UConn’s help and dedication to the start-up league.
“It’s vitally important to us that UConn has already demonstrated that,” Aresco said. “Susan Herbst [UConn’s president] and Warde Manuel [athletic director] have been incredibly supportive, not only with their public comments but in their internal dealings the conference, things the public does not see.
“We know conference realignment may not be over, but the system has stabilized and we all recognize it. I believe we are all committed now to making The American the best conference it can be for the membership. … It’s important to us that UConn continues to play at a high level nationally and we are confident it can do that here.
“We have a chance to create an innovative conference. I already consider ourselves reinvented. We’re excited about being able to do new things.”
During a 30-minute interview, Aresco touched on a number of topics relating to the future of basketball in the conference.
The postseason tournaments
Earlier this month, The American announced that its first women’s tournament would be held at the Mohegan Sun Arena and its inaugural men’s tourney in Memphis.
“The Big East always looked hard at the Mohegan Sun. There was opposition among some of the schools that left [among the Catholic 7 now in the new Big East]. But those schools that remained [UConn, Louisville, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida] had no objection,” Aresco said. “Hotel and casino complexes have staged tournaments. Several conferences play in Las Vegas and Mohegan Sun does not have a sports gambling license.
“You don’t need to walk through the casino to get the arena if you don’t want to. There are so many positives about the place that the fans will enjoy. But the main thing, it has an arena that works perfectly for us. They are known for running great tournaments and own the WNBA’s Sun.
“One of our concerns was playing an arena that was a little too big. And the financial arrangement at Mohegan is superior. The office is happy about that. We appreciate what Hartford did for us, what the XL Center has meant to women’s basketball over the years.”
Aresco confirmed that there are only one-year deals to operate in Mohegan and Memphis. The American holds the option on both for 2014. He also said he has not made up his mind regarding permanent tournament sites that mirror the relationship the Big East had with Madison Square Garden and the XL Center.
“We are going to take a wait-and-see approach to that,” Aresco said. “We will talk to venues during this season, both the incumbent and other sites. We may or not wait to make announcements about the future. We have an open slate. We will feel our way through it. But we feel we are going to have great tournaments at both sites.”
Aresco added that The American is discussing ways to help ease transportation issues fans may have reaching Uncasville by using shuttle buses to the venue.
The women’s tournament will be held from Friday, March 7 to Monday, March 10. The men’s tournament will start Wednesday, March 12 to Saturday, March 16. Aresco said the title game would likely begin at 6 p.m. All 10 teams will participate in the events.
The quality of women’s basketball
Last season, the Big East placed three teams in the women’s Final Four: UConn – the eventual champion – Notre Dame and Louisville. And Louisville won the men’s national title.
After this season, only UConn will remain, leaving The American the task of developing its own core of national powers.
“We need more competition. More teams to emerge,” Aresco said. “UConn wants that too so it can insure high-level competition.
“We have a great men’s basketball league. In fact, I don’t think it’s been given enough attention. We have nationally important teams. On the women’s side we want to develop more.
“We feel Geno Auriemma is going to be a great ambassador for the game. Rick Pitino compared him to John Wooden. It was a flattering and well-deserved comparison. We need to build on his lead and we will do that.”
Aresco said The American will try to assist programs lagging behind the pack “to develop their programs” by making suggestions and emphasizing the importance of competition.
“It’s going to evolve. The sport has great potential.”
Travel (and leisure)
The American did discuss the concept of travel partners to facilitate multiple games in one region but decided not to adopt a plan.
Aresco also said he favors one large league as opposed to splitting The American into divisions in either men’s or women’s basketball. He said that the coaches appeared in agreement with the concept of one league.
“We are working on ways to lessen travel problems with the league,” Aresco said. “We need to make it work for the student-athletes.”
Aresco said the geography of the conference, which spans from Texas to Florida to Connecticut, is not as bad as some believe in terms of the “overall footprint.”
“We can figure something out that will be to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said. “It is a focus a priority.”