Connecticut should raise profile of Big East women's basketball

Having covered women's basketball in the Big East for years, I know how competitive and talented the league is.

DePaul, under legendary coach Doug Bruno, has consistently been one of the country's top teams. The profiles of Marquette, Creighton and Butler have been on a steady rise. St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova are always tough.

But coaches in the league have long believed the Big East often gets overlooked in the national polls, and by the NCAA Tournament selection committee for top seeds.

That's about to change.

Connecticut is back.

It was in the Big East from 1982 to 2013 before a realignment forced its move to the American Athletic Conference for the last seven years.

The Huskies have won a record 11 NCAA national championships and 50 conference titles, including 19 in the Big East. Connecticut is widely considered the best women's program of all time.

"It's absolutely going to lift us," Bruno said of Connecticut's return. "But this Big East, since the realignment, has been as tough as the old Big East. It's a great league."

Better for fans. Better for reputation. Better for raising the bar from top to bottom.

"We were a strong conference without (Connecticut). We were top six (in RPI) in the country. Now you add UConn. Why can't we be the best conference in the nation?" Xavier coach Melanie Moore said. "They just make all of us better, and they make us a deeper conference in the end."

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman says she first met Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma when she was named the first president of the WNBA in the late 1990s. She has marveled at the program's dominance and cultlike following ever since. She's excited to see how Connecticut's presence will elevate the league's standing.

"I don't know if UConn is the icing on the cake or maybe part of the cake," Ackerman said. "I think they will lift the profile of the league, create a higher standard of excellence for our schools and generally help us maintain a leader-like position as we look to have the women's game grow."

With no football, and men's and women's basketball as its marquee sports, the Big East, Auriemma says, is tailor-made for big gains in the women's game.

"A lot of other places, don't get me wrong, they just don't care about women's basketball. I don't care what the ADs say, I don't care what the presidents say, I've seen it firsthand," Auriemma said. "I truly believe in this conference basketball is a passion of the ADs, of the presidents. It's the DNA of the schools in this league. It's why it's so great to be in this league."

Looking ahead: Connecticut was picked by Big East coaches as the favorite to win the league, while DePaul was picked to finish second.

The Blue Demons dominated the Big East and won five league titles while Connecticut was in the American Athletic Conference the last seven years.

The Big East released the first portion of its 2020-'21 schedule. DePaul is at Villanova Dec. 4. Connecticut plays its first Big East game Dec. 6 at Seton Hall.

Looking ahead, II: Northern Illinois, Loyola, Bradley and Illinois State have released part or all of their schedules.

NIU hosts Ohio Dec. 30, Bradley hosts Drake and Illinois State hosts Northern Iowa Dec. 31 and Loyola is at Valparaiso Jan. 2.

No schedules yet for Northwestern, Illinois and UIC.

• Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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