UConn's return to Big East a win for college basketball, and the Huskies
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NEW YORK - When he coached boys basketball and taught at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey, Dan Hurley found a substitute to handle his history classes so he could bolt to Madison Square Garden for the Thursday afternoon session of the Big East Tournament.

When he played at Seton Hall, Hurley felt a chill after seeing the towel draped over John Thompson Jr.'s shoulder on the Georgetown sideline.

Hurley attended a game in the Carrier Dome when Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman starred for Syracuse. His childhood in New Jersey - as the son of legendary high school coach Bob Hurley, and the brother of Duke star Bobby Hurley - came at a time when the conference was larger than life.

"All of our memories were Big East basketball," said Dan Hurley, who just finished his first season as UConn's men's basketball coach. "It wasn't the NBA. It was the Big East."

Hurley's reverence for the Big East - the old Big East - runs deep.

Now, what's old has become new again.

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UConn's logo, with the Big East's wordmark accompanying it, dominated the LED screens on Madison Square Garden's facade Thursday.

Inside a roped-off portion of the lobby, a celebration unfolded. Boxes of popcorn were stacked next to carafes of coffee. Jonathan, UConn's live husky mascot, made the rounds past media, conference, and school officials. Then Big East commissioner Val Ackerman officially welcomed the university - one of the original seven that formed the league - back into the conference as its 11th member.

There is, of course, fine print to still be sorted out. UConn can't officially join the Big East until July 1, 2020. It must pay a $3.5 million entrance fee and will owe the American Athletic Conference an exit fee of at least $10 million, according to the New Haven Register. The school's athletic department is operating at a deficit, something university president Susan Herbst downplayed Thursday.

There's also the cloud developing over the future of the Huskies' football program, which was left out of Thursday's announcement because the Big East doesn't sponsor football. However, UConn athletic director David Benedict said "we're committed to Division-I football."

But all that mattered less on Thursday than the move UConn made - a bold one intended to change the trajectory of its athletic department and return a once-proud men's basketball program to its glory days.

Learning from the past

Part of what stood out about UConn's decision to rejoin the Big East this week is that this time, the school made the move.

Herbst will step down on July 1. She arrived in Storrs, Connecticut in June 2011.

Three months into her tenure, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced those schools were leaving the Big East, setting a chain of events in motion that left UConn in a sprawling conference with East Carolina and SMU instead of Villanova and Georgetown.

There was no bigger loser in the last decade's wave of conference realignment than the Huskies.

Yes, the indomitable women's basketball program has continued humming along to the tune of a 102-0 record in AAC play. That team would succeed in any conference in the country.

But UConn football went 1-11 last season, eight years removed from a Fiesta Bowl appearance. The men's basketball program, despite winning the national title in 2014, has endured three consecutive losing seasons. Longtime head coach Jim Calhoun posted one in 26 years. And even with an uptick during Hurley's first season, average attendance at UConn men's basketball home games has fallen 19.4 percent since the team's first Big East run ended.

Past experience helped to make informed decisions this winter. At the end of the college basketball season, UConn reached out to the Big East to gauge the conference's interest.

"I don't know if any of us learned lessons on the first wave because everybody's head was spinning, but one thing I saw over time is that we could not be this feather in the wind of conference realignment," Herbst said. "We were going to have to take some control of our own destiny."

Neither Herbst nor Benedict revealed many details about the discussions between the university and conference. But Ackerman said it quickly became apparent there was mutual interest. Talks accelerated over the last couple of weeks, culminating in Thursday's half announcement, half family reunion.

Benedict said 2,000 people have renewed or purchased season tickets over the last week.

"Initially we have more costs because we have to pay our entrance fee and some work to do with the American," Herbst said. "This is about the long term, our long-term future. Over the long term, because of the travel changes, we're going to save a couple million dollars a year because the schools are easier to get to than they are in the American."

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An energized school, a bolstered conference

Hurley and women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma appeared together on Thursday. They posed for photos, with Auriemma holding Jonathan the husky's leash.

The move to the Big East benefits both coaches, albeit in different ways. The women's program joins a stronger conference, as the Big East ranked sixth in RPI last season, while the American ranked ninth.

"I'm not sure we can say that it's going to elevate women's basketball. I'm not sure where we can elevate to," Benedict said. "But I think the Big East has been pretty successful on the women's basketball side."

Hurley, meanwhile, has already started to use the move to his benefit while recruiting.

"The Big East brand combined with the UConn brand, that's a little bit of a game-changer for us," he said. "Again, because of the fit, the blueprint that we have in recruiting, again, that northeastern corridor resonates with the Big East."

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For Hurley, there's no reason why UConn can't aspire to the heights that Villanova has reached since the Big East split in 2013. Jay Wright's program, which won the old Big East three times in 33 years, has taken the national championship twice in five seasons since the conference's reformation.

The UConn men won the old Big East nine times under Calhoun. And the school signed a top-25 recruiting class for the 2019 season without the selling point of playing more games in the northeast against familiar competition.

College basketball benefits, too. Five of the original seven Big East members - UConn, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, and St. John's - are together again. If the Huskies' men's team returns to prominence, games against Villanova will become marquee matchups.

Every March, memories of six-overtime marathons and Kemba Walker's step-back jumper over Gary McGhee on the Garden floor will return to the surface.

Then, the Huskies will take the historic court again.

Perhaps Herbst summed it up best: "We feel like we're home."

UConn's return to Big East a win for college basketball, and the Huskies
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