UConn Huskies are playing their final few weeks as an American Athletic Conference basketball team before they return to the Big East in time for the 2020-21 season. Say what you will, but UConn admittedly belongs in the Big East.
Make all the jokes you want about their non-existent football team that operates worse than an FCS program, with 25 players in the transfer portal. Or their men’s basketball program that’s too good for the conference that they have a losing record against Tulsa and never finished higher than 6th place.
There’s a lot you can say about how their departure helps the Bearcats moving forward, and in some ways hurts them, but by far the greatest benefit of their departure is to the Cincinnati women’s basketball program.
Cincinnati and UConn have shared a conference for 15 years. Since 2005, UConn women have won 13 out of 15 conference tournament championship games. Since the formation of the American Athletic Conference in 2014, they are undefeated in conference play. Even if they are a level above the competition, going 7 years without losing a game in the regular season and post-season is extremely impressive.
Cincinnati’s women’s basketball program has made huge strides over the past decade, and specifically in the last few years. But no matter how big those strides are, they will never come close to being UConn. That’s the truth and that’s okay. But now, they don’t have to be UConn. They just have to be the best version of Cincinnati they can be.
2020 will likely be the 3rd straight Women’s NIT appearance for Cincinnati. They lost in the first round in 2018 and made the Elite 8 in 2019. With an 18-9 record in 2020, they are certainly in the mix to make it again.
In 2018, they finished 4th place in the conference and 3rd place in 2019. Currently, at 9-5 in AAC play they are tied for second and do hold wins over UCF and USF, the teams they are tied with.
With UConn in the mix, Cincinnati’s ceiling will never be higher than second place. As much as the program has improved, especially with second year head coach Michelle Clark-Head, that UConn obstacle was never going to be overcome.
Bearcats are 0-22 all-time against UConn, losing by an average of 40 ppg, including losses of 30 and 50 (at home), in 2020. Depending on what happens in the AAC conference tournament, there still may be one game left between them.
Moving forward, Cincinnati will lose seniors Antoinette Miller, Angel Rizor, Sam Rodgers, and Florence Sifa. But they do return Ilmar’l Thomas, who has emerged as their go-to scorer leading the team with 19.2 ppg. Addaya Moore and Chelia Watson are among the youngsters who should emerge in 2020-21 with more playing time. But Clark-Heard has clearly laid of foundation and created a culture of winning, putting this program on an upward trajectory.
The trajectory may be able to reach it’s peak at some point in the next couple of years. Without UConn, Cincinnati has a legitimate chance to finish first place in the conference and win the conference tournament, which would allow them to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.