Connecticut’s women’s basketball team is undefeated and ranked first in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls.
Tonight, the Huskies play South Carolina in Columbia. The Gamecocks, the 2016-17 national champions, are ranked seventh, but they have never beaten UConn, nor have they ever beaten a team ranked #1 in the AP poll. Remember, UConn lost in last year’s semifinals to Mississippi State in overtime, and the Gamecocks beat their SEC brethren in the final.
UConn hosts Mississippi State Monday. The Huskies have to play these kinds of non-conference games, simply because the American Athletic Conference is horrible in women’s basketball outside of the Huskies and maybe–MAYBE–South Florida.
The bottom of the American–East Carolina, Tulsa, SMU and Wichita State–have no business playing Division I. Most of the other teams in the American would finish at or near the bottom of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC.
If the NCAA and the American were smart, they would release UConn from the obligation to play a full conference schedule and instead let the Huskies play as an independent. That way, the teams in the American would have legitimate dreams of a conference championship, and UConn would be able to play every major power it wished and not fill its schedule with teams which drag down its RPI.
Of course, RPI doesn’t matter when a team keeps going undefeated like UConn, but there could come a year where the overall weakness of the American could cost the Huskies a top seed. It has happened to Tennessee, Stanford and others through the years.
I’ve looked at attendance figures from when UConn visits its conference opponents, and there is no appreciable increase for many schools. Also, there are empty seats showing up at Husky games in Storrs and Hartford. It’s the same as Alabama playing Mercer or Chattanooga, or Kentucky’s men’s basketball team playing some of the non-conference cupcakes on its schedule. Heck, I witnessed it first hand with LSU baseball.
I don’t know if it would be possible for UConn to play high-profile opponents in the middle of their conference seasons, but South Carolina and Mississippi State are both playing the Huskies in February, so it would not be out of the question.
If teams in the American wanted to continue to play UConn, it could be arranged, similar to the way ACC football teams play Notre Dame.
Women’s basketball is the real reason UConn has tried and tried again to get into the ACC. Football is terrible. Men’s basketball has won four national championships, but the Huskies would consistently be behind Duke and North Carolina in the ACC, and many others. If UConn played women’s basketball in the ACC, there would be many more challenges and Geno Auriemma would not have to create ways to motivate his team to not overlook someone. Heck, UConn’s bench could beat East Carolina, Tulsa, Wichita State and many other American teams.
I know it will never come to fruition. But it is worth thinking about.