Since UConn rejoined the Big East, Ed Cooley on several occasions has touched upon what is commonly referred to as the lifeblood of any program — recruiting — and the impact that comes with welcoming back the Huskies.
The latest example came last Wednesday when Cooley’s Providence Friars defended their home court in a 70-59 win over Dan Hurley’s Connecticut squad.
“I think it’s good for the Big East,” Cooley said when posed a question about UConn’s re-entry into a league that had seen much of its basketball clout diminished.
Then came the part in which Cooley referenced the “R” word.
“For schools like Providence and Seton Hall, it’s going to be a competitive recruiting battle when you look at their storied program,” the PC coach said.
Should PC’s fan base have knots in its collective stomach now that UConn has re-hitched its wagon to the Big East brand, hence rekindling a past that includes three national championships and a reservoir of NBA draft picks?
If the early returns are any indication, UConn has already made plenty of recruiting headway and could make even bigger splashes if Hurley is able to elevate the Huskies to the same Big East upper-echelon plateau that has been Villanova’s claim ever since the conference underwent a serious reboot back in 2013.
The latest Rivals.com recruiting rankings say that Connecticut has reeled in the nation’s 16th-best group among the Class of 2021. Check back in a few years to see if three players who were labeled four-star recruits prove to be more steak than sizzle. In terms of the here and now, all signs point to the Huskies benefiting in swapping “American Athletic Conference” for “Big East.”
Last month, Connecticut lured in its first verbal pledge from the Class of 2022 in New Jersey-based guard Corey Floyd Jr. The Friars were also in the running. Ultimately, they were the bridesmaid to UConn’s bride.
With Providence and Connecticut having played for a second time this season Tuesday night, it’s fair game to talk and wonder just how much of a bite that UConn will take out of the recruiting pie and where that leaves the Friars. It was a topic that was posed on Monday to Adam Finkelstein, ESPN recruiting analyst/New England Recruiting Report founder.
“UConn had been able to recruit a higher level of prospect before conference realignment struck, but there’s no denying that the American Athletic was a liability for them as far as recruiting in the Northeast region,” Finkelstein said. “They had other things going on internally within their program, but with Dan’s arrival and the return to the Big East, it has reinvigorated their recruiting efforts.
“It’s very clear that UConn is going to be one of the top recruiting programs in that new (Big East),” Finkelstein added. “Providence was helped by realignment while UConn was hurt. Moving UConn back to the Big East takes them back to the baseline where they can sell the history of the program.”
When the Friars landed A.J. Reeves and David Duke within months of one another in 2017, UConn was closing in on hitting rock bottom. A program that was three years removed from winning the NCAA Tournament championship had come face-to-face with a serious investigation that ultimately paved the way for a coaching change: from Kevin Ollie to Hurley.
Had the Huskies not been under fire circa 2017, it's conceivable that UConn would have been more of a factor in the chase to land one or multiple commitments from what was a talent-laden Class of 2018 group of New England-based prospects. It’s a class that held plenty of national appeal, one that not only included Reeves (Brimmer & May) and Duke (Cushing Academy) but also Cole Swider (St. Andrew's, Villanova), Derek Culver (Brewster Academy, West Virginia), Cormac Ryan (Milton Academy, Stanford), Nate Laszewski (Northfield Mount Hermon, Notre Dame) and Marcus Zegarowski (Tilton School, Creighton).
Under Hurley, Finkelstein noted, “if you’re a high-profile guy from the Northeast, we’re going to recruit you. [Coming back to the Big East] fixes that. They weren’t commanding the same influence on the recruiting trail that they had before and are again now.”
The Huskies might be able to dust off their Big East memories when selling a vision to today’s recruits, though there is still a valuable trump card that Cooley has up his sleeve.
“You get Ed in a living room with just about anyone and he’s holding his own with anybody. That much has been proven true over the years,” Finkelstein said.
How the recruiting saga plays out between the New England wing of the Big East will continue to bear watching. UConn may not be the powerhouse that it once was, yet PC under Cooley has made strides in pushing to the top half of the league, a spot that generally results in an NCAA Tournament berth.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how often they recruit against each other. It hasn’t happened too often,” said Finkelstein.