Following the 37 point dismantling of Houston Thursday night, UConn (17-4, 5-3 AAC) moved two games over .500 in conference play, stepping a little farther off the bubble and keeping their foot in the NCAA postseason door. With ten regular season games left, all against conference opponents, and 17 wins under their collective belts, a UConn 20 win season is virtually assured, but, mired in little more than a mid-major basketball conference, a post season bid, not counting the conference tournament championship automatic bid, is anything but assured.
Based on RPI, strength of schedule and various other gauges by which a team’s NCAA resume is measured, it is almost assured that any team in The American with a .500 conference record or worse will, in all likelihood, be filling out the field of after thoughts in the dreaded NIT after the Selection Sunday Show on March 16.
Try as it might, the American Athletic Conference has been trying to sell itself as a big time basketball power conference, but the conference is hardly being shown the love by the powers that be. Based on current rankings, including CBSSports.com, the AAC is the eighth overall ranked conference, just ahead of the vaunted West Coast Conference while sitting behind the SEC and, somewhat embarrassingly, two slots behind the Atlantic-10, the conference that’s home to perennial college basketball powerhouses and household names the likes the St Louis Billikens (#19 AP, #21 USA) and UMass Minutemen(#21, #19). Can the average fan even name a third team from the A10.
The Good Old Days
Just for a bit of nostalgia UConn fans, the Big East is the fourth best conference in America behind the top rated Big 12 Conference, the second ranked Big 10, and the third ranked Pac-12 while sitting one slot ahead of the ACC, usually regarded as the basketball conference in America.
Yes, The American currently has three teams, Louisville (#12 AP), Cincinnati (#13) and Memphis in the Top 25 with UConn knocking on the door, but following the Tigers Saturday afternoon loss to Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs, Memphis, ranked #22 (AP & USA) will in all likelihood bow out of the top 25 while UConn may sneak back in.
The Numbers Game
The lukewarm respect for the conference, coupled with measuring sticks RPI and Strength of Schedule don’t bode well for the new conference either. Realistically, the conference will probably not receive more than three at-large bids, with SMU possibly garnering a fourth with a strong finish. Seabiscuit had better odds. Cincinnati holds the 17th (ESPN) slot in the RPI, followed by Memphis, (#25), UConn (#34) and defending national champion Louisville keeping its head above water at #38. SMU is outside the top 50.
Despite respectable RPI rankings, the strength of schedule is another story. The bottom half of the ten team AAC is proving to be an albatross to the upper crust of the conference with Memphis as the conference standard bearer checking in at a paltry 36th in the SOS rankings. UConn (71st), Louisville (78th) and Cincinnati at 81st have even less to write home about. Just for conversation sake SMU is sitting at the lofty perch of #127.
The Bright Side
On the upside the conference as a collective has three out of conference wins versus teams currently ranked in the Top 25, with Cincy knocking off Pitt (#18 AP) earlier this season, Memphis picking off Oklahoma State (#8) and UConn posting a last second stunner over Florida (#3).
Barring anything unforeseen, the conference will probably send four teams to The Dance as a whole. Forty percent conference representation is a solid but there’s little to suggest that the AAC’s best won’t be seeded much high than a three come Selection Sunday with the remaining invitees slugging it out with the other mid-level tournament seeds making the Final Four a long shot at best. Probably just about the best teams from a mid-major could expect.