The American Athletic Conference did quite well for itself last year, especially when you consider it came about through the self-immolation of the old Big East. The conference placed four of its 10 teams in the NCAA tournament, including eventual champion Connecticut. Still, no team was seeded higher than fourth, and that team, Louisville, decamped for the ACC in the summer. In other words, no one would have been surprised if the conference took a step back this season.
That scenario has essentially come to pass. No AAC team is ranked in the top 25 of either poll. Just three of its schools were in the field of 68 in SI.com's most recent Bracket Watch. It’s the ninth-ranked conference in the country according to KenPom, slotted comfortably behind fellow small conferences in the West Coast Conference and Atlantic 10. The AAC, quite simply, isn’t very good.
The biggest issue in the AAC is the plight of college basketball as a whole. No team in this conference can score. According to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings, SMU’s No. 60 offense is the best in the American. Conversely, the ACC has five teams ranked in the top 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC have three apiece, and the Big East has two. Every other conference likely to get multiple bids to the NCAA tournament has at least one team in the top 30. The AAC’s best offense isn’t even in the same state, let alone the same neighborhood.
Having said that, the conference is indeed going to get multiple bids to the dance again this season. Given the ghastly offensive numbers across the conference, it should come as no surprise that the teams that are putting together worthy at-large resumes are doing it with defense. At the top of that list is Cincinnati, which moved to 4-2 in the conference with an easy 67-54 win over Houston on Wednesday night.
The Bearcats are without coach Mick Cronin for the rest of the year because of health issues, but they have as firm an at-large resume as any team in the conference. While KenPom and the RPI prefer SMU, the Bearcats beat the Mustangs at home in their only meeting thus far. SMU will get another shot in Dallas on Feb. 5. Cincinnati has three top-50 wins on the season, something no other AAC team can boast. The team also has the conference’s best defense in terms of adjusted efficiency.
Given its strong "D," perhaps no team embodies the problems in the AAC better than Cincinnati. While the Bearcats may be the most dangerous team in the conference, they don’t have one player averaging double-digit points per game. Troy Caupain leads the team in scoring at 9.8 points per game and Octavius Ellis checks in at 9.5 points per game, and they’re the only two players who average more than eight points. Cincinnati's also turned the ball over more than any other team in the conference.
That helps to explain why many view SMU as the best team in the American. The Mustangs have the best RPI (18) and KenPom rating (30) in the conference, despite losing to Cincinnati and lacking any top-50 wins. They do have five wins against teams in the top 100, but those won’t necessarily move the needle without a signature victory. The big stretch for Larry Brown’s team will come in the opening week of February, when it hosts Cincinnati and makes a weekend trip to Tulsa. The Mustangs know well the heartbreak of Selection Sunday, having been one of the first teams out of last year’s field. They could go a long way toward avoiding that fate by winning one or both of those games.
Speaking of Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane have been the biggest surprise in the conference this year. They’re now 6-0 in the AAC after using an 18-0 run in the second half to cruise to a 73-55 win over Memphis on Wednesday. Tulsa was one of SI.com's last four teams in this week, and the win over Memphis, which is in a down cycle, won’t do much to support its at-large case. While the Hurricane are undefeated in conference play, including wins over Temple and UConn, they’re 0-3 this year against the RPI top 50.
First-year coach Frank Haith has built upon the foundation laid by Danny Manning by relying primarily on a six-man rotation of juniors, led by guards Shaq Harrison (15.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists per game) and James Woodard (15.5 points, 4.7 rebounds per game). What they lack in offensive efficiency and long-range shooting they make up for with the easiest functions of the game: The Golden Hurricane are first in the AAC in turnover percentage, free throw rate and free throw percentage.
This all says nothing of defending champion Connecticut, which is just 9-7 overall and 2-2 in-conference, and Temple, which beat Kansas by 25 points this year but has struggled against top competition in the American. Those two teams could make their way into the at-large discussion, though it’s going to take some work over the final eight weeks of the regular season. More likely, this is a three-bid-at-most conference that lacks a true Final Four contender.