Around the American: Top half in a league of its own

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The top half of the AAC is filled with teams capable of making a run in March. The bottom half? Not as much.

The inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference has exceeded the expectations of many, with the entire top half of the league possibly headed to the NCAA Tournament.

Cincinnati sits atop the conference -- despite a loss Saturday at SMU -- and has skyrocketed from unranked to one of the top teams in the country. Defending national champs Louisville and SMU aren't far behind. Memphis and UConn have also had positive moments this season and are one good stretch away from threatening for the No. 2 or 3 seed in the AAC Tournament.

Seeding at the FedExForum in March would be important for these teams. The No. 4 and 5 seeds have the misfortune of facing each other in the quarterfinals, and the top three seeds will have the luxury of feasting on the lower half of the league, which currently resembles what you'd find in the cellar of a weak mid-major conference.

Rutgers, Houston, South Florida, Central Florida and Temple have all combined for 12 conference wins, with just two coming against the top half of the league.

With the American playing a double-round-robin, each team ultimately ends up with roughly the same conference strength of schedule. But with the way it's laid out, UConn seems to have the easiest remaining slate of the top-tier teams. Five of the Huskies' final nine games are against the AAC's lower half, and three of their four remaining games against teams ahead of them in the standings are at home.

Cincinnati has the toughest stretch remaining of any team. The Bearcats host Louisville and Memphis, with those two games sandwiching a trip to Connecticut. In that game, the Huskies will have revenge on their minds after a tough loss in Cincinnati last week.

It all ultimately balances out, but in a league where quality wins mean a lot and bad losses could hurt even more, the top tier teams can't afford to slip-up down the stretch.

Three Questions

Justin Post of Down the Drive

You lost just once since dropping back-to-back games in early December. In that span, you've beaten Pitt and won at Memphis and Louisville. What changed after those two straight losses?

Great question -- and I think the answer lies in two "hard to measure" areas: maturity and toughness. This Bearcat squad prides itself on doing the unappreciated dirty work to win basketball games - things like deflecting passes, playing lock-down defense, and rebounding on both ends. In terms of maturity, just look at the point guard position. They turned the keys over to a guy who, last year, averaged more turnovers than assists in just 10 minutes a game. Oh - and they asked a 17 year old freshman to back him up. It's taken time, but they've grown up.

It looks like it might be a three-horse race for AAC player of the year between Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith and Sean Kilpatrick. How would you make the case for your star guard?

Easy -- I'd start with the fact that Kilpatrick currently leads the conference in scoring (19.8) and plays for the team atop the AAC standings. On top of that, he's outplayed the other two head-to-head. Against UL, Kilpatrick scored 28 points and grabbed 5 rebounds to Smith's 16 & 3. And against UConn, Kilpatrick had 26 & 12 to Napier's 16 & 2. Without sounding too crass, this really isn't even close for me.

Mick Cronin seems to be slowly building a reputation as a very good coach. Maybe even one of the best in the AAC. How would you assess his time with the Bearcats?

I'm glad Cronin's finally getting his due from the national media. What he's done at Cincinnati is similar to climbing Everest in flip-flops. He took over a program returning one scholarship player in what might have been the toughest basketball conference ever assembled. A fickle fan base from Huggins' departure. An entire year without recruiting thanks to the interim status of his predecessor. An old multi-purpose facility doubling as an on-campus arena. Peanuts for a recruiting budget. And all he's done is turn down lucrative offer after offer in order to bring Cincinnati basketball back to the top 10 without the negative press Bearcat fans had learned to accept.

Three Big Games

SMU at Rutgers (Thursday): The Mustangs have made it clear that they are a legitimate threat in the American with home wins over UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati. Now, all they need is a signature road win. Rutgers won't exactly provide that opportunity, but this will be a chance for SMU to come away with a victory at the notoriously raucous RAC. All three of the Mustangs' losses in the American have come on the road, and this one will be the first game in a stretch where SMU plays three out of four away from Moody Coliseum.

Memphis at UConn (Saturday): This is the premiere match-up of the week. The Huskies held off the Tigers in Memphis earlier this season and both teams really need this game. UConn is fighting to rise out of the middle-of-the-pack in the conference, while Memphis is fighting to stay in the AAC's upper echelon. When these two teams met on Jan. 16, the Huskies, who have struggled on the glass at times this season, out-rebounded the Tigers, 34-27, behind a double-double from DeAndre Daniels (23 points, 11 rebounds).

Houston at Cincinnati (Saturday): The Bearcats have a week off after that tough loss to SMU on Saturday, but they can finally take their frustrations out in an afternoon tilt with the Cougars at Fifth Third Arena. These two teams met on Jan. 7 in Texas, where Houston gave the Bearcats one of their toughest games of the conference season. Houston overcame a 16-point halftime deficit to fight back and fall by just a point, 61-60.

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