In its inaugural season, the American Athletic Conference has been a case of the haves and the have-nots. Five teams are bunched atop the standings, all within two games of each other in the loss column. Some were expected to compete, including the defending champion Louisville Cardinals. Others are surprises, with the Cincinnati Bearcats and SMU Mustangs both exceeding pre-season expectations.
Down the stretch, the schedule is loaded with impact games. Louisville, just a half-game back from 13-2 Cincinnati, has to play the Connecticut Huskies and Memphis Tigers. UConn gets to play both of the conference's top two teams, getting Cincinnati at home and finishing the season against Rick Pitino's Cardinals. SMU is a dark horse, but has road games against UConn and Memphis. The Mustangs are just 3-4 on the road in conference this season.
The Bearcats split the season series with Louisville, falling to the Cardinals Saturday afternoon. The loss dropped Cincinnati to 13-2, keeping them a half-game ahead of Rick Pitino's squad. Hanging on to that slim lead, Mick Cronin's team only plays three more games this season. If the Bearcats win out, they will win at least a share of the first AAC regular-season title.
After a week off, Cincinnati will play three games in eight days, starting with a road game against No. 21 Connecticut. That's followed by a home game against No. 22 Memphis. Finally, the Bearcats finish on the road against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a team they beat by 20 earlier this season. If Cincinnati can split the games against their ranked opponents and take care of Rutgers, they will have a good chance at taking home at least a share of the regular-season hardware.
Coming off the big win in Cincinnati, the Cardinals also control their own destiny. At 12-2, winning their remaining four games would guarantee Louisville at least a share of the title.
The road won't be easy. After what should be a gimme at home against the Temple Owls, the Cardinals play their final three games against teams vying for the conference title. First is a re-match against Memphis, who beat them at home in early January. Then Louisville remains on the road to play SMU, who are 8-0 in Moody Arena this season. The Cardinals then finish with another worthy opponent in No. 21 Connecticut.
Just 5-11 in the Big East last season, the Mustangs are the surprise team of the American. Coach Larry Brown has SMU playing with the big boys. But at 10-4, Southern Methodist trails the conference leaders by two games in the loss column.
As for most teams in the conference, the Mustangs' upcoming slate is daunting. Other than an easy matchup at home against the Central Florida Knights, every SMU opponent is ranked. Brown's squad heads first to Connecticut, then finishes the season against No. 11 Louisville and No. 22 Memphis. SMU holds wins over UConn and Memphis, but both of those games were played at home.
The Huskies are part of every other team's mix. At 9-4, Connecticut is in the same boat as SMU, squarely two games behind the conference leaders in the loss column. But Kevin Ollie's team has the distinction of being one of two AAC contenders with five games remaining. UConn will play both conference leaders, hosting Cincinnati Mar. 1 and finishing the regular season in Louisville.
Peppered in are games against Rutgers and South Florida, games the Huskies must win to have a chance to win the title. But before any of that happens, Connecticut needs to win in Gampel Pavillion today against SMU.
The final four-loss team that still has a shot at glory is Memphis, whose signature win is a road victory over Louisville. UConn has been the Achilles' heel for the Tigers, as they've lost both contests against the Huskies this season. Like UConn, Memphis also has five games left on their slate.
First up are a pair of AAC have-nots, with the Tigers taking on Temple and the Houston Cougars. Then comes a brutal three-game stretch to finish out the season against Louisville, Cincinnati and SMU. It will be tough, but the only road games are Houston and Cincy. The Tigers are 4-2 at home in conference play.