Entering AAC play, League Divided Into Haves and Have-NotsPosted by CD Bradley on December 31st, 2013
With the first AAC conference basketball games set to tip Tuesday night at 5:00 PM ET, the new league is clearly divided into the haves and have-nots.
Non-conference games are nearly complete – a few key ones remain (more on those below) and rankings both old and new draw a clear line right in the middle of the conference. The AAC has five teams in the top 61 of the RPI, and five teams outside of the top 136. KenPom.com agrees, with five teams in his top 44, and five at #96 or lower. As those numbers suggest, Pomeroy’s rankings have a higher opinion of the AAC, which it ranks as the seventh-best conference, than the RPI, which ranks it as the ninth. That reflects the realities of the overall weakness of AAC schools’ non-conference schedules, and a few missed opportunities. The vast divide is underscored by his projections of the conference records. Each of the top five teams – Louisvile, Memphis, UConn, Cincinnati, and SMU – is projected to win at least 11 AAC games, while the bottom five – Temple, UCF, USF, Houston, and Rutgers – are each projected to lose at least that many. Barring a massive change in fortunes – or a run to the auto-bid by some team – only the top five have a reasonable shot to reach the NCAA Tournament. Here’s a look at each of their chances heading into conference play.
- Louisville (KenPom #1, RPI #38). The defending champs present the most interesting profile, and this is especially true given that Chane Behanan is no longer on the team. The computers love the Cardinals; KenPom projects an AAC title with a a 15-3 league record. The RPI, which plays a large role in the NCAA Tournament selection process, for better or worse, isn’t as bullish due to their lack of quality wins. They’re currently 1-2 vs. the RPI top 50, but the one win against Southern Miss, will likely evaporate as quality once the Golden Eagles get into the weaker C-USA portion of their schedule. So the Cardinals (along with SMU) have the most to gain against the others on this list.
- Memphis (#18, #26). A weekend trip to Orlando a month ago netted the Tigers by far their two best wins — over Oklahoma State (revenge for an earlier thumping in Stillwater), and against an LSU squad that’s likely the third best team in an otherwise dreadful SEC. Both of their losses are to top 20 teams – the other was to Florida – so taking care of business in the AAC should be enough to earn the Tigers a good NCAA seed. They also get a shot at one more non-conference quality win when Gonzaga visits Memphis on February 8.
- UConn (#28, #23). A pair of one-possession wins against Florida and Indiana look good now and will probably look even better come Selection Sunday, after each of those teams likely finishes near the top of a power conference (a term used loosely in relation to the SEC, but still). A one-possession loss to Stanford, the Huskies’ only blemish, probably doesn’t hurt too much, and they will also have one more chance at a non-conference quality win when Harvard visits next week.
- Cincinnati (#36, #56). The Bearcats’ non-conference slate offered three chances for quality wins. After blowing the first two – a tough loss at New Mexico, and a blowout to crosstown rival Xavier – they cashed in on the third, beating Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden at the Jimmy V Classic. An early win over NC State might help if the Wolfpack can amass some wins in a suddenly shaky ACC. Still, Cincinnati has some work still to do.
- SMU (#44, #61). Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown seems to have thought the Mustangs were a year away from contention, scheduling only two games against top 100 KenPom teams. The bad news is they lost both — at Arkansas, and on a neutral court against Virginia. The good news is that they won every other game (including at potential RPI top 100 foe Wyoming) and sit with a 10-2 record, with one more non-conference marshmallow remaining (#290 Hofstra). If they can meet KenPom’s projected 11 AAC wins, and at least two or three of those come against the rest of the top five teams, the Mustangs should find themselves on the right side of the bubble for the first time in two decades.