AAC Bracket Watch: 01.28.14 EditionPosted by CD Bradley on January 28th, 2014
Can the AAC really get five teams in the NCAA tournament? That seems to increasingly be the consensus from the bracketologists looking toward March. Now that we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the regular season and already approaching the halfway point of conference play (and fewer than 50 sleeps from Selection Sunday), it’s time to take a good look at where the five AAC hopefuls stand.
Before we consider the contenders, we should note the pretenders. When conference play was about to begin, we noted the substantial divide between the top five teams and the bottom five teams in the conference. That gap has only widened since then. The top half – Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, UConn, and SMU – are 21-1 against the bottom five, with the lone loss coming on the first day of conference play when UConn slipped up at Houston. That is also the only win the bottom half has had against the RPI top 50. At this point, none of the bottom tier appears to have any shot of dancing come March, so we’ll focus on the live contenders. One thing they have in common is that each ranks higher on KenPom than the RPI. Their relative under-ranking in the RPI stems from generally weak non-conference schedules, about which nothing can be done now with one exception; Memphis hosts Gonzaga on February 8. It also provides these quintet with a little less room for error, and each team would be well advised to not slip up against the bottom half of the league the rest of the way. Now, let’s break down these five teams.
Cincinnati: 19-2 (8-0), 3-2 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #24, KenPom #22. On December 14, the Bearcats got rolled by crosstown rival Xavier, falling to 7-2 with their best win over an N.C. State team existing far from the bubble. Since then, they have won 12 in a row, including a neutral court win over Pitt, a home win over SMU, and a win at Memphis. Their last six games have all been over teams from the bottom half of the conference, but things are about to get much tougher; six of their last 10 are against the top half of the league. The Bracket Matrix shows a consensus projection of #5 seed for Mick Cronin’s team, but a higher seed is in play if it can at least split those six games and add a quality win or two in the AAC Tournament. That seems like a tall order for a team that struggles to score (#113 in offensive efficiency, per KenPom), even for one that is #5 nationally in defensive efficiency.
Louisville: 17-3 (6-1), 3-2 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #29, KenPom #7. As the KenPom ranking shows, the Cardinals have played the best basketball of any AAC team this season; but as the RPI shows, they have failed to close the deal too often against the best teams on their schedule. After losing at home to Memphis on January 9, things have since seemed to click into place. They’ve won four straight games, including one over SMU at home and at UConn, coupled with two 39-point wins over Houston and USF. The Bracket Matrix lists the Cardinals as a #5 seed, right behind Cincinnati on the same line. The two will play at least twice – the first match-up is this Thursday at Louisville – and those games will likely decide both the conference title and which team earns the higher seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Memphis: 14-4 (5-2), 2-4 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #33, KenPom #32. The Tigers have perhaps the two best wins in the conference – over Oklahoma State in Orlando (revenge for a blowout loss in Stillwater) and at Louisville – along with zero bad losses. Like most of the other AAC contenders, the schedule ramps up at the end of the season; Memphis closes with against Louisville, at Cincinnati and vs. SMU. Winning those home games and beating Gonzaga would set the Tigers up pretty well; The Bracket Matrix already has them as the highest #7 seed.
Connecticut: 16-4 (4-3), 3-2 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #38, KenPom #33. The Huskies got off to a seemingly strong start at 9-0, but only the home win over Florida has really held up over time. They also got a nice road win at Memphis, but their third top 50 win – over Harvard – probably won’t retain that lofty position. And they’ve gone 7-4 in their past 11 games, including that loss at Houston. There are opportunities left with Memphis, SMU and Cincinnati still to visit, and they will need some more good wins to feel safe. According to The Bracket Matrix, they’re hanging onto a #7 seed at the moment.
Southern Methodist: 16-4 (5-2), 1-3 vs. RPI top 50, RPI #41, KenPom #24. The Mustangs might be a year ahead of schedule, but here they are. Their only good win is over UConn, but they too have avoided any bad losses. They will need to add some quality wins and avoid losses to the bottom half of the league, but their high quality of play evidenced by that lofty KenPom ranking indicates that they’re capable. Winning two of three from remaining home contests vs. Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville would probably be enough to secure SMU’s first NCAA Tournament trip in 20 years. They’re the only team of these five that doesn’t appear in all 67 projections surveyed by The Bracket Matrix — they’re currently in 56 of those brackets, where they average a #11 seed.