Preseason Questions: Does Louisville’s Departure Cripple the AAC?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 11th, 2014

By nearly any measure, the American Athletic Conference’s maiden voyage was a successful one. The odd new assemblage of schools that was the 2013-14 AAC sent four of its 10 members to the NCAA Tournament, and then UConn went out and won the whole damn thing. As a result, the one-year old AAC is currently the proud owner of more post-2000 national titles than the Big Ten and Pac-12 combined — who says a new conference can’t possess a little slice of history? The brilliant opening act was fun, but present and future prospects for the AAC have quickly turned murky. Much has changed in the six months since the Huskies cut down the nets in Arlington. Three new programs have joined the league — East Carolina, Tulsa, and Tulane – while two former league members – Rutgers and Louisville – have departed. The balance sheet of coming and going league members is laced with irrelevant basketball programs, with one massive exception – Louisville. Can a nascent and unsettled league survive the departure of one of college basketball’s premier programs?

Louisville's Move To The ACC? Should Be Fun For Pitino & Co., Less So For The American Athletic Conference. (Getty)

Louisville’s Move To The ACC? Should Be Fun For Pitino & Co., Less So For The American. (Getty)

If you’re wondering how Louisville is liking its new ACC digs, the answer – at least during this preseason – is very well, thank you. Six ACC squads populate KenPom’s preseason Top 25 (compared to just one from the AAC), including the Cardinals at a healthy No. 3. Identifying the ACC as tradition-laden is about as obvious as naming Michael Jordan an all-time great, but seeing conference-mates Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Syracuse in the top 20 sends a message loud and clear: Welcome to the big time, Cards.

Inhabitants of greener pastures rarely look back, but if the Cardinals so desired, they could glance over their shoulders to admire the gaping hole the program left behind. Replicating last year’s success will be nearly impossible for the American, and it’s a reality that could not be so easily accepted if the Cardinals were still in the fold. UConn is a popular preseason pick to win the league, but the Shabazz Napier-less Huskies are a longshot to mount a credible defense of their national title. SMU should also contend for the league crown, but Emmanuel Mudiay’s offseason decision to head overseas significantly lowered the ceiling for Larry Brown’s trendy team. Memphis and Cincinnati may still have a say in the league title chase, but each team lost significant chunks of talent that should leave them, much like the rest of the AAC, unlikely to find sustained national relevance. Others – Temple, Tulsa and Houston most notable among them – could surprise, but on its face, this AAC is desperately lacking a legitimate national championship contender. Already, the league misses Louisville.

Some leagues have maintained a modicum of national respect without producing truly viable national title contenders (we’re looking at you, Atlantic 10 and Mountain West), but the AAC would surely prefer to operate in a more elevated space within the conference hierarchy. Big East bloodlines may be running dry — UConn, Cincinnati and South Florida are now the only former Big East programs in the league – but the brand names of new additions Memphis and Temple offer some hope at stabilization. The margin for error here is thin, however, as the bottom half of the league offers little in the way of pedigree.

Kevin Ollie Has UConn Focused and Ready (credit: CT Post)

More than ever, the AAC will rely on Kevin Ollie and UConn to carry the torch. (CT Post)

The AAC won’t be confused for the Southland Conference anytime soon, but Louisville’s defection changes this league. The Cardinals have finished in Pomeroy’s top 15 in eight of the past 10 seasons, and there is a consistent expectation and execution of proficiency with Rick Pitino’s teams. It’s a consistency that would be invaluable for a new league looking to find its way, a steadiness that would offer less established league members an opportunity to catch up. UConn has had plenty of high points in recent years, but they’ve also finished outside Pomeroy’s top 40 in half of the last eight seasons. They are the AAC’s clear flagship program now, however, and the league needs them to be great year in and year out. Kevin Ollie could easily be up to that task, but similar successes need to also occur at Memphis, Cincinnati and SMU. The middle-to-bottom of the new AAC is so unproven that programs like Tulane, East Carolina and Central Florida have simply never existed in major college basketball conferences.

For all the positive developments of a season ago, the AAC still finished eighth in Pomeroy’s conference rankings behind leagues like the Atlantic 10 and Big East. UConn deserves credit for its special March run (of course), but the Huskies hardly looked the part of anything beyond a Sweet Sixteen team for much of the year. Perhaps more importantly, the AAC squad that did – Louisville – will be doing so elsewhere this time around. Maybe everything goes right for the American this season. Maybe Memphis will find that a reliable frontcourt works better in March than an explosive but inconsistent backcourt ever did, while Cincinnati avoids suffering through any sort of life-after-Kilpatrick malaise. Maybe SMU’s ascendance will roll on without Mudiay, and Ryan Boatright becomes Kemba Walker 3.0.

If all of that happens, then you get one more: Maybe the AAC doesn’t miss Louisville.

BHayes (244 Posts)

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