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.