- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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UConn and Cincinnati openly campaigned for the ACC spot that Louisville grabbed.
Now, with ACC programs locking in grant of rights through 2026-27, it is less likely (although not impossible) for any of its 15 programs to leave for the Big Ten.
The ACC could still add a 16th basketball program, but that would give the conference 15 football programs, an uneven number that football tries to avoid. (Notre Dame is in all sports but football.)
But the Big Ten remains the shadow that looms in two ways. It could still try to bulldoze its way into adding an ACC school. If that occurred, there would be hope for Cincinnati to join the ACC. Or, as a longshot, the Big Ten could one day see the need to expand into the Northeast again and give Rutgers and Maryland another partner. Tabbing UConn, which penetrates the New York City market, would make sense. Cincinnati wouldn't make sense for the Big Ten since Ohio State dominates the in-state market.
But those are conference dreams, not reality, at this juncture.
So UConn and Cincinnati are in the American Athletic Conference. And you can make a strong argument that once the fan base gets over the new conference’s name recognition, it won't be as difficult to accept as originally thought.
First, let's deal with next season.
Cincinnati and UConn play Louisville twice for one more year. That's two of the best games any team would have on its schedule next season. They also have each other to play and two games against Memphis and Temple. Those eight games for UConn and Cincinnati are all quality matchups and will help their power ratings.
UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said he's not chasing other conferences anymore. Cincinnati AD Whit Babcock essentially said the same thing. Neither is in a position to publicly beg the ACC or the Big Ten to take it. It doesn’t look good for either program, but both want their teams to be the best in the league.
The Huskies have bulked up their nonconference schedule by including Maryland at the Barclays Center and playing in the 2K Sports Classic where a game against Indiana could happen. The Huskies play a tough game against former rival Boston College in New York City as well as going to Washington and hosting Stanford -- two games against possible top-five teams from the Pac-12. UConn also starts a new series at home against Florida. Add all these matchups to The American games mentioned and the Huskies will have more than enough power-rating points, regardless of conference affiliation.
Cincinnati is in the same situation. The Bearcats picked up home games against NC State and Nebraska, play Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout, visit New Mexico (the favorite in the MWC) and will face Pitt in the Jimmy V Classic in New York. Cincinnati wouldn't be playing Pitt had both teams not moved to different leagues.
"We are focused on becoming the preeminent program in our league across the board,” Babcock said. “That's a great place to start. The rest of the stuff is largely out of our control."
Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said there is truth in his sell to recruits this month that Cincinnati has a better chance of winning The American. UConn was a perennial contender for the Big East title. Certainly under coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies shouldn't have an issue attracting top talent who can turn into NBA draft picks.
But the Bearcats’ spin is different. They have been competitive lately, but they were not contenders to win the conference. They are now.
"It's something to be said when your goal is to win the league," said Cronin. "When you're in the ACC or the old Big East, you could be a good team and still go to the tournament. But it's different to be one of the lead dogs."
Cincinnati embraces its new label as favorites.
"I've been through this a lot," said Cronin. "When Bob Huggins hired me here, we were in the Great Midwest, then Conference USA. When I went with Rick Pitino, we were in Conference USA. This is just back to normal for me. We're going to play a ton of good non-league games. Getting into events like the Jimmy V is easier now. When you're in a megaconference, you can't get those games because they're only taking one from a conference. We had a hard time getting in Maui, the Preseason NIT when they were only taking one Big East team. Now the TV people can't wait to talk to you. The marquee teams in our league once Louisville leaves will be Cincinnati, UConn [and] Memphis."
Cronin is echoing a familiar refrain when he says that playing in the NCAA tournament is important, but so is being on national television. He said the ESPN contract with The American makes it even more palatable since the Bearcats will get the ESPN platform.
"That brand is important for our league," said Cronin. "Some of the newer teams like Memphis, it's a great move for them. I would tell [Memphis coach] Josh Pastner that he had the best team no one knew about because I never saw them play. We can maintain our profile because people will see us."
If they play high-profile games versus high-level competition and make the NCAA tournament, the ACC’s snub and getting ignored by the Big Ten won't matter as much anymore. The money won't be the same, but that's an AD problem.
The potential NCAA bids and overall exposure should help recruiting, which gives UConn and Cincinnati no excuses in a conference where they’ll be chasing the championship.