You Gotta See This: The American
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: What The American really means.
The conference realignment wave that hit these past few years left a lot of detritus in its wake. It turned athletic directors and universities into pimply high school kids approaching their would-be prom dates. It proved that football is an unstoppable entertainment force. It cemented the skyrocketing status of live sports in the current marketplace. It left hundreds of schools scrambling to find shelter. It terraformed the college basketball landscape in profound ways. But its crowning achievement -- the one result that says just about everything you need to know about just how fungible these silly collegiate athletics really are -- is the American Athletic Conference.
The American, as it's abbreviated, is not to be confused with that middling George Clooney movie from a few years back (even if Google disagrees). It is instead the conference -- or "conference-like" substance -- derived equally from Big East leftovers.
No one seems particularly happy about it. "Cincinnati and Connecticut, I know, aren't leaving, but they tried like hell to leave just like us," Louisville coach Rick Pitino told ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil Tuesday, and he's right: Bearcats' and Huskies' brass are saying all the right things now, but they wanted out of the American long before that name was focus-grouped. Memphis and Temple eagerly signed up for admission into something like the old Big East, where the "Catholic 7" -- the schools that broke off to form their own basketball-centric league with Butler, Creighton and Xavier -- would have still made the league a truly formidable basketball entity. Louisville is leaving. Rutgers, too.
Which would make it easy to poke fun at the American -- if the sight of a once-proud league split and stripped to the bone wasn't so sad.
And yet, for a league hastily constructed to ward off the impending doom of a football status downgrade, the American provides plenty of basketball interest, at least this season. Louisville is a national title contender. Memphis and UConn are both immensely talented, veteran teams led by good young coaches. Temple is Temple, which is to say it's a consistently strong program under Fran Dunphy; the same goes for Cincinnati under Mick Cronin. The Cincinnati-Memphis-Louisville triumvirate carries over some fun regional rivalry familiarity from the golden days of Conference USA, and the rest of the league around it -- up-and-comers at Houston and SMU, a marquee UConn program, etc. -- is a step up from the C-USA in nearly every way. It's not hard to conceive of a world in which the American was a long-standing, viable basketball league. It certainly will be this season. Why not?
Because Louisville doesn't see it that way. Neither do many of its current members, public pledges of allegiance excepted. These are huge questions about the future viability of the league, and what happens next.
The only certainty -- and it should make UConn fans feel a lot better -- is that in 2013, conference affiliation is barely half the battle. You don't have to be from the ACC or Big Ten to get to the tournament every season. Ask West Coast Conference member Gonzaga. Ask Xavier. Ask Wichita State. Ask Memphis! For as much as we debate which league is strongest every year, conference identity is still a secondary concern in college hoops. There may be more movement ahead; I have no idea what the American will look like in five years' time. That doesn't change how many top-50 wins Memphis needs to get to the tournament this season. There's solace in there somewhere.