Tournament preview: American

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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The regular season in the American Athletic Conference was so tight, it came down to a coin flip. Cincinnati and Louisville won on each other’s home courts in games decided by a combined four points. They shared the regular-season title, but the Bearcats took the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament after winning the coin toss.

There’s not much that separated the top five finishers in the conference. In fact, fifth-seeded Memphis swept its meetings with Louisville. Both No. 4 seed UConn and No. 3 seed SMU beat Cincinnati. It would come as no surprise if any of those teams won the league tournament.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMemphis coach Josh Pastner, who is 1-3 coaching in the NCAA tournament, needs a big showing from his team in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The 10-team league has what promises to be one of the best quarterfinal matchups of any league tournament when the Tigers face UConn. The Huskies swept the regular-season matchup but needed overtime to win at Memphis.

As for the bottom five teams, March doesn’t contain enough madness to describe the reaction if Houston, Rutgers, Temple, UCF or USF emerge as champion. At 16-15, the Cougars are the only team among the five with a winning record.

The inaugural AAC tournament is held at FedEx Forum in Memphis, meaning the Tigers will have the unofficial advantage of being on their home court. As a member of Conference USA, they won the last five league tournaments that were held in Memphis. The last time the Tigers didn’t win a league tournament they hosted was in 2005, when they lost in the title game to Louisville.

What’s at stake?

Defending national champion Louisville, short of winning the American tournament and defeating two more ranked teams in the semifinals and title game, can expect to get a seed that won’t match the way it’s currently playing. The Cardinals didn’t have any marquee nonconference wins, and they lost their first four games against ranked opponents. Now they’ve won three of their past four against ranked foes, including an 81-48 smashing of UConn in the regular-season finale. Could it be too late for the tournament committee? Possibly. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Cards listed as a No. 4 seed, which isn’t entirely bad. Coach Rick Pitino guided the Cards to the Final Four while seeded fourth in both 2005 and 2012.

SMU got a wakeup call with its loss to Louisville in the home finale. The Mustangs had been unbeaten at home this season, but they showed signs of inexperience from a program new to winning. It’s not enough for an early lead and a raucous crowd to win games. SMU has been free of expectations and winning big for some time now. But its third-place finish in coach Larry Brown’s second season is clearly a sign of progress. The looming question for the Mustangs: Will they be content with what they’ve already achieved?

Teams with most to gain

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Memphis coach Josh Pastner could both use a little momentum going into the NCAA tournament. Cronin and the Bearcats advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012. Pastner, who has a 1-3 NCAA record, has yet to get the Tigers out of the first weekend. Both teams seemingly have the main ingredient for success in the postseason -- experienced backcourts. Winning the American tournament could be a springboard for NCAA success.

Some have loosely compared UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier to former standout Kemba Walker for his ability to come through in the clutch. If Napier really wants to cement his legacy with the Huskies, he’ll need to come through in the postseason.

Walker carried the 2011 Huskies on an unprecedented run winning five games for the Big East tournament title before winning six games to capture the NCAA title. Napier’s job isn’t nearly as tough. He’d only have to win three games for a conference title. Napier has the ability to make his teammates better and take control of a game when needed. And the Huskies will be looking to rebound after their most lopsided loss in more than two decades.

C.L. Brown | email

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