Monday, April 14, 2014
Look back, look ahead: American
By Dana O'Neil
As I exited the court in Arlington, Texas, on Monday night, confetti from Connecticut’s national championship celebration still stuck in my shoe, Tom Odjakjian walked up beside me.
“What do you have planned for an encore?” I asked the American Athletic Conference senior associate commissioner.
As rookie years go, the American’s inaugural season ranks right up there with the Beatles. A creation born solely out of conference realignment, the league that seemed little more than the safe landing pad for teams that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, put four teams in the NCAA tournament.
Two lost in the first weekend.
One made it to the Sweet 16 and one won the whole thing, the first time that a member of a brand-new conference was crowned the national champion.
Oh, and the NIT runner-up is an American member, too.
The irony, of course, is really too delicious. The league formed only because a handful of schools had nowhere else to go and the program that now stands as the conference’s face -- UConn -- is a reluctant member at best. Yes, the American has been good to the Huskies, but fed a dose of sodium pentothal, administrators would admit they’d jump to safer harbors in a heartbeat were the phone to jingle.
Shabazz Napier and UConn did wonders for the American Athletic Conference's profile by winning the national championship.
Maybe even more delicious, though, is the fact that while schools scurried and lobbied to find new conference homes, the one born out of the mess and the school left on the roadside won the whole thing.
What we saw this season: A top-heavy league that could play with anyone and a bottom-heavy league that could be forgotten by everyone. The American boasted a core of teams that would be the envy of any conference -- Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati and Southern Methodist.
The first four, of course, don’t qualify as news-breaking.
The Cardinals, Huskies, Tigers and Bearcats have a long history of success to draw on, regardless of conference affiliation.
But maybe the best thing to come out of this season for the American was the emergence of SMU. The fast-tracked Larry Brown experiment turned the Mustangs into a hot ticket and a legit national threat.
Most expected Brown to turn things around in Dallas, but certainly no one anticipated the quick return on SMU’s investment. The Mustangs are exactly what this fledgling league needs.
Still the league suffered the price of being a newbie. When Selection Sunday came around, the American was penalized for both its lack of history and the bottom feeders that ruined the league’s overall impact.
SMU should have gotten into the field and did not. Louisville wasn’t a 4-seed and UConn, as it turns out, wasn’t exactly your typical 7-seed. Certainly you could chalk that up to some terrible overall seeding on behalf of the committee, but also there’s no denying the American suffered worse than most other “power conferences.”
Still, when all was said and done it didn’t turn out too badly for the conference.
The national championship trophy will reside in the new league’s office, and that’s a pretty good way to get things started.
What we expect to see next season: Change, some for the better and some not so much. Will anyone miss Rutgers? Uh, no. But losing Louisville will be a big blow. The Cardinals brought not only legitimacy (albeit temporary) to the league, but another viable opponent to boost the league’s strength of schedule and image.
That puts even more onus on the other core four of Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis and SMU to carry the league.
But it’s not those four that the conference has to worry about. It’s everyone else. In order for this league to be viable long-term, it needs other teams from the netherworlds of the basement to get better.
Houston might be the best bet for the immediate future. Hiring Kelvin Sampson has the potential for the same invigoration as bringing Brown to SMU. Sampson, let’s not be confused, is not the coach that Brown is, but his name has some cachet and with a hot recruiting bed in Houston to choose from, he could be the shot in the arm the program needs.
In Louisville’s place, the American adds Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa. Only one of those -- Tulsa -- was in this year’s tournament field and the Golden Hurricane lost head coach Danny Manning to Wake Forest. The rest don’t exactly have a long history of success to count on.
Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati will always be in the national conversation, but in order for the American to be a viable threat and not just a one-hit wonder going forward, it needs other teams to be equally reliable.