A year ago at this time, much about the American Athletic Conference was unknown. The conference had a new name for barely a month, and aside from that, what we knew it had was a bunch of schools that were breaking away from the old Big East. It did have an office – that which had long belonged to the Big East in Providence, even though Providence College would remain in the Big East.
But when the 2013-14 season was over, it was clear the conference had quite a bit going for it on the hardwood. They had the runner-up in the NIT and the national champion – not bad for a conference that barely existed a year before the season ended.
For much of the season, Cincinnati and Louisville appeared to carry the flag for the new conference. The Cardinals were the defending champions, but had an undistinguished non-conference run. Cincinnati’s non-conference play was a little better, but it was the Bearcats who led the conference for much of the way before winning it by a game in the regular season. Bunched up in the three schools that finished at 12-6 was Connecticut, a team that had a flair for the dramatic but not exactly the look of a team most would pick to win the national title.
In fact, when Selection Sunday came and went, most of the conversation was about Louisville being a No. 4 seed and SMU not making the NCAA Tournament at all. No one was talking about Connecticut, a No. 7 seed in the East.
Obviously, all of that changed in a few weeks when the Huskies completed a magical run to win the national championship a year after they were ineligible for any postseason play because of low APR scores. For good measure, SMU was the runner-up in the NIT after falling to Minnesota in the championship game.
All of that happened after a season that saw a big difference between the top five teams and the bottom five teams in the conference. If you wanted a textbook example of a top-heavy conference, the American was just right. Sure, Houston beat Connecticut in the conference opener and Temple is traditionally a good program, but the reality is that the top five teams were in or near the top 50 in the country while the bottom five were all no better than at least the top 150. Temple’s history is at least reassuring since Louisville will leave the conference for the ACC.
That leads to one other thing: the conference changes will continue. Rutgers leaves for the Big Ten in addition to Louisville’s departure. Replacing them will be East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. None have anywhere near the history or cachet that Louisville has, which means there is an opportunity to join the likes of Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis and SMU among the signature programs in the conference’s early history.
The conference tournament opened up with Rutgers beating USF 72-68 and UCF beating Temple 94-90 in a double overtime thriller that went late into the night.
The next day, Houston started the quarterfinals by stunning SMU 68-64, which in hindsight might have been the final blow to the Mustangs’ NCAA Tournament hopes. Louisville then embarrassed Rutgers 92-31, Cincinnati held off UCF 61-58 and Connecticut rolled over Memphis 72-53, giving the Huskies three wins over the Tigers.
Louisville again had an easy time of things in the semifinals, romping over Houston 94-65. Connecticut beat Cincinnati in another thriller, 58-56, to set up the championship game. There, the Cardinals remained on a roll, beating the Huskies 71-61 for their third double-digit win over the Huskies on the season.
Player of the Year: Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Rookie of the Year: Austin Nichols, Memphis
Coach of the Year: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Jackson, Cincinnati
Most Improved Player: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Sixth Man of the Year: Michael Dixon Jr., Memphis
Montrezl Harrell, So. F, Louisville
Sean Kilpatrick, Sr. G, Cincinnati
Nic Moore, So. G, SMU
Shabazz Napier, Sr. G, Connecticut
Russ Smith, Sr. G, Louisville
- Connecticut won the national championship
- SMU was the runner-up in the NIT
- Conference teams went 13-4 in postseason play
- Louisville led the nation in scoring margin (19.9 points per game)
What we expected, and it happened: The race for the regular season title was tight. Three games separated the top five teams, and those teams as a whole beat each other up.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Temple was expected to come in and be a middle-of-the-pack team, but struggled greatly. Perhaps it’s the Owls’ history of success, or that of head coach Fran Dunphy, but most figured that even after some personnel losses the Owls would move into a new conference without a hitch. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Connecticut won the national championship. Yes, no one saw that coming, except perhaps for those in the Husky locker room.
Team(s) on the rise: SMU. Larry Brown has made the Mustangs relevant and then some quickly. How long he hangs around and how well his successor, Tim Jankovich, is able to keep it going, are open questions. But SMU is in a good place right now.
Team(s) on the decline: USF. There’s a reason Stan Heath was let go, although he did have some success during his tenure. New head coach Orlando Antigua is already getting things done on the recruiting trail, but expecting an instant turnaround is a bit much. He’ll probably need a season or two to get it going there.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Three teams enter while Louisville and Rutgers leave. That alone will change the look of the conference, but that won’t be all that is different. Who contends for the top spot is not easy to project right away.
Cincinnati and Connecticut both lose a great deal, and Memphis also loses a lot. SMU returns a lot and has more help coming in, so they might be the early favorites. In particular, Nic Moore had a great NIT run for the Mustangs and might be the preseason Player of the Year, and Emmanuel Mudiay might be the top newcomer. They will combine for a potentially terrific backcourt to go with the Markus Kennedy-led frontline.
Of the newcomers, Tulsa has the best recent history, but the Golden Hurricane will have a new head coach as Danny Manning left to become the head coach at Wake Forest and Frank Haith left Missouri to take over. Tulsa also has a solid core returning from the team that won the Conference USA championship, so they may be able to contend right away.
Just like a year ago, the immediate future of the American is overall hard to project. Unlike a year ago, the conference has a national champion and a program on the rise that almost won the NIT.