The American Athletic Conference — so ascendant in football this college sports cycle — has not been as fortunate in basketball.
The American way has not been the easy way. SMU would be a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the Mustangs were barred from the event, so Sunday’s game at Cincinnati is their last one before November. That game in the southwestern corner of Ohio is one in which AAC brass will definitely cheer for the Bearcats.
If UC loses, the AAC’s bubble teams could be subjected to a doomsday scenario.
The story is complicated in its finer details, but simple in terms of the broad contours: The AAC has four teams perched squarely on the bubble: Cincinnati, Temple, Tulsa, and Connecticut. None have played their way to the bad side of the bubble, but none of them are particularly safe, either. A quality win or a bad loss over the next few days will likely decide each team’s Selection Sunday fate.
Over the weekend, in the final regular season game for each team, the triumvirate of Temple, Tulsa and Connecticut faces a series of games against the bottom feeders in the conference: Tulane for the Owls, South Florida for the Golden Hurricane, and UCF for the Huskies. A loss for any of those bubble teams would very likely mean that winning the AAC Tournament will be the best path to the Dance. At-large windows might not close, but they’d shrink to the point that no team could afford to take its chances as an at-large candidate.
Cincinnati, unlike its three bubble brothers in the AAC, plays a quality opponent, SMU. This is, on one hand, a source of hardship. SMU is 25-4 — no team in America has fewer losses than the Mustangs and a small collection of other teams with only four defeats on the ledger sheet. The blessing for Cincinnati, though, is that a high-caliber foe presents a ticket to the NCAA tournament. A win over SMU would catapult UC past several other bubble contenders.
Here’s some perspective regarding Cincinnati, in relationship to the AAC Tournament: As long as Tulsa beats South Florida, Cincinnati would get the 4 seed in the AAC tourney. A quarterfinal against fifth-seeded UConn would not push the Bearcats out of the NCAA field. A win over SMU gets them in, barring a truly extraordinary series of events. Should Cincy get the job done on Sunday afternoon, the AAC bubble picture would gain a lot more clarity. Moreover, AAC executives would be able to map out a scenario in which the maximum number of teams could benefit.
Connecticut could beat Cincinnati to solidify its place in the field. Temple, the top seed, would need to beat the 4-5 winner in the semifinals in order to give itself a good chance as an at-large candidate. If all those things happen and Tulsa (as the 3 seed) then wins the tournament over Temple in the final, the AAC could get its maximum haul of four teams into the Dance.
That’s the best-case scenario, but it all starts with Cincinnati beating SMU.
What if the Bearcats fall short on Sunday against the Ponies?
Then the worst-case scenario comes into play.
Cincinnati-Connecticut, as the 4-5 game, would be very close to a pure make-or-miss game: Winner goes to the NCAAs, loser goes to the NIT. However, if the 4-5 winner beats Temple in the semifinals, chances are the Owls would be out of the at-large race. If Houston defeats Tulsa in a potential 2-versus-3 semifinal, and the 4-5 winner — Cincy or UConn — beats Houston in the final, the AAC could get just one team into the Dance: the automatic-bid holder. Temple, Tulsa, and the Cincy-Connecticut loser could all reserve their home arenas for first-round NIT games.
So, no pressure, Cincinnati. The fate of the AAC in March rests on the Bearcats this Sunday against the league’s best team… the one playing its final game of the season due to NCAA penalties.
The American way is about to take a sharp turn. We’ll see if it’s for the better.