It was going so well for the American Athletic Conference in men’s basketball this year.
They added Wichita State, who wasn’t the top-10 team as advertised entering the season but good enough to land a 4-seed. Houston rose all the way to a 6-seed behind the unmatched Rob Gray. UCF, Tulsa and company took steps forward to make up for the failings in Storrs, home of the conference’s biggest brand.
The conference finally claimed a premier seed for the first time, as Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati finished 31-5 with a 16-2 record in conference play to get a 2-seed. Cincy, Wichita and Houston’s combined seeds added up to just 10—a far cry from a year ago, when conference champion SMU was comically slapped with a six. (Of course, the committee may have been proven right when the Mustangs bowed out in the first round.)
But over the weekend, everything came crashing down. Wichita State started the bleeding with an embarrassing first-round loss to Marshall. Houston followed up by losing their Sweet 16 to a buzzer-beating Michigan three.
The American saved the best for last, as Cincinnati blew a 22-point lead in the second half to Nevada, making it the second-biggest blown lead in tournament history.
Cronin’s team had, at one point in the second half, a 99.9 percent chance to win according to win probability models, and they still blew it. And now, the American’s season is over before the second weekend.
Again. The conference hasn’t seen a team reach the second weekend since UConn won the whole damn thing in 2014, and that was so long ago, enough goodwill has elapsed for the program to fire that year’s head coach.
So, did the American take a step forward this season in men’s basketball?
The presumed goal of this conference is to build its brand into that of a power conference. At 2018 Football Media Day, declarations of “American Pow6r” were draped all over the stage, all over media swag—all over everything. The conference wants to be taken seriously.
Eyeballs help with that. As far as the conference overall, UCF did its part in football, going undefeated with a nice bowl win over Auburn to cap everything off. The school’s whole mission to declare itself national champions after the fact was silly, but people watched.
With the bright lights of March Madness shining, the AAC suffered three highly-visible losses, sending all its teams home before the first weekend. There go all those potential new eyeballs in the Sweet 16, and the NCAA revenue the conference would have reaped with more wins. The American won just two games this weekend, and only Houston’s first-round win was a remotely impressive one. Only the Pac-12 has had a more miserable tournament.
Meanwhile, the ACC and Big 12 will send four teams each to the Sweet 16. The Big Ten and the SEC will send two each. Villanova will represent the Big East, although that conference also saw most of its participants flame out early.
As for other mid-major conferences, the Mountain West (Nevada) and West Coast (Gonzaga) will send representatives, to join the final team, Loyola-Chicago, which ironically comes from Wichita State’s old home in the Missouri Valley Conference.
This was supposed to be a huge year for the American, with Cincinnati and Wichita State both looming as Final Four contenders in the preseason. Only Cincy truly lived up to that hype, and their path seemed clear as their region’s No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds fell before them. Nope.
Next year, the road will be harder. Cincinnati and Wichita State will take steps back due to lost seniors. Memphis is starting over with Penny Hardaway as coach. Tulsa and UCF still might not be ready for tournament berths yet.
We can’t even count Houston in, with Gray graduating as well. There will be increased pressure on UConn, with a new coach that may or may not be Dan Hurley. SMU will lurk.
Nowhere on that list is there a team as close as the 2018 Bearcats, who left the stage in truly embarrassing fashion Sunday night. The American’s reputation took a hit, too. While this season seemed ready to be a step forward for a conference caught in limbo, it ended up a step back.