A year ago the landscape of basketball on the east coast was completely different. There was no American Athletic Conference. The Big East had 15 teams and was getting ready to send eight teams to the NCAA tournament (would be nine had Connecticut had been eligible). Defending national champion, Louisville, had Big East written on their home floor. Meanwhile, Memphis was rolling through Conference USA. Temple and Butler were getting ready to exemplify the Atlantic 10’s strength in the 2012-2013. The Missouri Valley Conference had Creighton in the AP Poll and was poised for an at large bid.
What about today? Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Rutgers all represent the AAC. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame all belong to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The rest of the old Big East remained and wanted to focus on basketball. In what almost seemed like a fantasy draft, the Big East added Creighton, Butler, and Xavier while the American added Memphis, Temple, Southern Methodist, Houston, and Central Florida. Talk about a transition.
So now we have two conferences that are made up of ten teams. They will forever be linked because of their old connection, and since they both have the same amount of teams they are easy to compare. Although similar make ups, the strength of the teams is certainly different.
American Athletic Conference
The AAC has five locks for the NCAA tournament and zero bubble teams. The teams are Louisville, Cincinnati, Southern Methodist, Connecticut, and Memphis. They rank 11th, 15th, 18th, 19th, and 20th respectively in the AP Poll. Joe Lunardi has Louisville and Cincinnati as four seeds, Connecticut as a six seed, and SMU and Memphis as eight seeds.
That is a clear display of strength at the top of the conference, and each of these teams will be trying to make noise in a couple of weeks. The bottom of the conference, however, is atrocious. And atrocious is putting it nicely. On KenPom.com the lowest rank of the top five in the conference is Memphis at 41. After the Tigers, the sixth places AAC team is Houston at 135. That’s not a typo! 135! Then, Temple is 160, Rutgers 170, UCF 175, and USF 190. Simply put, these teams are baaaaaaad. Does this dispute the fact that the top of the conference is really good? Not really. But at the same time, it allows these teams to pick off the bottom feeders for more than half of their conference wins.
Significant star power also exists in the American Athletic Conference. Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati, Russ Smith of Louisville, and Shabazz Napier of Connecticut all are on the final 15 list of the Wooden Award. All three could be potential first team All-Americans, let alone first team all-conference selections. Good teams in March tend to have go-to guys and all three of these are certainly that.
As for the Big East, they have two locks to get bids for the NCAA tournament and four teams that remain on the bubble. The locks are Creighton and Villanova, while the teams hoping to be on the right side of the cut line are Xavier, Providence, Georgetown, and St. John’s. Before today Marquette would have been in the conversation as well, but a loss to St. John’s at home has knocked them off the bubble for good. They will need to win the Big East tournament next weekend to get in the bracket.
Villanova has rolled through this year outside of the two beat downs from Creighton and a loss to Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Specifically at home they’ve been awesome. The only three teams to not lose by double digits when they visited the Wildcats were the aforementioned Bluejays, St. John’s, and Delaware on November 22.
Creighton on the other hand has exceeded a lot of people’s expectations in their first go round in the Big East. Doug McDermott will be the National Player of the Year and the supporting cast certainly does not get enough credit. A guy like Will Artino off the bench has improved dramatically throughout the course of the year and has a great hand in his team’s success.
The difference between the Big East from the AAC is simple; there are more solid teams in the Big East. I’m not saying that the top teams in the AAC aren’t better, but what I am saying is the middle of the conference of the Big East has beaten up on each other. In turn, this has diminished their chances at the post seasons they would like. If you switched Marquette and St. John’s out of the Big East with, say, Houston and Rutgers what would the result be? My guess is Xavier, Georgetown, and Providence would all have more wins and less losses.
Again, I don’t think Xavier, Georgetown, and Providence are all necessarily better than Memphis, SMU, and UConn, but the latter three have benefited incredibly from the fall off of the AAC. Put it this way, the bottom five in the AAC have KenPom rankings of 135, 160, 170, 175, and 190. For the Big East bottom five it is 54, 58, 80, 102, and 184. That’s an extremely drastic difference. Note that the ninth best team in the Big East, Butler, would easily be the sixth best in the AAC.
This is why I don’t think it’s fair that people want to bash the Big East for only having a few bids. It looks bad if they only send three to the tournament, but they are certainly getting tested more on a night in, night out basis than the five going from the American. Whatever bubble teams get there from the Big East will be well deserving after fighting tooth and nail all the way through the conference tournament.
Overall, it will only be a matter of time to see how strong the Big East truly is. If Providence gets into the field, for example, and goes on to win a game or two in the tourney that will be a telltale sign of how strong and deep the Big East really was this year. The American Athletic Conference could also show its weakness if a couple of teams get upset in the first round. That will have people questioning whether their records were inflated from getting to play more than half of their conference games against weak opponents.