The American Athletic Conference Tournament begins Thursday March 9th in Hartford, Connecticut. The Championship game will be at 3:15 PM Eastern time on Selection Sunday, March 12th and be aired on ESPN.
Last year the AAC was a 4-bid league: Temple, Cincinnati, Connecticut, and Tulsa all participated in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Had SMU not been banned, they would have likely been a tourney team last year, too (although there is an argument to be made that maybe Tulsa would not have made it had SMU been eligible). Barring a miracle in the AAC tournament (and by miracle, I mean any of these would need to win the AAC tournament – they each have a 0% chance of getting at-large bids) Temple, UConn, and TU all miss the tourney this year.
As of Friday March 3rd, ESPN’s Bracketology, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, and USA Today all have consensus that AAC is going to be a 2-bid league, with Cincinnati and SMU being locks to make the tournament. Knowledgable observers of the conference this year would agree, and Houston and UCF are deservedly on the bubble in solid territory to make the NIT. Joe Lunardi of ESPN’s Bracketology has Houston in the group of the “Next Four Out”, meaning the Cougars, are 5-8 slots away from getting an at-large bid in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Even though Kelvin Sampson’s Houston team has a 51 RPI compared to UCF’s 77, I personally view UCF as an even if not slightly better squad than Houston right now. After all, they do have TACKO FALL WHO IS 7’6 AND LOOKS LIKE A COMBINATION OF STEVE URKEL AND GHEORGE MURESAN , and have won 5 in a row including a defensive struggle over Cincinnati. If either UCF or Houston expects to get in the tourney this year though, they’ll need to help themselves, ALOT.
The AAC has released very nice “Road to Hartford” 1-sheeter projecting the AAC Tournament schedule as if the season ended today. There are multiple possibilities for seeding in the lower rungs of the conference, but most significantly, Houston will keep the 3-seed (and 1st Round Bye/guarantee to play the 6 or 11 seed in the QFs instead of 5-seed) if they beat ECU on Sunday. (ViewBook: @Wronglines projects they will be around an 11.5 pt favorite on Sunday and may provide a good opportunity as they have something to play for, are at home, and are the vastly superior squad.)
Question 1: Is there any scenario in which anyone other than SMU or Cincinnati gets an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament? I say no. We can immediately rule UCF out, as they are not viewed at all as a bubble team. With Houston as one of Lunardi’s Next Four Out, lets shift the conversation to them. The best case scenario for their at-large chances is them killing ECU Sunday (probable in my view), UConn or whomever they get in the QFs (less likely), to beating 2-seeded Cincinnati in the Semis (even less likely), and then losing ‘impressively’ to SMU in the Conference Finals (least likely, Houston’s Ls to SMU averaged 14.5). I grade that as happening in the 8-12% range. Even if that does happen I don’t see Houston making the tournament as an at-large team. There’s sure to be a shake-up with a bubble team becoming an “in” team, and surprise winners of conference tournaments that kick someone down. The AAC isn’t viewed as as good as a conference as it has the past few years (this year conference RPI .521, last year was .527), Houston’s non-conference Ws (URI & Vermont) are not impressive enough to have the Selection Committee consider them an at-large team.
So since AAC teams not named Cincinnati and SMU won’t get in without a Conference tourney win, that begs Question 2: Can either Houston or UCF (or maybe notoriously sneaky hosting team UConn) get hot enough to win the AAC tourney and turn the league into a 3-bid conference? It’s certainly possible. As mentioned, UCF did beat Cincinnati, and Fall is a matchup problem for anyone. Houston has gone 0-4 against Cincinnati and SMU, whom they will presumably have to run through to steal the AAC Championship. Houston does have an excellent 39.4% 3pt Shooting Percentage (2nd best in AAC to SMU), however, can score in bunches, and have a great defense. As they say, it’s hard to beat a team 3x in a season and anything can happen any given day, so we can’t 100% rule out a potential upset in the AAC Tournament. But I don’t see it happening, I like Cincinnati to win the AAC Tournament. Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are motivated to play their hardest, and have the talent to get far in the NCAA Tournament. And considering Cronin’s recent comments on the flaws of the NCAA Selection Committee’s Seeding and Geographical Placement of teams, I feel his squad will work very hard to put themselves in the best possible position in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s our American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview, check out the WordPress soon for further Previews. Always check out @WrongLines and WrongLines’ CappedIn Page for super sound predictive consultations.