By Henry Greening
Before the regular season is over, The College Tailgate decided we would preview the college basketball teams that we think will make the NCAA tournament, teams that are on the bubble, and teams that we believe are on the outs this season.
The American Athletic Conference is the direct result of the realignment of the Big East and is exactly what conference traditionalists hate. The conference spans nearly 1800 miles and is built from the disbandment of other conferences and small market teams looking to earn big conference name status. With that being said, the conference has proved to be one of the best in the country, and is the only conference with five teams with 19 or more wins, to this point. Since the other half of the conference does not appear to going anywhere, the focus of this column will be on Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU, Memphis, and UConn.
#10 Cincinnati 22-3 (11-1)
Despite back-to-back losses to unranked opponents New Mexico and Xavier, Cincy is proving they deserve to be it the discussion of the best teams in the country. Since those games in mid-December, the Bearcats have lost one game, which was at ranked SMU last week. The team is lead by Senior Guard Sean Kilpatrick and Senior Forward Justin Jackson. The two are the highest point-scorers and lead the team in assists and rebounds, respectively. Cincy has had big road wins at Memphis and Louisville, but has a tough road ahead of them, as the Bearcats have three consecutive games against ranked teams Louisville, UConn, and Memphis. Still, Cincy looks like a top-four seed at this point and will probably end up as such.
#13 Louisville 19-4 (8-2)
Louisville isn’t having quite the season they had last year in route to a National Championship, but still has had a strong showing. All four of Louisville’s losses have come to top 25 teams (UNC, Kentucky, Memphis, Cincy) but both of their conference losses have come at home. Senior Guard Russ Smith is having another solid year, with 18 points per game, shooting 40% from three and has doubled his assists average from last year. The Cardinals average 82 points per game which is good enough for 14th nationally and have a stingy defense, forcing the third most steals per game in the country. Louisville has an easy stretch ahead of them, but they will need every win they can get. Four of their last five games are against top 25 teams and three of those games are on the road. Louisville has yet to win a game against a top 25 opponent and will need to do so if they want to be seen as a real threat in the tournament.
#20 Memphis 19-5 (8-3)
Memphis has one of the most well distributed offenses in college basketball. As a team, the Tigers average 18 assists a game (#3 in the country), and although they don’t have any big time scorers, they get production from everyone. Memphis lost tough early games against Florida and Oklahoma State, but has bounced back with nice wins against a ranked Gonzaga team and on the road against Louisville. Memphis is a deep team with a bench that can score, rebound, and defend just as well as the starters, making them a legitimate dark horse for tournament play. The Tigers end the season with alternating home and away games against Louisville, Cincy, and SMU, but need to stay in the present as they play UConn on the road this Saturday. Memphis has the qualities wins necessary for a tournament bid, but need to keep playing at a high level.
#23 SMU 19-5 (8-3)
If Southern Methodist isn’t your favorite team in America, you’re wrong. Legendary coach Larry Brown returned to the college sidelines with SMU and in his second year there the team has made the top 25 for the first time since March of 1985. The Mustangs are undefeated at home and proved they are for real after a twenty-one point route of then seventh ranked Cincinnati. Despite a loss to lowly USF, SMU was recently predicted to be a nine seed in the upcoming tournament. SMU has youth on their side as leading scorers Guard Nic Moore and Forward Markus Kennedy are both sophomores. SMU has talent, a strong home court advantage, and the wisdom of Larry Brown and the team is poised to make their first tournament appearance since 1993.
#24 UConn 19-5 (8-4)
UConn should make the tournament this year, but still need to play better to earn a good seed. The Huskies have head scratching losses against Houston and Stanford, but came up with a huge home win against Florida in December. Since then, UConn only has one win against a ranked opponent, #17 Memphis. UConn has an absolute stud in Senior Guard Shabazz Napier, who leads the team in points (17.3), rebounds (5.9), and assists (5.5) per game, and they need him to keep it up to stay in contention. The Huskies will have a chance at a season defining win this Saturday at home against Memphis.