The inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament is shaping up to be everything Commissioner Mike Aresco could have wanted.
No other league has as many ranked teams as the American with five, and either No. 5 Louisville, No. 13 Cincinnati, No. 19 Memphis, No. 21 UConn or No. 25 SMU could walk away with the title Saturday night. The American also features two of the last three national champs in Louisville (2013) and UConn (2011).
The venue has changed. Instead of Madison Square Garden for those former Big East teams, the FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn., is the new venue. And though it’s home to Memphis, that doesn’t guarantee the Tigers an easy path to the title.
Memphis opens Thursday night against UConn, which swept the Tigers in the regular season.
“This league is loaded, and if you don’t bring you’re a-game whether you’re home or away you got a great opportunity to lose,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “You’ve got to be on point on everything you do defensively, offensively, and that’s extra critical against a team like UConn.”
This tournament starts Wednesday night with USF playing Rutgers and UCF facing Temple. Enjoy the competition while it lasts.
Fifth-ranked Louisville, which split the regular season title with No. 13 Cincinnati, wants a third straight conference tournament title before the Cardinals move to the Atlantic Coast Conference in July. Coach Rick Pitino is hoping a title would bump his Cards up to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, while Rutgers will be in the Big Ten next season.
This will be the first conference tournament not at Pitino’s hometown Madison Square Garden for the coach since 2005, and Pitino said playing in New York meant going home for him. But his Cardinals beat Memphis in 2005 for the Conference USA title in FedExForum before bolting to the Big East. He compared Memphis’ home-court advantage to Syracuse playing at the Garden.
“For this league, Memphis or Cincinnati would be a great place to have it,” Pitino said of the tournament. “Ours would have been a great place if we weren’t leaving. So it’s a great place. It’s a big-time professional arena, so it’s a great venue. Personally, I’m going to miss Madison Square Garden, but it’s just a personal issue.”
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and his Bearcats are the No. 1 seed thanks to a coin flip won when head’s came up in Louisville after the Cardinals’ regular season finale splitting the title. Winning that coin flip means Cincinnati will face either Memphis or UConn in the semifinals, while Louisville could see No. 25 SMU.
Cronin said the key will be which players rise to the occasion in a league where his senior guard Sean Kilpatrick is the leading scorer. Kilpatrick was a unanimous coaches’ pick for the all-conference team Tuesday along with Louisville senior guard Russ Smith and UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier.
“I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Cronin said. “Obviously, it’s going to be different. You won’t have to allow for as much time to get to the games and try to navigate the traffic, so that’ll be a plus.”
SMU coach Larry Brown, who has quickly rebuilt the Mustangs into a ranked program in just his second season with help from sophomore guard Nic Moore, sees a league with very talented players especially in the backcourt.
“I can’t imagine a league not having better guards than our conference,” Brown said.
The UConn Huskies, back in their league’s tournament after being barred from the Big East last year, will miss having the tournament so close to home because going to New York was such a quick commute for fans. Coach Kevin Ollie called that a luxury UConn had for a long time.
“We can’t really go back and look at the past,” Ollie said. “The future’s ahead of us, and the future’s in Memphis. And hopefully we can go out and get the first title, the first tournament title there starting this week.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
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