MEMPHIS — The first American Athletic Conference men's basketball tournament is here, and it caps an inaugural season of celebration. The emerging league prominently featured terrific guards and coaches.
"There was a lot of talk about what it was, a lot of predictions," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "The games start and the kids start to play and the kids get the credit. We have great players in our league, and that's where the focus is, and that's what has given our league a great reputation. We should celebrate the kids who stay and play college basketball."
The 10-team AAC includes UConn, Cincinnati, South Florida, Louisville and Rutgers from the Big East, Memphis, Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida from Conference USA and Temple from the Atlantic 10. Next season, Louisville and Rutgers leave, with Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina coming in.
Losing Louisville is a blow to the league's prestige. At the end of its first season the AAC had five teams ranked in both polls and will likely have those five — UConn, Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and SMU — in the NCAA Tournament.
"At one point, we played 10 of 14 games against teams ranked in the Top 25 in the Country," Central Florida coach Donnie Jones said, "I don't know if we've played 10 top 25 teams in the last 25 years."
The league showcases its coaches, including Hall of Famers Rick Pitino and Larry Brown, and it's possible All-Americans, Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith and Sean Kilpatrick, in an NBA Arena, the FedEx Forum, beginning Wednesday night. Joining Napier, Kilpatrick and Smith on the All-AAC first team were SMU guard Nic Moore and Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell.
Houston, which got off to a slow start, emerged as the "best of the rest" and grabbed the sixth spot and first-round bye.
"They're playing as well as anybody in the league," Brown said.
The Cougars started league play with a win over UConn on New Year's Eve and pulled off a big win over Memphis on Feb. 27 en route to a 7-10 conference record.
Third Time A Charm?
Every AAC team played each conference opponent twice, so the first round and quarterfinals will feature several games in which someone is trying to beat someone else a third time.
"The team that has lost twice, their motivation, it's just human nature, is a little higher," said Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan, who will be trying to beat South Florida a third time in five weeks. "More of an edge, the will and determination is a little higher than the team that's beaten them twice. You hate to say your team doesn't have as much determination, but it's human nature. The other team is saying, 'We should have beaten them at their place, we stunk at our place.' … Winning three games against a team that's pretty equal with you is tough to do."
"Those were two completely different games," coach Kevin Ollie said.
Said Memphis coach Josh Pastner: "Actually, they weren't that different — UConn won both of them."
The Tigers have won nine in a row at home since losing to UConn, including wins over Louisville and SMU, teams that swept UConn.
The American's three biggest stars are seniors, in the case of Kilpatrick, a fifth-year senior. Kilpatrick, 24, is 16 months younger than Kevin Durant. This is something league coaches applaud.
"Kids all have their bags packed and expect to be in NBA," Brown said. "Guys want to learn at both levels, guys want to be taught. If they think a coach can help them get better, they're all in. College kids think more about playing time right now than contributing to their team. That's why we see so many kids leaving and transferring. That makes me uncomfortable. You've got to earn the right to play and respect the game enough."
Pitino: "Most make a mistake by leaving. It costs them a lot of money in their second contract because they're not ready to play. If you're not playing, you get the minimum salary."
Teammates are predicting that Memphis freshman Austin Nichols, the favorite to win AAC rookie of the year, won't be around for senior day.
"That's a great example, and an unfortunate example, of how young people think today," Cincinnati's Mick Cronin said. "We should all quit worrying about whose going to play in the NBA, that will all take care of itself."
Five matchups worth watching: Houston's TaShawn Thomas vs. SMU's Markus Kennedy in the first game; UCF's Isaiah Sykes vs. Temple's Dalton Pepper on the second game; UConn's DeAndre Daniels against Memphis' Shaq Goodwin Thursday night; Brown vs. Pitino if both get to the semifinals; Napier vs. Kilpatrick III should both reach the semifinals. ... Memphis was guaranteed the prime-time game, regardless of its seed. … The AAC has an option to return to the FedEx Forum next year and is expected to renew. ... Cincinnati got the No. 1 seed by coin flip over Louisville. The tie among UConn, SMU and Memphis was sorted out by records against the other two. So, even though Memphis and SMU had the same record, and Memphis beat SMU twice, SMU is third, Memphis fifth, because SMU (3-1) beat UConn (2-2) twice, and Memphis (1-3) lost twice to the Huskies. . … ESPN is staying flexible with the semifinals, which could be on ESPN2 or ESPNU. … The league's individual awards will be given out Wednesday: player, coach, rookie, defensive player, most improved player, sixth man, scholar athlete and sportsmanship. ... Pastner, 36, called Ollie "a future Hall of Famer, no question about it," and called for AAC commissioner Mike Aresco to get "a lifetime contract." Pastner thinks the NCAA should adopt a 24-second shot clock and the three-second rule as in the NBA. "The more we can increase scoring, the better it is for everybody," he said. "I've been pounding my fist on this for years now."