Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

AAC Basketball: Ripe For Rivalry

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Given the way the season ended for the Bearcats, it’s easy to slip into pessimism. UC fans in general seem to be pretty deft at that. The Bearcats put together a mostly-fantastic regular season, only to finish the postseason with a 1-2 record, with the only victory coming in a stinker over a pretty bad UCF team. None of that should take away from the magic of this season, however. The Bearcats spent a handful of weeks in the top 10, and compiled some individual achievements that shouldn’t be forgotten. It may not feel like it now, but I promise this season will look pretty special in hindsight. However, I think there are plenty of good things to look forward to as well.

With rival Louisville having already played their last game as a member of the AAC, many fans have been upset about the strength of the conference going forward, as well as the lack of rivals for the Bearcats. Those are both very legitimate concerns, but I believe that this season has alleviated them.

While lack of depth is certainly an issue, I don’t think it’s any reason to rule out the AAC. This conference finished the season with 5 ranked teams in the AP Poll, which is better than any other conference in the country. While the bottom of traditional basketball conferences like the ACC or Big Ten are certainly better than the bottom of the American, the top half of the conference put together a regular season that rivaled any other league in the country. Louisville is leaving, but that still leaves the American with four very good teams. Not to mention the likes of Temple, who is strong both historically and recently, and Houston, who seems to be the next team “over the hump”. I have every reason to believe that Temple will return to being a tournament-level team. This season was a bit of an anomaly for them. Houston may be a bit more of a stretch, especially considering the recent coaching vacancy, but the right hire there could certainly help them build on this season’s winning record that was a big step in the right direction.

The second concern for fans was the lack of rivalries. Louisville is leaving to join Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the ACC, and now the Bearcats are seemingly lacking some of the bigger rivalries they’ve had over the past decade. However, I think the AAC sets up beautifully in this department. The top half of the American conference is tough. Look at home many gritty games those top 5 teams played against each other this year. That is going to be very fun going forward, and I think it will actually end up being a better situation for the Bearcats than the old Big East was. No longer are the Bearcats in a conference that’s 10-deep with tournament teams. We’re looking at probably three to five per year going forward. However, the lack of depth is going to give the top half of the AAC plenty of room to hate each other. Now the Bearcats have just three or four teams to gun for, and will play each of them twice a year. From a pure rivalry standpoint, that’s a huge improvement from the Big East, in my opinion. Also, when the bottom half of the conference is weak, you absolutely have to beat the top half. There will only be so many opportunities to get key wins when there are just a few other good teams in the conference. For better or worse, those games are going to mean so much more because of the lack of depth.

Let’s look at the new group of rivals for the Bearcats:

UConn: This is the obvious one. The Bearcats and Huskies are probably going to be seen as the primary breadwinners of the conference for the time being. They have a pretty good rivalry, dating back to the days in the Big East. It may not be the longest-running rivalry that UC has, but it’s the best the ‘Cats are going to get. Over the past few years, games between these teams have had some heart-stopping finishes. Kilpatrick hit a game-winner in Storrs. UConn held on for dear life in this year’s AAC tournament. Bearcat fans should be okay with letting this rivalry effectively replace the one with Louisville.

Memphis: Not only is Memphis a perennial tournament team, but they’re also an old Bearcat rival from the C-USA days. All those Huggins-loving fans can certainly get on board with this one. Back in the days of Bob Huggins, Kenyon Martin, and Steve Logan, the Bearcats practically lived in the top 10. Their biggest conference rival was the Memphis Tigers. This year in the AAC was like deja vu, and I think it’s going to be nice having the Tigers back in the same conference as the Bearcats. Plus, UC managed to smoke Memphis in both meetings this year, which probably didn’t endear them to their old friends. I like it that way.

SMU: I think few saw this coming. Led by Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown, the SMU Mustangs stormed into this season demanding respect. While they fell just shy of making the tournament, they still were able to finish the season in the top 25, and grab the attention of basketball fans nationwide. The ‘Cats got the best of them in Cincinnati, but SMU fans were able to storm the court in Dallas after absolutely smearing the #7 Bearcats. These guys aren’t going anywhere, because Larry Brown has more big-time recruits coming in next year. With such a young team this year, SMU has to be tournament-bound in 2015. The Mustangs are the new kids on the block, and their growing fan base is suddenly (and perhaps rightfully) very entitled. I don’t really take kindly to that, and neither do Bearcat fans. This new rivalry should be a good one.

Temple/Houston: These rivalries aren’t quite there yet, but could blossom in the future. Temple had a terrible season, but they’re typically a pretty dependable program. I think they’ll be back to relevance sooner than later. Houston had a winning season this year, despite a tougher schedule than they’re used to. They don’t have a head coach right now, but a good hire could be enough to propel them into the top half of the conference. The Cougars have a program to keep an eye on, as they look to duplicate SMU’s sudden success.

Despite the postseason leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of Bearcat fans, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. This season was still very special, and the Bearcats basketball program seems to have found a pretty good home in the AAC. I’m already excited for next season.

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