Posted May 22, 2013

The NCAA tournament impact of the ‘real AmeriCon’

NCAA Tournament
After a one-season APR penalty, UConn should be a contender and a possible NCAA tournament team. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

After a one-season APR penalty, UConn should be a contender and a possible NCAA tournament team. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

The creation of the American Athletic Conference was years in the making and, in the long term, will be good for college basketball. Plus, the conference is pushing “The American” as its shorthand designation, which provides every opportunity to link to Hulk Hogan’s seminal ’80s theme song. Really, there’s no downside here.

But what is the immediate impact of the league going to be?

Yesterday, CBS Sports’ @JonRothstein tweeted seven teams from the newly created league that could challenge for an NCAA berth in 2014. Whether he’s a little strong on his prediction or not, it seems pretty likely the league will grab at least four NCAA bids next season.

Louisville, in its only year in the league before joining the ACC, may be the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. The defending champs are a certainty to dance. Connecticut, eligible again after a one-season APR penalty, has plenty of backcourt firepower. Cincinnati likewise should be more than good enough to make it, and Memphis and/or maybe reloading Temple should be good enough to get in as well. Maybe there’s a surprise team that emerges, too, but let’s use four as a relatively sound guess and go from there.

Last season, pre-split, the Big East (eight teams), ACC (four) and Conference USA (just Memphis) combined for a total of 13 NCAA bids. Now we have an extra league in the mix (with an extra auto bid, meaning only 36 at-larges this season and a moderately increased risk of a bid thief during championship week), with a number of NCAA teams from last year having moved to different conferences. What exactly will the expected impact of all that be?

The weakened Conference USA likely will be only the auto-bid winner again, so count them in for one. The new version of the Big East has Marquette, Georgetown, Creighton, Xavier, Butler and others. It also probably has a solid chance to get four in (which would match last season’s eight when added to the American Athletic’s haul). We’re basically at the same spot … until we get to the souped-up ACC.

Just start from the top: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse. Virginia should be quality and get in this season. Notre Dame should make it, too, with what the Irish have left on the roster. Pitt’s chances to dance again are solid, even with some personnel losses. That doesn’t even include a Maryland or Florida State or one of last season’s also-rans stepping up to grab a spot, buoyed by the huge increase in top-50 win chances in league play. So what’s the best guess for the ACC? Seven bids? Maybe even eight?

If those numbers are accurate, those extra bids will have to be coming from somewhere, and some of those somewheres are likely to be the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. The A-10 was banged hard by realignment, with Xavier, Butler and Temple all moving out. Saint Louis and VCU remain in the league for the time being and George Mason enters. Add in La Salle, Saint Joe’s, Richmond and others, it’s certainly not a bad league, but expecting five bids like last season is likely too much.

Same with the Mountain West, which should be extremely competitive again, but probably lacks the overall upside of last year’s league. Personnel losses around the conference (hitting Colorado State and Air Force hard, as well as in lesser fashion at UNLV, San Diego State, Wyoming, etc.) offsetting the arrival of a good Utah State team and improvement in a place like Fresno State. The MWC garnered five bids last season in large part because of the quality of its nonconference performance, which will be very hard to duplicate. The league likely will be starting with a lower ceiling, so squeezing in so many teams as at-larges will be a lot harder.

The puzzle pieces will move around elsewhere, as well. It would be hard to have true mid-major leagues get fewer at-larges than last season. The SEC has to be better than it was, as well. But on first glance, the direct impact of the creation of the American Athletic Conference on next season’s NCAA tournament looks fairly modest. If you want to “blame” anyone for probable bid consolidation toward major conferences, you’ll probably need to look at the ACC instead.

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