By Travis Kilpatrick
There have been 7 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championships won by current American Athletic Conference teams; 4 from UCONN, 2 from Cincinnati, and 1 from Temple. However, only UCONN’s 2014 championship came after the American Conference re-branded itself in April of 2013 following the turmoil that split the Big East. In 2018, the American Conference has it’s best shot at winning a title since Shabazz Napier led the 7-seeded UCONN team to the trophy. 2-seed Cincinnati, 4-seed Wichita State, and 6-seed Houston will put the hopes of the American on their backs in the coming weeks, and as an American Conference Alumni, I have real reasons to be hopeful that there can be another American Conference NCAA Men’s Basketball Champion this year. Let’s take a look at each of the three American teams and their chances of making a run to the Final Four.
We’ll start with the lowest seed, Houston Cougars, who are the 6-seed in the West region. Even though Houston was widely considered to be the third best team out of the American, I think they have one of the better teams in the tournament and a relatively easy road to the Final Four compared to the other two American teams. Houston lost 7 games this season but only 2 by double digits; an 18 point loss at Wichita State on January 4th and a 10 point loss at Cincinnati on January 30th, both of which they avenged later on. The Cougars also boast the 10th best defensive efficiency in the tournament as well as a top 20 offensive efficiency. I also believe that Houston is in a very good situation considering how the bracket laid out for them. They should be able to dispatch of a tough San Diego State team before facing the Big Ten champs, the Michigan Wolverines. I believe that Houston has a great chance in this game considering the fact that the Wolverines have had an entire week off since their Big Ten championship and could really struggle finding their shot against a top level defensive team like Houston. If Houston makes it past Michigan, they will most likely face their toughest test of the West region in the UNC Tar Heels. At first glance thinking about UNC, you would think that the defending National Champs would be a clear favorite against Houston, but when you look at the numbers it’s much closer than you think. UNC has the same offensive efficiency as Houston but fall well short of Houston in defensive efficiency (53rd out of tournament teams). Houston also shoots slightly better. It will take a lot, but Houston upsetting UNC isn’t out of the realm of possibility. With their toughest test behind them, Houston would need one more win to make the Final Four. The most likely opponent would be either 1-seeded Xavier or 4-seeded Gonzaga. Neither of those opponents are particularly daunting as Xavier is widely considered the worst 1-seed in this year’s field and Gonzaga, though they are a fantastic team, get to rip through the West Coast Conference and the weaker opponents that are in that conference. Although the NCAA tournament is never easy, Houston has to feel confident in their chances to make the Final Four.
Next up is Wichita State, the 4-seed in the East region. The Shockers left the Missouri Valley conference to join the American in an effort to prove that they were good enough to play against the big boys night in and night out. I do believe that they were able to prove that by finishing with a 25-7 record and earning a 4-seed in the tournament. With that being said, I actually think that Wichita State has the lowest chance at making the Final Four out of the American Conference teams. The main reason for that comes in their probable Sweet 16 match-up. I believe that Wichita State can make it through Marshall and either West Virginia or Murray state without too much trouble, but after that, they will run into the Villanova Wildcats. Everything that Wichita State does well Villanova seems to do better. Wichita state scores an average of 83 points per game, but Villanova averages 87. Wichita State has the 6th highest offensive efficiency in the tournament, but Villanova has the 1st. Wichita State shoots nearly 50% from the field, but Villanova shoots over 50%. It’s going to be a massive task but one thing we can be sure of is that Wichita State is going to keep it close all the way to the end. Of the 7 losses that Wichita State suffered this season, only 1 was by double digits; a 14 point revenge loss on the road against a very motivated Houston Cougars team. If Wichita State can make it past Villanova, they could face one of a variety of opponents including Purdue, Texas Tech, Florida, or even potentially Butler, but none of those would provide a challenge even close to what Villanova poses. I think Wichita State may be the American Conference team with the smallest chance at a Final Four thanks to Villanova, but I know that Wichita State is the most experienced and confident American Conference team in the NCAA Tournament.
With Houston and Wichita State in the rear-view mirror we turn to our American Athletic Conference Champions; the Cincinnati Bearcats, the 2-seed in the South region. I believe that Cincinnati has one of the overall best teams in the country and, because of that, one of the best chances at a Final Four berth. You may be wondering, “How can you say that Cincinnati has one of the best chances at a Final Four berth when the committee screwed them by putting them in the same region as Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona?”. And to that I say, “Look again”. I think that the committee did Cincinnati a favor by putting those three teams on the opposite side of the region where they will beat each other up. While Virginia has the best scoring defense in the nation, it is actually Cincinnati that boasts the best defensive efficiency in the nation. This stout defense should help to carry them easily through their first two games before running into a potential matchup with Tennessee. Tennessee is a good team, but I believe they are too inconsistent to even make it to this point without being upset. Even if they do though, they’ll be due for a loss, and Cincinnati would be happy to give it to them. Unlike Houston and Wichita State, Cincinnati’s Elite Eight match-up will clearly be their toughest as they will most likely face one of the aforementioned power teams. Cincinnati has the defense to make any game close, but I do believe a game against the Virginia Cavaliers would be extremely exciting, even if it could potentially end in the 40’s.
While it will undoubtedly be difficult for our American Conference invitees to make the Final Four, if any one on them can find the path to make it then it’s only a 2 game tournament against the best of the best to bring the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship back to the American Conference where it belongs! But hey! If the more likely scenario happens and none of our teams make it to the Final Four, then we can always fall back on the unbeatable powerhouse that we have on the Women’s side that will definitely bring home a championship trophy, the Lady Huskies of UCONN.