November 17, 2020 

The American Athletic Conference is creating new history

No UConn, no problem — there's plenty of talent left to maintain the AAC's competitiveness on a national scale

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Temple’s Mia Davis (pictured), along with Cincinnati’s IImar’I Thomas, were named the 2020-21 AAC preseason co-players of the year. (Photo: Temple Women’s Basketball on Twitter)

There’s been a UConn-sized hole in the American Athletic Conference since July 1, when the Huskies returned to the Big East. They took with them seven undefeated AAC seasons, seven AAC tournament titles and a laundry list of firsts and bests for the young conference.

For the other 11 teams, along with the two others that have come and gone since the AAC’s inception in 2013, having (more often than not) the top team in the country in the same conference offered a high level of competition not typical of a mid-major conference outside the non-conference season. Sure, you get your odd in-state rivalry games out of the way in November — the AAC’s Tulsa vs. the Big 12’s Oklahoma State, or the AAC’s Cincinnati facing the Big Ten’s Ohio State. And then, conference play begins, and suddenly, you get UConn.

The fit was never excellent (see, again: seven undefeated seasons). Each game, the sense was that UConn would probably deliver a blowout — and if things got close, well, the Huskies would figure things out. And so…they did. Wash, rinse, repeat. While Central Florida, South Florida and Cincinnati made things interesting for UConn in its final seasons, the latter’s dominance — as a foregone concept or as something unshakeable to simply be tested by other teams as a formality — remained the storyline.

Still, the AAC’s loss is also the AAC’s gain. With the Huskies gone, that hole left behind isn’t really a problem — instead, it represents limitless opportunity for growth. It’s not just that a non-UConn team will win an AAC title for the first time ever, but also that the conference has an opportunity to carve out an identity for itself outside of “the conference that UConn is in for some reason.”

Four of the five teams that have finished in second place behind UConn (including ties) — USF, UCF, Cincinnati and Temple — are still around, with the Florida schools in particular ascending overnight from the realm of “likely at-large NCAA bid” to actual competitors for the automatic bid. Three of those four teams received first-place votes in the 2020-21 AAC preseason poll. All four appear in the top half of the poll.

For the first time, the AAC feels like anyone’s conference to win — or, at least, more than one school’s conference to win. And while UConn will reap the benefits of joining a conference that fits them better, the AAC teams, in turn, will finally have some breathing room to reach their fullest potential in a conference made for them.

Highlights of the preseason poll, awards

USF (eight of 11 first-place votes) and UCF (one first-place vote) topped the poll, as expected — they’ve combined for five second-place finishes in the last seven seasons.

Despite a 2019-20 season wracked by injuries, USF still finished a respectable fourth place, just a game behind the second-place tie of UCF and Cincinnati. But returning all of their top scorers will allow the Bulls to maintain that whole-team mentality that made them successful despite their many hardships. It was a runaway first-place pick, their first time ever being at the top of a preseason poll, and was highlighted by the inclusion of sophomore Elena Tsineke and junior Elisa Pinzan on the preseason all-conference second team.

Coming off its fourth straight 20-win season, UCF also notched its best-ever AAC preseason poll pick. The Knights return four starters, including junior Brittney Smith, who was selected to the preseason all-conference first team. And while Smith’s improvement between 2018-19 and 2019-20 (as well as the conference’s improved parity) puts her in good position for a breakout season once again, the loss of top scorer and team leader Kay Kay Wright represents a lot of scoring that must be made up by less experienced players.

One of the most intriguing stories of the preseason poll is that of Tulane. The Green Wave received zero first-place votes, but still finished in third place, just one point behind the Knights. However, Tulane hasn’t had a winning record in AAC play since 2015-16, and in fact plunged all the way to last place in 2018-19 before crawling back up to a respectable 8-8 last season.

The conference has faith in the Green Wave, though, because despite no one picking them to win, they technically have the best representation on the preseason all-conference teams: senior Krystal Freeman was a unanimous first team pick, while classmate Arsula Clark made the second team. It’s that sort of experience that will drive the team this season, head coach Lisa Stockton said.

In fourth place, Cincinnati received the last two first-place votes and boasts the preseason co-player of the year in senior IImar’I Thomas, who shared the honor with fifth-place Temple’s Mia Davis, another senior. Both were named All-Americans a season ago, and both are on the preseason all-conference first team. (The Bearcats are also home to new transfer Milan Schimmel — yes, of that Schimmel family.)

Wichita State, Houston, Memphis, East Carolina, SMU and Tulsa round out the preseason poll. Lashonda Monk (East Carolina) was named to the preseason first team, while Mariah McCully (Wichita State) and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (Memphis) made the second team.

Final thoughts

Since the conference reached its 12-member status (including UConn) for the 2018-19 season, the AAC has seen two at-large bids make the NCAA Tournament — always the team that finished second to UConn and played the Huskies in the AAC tournament title game. (Cincinnati was in position for that specific accolade this past season.) It’s a good and arguably fair metric in a conference where one team stood so tall above the rest.

With no UConn, though, questions arise as to how future bids will pan out. Will the selection committee still deem multiple AAC teams worthy of a spot in the tournament despite a brand-new lack of in-conference résumé-boosting games? How will the conference’s top teams, gunning for those bids, adjust their non-conference schedules to make up for that disparity? (How will those teams navigate that reality during a pandemic, when non-conference games are hard to come by in general, but especially for some of the better programs?)

It’s a tough reality that we may not see the best of the AAC this season, and it’s a reality that programs across the country face as they weigh whether to play a season at all, and if so, how much. While the AAC’s playing field may have had some significant bumps for non-UConn teams in the past, seeing out a season with COVID-19 in mind may yet turn those bumps into hills.

Big-picture, though, the AAC seems to be on the right track, even if that track is currently difficult to navigate. The absence of one team may be one of the major storylines, but so too is the resilience of who’s left and the talent that will be allowed to fully flourish — hopefully, all the way to a competitive season and a multi-bid NCAA Tournament.

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