The American Athletic Conference gets their men's basketball conference tournament started today with the first round of games, but Cincinnati fans will be looking ahead to Friday at 2 PM when Cincinnati takes on UConn for a third time this season, after taking the first two meetings in close games.
Cincinnati is still firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and could use a deep run in the conference tournament to feel a little more comfortable with Selection Sunday quickly approaching. So, the question becomes; what does Cincinnati's path look like down in Orlando?
Let's start with the field.
Cincinnati's first, and perhaps most daunting, task is beating the Huskies for a third time this season, after winning on the road, 58-57, and then defending Fifth Third Arena with a 65-60 win most recently. Both games were hard fought, tough, physical, defensive contests and Friday's shouldn't be any different. Both teams are tremendously talented and have both underachieved a bit in their own ways. Interestingly enough though, Ken Pomeroy actually has both the Bearcats and the Huskies favored over the field to win the conference tournament, so Friday's matchup could be the toughest test for either team through this conference tournament season.
Now, if Cincinnati does progress into the third round with a third victory over Cincinnati in 2016, the Bearcats would be facing either Temple or USF/East Carolina. The Owls are the most likely matchup and have been Cincinnati's kryptonite this season, winning both previous meetings. That said, Temple has been prone to being upset this season, so don't disregard the winner of USF/East Carolina.
On the other side of the bracket, Houston and Memphis are the two teams most people are keeping an eye on. The Cougars are hot right now and have a lot of playmakers who know how to knock down shots. Rob Gray Jr. earned the AAC scoring title this season for Houston, averaging 16.3 points per game. Not to mention, Houston enters the tournament winning six of their final seven games, including a 69-56 win over Cincinnati.
Memphis, on the other hand, has been an underachieving team this season. The Tigers are led by their two big men, Dedric Lawson and Shaq Goodwin, who are both talented enough to help Memphis make a deep run. Still, they will need to first beat No. 3 seed Tulsa to have a chance at the winner of Houston and Tulane/USF.
The AAC Conference Tournament should be a hectic event, especially without SMU in the mix and the likes of Temple, UConn, Cincinnati, Houston and Tulsa making their final pushes for the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats have a real chance to make a run in this one, although their first game could be against their biggest threat to the automatic bid and their second game could be against a Temple team that has swept Cincinnati thus far this season. That still leaves a final against whoever makes it out of the other side of the bracket.
Cincinnati's path is far from easy, but if they can navigate a deep run, it could serve as a nice warm-up for the NCAA Tournament.