One of the numerous benefits of being the outright American Athletic Conference regular season champions is that you don’t have to play on the first day of the conference tourney. Sure, all four top seeds get a bye through the first round, but those other three teams don’t get to call themselves champs.
As the Cincinnati Bearcats prepare for their first game in the tournament on Friday, there will still be AAC basketball to be played. While UC will have its eyes on all the matchups from the first round on Thursday, the one that it will be focused on the most is the contest between the No. 9 seed SMU Mustangs and No. 8 seed UConn Huskies. The winner of that game will go on to play the Bearcats Friday at noon.
But which team would make for an easier road to the semifinals for the Bearcats?
If you are just going to use overall record to make this decision, then congratulations, UConn (14-17, 7-11 AAC) is the pick. If league mark is your metric of choice, then SMU is for you (16-15, 6-12). Of course just using records is far too simple a way to evaluate these possible opponents. So let’s go a little deeper.
We’ll start with UConn. The former proverbial AAC bullies are enduring a difficult stretch in their history. Barring a miraculous run through the AAC tourney, the Huskies are destined for their second-straight losing season. UC did its part to keep UConn down, sweeping the season series with a 65-57 win on the road and a 77-52 rout at home.
Ranked No. 174 in the country by KenPom, the Huskies are a pretty sorry offensive team and that’s even with Jalen Adams (18.4 PPG, 4.7 APG) and Christian Vital (14.6 PPG). They are last in the AAC in field goal percentage (.414) and are 176th in the nation in adjusted offense.
Additionally, the Huskies do not rebound very well. They are 10th in the AAC in rebounding margin (-2.8). They can be dangerous when holding a tight lead since they are the best free-throw shooting team in the league, but they ust haven’t held many advantages this year.
On the other side of the card is SMU, the defending league champions. At one point, the Mustangs were in the thick of the AAC title chase, but its been a couple months since that was true. Of course, the biggest reason they have fallen so far is because all-AAC second-teamer Shake Milton has been out since the end of January. He is not expected to be back this weekend.
What’s interesting is the fact that UC completely destroyed SMU twice this season, once when Milton was playing and once when he wasn’t. With an average margin of victory 22.5 points, the Bearcats proved that they are a far superior team than the Mustangs, no matter who is playing for them.
However, SMU has the metrics on its side in comparison to UConn. It ranks nearly 100 spots higher by KenPom’s estimation (No. 87) and leads the AAC in wins against top 25 teams with three. The Mustangs are also a top 100 team in adjusted offense and defense. Part of the reason SMU has still been competitive without Milton is the fact that it creates turnovers on defense and avoids them on offense. The Mustangs are second in the conference (behind UC) in steals and turnover margin (+2.42). That could be a useful skill against the Bearcats’ pressure defense.
If Milton does defy the odds and come back to play, then UConn is the obvious answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Even if he doesn’t, UConn is still the pick, albeit by a smaller margin. Despite the Huskies’ proclivity for knocking UC out of the AAC tourney in past years, this is a new era and the offensively deficient Huskies are a much better (read: easier) matchup for the Bearcats than a SMU team that plays carefully and has better offensive success.