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November 4, 2013
For the second straight season Louisville was picked to win the league, only this season it is a different league. The Cardinals were picked to win the Big East last season, and did. This season they are picked to win the American Athletic Conference.
Louisville isn't the only one in a new neighborhood. In fact, five of the top six teams in last year's Big East preseason coaches' poll are no longer in the league.
From last season's preseason league poll, No. 1 Louisville and No. 4 Cincinnati are now in the AAC, No. 2 Syracuse, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 6 Pitt in the ACC. Only No. 5 Georgetown remains in the Big East.
While Louisville's new league is no Big East - quite possibly the deepest, toughest league in the history of college basketball - the new AAC is no slouch. The AAC has more preseason top-20 (three) than the Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC.
The AAC has No. 3 Louisville, No. 13 Memphis and No. 19 Connecticut in the Coaches Poll. In the AP, Louisville is No. 3, Memphis is No. 13 and Connecticut is No. 18.
Louisville could defend its national title, and UConn and Memphis could challenge for a Final Four spot. The AAC is the only league in America with two teams that won their league tournaments last season, Louisville and Memphis (C-USA). Both teams had more than 30 wins last season.
Although it seems like forever ago, UConn won the 2011 NCAA title, and the Huskies return their top six scorers from a team that won 20 games and finished in the top 30 of the RPI.
Cincinnati is getting votes in the AP Poll and could move into the Top 25 rankings at some point. Temple was an NCAA team last season and finished in the top 40 of the RPI. Houston, USF and SMU each have the talent to make an NCAA run.
Preseason conference media days are always good for a little saber rattling and hyperbole, and the AAC gathering in Memphis was no exception.
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco opened the league's first basketball media day by saying, "I can say unequivocally that we have the best group of coaches in the country."
And while the ACC would object, citing Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams, the AAC boasts a pair of Hall of Famers in SMU's Larry Brown and Louisville's Rick Pitino, plus a strong group of young coaches like Memphis' Josh Pastner and Cincinnati's Mick Cronin.
Pastner told any media person who would listen that the league would get six of its 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think the American and the ACC are the two best basketball leagues in the country - hands down," Pastner said. "And there's no question in my mind that six teams will come out of this league to play in the NCAA Tournament."
Cronin didn't go that far, but he was bullish on the league's strength, saying: "We have 10 teams, so if you're getting 50 percent of your teams in the NCAA Tournament, that's pretty good. Where the ACC has struggled the last few years, getting a low percentage of their teams in, I think that's why there was some push for change - to strengthen their conference. And I don't blame them, it was a smart move. But I would be surprised if you didn't see 50 percent of our teams in the tournament."
Houston coach James Dickey said the AAC will be one of the toughest leagues in the country.
"I mean, eight of the 10 schools in this league have been to a Final Four at one time," he said. "There are two Hall of Fame coaches. Then the defending national champion and two of the last three. It's certainly going to be a huge step up in competition (for his Cougars)."
Pitino knows his team is the clear favorite, but he says don't hand the title to Louisville just yet, "If you ask me who's going to win this league, I can say one of six teams have a legitimate shot of winning. Legitimate. I know we may be a little better in certain areas, but there are some teams that are a little better in other areas. So we're going to play each other twice and it's going to be a heck of a league."