When the American Athletic Conference formed this summer it was going to be a strong basketball conference with the likes of Connecticut, defending champion Louisville, Memphis and Temple leading the way.
That has been true but the seasons of SMU, who under the tutelage of Larry Brown are 18-5 and tied for 3rd in the conference and the team that has perhaps somewhat surprisingly put a bear hug on the top spot in the conference the 22-2 and an unblemished 11-0 conference mark, the Cincinnati Bearcats.
The Bearcats are currently ranked 7th in the country and are riding a 15-game winning streak, not having lost since December 14 when they lost to intra-city rival Xavier. Their only other loss came a week prior on December 7 when they fell to New Mexico at the Pit.
Coach Mick Cronin has his team playing typical Bearcat basketball; they play physical and make their opponents work extremely hard to earn their points. Cincinnati is holding opponents to just 38.6% from the field, 16th best in the country but just 2nd best in the conference as SMU forces teams to shoot a paltry 36.8% 2nd best in the country. The Bearcats are tops in the conference and 4th in the country in points allowed at 56.8 per game.
The team is led by three of its seniors. Leading scorer and assist man Sean Kilpatrick along with forwards Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson account for 38.2 of the team’s points and 17.8 rebounds. Cronin’s crew has tightened the defensive screws since the beginning of conference play. The Bearcats have allowed more than 60 points just twice (back-to-back wins over Temple and Louisville compared to the six times it happened during their 11-2 non-conference run.
The toughest tests may be yet to come for Cincinnati as the season finishes up. The seven games remaining include a road trip to SMU tonight before they host Houston on Feb. 15. On Feb.22nd they host Louisville and travel to UConn a week later and then they head back home to host Memphis on March 6th.
The AAC may have been formed out of realignment necessity, with plenty of schools with strong college hoops pedigrees. Cincinnati is the one that has a bear hug over the conference.