At roughly 2:30 p.m. Eastern time on First-Round Friday at the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the AAC and the Big East had fallen into a deep ditch.
At roughly 2:30 p.m. Eastern time on Friday, the AAC lost its second-best team and its tournament champion: the Cincinnati Bearcats. They lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes on a day when they couldn’t get nearly enough stops to support a Mick Cronin operation. Cincinnati isn’t built to win when playing a game in the 70s. An Iowa team which was floundering late in the season found a revival, and so it is that an AAC which looked very ordinary during the regular season has played at a similarly ordinary level in March. The AAC has only two teams left, pending the outcome of the UCF-VCU game later on Friday.
Even if UCF beats VCU, the Knights have a team called Duke in their near future.
In essence, then, the Cincinnati loss — which prevents the Bearcats from being able to play a semi-home game in the round of 32 in Columbus — takes away the AAC’s other big March threat. It’s Houston or bust in terms of the Sweet 16 or anything beyond that. Only one team truly carries the league’s hopes as of Friday afternoon.
In the Big East, it is even worse.
Only Villanova remained entering Friday. Three other Big East teams were cleared out of the bracket before then: St. John’s on Wednesday in the First Four, then Marquette and Seton Hall on Thursday in the round of 64. Villanova might be able to make some noise, but if the Wildcats lose to Purdue on Saturday, the Big East will walk away from this NCAA Tournament with exactly one win.
That’s Pac-12 territory.
The Big East, it should be said, has done very well over the past several years. We can chalk up this season to a down cycle for Villanova and other league programs. Xavier showed late this season that it should be back on track in 2020. Georgetown is probably ready to make a move next season as well. This year, however, clearly was a period of time when the conference didn’t manage to improve from November through March. This was a one step forward, one step back kind of season. The Big East will need to make sure its teams consolidate gains next year. The abruptness with which its non-Villanova members left the Dance floor in 2019 must serve as a splash of cold water.
The AAC will embark on a very crucial season in 2020. There are so many programs with rich basketball legacies in this conference, and they all went through transitional years in 2019. Wichita State, Connecticut, and Memphis — if they can all play well at the same time — would make the AAC a six- or seven-bid conference. The 2020 season doesn’t necessarily need to send all three programs to the NCAA Tournament, but it definitely needs to show that the three schools are headed in the right direction and ready to crush it in 2021 and beyond.
The Big East and AAC are basically down to one contender at 2:30 p.m. on First-Round Friday.
These leagues aren’t in trouble heading into 2020, but they definitely face pressure to live up to the basketball identities their most prominent schools possess.
Meanwhile: Your move, Villanova and Houston.
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