The final week of the college basketball regular season is here for the power conferences, and for the midmajors and small conferences, a lot of tournament action will tip off on Tuesday. The best story coming into this final week is the heated race for the American Athletic Conference championship, with three teams in the mix and a series of good games ahead.
Louisville and Cincinnati share the lead at 13-3, but Larry Brown’s surprising SMU team is only a game back at 12-4. Furthermore, Memphis, while not in realistic position to claim the league crown at 11-5, is in position to play spoiler. The Tigers did just that with a Saturday win over Louisville and have more opportunities ahead.
It starts on Wednesday night, when Louisville goes to SMU (7 PM ET, CBS Sports Network). A Mustang win on their home floor opens the door to all kinds of chaos, as a three-way split of the championship becomes a real possibility. Even more so given that Cincinnati doesn’t exactly have it easy, with a home game against Memphis on Thursday.
Then when we move to the weekend, SMU is the team that has its work cut out for them, with a road trip to Memphis. The Mustangs could run the emotional gamut of pulling into a three-way tie by Thursday night and giving it back on Saturday. Louisville has a tough game at home with a good UConn team, while Cincinnati has it easier, with a visit to lowly Rutgers.
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It wasn’t expected to play out this way in the American. Louisville was supposed to have an easier ride. Memphis was supposed to be more than a decent NCAA Tournament-bound spoiler. Cincinnati wasn’t supposed to be more than a decent NCAA Tournament-bound spoiler. And Brown’s arrival in SMU certainly wasn’t supposed to result in the program running right with Pitino and the defending national champs.
If the American race ends up in a three-way crackup? That won’t be the worst thing for Louisville—as Cardinal fans remember, they shared the old Big East title with Georgetown and Marquette last season, and it was Louisville that first rolled to the conference tournament championship and ultimately to a national title in April.
Elsewhere in the race for the college basketball regular season conference championships…
*Virginia (ACC), Kansas (Big 12), Arizona (Pac-12) and Florida (SEC) have locked up outright crowns and their players can spend the final week of the regular season drinking champagne (well, presuming they’re of age anyway).
*Michigan has clinched a share of the Big Ten title and needs just one win to lock it up outright. The Wolverines play at Illinois on Tuesday and home against Indiana on Saturday.
I suppose you could take each game individually and see how UM might lose, but in either case it would be an upset and dropping both would be an absolute shocker. Terrific coaching job by John Beilein this season after losing national Player of the Year Trey Burke.
*Villanova (Big East) and St. Louis (Atlantic 10) each have one-game leads entering in their final two games. Villanova might not be able to beat Creighton, but the Wildcats have beaten everyone else. A tough road test at Xavier on Thursday stands in the way of an outright championship. St. Louis lost at VCU on Saturday and is in danger of blowing what was once a three-game lead. A road test at UMass this weekend won’t be easy, but if you’re a conference championship team, you win it.
*We could be looking at a Saturday Night Showdown in San Diego for the Mountain West title. San Diego State and New Mexico are each 14-2 and go head-to-head late on Saturday. Before the Aztecs look too far ahead though, they go to UNLV this week, while the Lobos have only a tuneup home game with Air Force before the final showdown.
Is New Mexico’s strong showing in the first year since Steve Alford’s departure to UCLA finally proof enough that Alford is overrated as a head coach? The guy was a great pure shooter who benefitted by being coached by Bob Knight on the 1987 Indiana national championship team. That, combined with his being a high school star in Indiana got him some sort of status as a basketball savant, but since going into coaching his teams have always found a way to disappoint.
*And what wrap-up to the college basketball regular season would be complete without a salute to Wichita State, who completed a perfect regular season run on Saturday. The Missouri Valley plays its conference tournament this week, so the Shockers continued push for perfection will draw our attention come the weekend.
The power conferences shift into tournament play next week. At that point, TheSportsNotebook will have a regular season wrap-up that will focus on celebrating the teams that won regular season championships, the most underappreciated achievement in sports. As for now, no race for those championships is the three-team dogfight going down in the American.