Memphis fans are accustomed to Tiger basketball playing in boring, weak basketball leagues.
The Tigers competed in Conference USA from 1995-2013. After Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette defected prior to 2005, the conference was significantly watered down. As a result, Memphis dominated the league annually.
The lack of competition in CUSA was a regular topic of discussion for college basketball pundits critical of Memphis. Every March, Memphis dominated the CUSA tournament and listened to experts denounce the accomplishment.
When Memphis was selected for BIG EAST membership in February of 2012, the excitement was short lived. Before Memphis could officially enter the league, it was torn apart by defections. Louisville left for the ACC, Rutgers joined the B1G, Marquette and other basketball schools (Georgetown, Villanova, etc…) split off to form their own league. They took the BIG EAST brand with them.
Memphis was left in something called the American Athletic Conference.
After all the movement, amid a disappointing / rebuilding year for Memphis basketball, a positive development for the Tiger program has been obscured: the American Athletic Conference is a pretty darn good basketball league.
The American is certainly a major improvement from the final version of CUSA that Memphis left in 2013.
Here’s a few reasons why:
- Television. Almost every single conference game is on national television (either on the ESPN family of networks, or CBS Sports Network). This is a far cry from the CUSA days where Memphis Basketball disappeared from the national conversation during the final 3 months of the season – even if they were highly ranked. Not only is the contract good for watching Memphis games – but you can turn on the TV almost any night and see an interesting conference game.
- Cincinnati. Memphis had lost all traditional rivals in CUSA v2.0. UAB – after the incredible 2008 match up with Memphis in Birmingham – started to feel like a legitimate rival, but at some point you have to win a game in the series to be considered a true rival. The Blazers lost 15 consecutive games to Memphis over their final few years together in CUSA.
- Larry Brown. The SMU of CUSA was a laughingstock. Brown – a Hall of Fame coach – was hired in 2012 and almost overnight turned SMU into a nationally relevant program. The Mustangs are currently ranked 23rd in the country and add a certain credibility to the AAC.
- UConn. Though the Huskies are having a disappointing year in 2014-15, they administered a huge boost to the fledgling league in 13-14 by winning the NCAA tournament. The Huskies presence in the league – in light of their 4 national titles since 1999 – is a long term game changer.
- Tulsa resurgence. Let’s be honest, when Tulsa was announced as a replacement for Louisville nobody was particularly excited. Sure, Tulsa has a proud basketball history which includes names like Bill Self, Tubby Smith and Nolan Richardson – but they were mostly a steppingstone and none of that success had taken place in the last 15 years or so. Now, the Golden Hurricane are sitting atop the league standings at 10-0 and new coach Frank Haith should be able to capitalize in recruiting.
- Traditional Temple. Temple, who took a major step back in the first year of the AAC, is currently 7-3 and in good position to return to the NCAA tournament under veteran coach Fran Dunphy. The tradition rich Owl program is a key conference member for basketball purposes. Temple’s success will make the AAC more interesting going forward.
- Overall Competitiveness. Memphis, even during parts of the Josh Pastner era, totally dominated CUSA. At a certain point it felt like the Tigers had mind control. CUSA competition just didn’t believe they could beat Memphis – and they couldn’t. The AAC is a highly competitive league (see current standings to left). Any of at least 6 teams will enter next month’s AAC tournament in Hartford, CT believing they have a legitimate chance to win. That makes for an exciting event.
In the winter of Tiger fans’ discontent, the fact that Memphis is is a pretty entertaining, competitive basketball league shouldn’t be taken for granted.