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AAC still fighting for men's basketball respect in its third year

Three season into its existence, the American Athletic Conference is still fighting for respect in the college basketball world.

There's clearly a problem when Temple, the American's regular-season champion and top seed in this week's conference tournament in Orlando, Fla., is projected to sneak into the NCAA tournament. ESPN's Joe Lunardi had the Owls as an 11th seed on Monday.

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco and conference coaches made their case during a Monday teleconference. Aresco believes that Temple winning the regular season should carry a lot of weight on Selection Sunday.

"Our conference is a very good conference and I don't think we get the proper respect," Aresco said. "We've struggled a little bit with that over the last few years. I happen to think that we're extremely competitive and I think the committee recognizes that we have some really good teams in this league."

The selection committee has had a different view than Aresco the last two years.

Last season, Temple went 23-10 record and upset of nationally-ranked Kansas, but had to settle for a spot in the NIT. The league received just two bids — Cincinnati and SMU. The Mustangs won the regular season and league tournament titles and only were seeded sixth.

"We thought we should have had three teams," Aresco said. "For a league that is still gathering itself and getting together, we thought that would have been obviously pretty good. We thought Temple had a tremendous resume last year."

In 2014, the AAC earned four bids but expected five. UConn carried the torch, making a surprising run to the program's fourth NCAA championship.

"Both years, our teams were the first team out," Aresco said. "Again, I respect the committee and I respect their work and I know how hard they work and how diligent they are. It's just unfortunate that we weren't fortunate at the end.

"Would I like to see more teams in? Yes. This year, we think we have an opportunity for multiple teams. I don't know how ultimately how many we'll get. We've talked to the committee about our teams and we've talked to the committee about what we need to do and why maybe we hadn't had a full complement of teams in previous years."

One issue facing the conference is the great divide between the top and bottom half. Programs like Central Florida, East Carolina, South Florida and Tulane continue to struggle.

The conference can also improve its image by strengthening their non-conference schedules and piling up more marquee victories. The AAC went 1-14 against non-conference top 25 foes this season.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie believes the AAC is underrated.

"You can see our tournament seeds and you can see how the outside views our conference," Ollie said. "It's definitely not valued as much as we think. ... I just think the league is going to keep getting better and better.

"... But, of course, out of conference, we have to do a better job winning those games and getting our conference on the map. But when we get in conference, it's a battle each and every night."

It's shaping up to be another rough Selection Sunday for the AAC. SMU (25-5), the league's premier team all season, is ineligible due to NCAA violations.

Without SMU, almost no one is a lock.

Cincinnati (22-9) greatly improved its case by beating SMU on Sunday to raises its RPI in the NCAA's rankings to 40th. According to ESPN bracketology, only Temple (54th) and UConn (57th) are projected to join Cincinnati in the field, but just barely as No. 11 seeds. A first-round loss in the AAC tournament could alter both teams' courses.

Tulsa (51st) and Houston (75th) may need to win AAC championship to claim an NCAA bid.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," Aresco said. "The (conference) tournament will have impact pretty much for all of our teams."

Aresco stated his case for UConn (21-10), pointing to a big win at Texas and a victory against Michigan. He added that the Huskies have played "incredibly difficult" non-conference schedule and remained consistently competitive. And they have no bad losses.

"We thought all a season long that UConn should have been listed, for instance, as a probable rather than a bubble team," Aresco said.

Title hunt

The AAC tournament championship prize has eluded the Huskies, who are shooting for their third straight trip to the finals. As the No. 5 seed, they face No. 4 Cincinnati at 2 p.m. Friday in quarterfinal action at the Amway Center.

Last year, they lost to SMU, 62-54, in the title game at the XL Center in Hartford and dropped a 71-61 decision to Louisville in 2014 in Memphis.

"We're looking forward to hopefully winning it this year but it's going to take a great effort from our team and from everybody on our coaching staff, being together and being committed," Ollie said. "We've had some ups and downs this season. But, as you know, when you get to the tournament, another season has started.

"We want to learn from all our mistakes and get better as a team. We're coming in believing and playing very, very well after our last game against UCF."

Earlier this season, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin predicted the two teams would meet again.

"I fully expected to play Connecticut for a third time," Cronin said. "I said that to the media after our first and second games. Obviously, I did not anticipate nor did I hope that it was going to be in the first round of the conference tournament.

"But that's the way it shakes out this year because we have so many quality teams in our league."

AAC awards contenders

The AAC will hand out its individual awards on Thursday, the first day of the tournament, at the Amway Center in Orlando.

Houston's Kelvin Sampson is a strong candidate for AAC coach of the year. The Cougars (22-8, 12-6)exceeded expectations. They earned the third seed after being picked seventh in the preseason poll.

"Twelve and six in the conference was a good year," Sampson said. "But that's over with now. You have to prepare your team for the post-season."

The AAC's rookie of the year will likely go to Memphis forward Dedric Lawson, who had 15 double-doubles this season. He averaged a team-high 15.5 points and an AAC best 9.3 rebounds.

"He really should be a legit senior in high school and he's still 18," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "It's really remarkable the type of year he's had, and his best basketball is in front of him."

UConn's Jalen Adams was the preseason choice.

SMU's Nic Moore is favored to repeat as conference player of the year.

g.keefe@theday.com

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