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Will Weak AAC Conference Hurt Louisville's Bid to Repeat as NCAA Champions?

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  (L-R) Tim Henderson #15, Russ Smith #2, Wayne Blackshear #20 and Peyton Siva #3 of the Louisville Cardinals celebrate with teammates after they defeated the Michigan Wolverines during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at the Georgia Dome on April 8, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterNovember 9, 2016

No one should question Louisville's talent next season. 

The Cardinals are just as talented as they were a year ago when they won the national championship. You could even argue they have the chance to be more talented. Rick Pitino has more depth, and if Montrezl Harrell plays like an NBA lottery pick—he has that kind of potential—the Cards will be more diverse on the offensive end. 

Point being, no one should question that talent. No one should question Pitino. But should we question their March prep? 

Louisville has the misfortune of spending one year in the American Athletic Conference before booking it to the ACC. It's like sending the Yankees to Triple-A and mixing in a few Major League squads before they take part in the playoffs. 

It's important to remember there will still be some competent teams mixed in. As Pitino recently told the Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant, the league is not all bad. 

It’s going to be much better than people anticipate because there are four teams that are going to be in the top 20: Memphis, Connecticut, Louisville—three of the four for sure and Cincinnati in the Top 25 if not the Top 20. And that’s not including Temple, I don’t know how good they’re going to be.

… It could be a great league, like a very good Conference USA—back in the old days when Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and South Florida were in it. It was a very good league—there were eight tremendous teams in that league.

Pitino might be overestimating Cincinnati, but he's mostly on point. The AAC also has a few promising up-and-comers in SMU—never underestimate Larry Brown—and Central Florida. 

For one year, at least, the AAC will have the feel of something between a major and mid-major league. It's not unreasonable to expect it'll get at least four bids to the NCAA tourney, and that's more than the SEC got a year ago. 

But let's assume that Louisville will be playing in a league much closer to mid-major than major. 

If the AAC does become a four-bid league, that's on the high end of the number of bids for mid-major leagues that have sent a team to the Final Four. 

The following chart includes the teams from mid-major leagues that reached the Final Four, and how many bids that league received that season dating back to 1990. 

2013 Wichita State Missouri Valley 2
2011 VCU Colonial 3
2011 Butler Horizon League 1
2010 Butler Horizon League 1
2008 Memphis Conference USA 1
2006 George Mason Colonial 2
2005 Louisville Conference USA 4
2003 Marquette Conference USA 4
1998 Utah WAC 4
1992 Cincinnati Great Midwest 3
1991 UNLV Big West 2
1990 UNLV Big West 3

 

Memphis was a few free throws away from winning the national title. UNLV won the tournament in 1990 and nearly won back-to-back titles when its stiffest competition in the Big West was New Mexico State. 

The reason every national champ since 1991 has come from a big-boy league is because the best basketball programs in the country play in those leagues. 

Louisville didn't win its first national title under Pitino because Louisville was finally in a competitive league. Louisville won because Pitino had the best roster he's had since he's been at Louisville—the perfect mix of talent, character and experience. 

Would it benefit the Cardinals to play in a conference that would be as loaded as last year's Big East? Probably. Is it reason to count them out? Hardly.

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