Cincinnati and Louisville split their two regular-season meetings, with the two games decided by a combined four points. But in a third, less publicized battle between the American Athletic Conference co-champions, a victory for the Bearcats on Saturday will make their lives a whole lot easier in the conference tourney.
After both sides completed their regular seasons with wins Saturday, Cincinnati earned the No. 1 seed in next week's AAC tournament by correctly calling the seed-determining coin toss:
The No. 1 seed for the American Athletic Conference Championship is Cincinnati. Louisville will be the No. 2 seed.— American MBB (@American_MBB) March 8, 2014
While a coin toss is less than ideal and has been understandably mocked across social media, the AAC was put in a difficult spot. The Bearcats and Cardinals not only have matching 15-3 records in the conference but also 26-5 records overall.
One could easily point out numerous ways the decision could be made to reflect the on-court product. The Associated Press rankings, nonconference strength of schedule and even point differential are just a few possibilities—ones that at least aren't as silly as a coin toss. Ryan Fagan of Sporting News was one of many to derisively scoff at how Cincinnati won out:
No rock/paper/scissors? So disappointing RT @BrendanPrunty AAC Tournament's No. 1 seed will be decided by a coin flip. A COIN FLIP. IN 2014— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 8, 2014
But it's hard to find anything more subjective, and the two schools seemed to have a good disposition about the whole thing.
"I requested that coach (Rick) Pitino and I play one game of liar's poker," Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin told reporters after Saturday's 70-66 win over Rutgers. "We used to do that all the time—for fun, obviously."
Sean Kilpatrick scored 24 points for the Bearcats, who needed every last one in a closer-than-expected victory. The Scarlet Knights went just 5-13 in the AAC and lost six of their last seven, while Cincinnati goes into the conference tourney with two straight wins after a late-season swoon.
The game was indicative of the high competitiveness in the AAC, one of the biggest surprises in its inaugural season. While the rankings are going to change come Monday, the AAC currently has five Top 25 teams in the AP poll.
Louisville, the defending national champions and preseason favorite within the conference, closed its regular season with a 81-48 thrashing of No. 19 Connecticut. A game after knocking down six second-half threes, guard Russ Smith put on his distributor's hat to set a career high with 13 assists.
What do you think of the AAC deciding tournament seeding by a coin toss?
The Cardinals are a mortal Top 10 lock after this week and have been playing their best basketball of the season. They've won nine of their last 10 games since a 69-66 home loss to Cincinnati, including a one-point victory over those same Bearcats on Feb. 22. Rick Pitino's squad has emerged as one of the nation's best two-way teams after an early crisis of self, and it's hard to consider them anything but favorites for the AAC tournament.
Even if the coin toss loss would theoretically make the Cardinals' job harder, the reality is a little different. By landing the No. 2 seed, odds are Louisville will face SMU in the semifinals. The Cardinals have defeated Larry Brown and Co. by a combined 21 points in their two meetings. With the event taking place on a neutral court at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, there's little excuse for either Cincinnati or Louisville—no matter how a coin toss played out.
For better or for worse, odds are we'll get to see these two teams decide the true conference champion on the court.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: