In some ways, the American Athletic Conference is the most interesting major conference in the nation (I said major, not Power 5). That's because its potential regular-season champion and the only ranked team in the conference, SMU, is ineligible for postseason play. Thus, the AAC could get anywhere from as few as two teams in the Big Dance to as many as five. That number partly could be decided by two games Thursday I will look at here.
UConn at No. 24 SMU (-6)
AAC game at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2. UConn (20-9, 10-6) was projected as a No. 8 seed in the Big Dance earlier this week, but it slipped onto the bubble -- "Last Four Byes" -- with a 75-68 loss to Houston on Sunday, the Huskies' first defeat this season at their on-campus arena (they also play some games in Hartford). UConn led by nine in the first half. The Huskies missed seven of their final nine shots from the field in the game. They were 6-for-18 from long range overall. Daniel Hamilton had 20 points and seven rebounds in the loss. If the Huskies win here, they should be in the NCAA Tournament no matter what happens in the conference tournament. They close the regular season with what looks like a sure win at home against UCF.
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It's Senior Night at SMU (24-4, 12-4) and maybe, just maybe, Coach Larry Brown's final home game with the program. You never know when Brown might leave, and the program can't play postseason basketball because yet another of Brown's schools ran afoul of NCAA rules. The Mustangs are tied with Temple for first in the AAC. SMU closes with a tough game at Cincinnati. Seniors Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert, the team's three best players, will be honored before the game. Moore has a good shot at repeating as AAC Player of the Year. He's a finalist for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award nationally as well. SMU is 3-0 all-time at home vs. UConn but lost in Hartford 68-62 on Feb. 18. Amida Brimah had 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks for the Huskies.
Key trends: UConn is 2-5 against the spread in its past seven games. SMU is 5-1-1 ATS in its past seven following a win of at least 20 points. The home team is 4-0 ATS in the past four meetings.
I'm leaning: SMU, which has just one home loss, and it will be an emotional night in Dallas saying goodbye to the best senior class in many, many years.
Cincinnati at Houston (-1)
Another AAC game at 9 p.m. ET but on the CBS Sports Network. Like UConn, Cincinnati (21-8, 11-5) is listed among the "Last Four Byes" for the NCAA Tournament, but the Bearcats could still take the AAC regular-season title by winning out and with some help. They close at home vs. No. 24 SMU on Sunday. If UC could win close games, it would be in clear control of the conference race. Four of its five AAC losses could have gone the other way: 59-57 at SMU, 67-65 in double OT at Temple, 63-59 at Memphis and 70-68 in OT at Tulsa. Cincinnati is the only team in the nation to rank in the Top 20 in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense, blocks and steals. As usual, it's all about whether this club can score enough.
Houston (21-8, 11-6) isn't listed as even being considered for the NCAA Tournament right now, but I disagree with that. I will say that the Cougars played a nonconference schedule that resembled what the Baylor football team would do. And UH lost to Rhode Island and Grand Canyon. But since a four-game losing streak in the AAC, the Cougars have won eight of 10, including a victory over SMU. On Sunday, they went to UConn and won 75-68, shooting 51.9 percent against one of the nation's top field-goal percentage defensive teams. The Cougars lead the league in scoring at 78.5 points per game and have the AAC's leading scorer in Rob Gray Jr., who averages 16.4 points. This is Houston's final regular-season game. It lost at Cincinnati 70-59 on Jan. 13.
Key trends: Cincinnati is 2-5 ATS in its past seven road games. UH is 4-1 ATS in its past five at home.
I'm leaning: Houston.
No. 25 California at No. 18 Arizona (-5.5)
Pac-12 game at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. This is the only matchup of the night featuring ranked teams. Cal (21-8, 11-5) entered Wednesday third in the Pac-12, a game behind Oregon and a half game behind Utah. The Bears no doubt will be watching the Ducks' game at UCLA on Wednesday night. Oregon finishes with a tough one at USC. Cal closes the season at Arizona State, which should be a win. The Bears bring a seven-game winning streak into this one and finished their home slate 18-0, the school's best record ever at home, with an 87-65 wipeout of USC on Sunday. Five of the seven games in Cal's current win streak were played at home. The Bears' Jaylen Brown, the team's leading scorer (15.8 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (5.7 rpg), likely will be Pac-12 Freshman of the Year -- and probably enter the NBA Draft.
Arizona (22-7, 10-6) is the two-time Pac-12 regular-season champion but would need a win here and at home vs. Stanford on Saturday plus a lot of help to share the crown. The Cats like to lose in pairs. They did Jan. 7 & 9 at UCLA and at USC. They did Jan. 23 & 28 at Cal and home to Oregon -- that loss ended UA's national-best 49-game home winning streak. And they did last week, at Colorado and at Utah. The first Cal result was 74-73, with the Cats' Gabe York not getting off a great shot in the final seconds. Cal's Brown made the second of two free throws with 18.4 seconds left, leaving Arizona one last chance to win it. He finished with 15 points and seven assists. UA had won four straight in the series.
Key trends: Cal is 1-4 ATS in its past five road games vs. teams with a winning home record. Arizona is 9-4 ATS in its past 13 at home. The home team is 5-1 ATS in the past six meetings.
I'm leaning: Cal is just 2-5 in Pac-12 road games, and the Cats have only one home loss all year. So go Arizona.
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