Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The American Athletic Conference released its conference and non-conference schedules for the 2014-15 season last week.
As might be expected for a league that featured some of the best squads in the nation last year, including the national champion Connecticut Huskies, there are a litany of intriguing matchups strewn throughout the list, especially in the non-conference portion.
Right now, college football fever may be at a high point, but it is never too early to take a look forward and begin building the excitement for basketball season.
Unfortunately, the best matchup of the AAC's selection of non-league contests is not until 2015. Two days after the calendar turns over, the defending national champs will visit Florida, the No. 1 overall seed of last season's NCAA Tournament.
This game doesn't just have dramatic implications because of the success enjoyed by each program a season ago, but also due to the fantastic finish the matchup produced last season. With the Huskies trailing, 64-63, with under 20 seconds to play, Shabazz Napier produced one of his many clutch performances. After missing a potential game-winning shot, he came up with his own rebound and then sank a fall-away jumper as time expired.
Napier won't be around for this rendition, nor will a bulk of Florida's squad, including Scottie Wilbekin and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Patric Young, but these are two programs that do not rebuild, they just reload. This season, players like Ryan Boatright, Amida Brimah, Eli Carter and Michael Frazier will ensure this late warm-up for league play will be another battle featuring some star-studded lineups.
While UConn's success last season wasn't totally unexpected, the rise of the SMU Mustangs was a surprising development that greatly enhanced the prestige of the brand new AAC. Led by Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, the Mustangs finished the season at 27-10, while spending some time in the national rankings. However, they were left out of the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament in one of the bigger snubs of the year.
If SMU hopes to get redemption and prove it is worthy, it has to replicate its success of a year ago. The Mustangs have a great chance to prove they are up to the task before the first week of the season is even in the books. On Nov. 17, they will travel to Spokane, Washington, to battle proverbial West Coast power Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA Tournament every season since 1999. That's 16 straight appearances, which is tied with Wisconsin for the seventh-longest ever and the fourth-longest active streak.
Speaking of streaks of NCAA Tournaments bids, VCU and Cincinnati are two programs that have become fixtures on brackets in March recently. The Rams have been to four straight NCAA Tournaments and the Bearcats have matched them. Both are likely to be in the field once again in 2015.
Luckily, college basketball fans won't have to wait until March for a chance to see the two teams collide. Cincinnati, which also plays some tough non- league games against San Diego State and cross-town rival Xavier, will test themselves against Shaka Smart's HAVOC defensive scheme on Dec. 20.
Both Cincinnati and VCU are known for their defensive acumen. Utilizing Smart's pressure-packed strategy, the Rams allowed just 65.2 points per game last season, while leading the country in steals (11.2 per game). Cincinnati was sometimes impossible to score against, with many of their games turning into brutal slugfests. In all, the Bearcats ranked fourth in the country in points allowed (58.4 per game) and 16th in opponent field goal percentage (.395). The winner between these teams could very well be the first to reach 50.
Like Cincinnati, Memphis is another AAC squad that will play a challenging non-league schedule. The Tigers will face Oklahoma State and Baylor, but perhaps the most enticing matchup is their Nov. 18 date against Wichita State.
The contest is a neutral site game being held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Although there will be no official home-court advantage, the Shockers have a bit of an edge, with a slightly shorter travel distance. Still, Memphis has built itself up enough and is a program with a national reach. That's what will happen when a program makes it to the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the last 12 seasons and is a yearly fixture in the AP Top 25.
Of course, in the last three years, Wichita State has built itself a nice reputation as well. The Shockers won 35 straight games before falling to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament last season. They have also been to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three years, including a Final Four trip in 2013.
There are a host of other promising matchups for both old and new members of the AAC. Temple, always a competitive team, will host Kansas just before Christmas, Tulsa will get a shot at Bruce Pearl and his slew of transfers at Auburn, and Houston will visit Harvard, the Ivy League powerhouse which has stunned higher seeds in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments.
While it is not certain each of these games will be an instant classic, one thing is for sure: the AAC will feature top-flight basketball from November to March.