By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) _ For one season at least, the new American Athletic Conference can lay claim to being one of the best in the country.
After all, no one else has the defending national champion and runner-up from last season’s Final Four with UConn and Louisville headlining the AAC. It’s only the third time in the last 15 years that a conference had the two teams that played in the NCAA title game.
“There’s still a lot of talent in this conference,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Auriemma went on to say that the new AAC could rival what the Big East used to be.
“I think the schools that we have in our league, potentially with the resources that they have, have the ability to be more successful in our league than the teams that we used to have, just by virtue of what they have to offer as
UConn is the favorite to win the inaugural conference title– a unanimous choice by the league’s coaches. Not a big surprise considering the Huskies have most of the team back from last season, including sensational sophomore Breanna Stewart– the conference’s preseason player of the year. Stewart was the most outstanding player of the Final Four last season and is poised.
“It’s a nice honor, but it’s the preseason,” Stewart said. “It really just motivates me more during the regular season.”
Jeff Walz’s Louisville Cardinals, who were picked second in the preseason poll, were the biggest surprise of the NCAA tournament, knocking off Baylor in one of the biggest upsets in women’s basketball history before topping Cal in the Final Four. He returns four starters from that squad.
Walz’s team will play in the AAC for one season before bolting to the ACC next year.
“We’re excited about the opportunity to play five new schools and five schools that were in the Big East,” Walz said. “Some familiarity and some learning on the fly. Even though we have one foot out the door we’re going to do the best we can for this conference.”
C. Vivian Stringer’s Rutgers team will also leave the AAC after one season for the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights, led by preseason freshman of the year Tyler Scaife, were picked fourth.
Conference newcomers SMU and Memphis were fifth and six in the preseason poll. Cincinnati, Central Florida, Temple and Houston round out the preseason picks.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW
1) PRESEASON PICKS– Stewart was joined on the preseason all-conference squad by Connecticut teammates Stefanie Dolson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Louisville also had three players on the preseason team with Shoni Schimmel, Antonita Slaughter and Sara Hammond. Central Florida’s Briahanna Jackson, Cincinnati’s Dayeesha Hollins, SMU’s Keena Mays and South Florida’s Inga Orekhova were also selected to the preseason team.
2) ALL IN THE UCONN FAMILY –Temple’s Tonya Cardoza and Cincinnati’s Jamelle Elliot were assistants for Auriemma at Connecticut before getting their head coaching gigs. It’s one of the rare instances when two former assistants are in the same conference as their previous school. Pat Summitt’s final year at Tennessee coincided with former Lady Vols’ assistant Nikki Caldwell’s first at LSU. Matthew Mitchell was at Kentucky.
“It’s going to be bittersweet facing Jamelle,” Cardoza said. “We’ve known each other for so long it’s going to be sad to see one of us lose, but when it’s done will hug and congratulate each other on a job well done.”
3) NEW FACES— SMU, Memphis, Central Florida, Temple and Houston are all joining the conference this season. Take the Owls out of the mix and the other four teams haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since Houston made the second round in 2004. When Louisville and Rutgers leave next season the conference will gain East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane.
4) TRAVELOGUE— While last year’s Big East was mostly centered in the Northeast with a few teams outside of the area, the new alignment will have teams in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Connecticut making for a more travel.
5) CASINO –The AAC will be playing its inaugural tournament at the Mohegan Sun. The casino had been trying for years to get the former Big East to play its tournament there, but the seven catholic schools were always opposed.
“We’re excited to have the American’s conference tournament here,” Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess said. “We’ve been wanting to get it here for a while and are happy to have a chance to host them.”
Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
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