HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — The preseason ratings say SMU is the fourth best team in the American Athletic Conference.
The Mustangs’ performance Sunday night at BB&T Arena says that there’s a very large gap between No. 1 and No. 4 in the AAC. The University of Cincinnati, the preseason pick to win the AAC, dismantled SMU 76-56.
It was not as close as the score indicates.
Easy conference wins are nice, but you have to wonder if the league will sufficiently test UC. Hard games in January and February toughen up a team for March. Blowouts don’t exactly steel a team.
But Mick Cronin said it was his players’ effort that made it look easy.
“It took a tremendous defensive effort,” Cronin said. “We made it look easy. But anyone who watches and knows SMU, they don’t make some of the plays they made tonight. They don’t have 18 turnovers. It just doesn’t happen.”
UC has the talent to make AAC teams look bad. SMU came in the sixth in the country in 3-point shooting at 42.2 percent. The Mustangs only got 19 3s off and made only 31.6 percent.
Other than Wichita State, there don’t seem to be a lot of tough outs on the Bearcat AAC slate. The Bearcats don’t play the Shockers until Feb. 18.
Of the seven games until then, the only tough test on paper is at Central Florida on Jan. 16. UCF was picked third in the AAC. The home court advantage is most pronounced in college basketball. UC saw that at Temple.
But at home, even in a temporary home like BB&T Arena, no one in AAC, other than Wichita State, is likely to present much of a challenge for UC.
The contrast between that and UC’s old league and Xavier’s current league, the Big East, is stark. You get a war pretty much every night in the Big East — home or road.
Cronin can’t change his conference. The only thing he could do is add a tough non-conference game or two in February, but that’s not easy. Teams from the power conference don’t like to leave their league schedule unless it’s a for a national TV game.
Maybe Wichita State joining the AAC will help. UC closes the regular season in Wichita on March 4.
The Shockers are rated No. 9 in the country, and they are picked second in the AAC. They’re 13-2 and 3-0 in the conference. They’ve won those games by 20, 18 and 38.
So the league is looking like the Big 2 and the Little 10 so far.
Cronin has his players convinced otherwise.
“It’s just a win,” Jacob Evans III said after the SMU game.
“It’s a big win, but we play them again later in the year. We know it’s going to be another tough test. We can’t think it’s going to be a cake walk. Any team in our conference, we’ve got to go in knowing it’s going to be a battle. We’ve got to get ready for the fight.”
UC didn’t play well offensively against SMU early. The Bearcats missed their first six shots and were 2-for-14 at one point, but that didn’t stop them from opening 16-point lead 14 minutes into the game.
As bad as UC was, SMU was worse. The Mustangs went over 12 minutes with one field goal during one stretch in the first half.
The only drama in the first half was whether they’d get to 20 points or not. They did -- on the nose.
As for second half drama, there was none. And, again, SMU is one of the top teams in the AAC.
“My respect for them is off the charts,” Cronin said. “I did not anticipate winning this game the way we won it. I’m so used to everything life and death when we play each other.”
Based on the early returns, it doesn’t look like UC’s in for many life-and-death battles in the AAC, at least at home.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.