Geno Auriemma is convinced the level of play in the American Athletic Conference is getting better.
But it's not up to Auriemma and his University of Connecticut women's basketball team to prove it. The Huskies have done their part by going 82-0 in league play since the conference was formed for the 2013-14 season, along with winning three national championships and reaching four Final Fours.
The Power 5 conferences -- the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference -- filled half of the 64-team field in the 2017 NCAA tournament. The AAC finished fifth in conference RPI ahead of the Big Ten, but received three NCAA bids to the Big Ten's four. The Big East (3) and Missouri Valley Conference (2) were the only leagues besides the Power 5 and AAC to send more than their automatic qualifier/conference tournament champion.
The addition of Wichita State gives the AAC 12 teams. The SEC (8), Pac-12 (7), and Big 12 (6) sent more than half of their teams to the NCAA tournament and the ACC was just under half (7). Can the AAC approach that?
"I don't see any reason why we can't get four teams in the NCAA tournament every year and maybe some years more," Auriemma said. "The non-conference scheduling is better and that will help us. I think recruiting is getting better. The level of competition is better.
"By us being in the league it skews it a bit. But I've always said that if you took us out, it would be an unbelievably competitive league. There are some weeks where you can be in fourth place in the conference and then you lose a couple of games at the end of the week your eighth. Take us out, it's really, really competitive."
UConn isn't going anywhere, though. The Huskies were the unanimous choice by the coaches to repeat as regular season champion with South Florida second and Temple third. Those three represented the conference in the 2017 NCAA tournament.
USF has been to the NCAA tournament three straight years and four of the last five. Temple made its first appearance since 2011. Central Florida, SMU, and Tulane -- choice 4-6 in the preseason coaches poll -- were WNIT clubs last season.
"We've beaten teams outside of the league and we have to keep doing that," Auriemma said. "We have to win games in the NCAA tournament. I like our chances. I like what we're doing."
AAC teams had winning records against the ACC (7-3), Big Ten (6-2), the Big East (5-1), and the Atlantic-10 (6-0), went .500 against the Pac-12 (2-2), but were sub-.500 against the Big 12 (3-6) and SEC (5-12).
Against teams in the top 25 of the Associated Press poll, the AAC was 11-9, but that includes UConn's 10-1 mark. The only other win over a ranked opponent was Temple over DePaul.
The margin for getting an extra at-large bid can be slim.
"It all depends on how teams do and how we do in our non-conference scheduling," USF coach Jose Fernandez said. "It's important that we win in non-conference. You have to schedule. Of course, the top teams in the confernce and the bottom teams in the conference are going to schedule differently. If you're going to be an at-large team in the NCAA tournament, you have to go out and show that you're willing to play people and you have to win some of them. You have to pick up those quality non-conference wins and do well within the league."
Only one AAC team -- East Carolina, which was picked 12th in the preseason poll -- will not play a non-league game against a 2017 NCAA tournament team. UConn will play 11 of its 13 non-league games against teams that reached the Big Dance. USF has six such games with five being against Power 5 schools. Tulane has five, while Memphis and Wichita State have three apiece. Temple has two, though one is against reigning national champion South Carolina.
USF won 24 games last season in what many figured to be a rebuilding year. The Bulls were competitive with everyone except UConn, which beat USF three times by an average of 49.7 points.
Like UConn, the Bulls suffered NCAA tournament heartbreak. They lost their first-round game to Missouri 66-64 (the same score as UConn-Mississippi State) on a rebound basket by Sierra Michaelis with 0.6 seconds left.
"We won 24 games without four starters from the previous year, so what that team did was remarkable," Fernandez said. "They played for one another and didn't want to program to take a step back and they got back to the NCAA tournament. I could not have been prouder. But now we're a different team.
"And we've got a very good team. We've got four starters returning and Laura Ferreira is back from injury. We've got a mid-year transfer in Alyssa Rader (from Northern Arizona) who will be eligible in December and a really good recruiting class. I'm excited."
Temple, like USF, won 24 games a season ago and, like the Bulls, suffered NCAA heartbreak. The Owls led Oregon by six going into the fourth quarter. But Ruthy Hebard hit a short jumper with 5.5 seconds to go and got a piece of Feyonda Fitzgerald's last-second drive to give the Ducks a 71-70 victory. Oregon would go on to upset Duke and Maryland before falling to UConn in the Bridgeport Regional final.
The Owls lost Fitzgerald to graduation but have also lost all-conference senior point guard Alliya Butts to a season-ending knee injury.
UCF and SMU have second-year coaches in Katie Abrahamson-Henderson and Travis Mays respectively that got their teams to the postseason in Year 1. Tulane, which received a NCAA at-large bid in 2015, gave UConn a memorable battle in New Orleans last February but came up short 63-60.
Wichita State, which received automatic bids to the NCAA field as MVC tournament champion from 2013-15, hopes it will strengthen its new league.
"We have a lot of respect for this conference with great coaches and great players," Wichita State first-year coach Keitha Adams said. "We want to play at a high level and play a brand of basketball that we can all be proud of."
The more AAC teams that play at a high level, the better.