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Excuse American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco for wanting to bask in the moment.

Long after Connecticut's 60-54 win against Kentucky, Aresco was among two dozen people still hovering on the court at AT&T Stadium, reveling in the Huskies' fourth national championship — and the AAC's first.

And so the league's surprisingly effective debut continues. In early January, Central Florida upset Baylor 52-42 to win the Fiesta Bowl. Southern Methodist reached the final of the men's National Invitational Tournament. Rutgers won the women's NIT. On Tuesday in Nashville, overall No. 1 seed UConn met Notre Dame for the women's national championship.

Not bad for a league that has waged a near-constant battle against perception since reinventing itself from the ashes of the Big East Conference nearly two years ago.

"I'm really proud of our presidents, our athletic directors, our coaches, our student-athletes and my office staff," Aresco said. "Because everybody went through a lot, took a lot of shots, persevered. I think this is one of those great, special nights. You know, the Fiesta Bowl was one, this was one, and I hope there's another one (Tuesday)."

It's all a little ahead of schedule, Aresco conceded.

"I think we exceeded expectations," he said. "I thought these schools have a chance to be competitive and to do something special at some point. But that it would happen this quickly ... is a remarkable accomplishment."

And here's where it gets interesting: If under the radar nationally -- no longer a power conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision, losing Louisville to the Atlantic Coast Conference after this season -- the American has proved to be an underdog with bite.

"You know, I've been saying for a few days we had to gain respect the old-fashioned way: we had to earn it. I think we did," Aresco said.


April 9, 2014


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