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Athletic Director, Steve Bilsky, is interviewed. Credit: Julia Ahn , Julia Ahn

The nascent American Athletic Conference is like a freshman in high school, still unsure of its identity, rebranding itself and spreading itself too thin in too many places in an effort to be popular.

And so like most high school freshmen, the league has a few issues.

Geography is one. Born in haste just seven months ago after the “Catholic 7” basketball-oriented universities announced they were leaving the old Big East for a more lucrative TV deal, the conference is the most geographically challenged athletic league in NCAA history, with member schools spanning Texas, Florida, Connecticut and Ohio.

Branding is another problem. Even its name is a point of contention, as conference commissioner Mike Aresco doesn’t want the acronym “AAC” attached to the league because of potential confusion with the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), favoring the label “The American” instead. Good luck with that, since acronyms are a cornerstone of college athletics, what with the SEC, MAC, B1G, NLI, APR, etc, etc.

And of course, the “not AAC” will have to live down years of being compared unfavorably to the Old Big East, like a high school freshman coping with the legacy left behind on campus by an older sibling. After all, what conference tourney stage could possibly make us forget the Old Big East’s 31-year run at Madison Square Garden?

With all of its growing pains, it’s no surprise that the “not AAC” gravitated toward the storied stability of the Palestra, the oldest major college arena still in use today, as a potential site for its inaugural basketball tournament.

Aresco’s April visit to the gym left him impressed, inspiring him to compliment the Palestra’s historical significance, size and Philadelphia presence afterwards.

Sure, FedExForum in Memphis was the foregone conclusion for Year One, located off historic Beale Street and representing an awkward geographic compromise between member schools like Houston and UConn.

But since both the women’s and men’s tournaments are both expected to move on a rotating basis and the Palestra is likely already near the top of Aresco’s list, bank on the Palestra as a tourney site in the near future.

“It’s a new conference with a lot of politics going on,” Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky told The Daily Pennsylvanian last month. “What they wanna have is a successful tournament. And they know the Palestra guarantees a successful tournament.”

Remember, five of 10 schools in the “not AAC” are used to playing in Madison Square Garden for their conference tourneys, so these schools appreciate the value of competing in a historic arena that also happens to be in a huge market. Member school Temple’s nearby presence makes the Palestra a sensible choice in the rotation as well.

And many Temple fans remember the Palestra as the successful site of Atlantic 10 Conference men’s hoops tourneys for seven straight seasons during the league’s 1990s heyday. The Palestra hosted a combined 30,000 during multiple rounds of the A-10 tourney back then.

If the Palestra were to host the “not AAC” Tournament now, the setup would probably be the same as it is for this year’s series at FedExForum: Each game of the 10-team tournament would be televised on ESPN networks, a great opportunity at repeated exposure for the Palestra and Penn as a whole.

The Palestra would enjoy as much entertainment as exposure from hosting an American Athletic Conference tourney in the next few seasons, because like a high school freshman eager to make the best out of each of the next four years, the American Athletic Conference isn’t built to wait for success.

Louisville will be favored to make another Final Four appearance next year and are almost always fierce NCAA tournament competitors under Rick Pitino. Memphis boasts a No. 2-ranked recruiting class that should keep the Tigers loaded for years to come. And UConn and Temple have been two of the steadiest programs in college basketball in recent years, posting 11 combined 20-win seasons between them since 2007-08. This will be a solid men’s hoops conference.

So will conference followers be glad to see the Palestra host a league tourney? Many will loathe the geographical distance from the conference’s midwestern and southern member schools and object to the arena’s relative lack of substantial parking. Some will come looking to soak up Big 5 and college basketball history and leave just wishing the gym didn’t have bench seats.

But it’s the Palestra, and that says it all. It’s too easy to visualize the red, white and blue of The American represented in primetime on ESPN by the red and blue Palestra flooring in Philadelphia, the nation’s first capital.

It’s an easy pitch for Bilsky to make and an easy direction for Aresco to take. If it doesn’t happen in the next few years, both sides will have missed out on something special.

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