Four years ago, Tim Jankovich had a tough decision. Would he stay at Illinois State, where he had a team capable of contending for the Missouri Valley Conference title, or would he become Larry Brown's coach-in-waiting at SMU?
"It was one of the toughest decisions I've made in my life," he said of opting to join Brown. "Is life not crazy, not amazing?"
Jankovich reaped the fruits of his tough decision Sunday at XL Center in Hartford, Conn., where the No. 12 Mustangs rolled to a 71-56 win over No. 15 Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference tournament championship game.
Four starters scored in double figures for top-seeded SMU (30-4), which limited second-seeded Cincinnati to 31.1 percent shooting from the field and 4 of 24 from the 3-point line as it stretched its winning streak to 16 games. It has won 26 of the last 27 games.
Sterling Brown finished with 18 points and AAC Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye added 14 points and nine rebounds. Jerrey Foster hit for 13 points and Ben Moore chipped in 12.
"These guys are to the nth degree in every category," Jankovich said. "These guys deserve every accolade they get. I love, love coaching this team."
Jarron Cumberland came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points and Kyle Washington added 12 for Cincinnati (29-5). Jacob Evans and Gary Clark finished with 10 points each, but the Bearcats were held 18 points below their per-game average by an excellent defensive team.
Cincinnati made just 8 of 33 shots from the field in the first half, including only 1 of 12 from the 3-point line, as the Mustangs executed solid defensive rotations and forced difficult shots.
SMU never trailed, opening an 11-2 lead 3:38 into the game on a 3-pointer by Shake Milton.
Ojeleye drained a 25-footer as time expired for a 32-23 halftime lead and the Mustangs owned a double-figure advantage for most of the second half. They kept the Bearcats at arm's length behind balanced scoring and tough defense.
"We had to get out to a good start, jump on them early," Brown said. "There was no looking back. We were ready for this game. We've been thinking about that for the last two years. When we got that, we just seized the opportunity."
It was the second straight AAC tournament title for SMU, which wasn't eligible for last year's conference tournament after it was ruled ineligible for the NCAA Tournament because of multiple violations, including academic fraud and unethical conduct.
Larry Brown resigned in July 2016 as Mustangs coach, leaving the job to Jankovich, and there was clearly no dropoff. In fact, SMU hasn't lost since Jan. 12, when it dropped a 66-64 decision to the Cincinnati team it dominated most of Sunday.
"It's very gratifying," Moore said. "All of the players contributed."
Shortly after winning the tournament, the Mustangs were given a No. 6 seed in the East Region and will play Friday in Tulsa, Okla., against the winner of a First Four game between Providence and Southern California.
"You always feel like our guys deserve better," Jankovich said. "But you know what the truth is? I could care less what the number is. I wanted a Friday game. You can have the number, but I wanted that one extra day and so I'm really happy about it."
Meanwhile, the Bearcats also picked up a sixth seed in the South Region and will meet the winner of a First Four game between Kansas State and Wake Forest on Friday in Sacramento, Calif.
But this day was all about SMU and its ability to back up its regular-season championship with an emphatic performance that earned it a trophy.
"Our confidence is very high," Brown said. "We just go out there and do what we do. We're jelling on and off the floor and it's showing."
-- SMU entered Sunday's game ranked second in Division I in rebounding margin at plus-9.8, seventh in assist-turnover ratio at plus-1.5 and eighth in defensive field goal percentage at .385.
-- Cincinnati G Troy Caupain became the school's career assists leader with two in the first half, giving him 512 in his career.
-- The Bearcats' 38 made free throws Saturday against Connecticut tied for the fourth most in a game in school history and were their most since they hit a school-record 42 against Louisville in 2003.