American Athletic Conference Play Starts Today, Storylines and Predictions for the Conference
The American is the third conference to start league play today and similar to the other two we get an intriguing game to start us off. UCF – a bubble team, gets a shot for a quality win against a decent SMU team. But, we’re not talking about the game, we’re talking about the conference as a whole. This is always one of the more intriguing conferences to me because of realignment. They never truly felt like a major conference yet they aren’t a mid-major at all, especially not with programs like UConn, Cincinnati and now Wichita State in the fold. However, the conference has always felt like you wanted more from it and it’s shown with how the committee views the league.
NCAA Tournament Teams (As of 12/27)
Locks: Wichita State, Cincinnati, SMU
Bubble: Temple, Houston, UCF
Out: UConn, Tulsa, Tulane, Memphis, USF, East Carolina
Storylines to Watch
What happens at UConn
Listen, UConn should never be this bad for this long. Jim Calhoun didn’t die for this to happen. To me it starts with Kevin Ollie. You have to let him go, he’s simply not a good head coach. He’s an excellent assistant coach that would thrive to focus on defense and recruiting. But his offense is putrid as is his player development. This looks like another year of missing the NCAA Tournament and it feels like the first year the majority of UConn fans have had enough of Ollie. So the question is does he get canned or does he stay on? On top of that what happens if you can him and you don’t get Steve Pikell or Dan Hurley (the two calls they make first)? To me you go then to a guy like John Becker and see if you can get him, but UConn is 100% in a weird spot here.
Just how good is Cincinnati?
The Bearcats entered the year with pretty lofty expectations as some picked them to make a Final Four and be a top-10 team all year. The nonconference didn’t get to tell us a lot about this team though as Cincinnati has played one of the worst schedules in the country. They did get a quality win on the road against UCLA, but dropped road/neutral games to Xavier and Florida respectively. I still think this team will end up as a top-20 team, but in terms of seeding it’s going to be intriguing to see what the committee does with them. They still need to figure out the point guard position moving forward, but this defense has looked awesome outside of the Xavier game. They continue to protect the rim (2nd in the country in block%) and force live ball turnovers (12th in steal%).
Same question, but for Wichita State when healthy
One team we’ve yet to see the true version of is Wichita State. Markis McDuffie – the leading scorer, rebounder and a guy who really lets them have versatile defense – has just come back from an injury. Landry Shamet missed pretty much all of the preseason with a foot injury. Shaq Morris is now dealing with an injury. So with all that we haven’t seen just how good Wichita State is/can be. Similar to Cincinnati, this was a team that many had pegged for the Final Four and a top-10 team in the country, but the defense has been uncharacteristically bad. Does that change with McDuffie now healthy? Out of all the teams that will look ‘different’ in the second half of the year, I think Wichita State is one of the three ones we see the biggest jump from. McDuffie is that important.
What will the committee do with this conference?
Last year we saw Cincinnati and SMU wins 30 games each and be assigned No. 6 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Granted the league is better this year, what does the committee think of them. To me that’s where the 16-team reveal will be vital so we have an idea of where these guys are starting the selection process. Wins over USC, Arizona, Providence, Arkansas, Auburn and Clemson were vital, but there are also losses to Drexel, LSU, George Washington, La Salle and Western Kentucky by those top teams. I think this league can get four in the NCAA Tournament, which would be pretty important for public perception going forward assuming Memphis and UConn eventually figure it out.
The league needs a coaching adjustment
I’ve been saying this for a little bit now, but I’ve been confused by coaching hires in this league. Memphis never should have hired Tubby Smith. Tulane went and hired Mike Dunleavy Sr. South Florida has Brian Gregory. This all feels a little forced or fear of taking a younger guy knowing he’s likely going to leave. See, outside of maybe 4-5 jobs here the conference is going to be a stepping stone for coaches. Why not take a risk on a younger guy if you’re Tulane? You literally have nothing to lose. Memphis needs to get Penny Hardaway there as fast as they can, especially when you look at the connections he has in the city. When you’re the head coach at Memphis, you need to recruit Memphis. It’s that simple. Tubby isn’t doing that. There’s a reason why the top portion of this league always looks the same and that’s because of coaching.
AAC All-Conference Team: Landry Shamet (Wichita State), Shake Milton (SMU), Rob Gray (Houston), Quinton Rose (Temple), Gary Clark (Cincinnati)
AAC Player of the Year: Shake Milton (SMU)
AAC Coach of the Year: Tim Jankovich (SMU)
AAC Regular Season Winner: Wichita State