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AAC Basketball Preview

With conference play finally starting up, it is time to take a look at the American Athletic Conference (AAC). Here's a team-by-team breakdown of the conference, starting with who I expect to finish last to first - Followed by some projected award winners.

The American has the potential to make some national noise again this year, though likely at a much lower level than last year. However, much like last year, this year's group looks to be built like a fitness room meathead who perpetually skips leg day (all top, no bottom). There seems to be a clear split between the top-5 of the group and the rest of the pack. Last year the top-5 consisted of UCONN, Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, and the year's biggest tournament snub in SMU. That being said - The rest of the conference is turning it around with big coaching hires (e.g. Sampson at Houston) and facility renovations (e.g. USF).

In my review of the conference, one thing became very clear - This conference wins with defense. My top-5 teams are the top-5 defensive teams in the conference, though not in perfect order. On top of that, only one of my top-5 are in the top-5 in the conference in points per game (SMU is second).

Many of the conference, including the AAC, primers tend to give weight to Ken Pom rankings. So, for the sake of diversity, I will utilize the RPI and BPI metrics throughout my conference preview as of 11:30PM EST, 12/31/14. Also, I write for a Cincinnati Bearcats website, so there may be some Bearcat bias and definitely will be numerous Cincinnati references... deal with it. That being said - Here we go...

11. East Carolina Pirates (7-6, RPI 287, BPI 213)

As a new member to the conference, the Pirates made some noise in football, but this is basketball. CU's best win comes against James Madison (RPI 172). In fact, two of their seven wins come against non-D1 schools and their SOS is weakest in the conference ranking 327 nationally.

They are second in the conference in points per game at a relatively impressive 70.8 per. Despite their easy schedule, ECU is ninth in the conference in scoring margin at +3.3 ppg.

On defense they block only 1.6 shots per game (last in conference). To put that in perspective, four individual players (Austin Nichols 3.5; Amida Brimah 2.7; Octavious Ellis 2.6, and Yanick Moreira 1.8) in the conference average more blocks per team than the entire ECU squad.

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ECU is new to the conference. They did very well in football and I hope they continue to. For this conference to grow, teams like ECU and the Florida schools need to improve their basketball programs.

10. Central Florida Knights (7-4, RPI 250, BPI 259)

Central Florida has a good football program, but as I mentioned before this is basketball. Yes, UCF has a winning record - for now. Many of their wins have come against teams that most people have never heard of (e.g. Stetson, Bethune-Cookman). All of their loses have been by double-digits, including a 11-point loss to UIC (RPI 268), a 23-point pounding from FSU (RPI 181), a 13-point loss to FAU (RPI 159), and a 26-point loss to Davidson (RPI 71).

The Knights are last in the league in numerous critical metrics including scoring margin (-1.8), rebounding margin (-2.1), and turnover margin (2.55). They give up 69.1 points per game (second worst in AAC) and allow opponents to shoot 44.5% from the field, good for worst in the American. It isn't as if the competition the Knights have faced has been stellar (SOS ranks 289th). Taken as a whole, it seems this team is going to have a hard go of it.

The one thing that the Knights are good at is shooting threes. They are best in the conference from behind the arc, shooting 38%. The key to playing the Knights is to press them high and force turnovers.

B.J. Taylor leads the Knights in scoring with 14.2 points per game. He shoots almost 48% from three (conference best) and 42% from the field. The key to beating UCF is keeping Taylor away from the three point line. Adonys Henriquez supports Taylor averaging 11.3 points per game. Fortunately for the Knights, the AAC has some pretty bad teams at the bottom, so they should be able to squeak out a couple of wins; however, I still see this team finishing second to last.

9. South Florida Bulls (6-7, RPI 244,BPI 211)

The Bulls are the only team in the American with a loosing record, which made them an easy and tempting pick for a last place slot. However, the Bulls have played much better competition (SOS 173) than ECU and the Knights just do too much poorly. South Florida has not beat a team in the top 150 RPI, and have bad losses to Florida State (RPI 181), Detroit (RPI 164), and Georgie Southern (RPI 143).

USF is not terrible on the offensive side of things. They score 69.7 points per game (5th in AAC) and shoot 47.1% from the field. Anthony Collins leads the conference with 6.0 assists per game. You may ask yourself, "Well, what's the problem?" The problem is defense.

If you are a Cincinnati fan reading this, this may be confusing to you, so you may need to pay close attention. USF is not good at defense. They give up 70.9 points per game, which is last in the conference. They block 5.2 shots a game (3rd in AAC) due to their size, but allow opposing teams to drain 37% of there threes (worst in AAC). The lack of defense on the perimeter tells me that the Bulls are not pressing at the line. The type of thing that makes Mick take off his jacket.

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As can be seen by the video, these guys are getting serious about basketball. USF did just invest $34.3 million in their stadium, the Sun Dome. Look for USF to become a competitor in the coming years, but that competitiveness will likely have to wait.

8. Houston Cougars (7-4, RPI 235, BPI 171)

The high profile decision of adding Kelvin Sampson as the head coach made expectations for the Houston Cougars skyrocket. Houston has had the second weakest schedule in the conference (SOS 320) so far. Unlike the Florida schools, they have beat a top-100 team in Murray State (RPI 86). The Cougars had some bad losses to South Carolina St. (RPI 279) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (RPI 185), but almost beat their toughest opponent, Boise State (RPI 46), when all of the Cougar's starters scored in double-digits.

Though against subpar competition, Houston is first in the American in points per game at 72.0. Regardless, they are led by five starters who almost all average double-digits per game in Stiggers (17 ppg), Pollard (12.3), Rose (11.5), Weary Jr. (10.3), and Knowles (9.1). Unfortunately for the Cougars, three of those starters also average at least three turnovers a game.

Houston loves threes. They have shot 321 three-pointers, which is good for first in the conference by a wide margin (second is Temple with 262). They hit 34% of them, which is alright, but no reason to chuck it up from deep every time you get the chance. Jherrod Stiggers leads the conference by a mile in 3pt attempts with 4.0 per game. Second is all the way back at 2.5! Stiggers is pretty good from behind the arc, shooting 37.6% (13th in conference).

7. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (7-5, RPI 61, BPI 145)

Mick Cronin is to defense as I am to free throw shooting. I just don't get it. It is the one shot you know you are going to shoot repeatedly throughout your career. It is exactly the same every time. Same distance from the basket, same configuration of players in front of you, and you can even control the ball for up to 10 seconds prior to your shot. Still, Tulsa shoots a conference low 63.4% from the line. They don't have a player who shoots free throws above 75%, other than Emmanuel Ezechinonso who is 2/2, which doesn't count... sorry guys.

Tulsa boast an RPI of 68, largely due to their 29-point win over Incarnate Word (RPI 38). Incarnate Word is the team that upset Nebraska. They also only have two losses, one to Tulsa (RPI 68) and the other to UTEP (RPI 78). The rest of their wins are against RPI 200+ teams. The reason I am telling you all this, is to make my point that - I don't give much credit to this win.

Tulsa relies on a two-headed monster in James Woodard (14.8 ppg) and Shaquille Harrison (14.3 ppg). Harrison has come on strong as of late. In his last six games, starting from most recent, he has scored 24, 23, 21, 24, 17, and 17. In his six games prior to that stretch he broke double-digits only one time. Morale of the story - Look out for Shaquille Harrison in conference play.

6. Tulane Green Wave (9-3, RPI 141, BPI 147)

Tulane has a solid win against Loyola (IL; RPI 55) and two of their three losses come to solid competition in Washington (RPI 43) and St. John's (12). The 71-49 loss to Wake Forest (RPI 157) is the current dark spot on the Green Wave's resume.

Tulane ranks in the middle of the conference in almost every category, probably a large part of why they are seventh on this list. Their strength comes from their ability to force turnovers. They boast conference highs of 15.3 forced turnovers and 7.3 steals per game. They only average 2.8 blocks per game, which is good for second worst in the conference. For comparison, Octavious Ellis averages 2.7 blocks by himself.

Unfortunately, Tulane also turns the ball over a lot themselves, averaging 15.0 per game. A lot of times, a high number of turnovers has to do with a lot of handling the ball or passing. That is not the case with Tulane. They are last in the conference in assists (10.9).

Quick Note

There is a big gap right here. The top five, like last year (though Temple replaces Louisville), are at a different level than the rest of this conference. All top five teams have a shot at the tournament, though I am guessing at least one of them won't make it.


5. Memphis Tigers (7-4, RPI 134, BPI 102)

The Memphis Tigers have beat who they were supposed to, and have lost to some solid competition. They only have one top-150 win against NC Central (RPI 98). Though their losses have all been to top-100 opponents, they have been bad - with all losses coming at 12+ deficits. I have to say, Memphis has been the most disappointing team in the American so far this season. For the American to "Rise", non-conference play has to be solid, especially from the flagship programs of the conference. On the plus side, the Tigers have a have had an average home attendance of 13, 518 (1st in AAC).

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The Tigers strength, as it seems to be every year, stems from shear athleticism. They out rebound opponents by a conference best 8.7 boards per game, at a rate of 40.2 rebounds per game (another conference best). They have four players who average over 5 rebounds per game, so the solution isn't as simple as blocking out 1 or 2 players.

On the defensive end the Tigers are a nuisance. They block a conference high 7.4 shots per game and average 6.8 steals per game (3rd in AAC). In all, the Tigers defense holds opposition to an average of 60.8 points per game (2nd in AAC).

Where it all goes wrong for Memphis is with ball security. They average a conference high 16.1 turnovers per game, and it is a team effort with 10 players averaging at least one turnover per game.

4. Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3, RPI 50, BPI 54)

Many of your first reactions may be, "Cincinnati ranked fourth on a Cincinnati page?" Yes, I think that currently the Bearcats are likely the third or second best team in this conference, but this preview is about projections. With SMU and Temple getting back some missing pieces (read ahead for details), I think they will finish ahead of Cincinnati. That being said - Cincinnati is improving at a high rate too with the seven new guys. I see all three of these teams improving drastically the next couple of months and at least one of them will probably make a little noise in March.

If you are a consistent reader of DownTheDrive then you know all about this team. With the seven new guys getting acclimated, this team continues to improve. Yesterday, they prematurely addressed many of Justin's New Year's Resolutions, such as tempo and Shaq Thomas attacking.

Though others have bigger wins (e.g. Temple over Kansas), Cincinnati has the best set of wins with five wins over top-100 teams. Their losses are acceptable, though disappointing, at this point. The Nebraska (RPI 97) loss (55-56) sticks out as one the Bearcats should have won, and maybe even the Ole Miss (RPI 67) one as well. VCU (RPI 3) was a legitimate loss.

If you don't know what the Bearcats do well, than you are likely not a Cincinnati fan, a fan of the American, or a college basketball fan for that matter. They have the best scoring defense in the conference by a mile (5.8 points), giving up only 55 points per game against respectable competition (SOS 78). They are second in the conference in blocks per game (5.8), largely due to Octavious Ellis and Gary Clark.

The problem with Cincinnati, as has been the case for some time, comes on the offensive side of the floor. They are last in the conference in scoring offense (63.0), shooting a league's worst 28.5% from behind the arc, and 43.4% from the field (8th in AAC). To get anywhere in the conference, or in the tournament, they are going to have to find some offense.

3. Temple Owls (9-4, RPI 37, BPI 91)

After a very disappointing season last year (9-22), Temple is back. Temple has had one of the hardest SOS at 30, and has easily the biggest win of the conference after they destroyed Kansas (RPI 2) 77-52. Their losses have been mostly to very good teams in Duke (RPI 4), Villanova (RPI 7), UNLV (RPI 42), and Saint Joseph's (RPI 137).

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How have the Owls turned it around? Well - First off, they started the season pretty well. But they have taken the next step, particularly in the last three games, through the use of transfers. Jaylen Bond came in from Texas, and is leading the team in rebounds at 7.6 a clip. Jesse Morgan, a transfer from UMASS, is finally able to play and is playing very well. In his three games, he is averaging 16 points, 3 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game. Devin Coleman, a transfer from Clemson, is averaging 7.3 points and 4 rebounds. The addition of these three has elevated the Owls to the next level.

The Owls are a strange team. They are second to last in the conference in scoring (65.3) and worst in field goal percentage (37.8%). Their also second to worst in rebounding margin (+0.1), though they average the fourth most rebounds at 38 per game. Their strength; however, lies in ball security. They turn the ball over only 10.3 times per game (conference best) with a turnover margin of +2.46 (also conference best). The key to defending the Owls is keeping them off the line. Only ECU has shot more free throws. The difference is that Temple makes their foul shots shooting 71.4% as a team, and the two new guys are yet to miss a free throw, so look for that percentage to increase.

The Owls are also a good defensive team, holding opponents to 61.5 points per game (3rd in AAC). They average 5.1 blocks per game (4th in conference), with most of their blocks coming from reserve players.

With the addition of Morgan and Coleman it is difficult to take too many of the Owls rankings to heart. Since adding the two transfers, the Owls have beat the RPI 2, 178, and 343 by an average of 18.3 points per game.

2. SMU Mustangs (9-3, RPI 51, BPI 50)

SMU has had a solid start, but it has been somewhat of a letdown. It was disappointing for SMU, and the AAC, when Emmanuel Mudiay decided to get paid and play basketball overseas. Also, Xavier transfer Justin Martin hasn't been what I expected him to be. They beat everyone they should have, but really should have beat Arkansas (RPI 23) and Indiana (RPI 99).

There is a lot to like about SMU. This team, despite a respectable schedule (SOS 79), boasts an average scoring margin of +8.8, which places them a top the conference in scoring differential. They shoot a conference high 47.6% from the field, and I love the fact that they make 74% of their free throws - also a conference best. On top of that, they are also the second best rebounding team in the conference with an average rebounding margin of +8.2. They also average a conference best 14.6 assists per game, largely credited to the play of a guy named Nic Moore.

This team goes through Nic Moore, as it should. The Junior guard averages 15.4 point and 4.7 assists per game. He also shoots 89.7% from the free throw line (leads conference), making him an ideal candidate to have the ball late in games. With Marcus Kennedy back and Larry Brown coaching, this team is going to get better.

If this team has an achiles heal it is turnovers. They average 14.6 turnovers a game (worst in AAC), with four players averaging over 2 turnovers a game.

SMU was the biggest snub of the tournament last year. They got angry and almost won the NIT, loosing to a tough Minnesota squad. With a lot of returners this year, expect this team to be ready in the conference tournament this year.

1. UCONN Huskies (6-4, RPI 83, BPI 35)

UCONN has played the fewest games in the conference (10). They are two shots short of an 8-2 record. Both Texas and Yale hit game winners against the Huskies, and both Texas and Yale are worse teams than the Huskies. I would make fun of the Yale loss, but then UCONN fans would flood the comment box with 2014 Harvard comments.

UCONN has had the hardest schedule in the conference so far (SOS 29). They are third in the conference in scoring margin (+7.9), despite their tough schedule. They still have a chance to boost their non-conference record with upcoming games against Stanford and Florida.

The Huskies rely heavily on Senior Ryan Boatright, as they should. He enters conference play averaging 19.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.9 steals. His jerky play is a nightmare for defenders. UCONN fans are going to hate this, but I thought Boatright was the best player on the team last year. He just impacts the game in too many ways and is a matchup nightmare.

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The surprise this year has been Freshman Daniel Hamilton. Yes, he was the ranked the 89th recruit by ESPN, but I don't think most people expected his impact to be so immediate. He is averaging 11.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.4 assist (though most of his assist came from an 11 assist performance against Coppin State).

The Huskies also lean on Amida Brimah, who averages 12.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks (2nd in conference) in just 26 minutes. Brimah seems to be feasting on the weak. He scored a monstrous 40 on Coppin State, but only 4 against Texas and laid a goose egg against Duke - where he got into serious foul trouble. Brimah needs to step up in the big games and stay out of foul trouble if UCONN is to make any noise in the tournament this year. So far though, I am more impressed with Freshman Daniel Hamilton. A repeat national championship is unlikely, but the team they won it with last year was far from the best in the country. It is March "Madness" for a reason... can't wait.

Awards

Player of the Year (POY): Ryan Boatright (UCONN)

Defensive POY: Austin Nichols (Memphis)

Freshman of the Year: Gary Clark (Cincinnati) or Daniel Hamilton (UCONN)

Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy (Temple)

Should be a fun conference season... American Rising.

-Daniele "Da" Bologna