The American Conference to me has always been a “Conference USA-Plus” of sorts. It’s not a power conference, but there are some teams who are power conference worthy. UConn won a national title as a member of the American. Cincinnati probably should be in the Big East. Houston was a member of the SWC back in the day and had Phi Slamma Jamma, so they have tradition, but they have never seemed to get over hiring Clyde Drexler as head coach. To make matters worse, they don’t have the “factors” that make mid-majors special. They aren’t all Catholic schools like the Big East, WCC or MAAC. They aren’t really united by geographic proximity or natural rivalries (ask Bob Diaco about trying to manufacture rivalries). So the conference has really gone under-the-radar, especially since Louisville left for the ACC.
But, surprisingly, the American has been one of the best (if not arguably the best) non-power conferences this season (they are ranked the 7th strongest conference in the nation by Ken Pom). That is mostly due to three teams: Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, who all have 20-plus wins, and are ranked in KenPom’s top 20 (5, 14, 19, respectively).
So let’s take a look at the American Athletic Power Rankings, this time starting from the bottom and finishing at the top, since it’s more interesting at the top and we like to save the best for last.
10. Tulane, 11. East Carolina, 12. South Florida
All three programs have had recent coaching changes in the past couple of years. Tulane is in year 2 of the Mike Dunleavy era, which has been low on “Jail Blazer” antics and Clipper clubhouse chaos, but still high on big, 90’s esque suits. Surprisingly, they have taken a big step up from year 1, as the Green Wave has won 13 games this year after winning only 6 in Dunleavy’s college debut. Tulane was considered as a borderline NIT team earlier in the year, as they were 9-3 in non-conference play and were 13-8 at one point before losing 5 straight games. Tulane’s probably a .500 or slightly below team, but they play an up-tempo brand of basketball (highest tempo team in the AAC), and could get be more competitive in 2018-2019 if Dunleavy continues this trend and stays put (which is likely as I don’t think any NBA team will be calling for his mid-range, 90’s style of ball).
East Carolina and South Florida are going through typical first-year blues with new coaches Michael Perry, and Brian Gregory, respectively. Perry last coached at Georgia State and has done what is expected at ECU in basketball: play mediocre ball and get double digit wins (they are 10-15 so far). But, considering that’s the tradition for the Pirates, nobody can blame him. As for USF, it is weird that Gregory is still coaching a “somewhat” high level team. And much like his previous stop (Georgia Tech), he hasn’t found much success initially (they are 8-20 and 1-14 in conference). Did you know that in his 13 years as a head coach he has only made the Tournament twice? (Both with Dayton; no appearances with Georgia Tech). Not sure if Gregory is going to be the right guy in Tampa, but when you look at who’s been there (Seth Greenberg, Orlando Antigua, Ray McCallum, Steve Masiello for like a day), it looks likely that it’s more of a “program” rather than a “coach” thing.
7. Temple, 8. SMU, 9. UConn
If I could categorize these three, I would label them as the “disappointment trio”. These are teams who should be better than what they have been in 2017-2018.
Temple has bee typical “Temple” this year. They have those “good wins” that make you think “Hey! They’re a good team! I can’t wait to see them in March!” In non-conference, they have beaten Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina (woo! They own South Carolina!), Wisconsin, Old Dominion and St. Joseph’s. In conference, they have beaten Wichita State at home. If you look at those wins, you would be tempted to think that Temple is in the top 4 of the conference and competing for an at-large spot.
But the losses? Oh boy they are bad. Losses to La Salle and George Washington, both mediocre teams in a mediocre Atlantic 10 this season. They also lost by 10 at home to Tulane, 21 on the road to UCF (where they scored 39 points), and in OT at home to Memphis, who may be the worst Memphis team since John Calipari’s first year. The lack of consistency has just haunted Fran Murphy in his tenure at Temple, and this year has been no different.
SMU has also been wildly inconsistent under Tim Jankovic, who is starting to see some of the luster wear off since Larry Brown bolted/got pushed out of Dallas. Much like Tulane, SMU had an impressive 10-3 mark in non-conference play, and were 15-7 going at the end of January. However, 5 straight losses in February has sunk SMU from possible bubble tournament team to possible bubble NIT team. Injuries have hurt this squad for sure, but it’s sad to see that SMU, which a couple of years ago looked like they were rising as a program, stagnate so sharply over the second half of the season.
As for UConn, it’s only a matter of time before the Huskies let Kevin Ollie go. This team has just played uninspired ball all season, and that’s evident in their 13-14 record with its best win over a down Oregon team. Yes, he has a national title, which at UConn is no easy matter (it took Jim Calhoun a while to get his first one). But look at the whole profile: Ollie has only made the tournament twice in his tenure in Storrs, and his team has steadily declined since winning the title (they ranked 96th according to KP last year and are an abysmal 169th this year). I like Ollie, and think he probably will be in the NBA coaching sometime next year, but I think he’s a dead man walking, and it will only be a matter of time before we see someone else in the UConn driver’s seat. Tom Crean, perhaps? Maybe Rick Pitino?
4. Tulsa, 5. UCF, 6. Memphis
We’re now in the “NIT-bubble” zone. These teams have been competitive and have showed glances of promise throughout the year. But let’s face it: nobody is considering these squads for Tournament berths.
Frank Haith has basically been the Bruce Weber of the AAC. His Golden Hurricane has performed better than the numbers say they should. They are fourth in the AAC, even though they rank below three teams according to Ken Pom (they are 119th). They aren’t a great offensive team, not a great defensive team. There best win is over K-State (Irony!!) and they don’t really have a star player. But damn, the Golden Hurricane and Haith just win baby. They’re 16-10 now, and should be favored in 3 out of 4 games down the stretch (the lone one is Cincy), so it’s not out of the question that Tulsa can win 20 games this year (including AAC Tourney play) even though they won’t get any serious consideration for an at-large Tournament berth.
Johnny Dawkins has taken over UCF and given them an identity: which is boring, defensive-oriented basketball which he was known for at Stanford. (It’s so weird that he’s like this considering he’s a Dukie…oh wait!) According to KP, UCF is the fourth best defensive team in the nation according to defensive rating. Yes, you read that right. Dawkins has turned UCF into Charlottesville-South, but replacing the protesting White Supremacists on their campus with gorgeous co-eds. So there’s a lot to like from Dawkins’ first year. A good record (17-9), an identity as a team (though on the flip side, their offense is ranked 279th in the nation…yikes), and co-eds! Way to bounce back after the Stanford fiasco Johnny!
As for Memphis, I can understand why the Tigers would settled on Tubby Smith, who’s in his second year as the Tigers’ head coach. Smith is a “grandpa” sorts of coach. He does things the right way. He gets good, not great talent, though sometimes he’ll luck out with a recruit here and there. (Rajon Rondo, Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince, Saul Smith…wait Saul Smith wasn’t highly recruited?) After living through the ups and downs of two hucksters (Calipari and Josh Pastner) I can imagine why the athletic department would go this route. Tubby is safe and after recruiting violations and vacated Final Fours, safe is what they maybe needed for the time being. But damn…Memphis is boring…and mediocre. 16-11, 7-7 in conference, 159th in Ken Pom, and their best win is over 76th ranked SMU. Remember Derrick Rose? Remember Tyreke Evans? Remember Joey Dorsey? Hell…remember Dajuan Wagner? We haven’t see any of those flashes this year Tiger fans, and it’s not going to be like that either for a while as long as Tubby is the coach.
Let’s just say we shouldn’t be surprised. Yes, their loss to a 263rd rated Drexel team wasn’t good, and may have gotten college basketball fans off the scent of this Cougars team early. And yes, all the basketball noise in Houston centers on James Harden and Mike D’Antoni and “seven seconds or less Morey-ball”. But this is Kelvin Sampson, who is arguably one of the most successful coaches in Oklahoma history. This is Kelvin Sampson, who knows how to get talent, and turn around programs. This is Kelvin Sampson, who won 20 plus games the last two years with the Cougars leading up to this season.
Maybe we should have seen this coming.
At 21-5, Houston has the profile of a dark horse Sweet 16 contender. They have the 14th best defense according to Ken Pom, and a good overall rating (they are rated 19th). They have a senior point guard in Rob Gray who is a dark horse for AAC player of the year. They have quality wins over Arkansas, Wichita State, Providence, and Cincy.
Don’t fall asleep on them any further. Good Kelvin is back (just waiting for the shoe to drop on Bad “recruiting violation maestro” Kelvin). And Houston is dangerous, not just for the rest of the year in the AAC, but in the Tournament as well.
2. Wichita State
Gregg Marshall continues to be atop the coaching game in college basketball, and the Koch brothers continue to shell out big bucks to keep him there, winning games in Wichita, where Shocker basketball is the biggest, baddest (and only) thing to do in Southeast Kansas. Marshall continues to attribute his team’s success to his “Shaka Smart” style: a gritty underdog team who will play hard for 40 minutes on the court, especially against bigger team with bigger name recruits. That was especially clear on Saturday, as the Shockers went on the road, and beat a much more heralded Bearcat team (though the game wasn’t played at their usual home court, so I’m sure Cincy fans will complain about that).
The ironic thing about the Shockers this season though is statistically, this is one of the weaker defensive teams in Marshall’s tenure. Their 75th ranked adjusted defensive rating is the lowest for Marshall since 2009 when Wichita State’s defense was ranked in the 100’s and went 17-17. That’s not a ding on this team. They’re good, have a legitimate player of the year candidate in Shaq Morris, and still follow for the most part the mold of what a successful Shocker team looks like (their defense is not mediocre, but more just inconsistent). But it does make you wonder about this team, and if they are as ready for March as some of the Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early-led teams of the past. Teams with huge differences in offensive-defensive ratings tend to be vulnerable in the Tournament (either offense goes south or defense gets exposed), and unfortunately the Shockers fit that type this season.
It may be easy to jump on the Shockers to the Final Four bandwagon after their win over the Bearcats. But I would cool the jets just a bit. They have a serious shot to win the American regular and/or Tournament title. But serious NCAA run? That’s a little harder to predict with this atypical Marshall squad.
It’s Cronin-ball per usual, and unlike Marshall (where what we see on the court doesn’t necessarily match up with the numbers) the stats ring true with Cronin. Cronin’s teams are known to be physical and defensive-oriented with just enough offense to win. Cronin’s team once again is one of the top defensive squads in the nation (no. 2), and actually is better than usual on offense (51). Thus, it makes sense that Cincy is a borderline Top-10 team to most experts.
Cincy probably has the most star power in the conference, with three great players in Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington carrying this Bearcats squad. Cincy also has good wins, as they obliterated UCLA on the road, and beat a “better than you think” Mississippi State team (coached by Ben Howland who has rebounded since he fizzled out at UCLA). So, Cronin has the production. He has the star power. He has the big game experience. Will this be the year he gets Cincy over the hump and into the Final Four?
It’s still a question mark with Cronin at the helm. Cronin’s a solid coach and has emerged from Bob Huggins’ shadow. However, he is a fiery dude, and isn’t surprising that his fieriness gets in the way of Cincy’s success at times. It feels like Cronin loses his composure in big moments, and his team feeds off that and loses theirs as well. You could argue that was the case against Xavier, as JP Macura seemed to get under the skin of Cronin (though many would argue that wasn’t until the end of the game, I guarantee you Macura was goading Cronin and the Bearcats frequently during the game). It took a while for Huggins to manage his composure and not let it get the best of him, both at Cincy and at WVU. Cronin will need to do the same, especially important considering Cincy is coming off two straight losses to Houston and Wichita State, with aspirations still to compete for a 2 seed in the Tourney or higher. They need to finish strong both in the regular season and AAC Tournament to make that happen, and a composed Cronin is a step in the right direction to making that happen.