Wait? There are 3 Good Teams?: American Athletic Power Rankings

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

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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

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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

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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.

3. Houston

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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

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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.

1. Cincinnati

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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.

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It’s the Jayhawks’ to Lose (as usual) : Big 12 Power Rankings

I know it’s contrite and generic, but I think the best way to get going again on this blog will be through conference power rankings. This works a few ways in mine and potential readers’ favor:

  1. I don’t have to go into crazy detail into posts, which is fair because I don’t have a whole lot of time to commit on these posts.
  2. I can still satiate my own opinions about college basketball while still opening it up to debate from other college basketball fans.
  3. I can discuss many different aspects of college basketball, from the “power” conferences to the “mid-majors” without pretending to be an expert in a “specific” field (which will not be possible due to my limited time…as after-mentioned in point 1).

So, for my first power rankings, I’m going to stay local (as I live in Kansas City) and will go with the conference I have the most direct knowledge of: the Big 12. Again, I am not a college basketball expert or John Feinstein or Andy Katz (is he employed by the way? It’s been nice to not see his articles on ESPN anymore), but just an opinionated college basketball fan with his own passionate and strong takes.

All right, here we go.

Big 12 Power Rankings (as of 2/20)

1. Kansas, 2. Texas Tech

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I know some people will argue that Tech should be no. 1 and Kansas should be No. 2. And to be frank, I understand their argument. This Texas Tech team is a legitimate team, as head coach Chris Beard has done more in two years than the tenures of Tubby Smith, Pat Knight, and the last three years of Bob Knight combined. Tech is in the Big 12 driver’s seat, as they host Kansas in Lubbock down the stretch, and have a bonafide Big 12 player of the year candidate in Keenan Evans, who should probably get the award, but won’t because the writer’s blew their collective wad on Trae Young being the next Stephen Curry too early. Tech also has not lost at home, which bodes well for them in their upcoming matchup this weekend with the Jayhawks.

But…let’s face it. This is KU. They know how to win the regular season, and they know how to bully Big 12 players, coaches, officials and opposing fans when it counts. Udoka Azubike is starting to give Kansas the semblance of a post game as of late, as he has put up big numbers in the last three games after the Baylor loss in Waco. And Tech feels like the kind of game where Devonte’ Graham  and Svi will go nuts and silence a rabid, and maybe closet racist, Lubbock crowd. Beard has been in some big games, but Bill Self has been in more , and Tech seems due for a let down this weekend, especially after they blew one on the road at Baylor as well (making the KU loss not so bad…hey maybe Scott Drew can coach after all).

And because of all those factors, I give KU the edge…barely. But if Tech knocks off the Jayhawks this weekend…well…

Let’s just wait and see.

3. West Virginia, 4. Baylor, 5. Kansas State

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West Virginia and K-State are tied at 8-6 in conference and Baylor is creeping behind barely at 7-7. Baylor is probably the hottest team of the trio, which is why I gave them the fourth spot over K-State even though technically they are behind the Wildcats in the standings. They have big wins over KU and Texas Tech on consecutive Saturdays, and are suddenly in the tournament “should be in” mix after hovering on the “probably out” bubble for weeks. Just think: on January 30th, Baylor was 12-10 and 2-7 in conference after a 2-point loss to Oklahoma. Since then, Baylor has won five straight (including another notable win over Texas), while Oklahoma has dug themselves a deeper and deeper hole in the Big 12. Baylor’s always been a good defensive team, as Drew recruits tall, long guys who can clog up the paint, and force teams to shoot from the outside. Now, they’re getting some semblance of offense, mostly thanks to senior forward Terry Maston, who has scored 20-plus in three out of five games this February. I don’t know if Baylor will do much in March (I don’t think Maston is the kind of scorer who can carry them in big games in the Tournament), but they look primed for a strong finish leading up to the Big 12 Championship.

West Virginia is the typical Huggy Bear team. They’re tough defensively, they have some athleticism, they’re physical, but they really don’t have the kind of standout player that really scares you in the games waning moments. In fact, it’s kind of been like that the past few years for West Virginia: be above average all year, showcase good depth without star talent, put up a good record, probably get a 3-6 seed in the tournament, but really finish the year without a standout victory. If you look at the profile, the Mountaineers just don’t stand out as a real serious Final Four contender compared to KU or Tech: two losses to KU, a loss to Tech, and a loss to a Kentucky team that’s not as powerful as past UK squads. Yes, they have a sweep over Oklahoma, but this is an Oklahoma team that could be a Session 1 Big 12 Championship team, not the Final Four dark horse experts touted a few weeks ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love Huggins and “Press Virginia”. I love that they provide entertaining games, and really put teams on the edge each and every game. But are they going to rise above third in the Big 12 at this point in the year? Most likely not. Get ready for that 5-12 matchup Morgantown (against Marshall perhaps?)

At five, I have K-State listed, and I was tempted to put them down lower. If West Virginia’s resume is unimpressive, K-State’s is downright laughable. Their best win is a road win over Baylor, which was during a run where Baylor was looking at a bubble NIT berth rather than a NCAA one. They also have no good non-conference wins (sorry Vandy), and their KenPom rating (47) would be third-worst in the Big 12 (above only Oklahoma State and Iowa State). I still give the Wildcats the nod at fifth though because they have taken care of business in the Big 12: they beat everyone they’re supposed to, even if they don’t pull off the upsets. Bruce Weber is the Al Davis of the Big 12. For all his faults, he just wins, baby.

However, K-State will have a tough stretch to finish Big 12 play, as they play on the road against desperate Oklahoma and TCU teams, and at home against Texas and Baylor, two teams who are trending upward. Logic tells us that this Bruce Weber-coached team will probably split by some miracle of God (or Weber-esque magic), but it’s not out of the question that they finish 0-4 either, and are playing on Day 1 of the Big 12 Championship, not necessarily a badge of honor.

6. Texas, 7. TCU, 8. Oklahoma

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This is such a weird Shaka Smart team: they play one of the slowest paces in the nation (296th to specific), they have some really good wins (Tech at home, Butler in the PK80), and a lot of not-bad losses (Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan in non-conference). This team doesn’t press much (if at all…what happened to “Havoc“?) and depends on their height, especially freshman center Mohamed Bamba, something Smart teams weren’t really known for at VCU. However, this Texas team does share something in common with Smart’s past teams: defense (though more of a half court, non-pressure type). Texas is ranked 3rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is a big reason why they are still in the Tournament talk even though they don’t have much consistent offensive firepower. I don’t know if Texas will get out of the middle-of-the pack range in the Big 12, but they have some weapons, they are playing harder than they did a year ago (I saw them at the Big 12 Tournament and was thoroughly unimpressedI saw them at the Big 12 Tournament and was thoroughly unimpressed), and they are trending in a better direction than some other squads in the Big 12 (cough…Oklahoma…cough), which is a good sign for Shaka after such a disappointing campaign last year.

TCU has been an interesting team to watch, and it’s sad that Jaylen Fisher went down, which I think hurt their chances from being a NCAA Tournament lock or higher up in the Big 12 standings. The Slovakian center Vladimir Brodziansky has been a beast this year as his 128.0 offensive rating is 26th best in the nation (plus I’m privy to European players, especially European big men). And let’s face it…Jamie Dixon is a hell of a coach. Just look at TCU now compared to the Trent Johnson days, and look how far Pitt has fallen under Kevin Stallings. And lastly, don’t forget that TCU made a run to the Big 12 Championship last year, nearly getting the auto bid into the Tournament. If they can make a similar run, they’ll lock up their first tournament berth in quite some time. They have some problems defensively, but TCU has the coaching chops and offensive firepower to finish the season strong.

Oklahoma has been the biggest head scratcher this year. Accomplished coach? Lon Kruger, so check. Star, Naismith-candidate player? Trae Young, so check. Big wins? Oregon, USC, Wichita State, sweep over TCU, and over Tech. Oklahoma should not be this far down on the power rankings, but February has not been kind to the Sooners. Kruger’s team is 0-6 in games in February so far, and Big 12 defenses have adjusted to Young, and the rest of OU’s team hasn’t done diddly. If there’s one major difference from college and pro ball, it’s that complementary players struggle stepping up when opposing teams shut their star player down. That has been the case for OU, as they have been reliant on Young for so long that they have no idea what to do when he’s not clicking on all cylinders. That was incredibly evident as KU thumped OU 104-74 and held Young to 3 of 13 shooting on Monday night. Will OU miss the tournament? I don’t think so. They have too many good wins, and the media have been on him for so long this season that the tournament committee would be amiss to leave him and the Sooners out. However, they have fallen from grace quickly and they look like a one and done team, not just in the Tournament, but in the Big 12 Championship perhaps as well.

9. Oklahoma State, 10. Iowa State

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It’s been a rebuilding season for both squads, and it’s tough to say much about either. Oklahoma State has surged a bit as of late, with a big upset on the road over KU, but it’s obvious that they’re still in the 8-10 range in conference (a Session 1 Big 12 Tournament team) and smarting from Brad Underwood bailing for Illinois after one year. After two good initial years, Steve Prohm from Iowa State is trying to prove his chops as a coach, and that he’s not just living in Fred Hoiberg’s shadow, and that’s hard to prove in year 3 and you have no shot of making the big dance. That being said, if you look at the whole picture, the Cyclones beat in-state rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa, so they at least have something to hang their hat on this year, even though this Big 12 campaign for them has been a disappointing slog.

There is nothing for fans of both teams to be worried about really when you think about both squads in the long run: nobody really had them as real contenders in the Big 12 in the preseason anyways. Furthermore, while they’re records aren’t great, they aren’t “Pitt-Level” bad by any means. However, it’ll be interesting to see if a good Big 12 Championship run from either squad in a couple of weeks can parlay into some success in 2018-2019 much like TCU a season ago.