By: Taylor Wilson, KCOU Sports
It’s been another transition year for the American Athletic Conference. After holding claim to a national title through Connecticut a year ago, the AAC lost Louisville and Rutgers to the ACC and Big Ten respectively in the offseason, replacing them with the likes of Tulsa, East Carolina, and Tulane.
While far from the deepest league in the country, the American could send four or more teams dancing when names are called out this Sunday. While SMU and Cincinnati should be assured tournament places regardless of what happens this weekend, Temple and Tulsa rest in the heart of the bubble, making these next few days extremely important. Elsewhere, Connecticut and Memphis hope they’ll be slept on just enough to possibly win the tournament and gain access to an automatic bid.
When: March 12-15
Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT
Where to Watch: ESPN family of networks
No. 8 East Carolina (6-12, 13-18) vs. No. 9 UCF (5-13, 12-17)
After going an underwhelming 7-6 through a mediocre non-conference schedule, the Pirates lost six of their first seven conference games and looked poised to be one of the worst teams in the American. The heart of the conference schedule brought brighter days as they went 5-4 and took down Cincinnati and Memphis. Perhaps more importantly, that stretch saw ECU beat Central Florida twice, a bad omen for the Knights. UCF’s two leading scorers are freshmen, guards BJ Taylor (12.5 ppg) and Adonys Henriquez (10.6 ppg). Young scoring isn’t a stranger to ECU, who are led by freshman guard BJ Tyson (12.5 ppg)
Prediction: It’s hard to argue against the Pirates’ domination of UCF in the regular season, where they beat the Knights 67-49 and 71-66. East Carolina
No. 7 Tulane (6-12, 15-15) vs. No. 10 Houston (4-14, 12-18)
Tulane hasn’t made an NCAA appearance since 1995, a drought that, barring a miracle, won’t come to an end in 2015. One step toward accomplishing that miracle is in the books, as the Green Wave get to avoid SMU until the Championship game. In order to pull off the rest, Tulane will need junior guard Louis Dabney (13.7 ppg) to show shades of his performance in Tulsa on February 25 when he scored 32 points on 10-19 shooting, rather than his most recent outing at South Florida, when he only managed 8 points off a 2-11 showing from the field. The Cougars were the second-worst team in the conference for a reason: they rank 332nd in the country in team field goal percentage (.392) and only average 64.8 ppg. They did, however, finish the season on a three-game winning streak, including an overtime win at Tulane on March 4.
Prediction: Houston’s sneaky win in New Orleans last week should give them a level of confidence that they can play with Tulane. That said, when all the pieces are clicking, it’s hard to go against Tulane in this one.
No. 6 Connecticut (10-8, 17-13) vs. No. 11 USF (3-15, 9-22)
UConn expected to take a step down from last year’s national championship-winning side after losing Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels to the pros but no one saw this coming. Senior guard Ryan Boatright has been phenomenal (17.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.0 apg) but the supporting cast hasn’t chipped in the way Kevin Ollie would like. South Florida lost 14 of its last 16 and hasn’t beaten a team in the top half of the conference.
Prediction: Benefitting from a home crowd in Hartford and superior talent, the Huskies should roll South Florida.
No. 1 SMU (15-3, 24-6) vs. No. 8 East Carolina (6-12, 13-18)
After losing touted recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to China and junior forward Markus Kennedy to injury for the first half of the season, Southern Methodist should feel good about where they ended up. The Mustangs beat Wyoming and Michigan before rolling through conference play, with only a sweep to Cincinnati and a loss at UConn as their league losses. Junior guard Nic Moore is maybe the best point guard in the conference and they can beat you inside with Yanick Moreira and Markus Kennedy.
Prediction: It’s hard to see a scenario where the Mustangs don’t at least make the semifinals, much less win the tournament. They won’t bow out here. SMU
No. 4 Temple (13-5, 22-9) vs. No. 5 Memphis (10-8, 18-13)
Much of Temple’s season when discussed at the national stage has revolved around a game on December 22, when they hammered the Kansas Jayhawks 77-52. The win catapulted the Owls into NCAA Tournament talks and was the second in a six game winning streak. The latter half of the season was a bit tougher to dissect. Despite going 10-2 to finish the season, Temple went 1-5 against the league’s top 3 (SMU, Tulsa, Cincinnati) and hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent since Kansas. Memphis will hope forwards Austin Nichols and Shaq Goodwin can take advantage of playing a team that doesn’t have a big man among their top three scorers.
Prediction: A Memphis win wouldn’t shock and is probably the last thing the conference wants as it would knock a bubble team out of contention. Ultimately, Temple’s win at Memphis in the teams’ lone meeting of the season shows they should be able to repeat on neutral ground. Temple
No.2 Tulsa (14-4, 21-9) vs. No. 7 Tulane (6-12, 15-15)
It’s been an inconsistent but largely successful first season for Frank Haith in charge at Tulsa. The former Missouri boss has headed a group that swept Temple and Memphis but couldn’t find a win in two well-fought games with SMU. If the Golden Hurricane can get junior guard James Woodard (14.9 ppg) going like he did when he dropped 30 in a loss at SMU earlier this week, they could roll Tulane.
Prediction: In a battle of two brightly colored water systems, the Hurricane should come out on top. Tulsa
No. 3 Cincinnati (13-5, 22-9) vs. No. 6 Connecticut (10-8, 17-13)
Very little separated these former Big East rivals in conference play: Uconn won in Hartford 62-56, while the Bearcats took it 70-58 on their home floor. Not unlike past teams, this year’s Cincy side is one of the worst offensive teams in the country, averaging 62.6 ppg, with only one scorer posting double digits (Octavius Ellis, 10.0 ppg). That said, they can be extremely frustrating to play against. Just ask Larry Brown whose Mustangs got swept by Cincinnati in the regular season. It’s that pedigree against the league’s best that should worry the Nutmeg State.
Prediction: Connecticut’s home court factor will play a role in every game they play this tournament. All logic points to Cincy but I’m taking UConn in an upset on essentially their home floor.
No. 1 SMU (15-3, 24-6) vs. No. 4 Temple (13-5, 22-9)
Despite getting swept in the regular season, Temple lost by single digits in both meetings with SMU this year and blew 7+ point halftime leads in both contests. If the Owls play a 40-minute game, don’t count them out. They’ll need to contain Markus Kennedy who dropped 21 in their first exchange.
Prediction: Temple’s playing for more this week than SMU and that could make them dangerous. Ultimately, there are just too many pieces for the Mustangs to fall before the championship game. SMU
No.2 Tulsa (14-4, 21-9) vs. No. 6 Connecticut (10-8, 17-13)
Despite splitting the season series, the Huskies demolished Tulsa last time out, 70-45 in Hartford. Boatright scored 23 in that one, while his supporting pieces, Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis scored 11 and 17. Maybe more importantly, Tulsa’s James Woodard went 0-7 from the field and didn’t score a single point in 24 minutes. If those numbers come anywhere near reality this weekend, there’s no reason UConn will lose this matchup.
No. 1 SMU (15-3, 24-6) vs. No. 6 Connecticut (10-8, 17-13)
After killing UConn 73-55 in Dallas, SMU fell 81-73 in Hartford on March 1. That game provided the blueprint for a potential Husky upset to stamp a ticket to the big dance. Rodney Purvis scored a career-high 28 that night and Larry Brown admitted afterwards the Mustangs had trouble defending Connecticut on the perimeter. If that’s the case here, expect the Huskies in the NCAA Tournament.
Prediction: UConn has underperformed this season and its supporting scorers are coming together at the right time but SMU is too good. Both teams have outside shooters but SMU has an edge inside with Yanick Moreira superior to Amida Brimah. SMU