Men’s American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview

By Mike Bachini – CBS Connecticut

Connecticut (CBS) – The American Athletic Conference Tournament starts today at 3:30 at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. The conference isn’t as deep as it has been in years past, but there are still plenty of quality teams playing that will lead to exciting games through the weekend.

The teams (In order of seed)

#1 SMU Mustangs (27-4, 17-1)

Notes

SMU rolled through the AAC this season with their lone loss coming at Cincinnati by two points on January 12th. Twelve of their seventeen wins have come by ten points or more.

Why they will win

SMU has the best starting five in the conference. They are very balanced and have three players who average more than 6.5 rebounds per game.

Why they won’t win

They aren’t the deepest team as only seven players play significant minutes, which could hurt them in a format that forces them to play three games in three days.

Player to watch

Junior Forward Semi Ojeleye. Ojeleye, a Duke transfer, averaged 18.5 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game. He was especially dominant at times, most notably when he scored 30 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and hit 4 three pointers at Temple.

X Factor

Three point shooting. The Mustangs have four players that average at or around 43% from downtown.

 

#2 Cincinnati Bearcats (27-4, 16-2)

Notes

Cincinnati was headed towards a share of the regular season title until they slipped up at UCF on February 26th, 53-49. That loss and a loss at SMU are the Bearcats only two losses since December 10th.

Why they will win

Because nine times out of ten they are tougher than their opponents. Cincinnati has this uncanny ability to grind down their opponents and make a basketball game miserable.

Why they won’t win

Sometimes Cincinnati finds themselves in an offensive funk. If they are the team that scored 49 points against UCF or the team that scored 51 against SMU it will be hard to win, no matter how tough their defense plays.

Player to watch

Junior Forward Kyle Washington. Washington is another ACC transfer, from North Carolina State. When Washington goes, so does Cincinnati with the lone exception being the neutral court loss to Rhode Island at Mohegan Sun. When Washington struggles, so does Cincinnati. In Cincinnati’s three losses not counting Rhode Island, Washington averaged just over 8 points per game (5 below his season average) and shot 26% from the floor (his season average was 51%).

X Factor

Depth. While Cincinnati really only has 6 offensive contributors, they have 9 players in their rotation. This will come in handy if they make it to Sunday and are playing in the third game of a back to back to back.

 

#3 Houston Cougars (21-9, 12-6)

Notes

Houston has looked very good at times this season for example when they beat Uconn on the road by 16 points. They also have two very good out of conference wins against Rhode Island and Vermont this season. They have also lost all 4 games to the top two teams in the league by a combined 58 points.

Why they will win

Getting through Cincinnati in the semifinal and SMU in the final will be extremely tough, but you know how the old adage goes. It’s hard to beat the same team three times in a season.

Player to watch

Senior Guard Damyean Dotson. Dotson is, you guessed it, another transfer. Dotson had well publicized off court issues at Oregon but has found a home in Houston the past two seasons. Dotson is second on the team in scoring and leads the team in rebounds and field goal percentage.

X Factor

Houston’s desire to make a lasting impression on the selection committee before Sunday. Houston is currently on the bubble, and a deep run to the AAC final coupled with some other teams falling in their respective tournaments (Syracuse, Rhode Island, Kansas State) could push the Cougars over the edge and into the tournament.

 

#4 Central Florida Knights (20-10, 11-7)

Notes

UCF enters the tournament on a five game winning streak which includes a four point win at home over Cincinnati. They started strong as well, winning five of their first six with wins over Temple and Houston. It was the middle where the Knights struggled. At one point they lost six out of seven.

Why they will win

UCF is a tough match up for any team (more on that below). They lost to SMU by five and they split with Cincinnati. They are definitely a team that could win this whole thing and steal a bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Why they won’t win

1. Foul shooting. Five players who play significant minutes shoot less than 70% from the foul line.

2. Turnovers. UCF averages 15 turnovers a game. That’s 4-5 more a game than the top three teams above.

Player to watch

Sometimes the easy answer is the right answer and that is the case here. It’s Sophomore Center Tacko Fall. Fall, 7′-6″ from Senegal, is a must watch. He only plays 26 minutes a game. If he played any more he’d have fouled out in half of his games. Limiting his minutes has resulted in him fouling out one time all season. He’s been very close other times finishing seven games with 4 fouls. His scoring and rebounding was better in non conference (14.7 PPG, 12.3 RPG) as most teams didn’t have the best scouting report on him while conference opponents had a better grasp on how to handle him from last season (8.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG). Still – it’s not often you get to watch a 7′-6″ 300 pounder with goggles run up and down the court.

X Factor

Streaking. If UCF can continue to ride their current hot streak, they can do some damage. If they turn into the team that lost 6 out of 7 in the middle of conference play, their season will end in the quarter finals against Memphis.

#5 Memphis Tigers (19-12, 9-9)

Notes

This is Tubby Smith’s first season as head coach of the Tigers, after stops in Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas Tech. Smith led all five of those programs to the NCAA tournament and is only one of two coaches to accomplish that feat along with Lon Kruger. If Smith is to break that record this season, Memphis will have to win the AAC tournament and win the league’s automatic bid into the tournament.

Why they will win

Did I mention Tubby Smith has a lot of experience getting to the NCAA Tournament? He won a national title with Kentucky in 1998 and probably never should have been fired in Lexington with the results his teams had. He has 576 total wins as a head coach with a 67% winning percentage. I’d put him up against any of the coaches in this league.

Why they won’t win

If you buy in to how well UCF is playing down the stretch, you also have to buy in to how poorly Memphis is playing down the stretch. they’ve lost 5 of their last 6 including a 41 point loss at SMU in the regular season finale.

Player to watch

Sophomore Forward Dedric Lawson. Lawson is .1 rebounds away from averaging a double double this season. Lawson has gone over 15 points and 10 rebounds in the same contest 18 times this season.

X Factor

Although they didn’t really show it in conference this season, the Tigers do have the ability to play well against good teams. They beat Iowa on a neutral court, beat South Carolina at home and lost to Monmouth by 3 and SMU by 4. If that team shows up, they can make a run at the title.

 

#6 Connecticut (14-16, 9-9)

Notes

This has been a trying year for Kevin Ollie and the Huskies. Right out of the gate they lost their first two games to Wagner and Northeastern at home and before they could right the ship, they lost two of their top 4 leading scorers for the season to injuries. Their depth has been tested often this season and after a little bit of a run, the Huskies have faltered down the stretch.

Why they will win

They still have talented players and a coach who has won at the highest level.

Why they won’t win

They have the ability to go ice cold from the field from time to time.

Player to watch

Senior Guard Rodney Purvis. When Purvis shoots over 35% from the floor the Huskies are 10-5, 4-11 when he does not. He has the ability to go 17-31 from three point land like he did during a 4 game winning streak, but he can also be the player who went 2-20 from three in back to back games against Auburn and Houston.

X Factor

This one is pretty obvious. The tournament is being held in Uconn’s home away from home, the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. If the fans show up and Uconn responds to being the de facto home team, they have a shot.

 

#7 Tulsa Golden Hurricane (14-16, 8-10)

Notes

Tulsa lost a ton of talent from last year’s 20 win NCAA tournament team and it showed this season. They could be a team to take seriously next season as they have the potential to return their top 3 scorers and 8 of their top 9 scorers overall. Coach Frank Haith would love to build some momentum heading in to next season.

Why they will win

They have beaten everyone in the league not named SMU or Cincinnati. If they get by Tulane to start, their next opponent would be Cincinnati. Win that one and the confidence starts to build and next thing you know you’re in the semifinals. It’s a tall task, but crazier things have happened.

Why they won’t win

For the exact reason stated above. They’ll need to get past Cincinnati in their second game. Tulsa lost by 20 to Cincinnati the only time the two teams met this season.

Player to watch

Junior Forward Junior Etou. Etou is playing in his first season with Tulsa after playing his first two seasons with Rutgers. Etou is shooting nearly 50% from the floor and 44% from three point range. Add on top of that his 78% free throw shooting and Etou is a guy who doesn’t see the ball miss the net very often.

X Factor

Depth. Tulsa has 9 players that average more than 10 minutes per game and all contribute in one shape or form. If they do get past Cincinnati, that will go a long way come Saturday.

 

#8 Temple Owls (16-15, 7-11)

Notes

It’s been a very very odd season for the Owls. Temple has the two best out of conference wins in the whole AAC having beaten both Florida State and West Virginia on a neutral court on back to back days Thanksgiving weekend to win the NIT Season Tip-Off. After beating Yale on December 22nd Temple was 9-4 and looked like a team that could be considered a top 4 team in the league. The Owls proceeded to go 7-11 the rest of the way including some stretches where they weren’t that competitive at all. They’ve lost six conference games by 13 or more points.

Why they will win

As stated above, they have the ability to beat just about anyone. Florida State and West Virginia are better than Cincinnati and SMU and those two wins were on a neutral court just like this tournament will be. So why not?

Why they won’t win

Because the best thing about their conference season was a sweep over Memphis. SMU swept them, Cincinnati swept them, UCF swept them, Uconn swept them and they lost their only meetings to Tulsa and Houston.

Player to watch

Junior Forward Obi Enechionyia. Enechionyia started the season red hot from three point land. Out of conference he was 45% from three, in conference he was down to 34% from three including a 1-10 performance at Uconn. In his last three games he is 11-25 however, which just goes to show you how bad the middle part of his conference season was. He averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds in Temple’s wins over WVU and FSU.

X Factor

The three pointer. Five players have hit at least 21 three point attempts and four of them have hit at least 45. If Temple starts draining them from the outside, they can stay competitive.

 

#9 East Carolina Pirates (14-17, 6-12)

Notes

The Pirates hold the honor as the only team that South Florida beat in conference play this season. South Florida beat East Carolina 64-57 back on February 11th. They also lost to SMU by a combined 71 points in their two meetings this season. They do have wins over Uconn, Memphis and Temple so they were competitive against the middle of the conference at times.

Why they will win

It’s really hard to predict a conference championship for the Pirates knowing that if they get past Temple (which they can as proven by their victory over the Owls earlier in the season) a 3rd game against SMU awaits them. But hey, if they get past the Mustangs and pull of the biggest upset of the tournament, anything is possible after that.

Why they won’t win

Facing SMU in the 2nd round. When you lose by an average of 30.5 points to your 2nd round opponent in your first two meetings, it’s really a stat that’s hard to look past.

Player to watch

Sophomore Guard Kentrell Barkley. Barkley led the team in points and rebounds this season and has scored in double figures in 12 of the last 14 games including five double doubles. He’s also drastically improved his free throw shooting in the past 8 games shooting it at 77% during that time as opposed to 68% from the line during the whole season combined.

X Factor

Junior Guard B.J. Tyson. Tyson scored in double figures in 13 of the team’s first 18 games before going down with a knee injury against Houston on January 11th. He missed the next 7 games before returning to action on February 15th against Temple. He’s only averaged 13.5 minutes per game and 6 points per game since his return however. If he can be the scorer he was at the beginning of the season and all of last season, he gives the Pirates a fighting chance.

 

#10 Tulane Green Wave (6-24, 3-15)

Notes

Before beating Tulsa to end the season, Tulane’s only two conference wins came against last place South Florida. They did give SMU a scare in Dallas on February 15th when they led at the half by 15 points only to lose in the end by 5.

Why they will win

By holding on to that 15 point lead when they play SMU in the championship game. They will have to win three games before they get there, but that’s besides the point.

Why they won’t win. 

They are a minus 101 in point differential against all of their potential opponents (Tulsa, Cincinnati, Houston, Uconn) not named South Florida in their games leading up to the hypothetical championship game against SMU.

Player to watch

Junior Guard Cameron Reynolds. Reynolds leads the team in points and rebounds and was fantastic (23 points, 8 rebounds) in that match up against SMU.

X Factor

Playing with absolutely nothing to lose. They just beat Tulsa, so there’s no reason to believe they can’t do it again in their first match up. Maybe they catch Cincinnati slipping in the 2nd game?

 

#11 South Florida (7-22, 1-17)

Notes

It’s been such an overwhelmingly bad season in Tampa for the Bulls. The season started with Sophomore guard Jahmal McMurray being suspended for the first six games. He then returned to average 20.3 in his next three games, before announcing his intentions to transfer from the program. 4 games after all of that, South Florida let head coach Orlando Antigua go half way through his 3rd season with the school. They’ve gone 1-15 since.

Why they will win

The only chance the Bulls have of winning this tournament is if Anthony Collins, Victory Rudd, and Augustus Gilchrist from the Bulls last NCAA tournament team five years ago suit up.

Why they won’t win

Because they went 1-17 in conference play and were competitive in only a handful of them.

Player to watch

Junior Guard Geno Thorpe. Thorpe led the team in scoring (McMurray’s three games notwithstanding), was first on the team in free throw shooting and second on the team in three point shooting.

X Factor

History. History will be made if South Florida tops Uconn, Houston, Cincinnati and SMU.

 

Follow Mike Bachini on Twitter @MikeBachini for AAC tournament updates.

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