AAC Tournament Preview
The American Athletic Conference Tournament kicks off tomorrow at FedEx Forum in Memphis. The conference currently has four locks into the NCAA Tournament, according to Joe Lunardi. But it is tournament time and the excitement of playing your way into the big dance is what it’s all about for those teams on the bubble, or completely outside the bubble.
The four locks are the top four seeds in the conference tournament. They all have byes and won’t see action until Friday.
1) Houston– The Cougars come into the conference tournament as the No. 11 ranked team in the country with a record of 29-2. They went 19-1 this year at home, and 10-1 on the road. They also finished the regular season 3-0 versus the Top 25. Their overall strength of schedule however is 95 according to Kenpom, and that may be what has them on the three line, according to Lunardi’s Bracketology. They have beat some quality teams though with early season wins over Oregon and LSU. Their two losses were at Temple, and two weeks ago to UCF. But they also come into the conference tourney hot, having destroyed No. 20 Cincinnati on Sunday by the score of 85-69, to secure the AAC regular season title. Houston is deep and athletic. They score right at 80 ppg, while holding teams to 61 ppg, which is good for 10th best in the country. They also take and make a lot of three’s, which will make them a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament.
2) Cincinnati– Mick Cronin has continued the tradition of Bearcat basketball that was hot in the 90’s under Bob Huggins. The physical, wear-you-down and make it hard to score style that Huggins was known for at Cincinnati has continued under Cronin. The Bearcats only give up 62 ppg, which is 11th best in the country. But Cronin is also recruiting scorers at a high level too. In addition to Sean Kilpatrick, who is now in the NBA, Cronin also has the last two reigning AAC Player of the Years’. Last season it was Gary Clark, and today it was announced that Jarron Cumberland is the 2018-2019 AAC Player of the Year. The Bearcats are 25-6 overall and 14-4 in conference play this year. Other than Houston having their number this year, the Bearcats play their style and don’t beat themselves. They lost an in-state rival game to start the year to Ohio State, then won nine in-a-row before falling at Mississippi State, who Lanardi currently has as a six seed. They also lost one possession games at ECU, and UCF. This team goes with the AAC POY, Jarron Cumberland. In the recent loss against UCF, Cumberland only scored 10 points in 36 minutes while shooting 5-18.
3) Temple– The Owls are in the big dance as of now with an 11 seed according to Lunardi. They are 23-8 overall, and 13-5 in the AAC. They are led by another AAC Player of the Year candidate in Shizz Alston Jr. Alston scores right at 20 ppg, while shooting 40% from the field. Fran Dunphy has an experienced team that can score and has a lot of size. They also don’t tend to beat themselves and have multiple guys that can carry the load from night-to-night. Alston is a 6’4 senior, Ernest Aflakpui is a 6’10 senior, Damion Moore is a 6’11 junior, and Quinton Rose is a 6’8 junior. Their size and length also leads to turnovers as Temple is one of the top teams in the country forcing turnovers with right at nine steals per game. They can be a little streaky as shown with losses at home this year to VCU and Penn, neither of which are horrible losses, but does show some vulnerability from time to time. Much like Cincinnati, this team goes with their leading scorer, Shizz Alston.
4) UCF– According to Joe Lunardi, UCF is holding their ticket to the big dance a little more comfortably than Temple. Lunardi currently has the Knights as an eight seed. Their strength of schedule is a little better than Houston’s at 83, and winning at Houston, then beating Cincinnati in the last two weeks has really helped their cause. They are 23-7 overall, and finished 13-5 in conference. First things first, if you haven’t seen UCF play, just a heads up, yeah… number 24 is that huge. He is 7’6 senior, Tacko Fall. He averages 11 points, 7 boards, and over 2 blocks per game. Another senior, B.J. Taylor, leads the team in scoring with 16 ppg. Aubrey Dawkins and Terrell Allen also shoot the ball well and are capable scorers. Although the Knights have been hot lately, they have also been streaky throughout the year with early losses to Florida Atlantic and Missouri. They also got destroyed in the same building the conference tournament is at, the FedEx Forum in Memphis back in January. Of their seven losses this year, the loss at the hands of Memphis was their worst, 77-57. Should Memphis beat Tulane on Thursday, the Knights would get their chance at redemption by playing the Tigers on Friday in the quarterfinals.
As for the rest of the field, you have to look right into the Eye of the Tiger, at the host team, the Memphis Tigers. With first year head coach Penny Hardaway, the Tigers should secure a 20 win season on Thursday with a win over Tulane. In a year that is supposed to be a get your feet wet in preparation for huge things to come year, Hardaway has got the most out of his young team, and they are tough to deal with at home. The Tigers are 19-12 overall, and finished 11-7 in conference. Of their 12 losses, six have been at the hands of Top 25 teams, and ten of them have been on the road, or neutral courts. The Tigers are 15-2 this season in their home building, the FedEx Forum. They played No. 3 Tennessee as tough as they could before falling 102-92. Both losses to Cincinnati were close, and the 13 point loss to Houston was their only meeting with the Cougars this year and happened way back on January 6th. They also have an AAC Player of the Year worthy player in Jeremiah Martin. Martin has been one of the hottest players in the country as of late, leading the Tigers in scoring nine of the last ten games. Since February, Martin has had two 40+ point games, while averaging 29 ppg during that stretch. The Tigers also play at one of the fastest paces in the country, scoring 81 ppg. This team has been searching for their identity all year, and it’s understandable. With a first year head coach, trying to manage a roster that for the most part consists of five seniors, and three freshmen, the Tigers have got just about all they could ask out of this year. Except one thing… a run through the conference tournament in Memphis, and an NCAA Tournament birth in Penny’s first year. That would be magic.
The only other team I would consider with a shot to wreck the tournament for the top seeds would be Wichita State. The Shockers have not been good this year and have left me wondering just how much longer Gregg Marshall wants to keep this train rolling in Wichita. He was hit with a rash of transfers after last season and was simply not able to replenish his roster this season. His talent pool may be drying up in Wichita after having so much success and producing several players that have gone on to the next level, such as last year’s team leader, Landry Shamet. After early season losses to Louisiana Tech and Davidson, the Shockers stumbled into conference play as well losing their first three conference games, and six of their first seven. They have however won four in-a-row, and nine of their last eleven. They have handled their opening round opponent, ECU, very convincingly in two meetings. Looking ahead, their second round opponent would be Temple, who they faced only once this year, and lost against the Owls in Wichita, 85-81, in overtime.
The AAC Tournament starts Thursday in Memphis, at Noon CT. The first game will be the eight seed South Florida Bulls, versus the nine seed UConn Huskies. The tournament will conclude with the Finals on Sunday at 2:15 CT, on ESPN.
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