American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The month of March belongs to college basketball. There will be buzzer-beaters, upsets, and a heck of a lot of nets being cut down to celebrate championships.

The Frontier Communications American Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament will kick off Thursday, March 9th at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. The 11 team field is set, with conference powerhouses Cincy and SMU poised for a deep run into March.

Here is the entire bracket and a brief lay-out of the chances of each team bringing home the title and earning that automatic bid.

The Favorites:

Southern Methodist (27-4, 17-1 in AAC, 1 seed)

The Mustangs have had their way in conference play and are showing no signs of slowing down. Fresh off a 103-62 thrashing of the University of Memphis to clinch the AAC regular season title, SMU has flown under the radar in the college basketball world and propelled themselves to a #12 ranking in the AP polls. The Mustangs’ player rotation is one of the most interesting ones in college hoops. They play positionless basketball and only six players tend to see the floor most nights, with the heights of those six studs ranging between 6’5 and 6’8. Led by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye with his 18.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, SMU will likely breeze through their side of the bracket with ease and meet up with the Cincinnati Bearcats in the final on Sunday afternoon.

Cincinnati Bearcats (27-4, 16-2 in AAC, 2 ssed)

It took an upset loss at UCF on February 26th to remove the Bearcats from the top spot in the conference tourney. This is probably the most well-rounded team head coach Mick Cronin has had during his tenure at Cincy. Not only do they play that renowned stifling and psychical Bearcats defense, they can put the ball in the bucket. Cincy is the highest scoring team in the AAC with 74.7 points per game and also dish out 16.5 assists per contest (tied for 1st in AAC). The three-headed monster of Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington have led Cincy to a dominant conference season and they are currently projected at 5 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. If the Bearcats can avoid another upset, basketball fans should be in for a treat as SMU and Cincy could potentially face off in the championship for round 3, with each squad coming away victorious on their home floors.

Potential Cinderellas

Houston (21-9, 12-6 in AAC, 3 seed)

It will take magic from the Cougars’ dynamic duo of Rob Gray and Daymean Dotson to win the title, but it is too much of a stretch. Gray (20.3) and Dotson (17.3) were two of the top four scorers in the AAC and have the potential of lighting up the XL Center for a few nights. Houston went a combined 0-4 against SMU and Cincy (as did almost every other team in the AAC) but it is rather difficult to take down a quality team three times. Houston is currently in the “Next Four Out” in Joe Lunardi’s recent Bracketology, so the Cougars need to appear in the championship at the very least to earn a spot in March Madness.

UCONN (14-16, 9-9, 6 seed)

Yes, UConn has a losing record and have lost four straight, but there is something about the month of March that makes the Huskies rise to another level. UConn will be playing the entire tournament on their home floor and in front of a pro-UConn crowd. Expect Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis to get back on track against USF in the opening round, then who knows what could happen when the host team starts gaining some momentum.

The Rest of the Field

UCF (20-10, 11-7, 4 seed)

Led by the giant center Tacko Fall, who is the AAC’s most improved player with 11.5 points 9.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, the Knights are red-hot as they have won 5 straight which includes a win against the all-mighty Cincy. B.J. Taylor and Matt Williams lead the Knights’ offense that could potentially upset SMU, but it will be tough to take down both SMU and Cincinnati.

Memphis (19-12, 9-9, 5 seed)

The Tigers know how to score the basketball. They are second in the AAC in points per game thanks to Dedric and K.J. Lawson, who average 19 and 12 points per game respectively. First year head coach Tubby Smith has been around the block a few times and has plenty of experience in March, but Cinderella’s glass slipper does not fit the Tigers.

Tulsa (14-16, 8-10, 7 seed)

The Golden Hurricane have fallen off a cliff as of late. They have dropped 8 of their last 10 contests after starting 6-2 in AAC play. Tulsa’s deep eight man rotation should be enough to take down Tulane, but one should next expect anything more out of them.

 

Temple (16-15, 7-11, 8 seed)

TheTemple Owls opened everybody’s eyes back in November when they took down West Virginia and Florida State in consecutive days, but it has been a tough road since then. Junior Obi Enechionyia has struggled to find a consistent shooting stroke after his hot start and head coach Fran Dunphy has been forced to rely on underclassmen Quinton Rose, Alani Moore, Damion Moore, and Shizz Alston Jr. to close games out and the youngsters have not been able to do so. Of the Owls 7 conference victories, 5 of them came from teams behind them in the standings. Their first round matchup against ECU will break the tie after the two each had blowout wins on their home floors, but the Owls will need to shoot like UConn greats Ray Allen and Kemba Walker from behind the arc in order to make noise in the AAC tourney.

The Cellar Dwellers

East Carolina (14-17, 6-12, 9 seed)

Tulane (6-24, 3-15, 10 seed)

USF (7-22, 1-17, 11 seed)

It has been a tough and disappointing season for the teams at the bottom of the AAC. East Carolina got back up on their feet after starting 1-6 in the AAC and finished 5-6 the rest of the way. Tulane is in rebuilding mode with new head coach Mike Dunleavy and played several inexperienced underclassmen this season. South Florida has one victory in 2017 and fired their head coach Orlando Antigua midway through the season. These teams will be huge underdogs in the conference tournament, but crazier things have happened in March.

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