The BarnBurner’s American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview

As far we know, the American Athletic Conference tournament will be tipping off on Thursday – albeit to a fan-less arena. 

Here at The Barn we’ve got you covered and have what you need to know about each of the teams fighting to hoist the AAC championship banner. 

(1) Cincinnati

As the top seeded team, Cincinnati has earned a first round bye and awaits the winner of UCF and USF, who are the 8 and 9 seeds. The Bearcats have been a solid team this season under first year coach John Brannen. They are hovering around the top 50 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The best way to exploit the Bearcat’s defense is from beyond the arc, where they allow opponents to shoot 34%, which is pretty average, but a far cry from the paltry 43% that they allow inside the arc. First team All-AAC guard Jarron Cumberland is the focal point of this Cincinnati roster. He is averaging 15.5 points per game and plays the largest role in the offense with his nearly 5 assists per game. The Bearcats can score in a variety of ways as they have four total players averaging in double figures. What might be the scariest part of this Cincy roster is the level of experience they possess. According to KenPom they have the 36th most experienced team in the country, with only one freshman getting regular rotation minutes.

(2) Houston

At the outset of the season, Houston was the favorite to win at least a co-share in the regular season conference title – which they did. The only exception to this prediction was Memphis fans, who were offended at the notion that their squad wasn’t predicted to take the conference by storm. The Cougars under Kelvin Sampson were unranked in the AP poll for most of the season, but finally broke into the top 25 in late January. Houston has been a defensive stalwart all season, holding their opponents to one of the lowest effective field goal percentages in the country. They keep games close by allowing a 3P% of less than 30%. The Cougars have three guards averaging in double figures in scoring and all three – Quentin Grimes, All-AAC second teamer Nate Hinton, and AAC All-Freshman and Third Team All-AAC selection Caleb Mills – can get hot and close a game out down the stretch. Houston is currently one of only two AAC teams projected to make the NCAA tournament and they are looking to do their part in making that stay true.They await the winner of Temple vs SMU and will play on Friday.

(3) Tulsa

Tulsa was the team in the conference that most outperformed their expectations relative to the preseason prognostications, finishing in a three-way tie for 1st place after being predicted to finish 10th by the coaches in October. Tulsa finished the regular season at 21-10, but had some early unsettling losses to Arkansas State and UT-Arlington that leave them on the outside of the bubble heading into the conference tournament. In 9 of the 10 losses, opponents have made at least 9 3-pointers against the Golden Hurricane who have effectively deployed multiple zone defenses throughout the year. The upperclassmen trio of Martins Igbanu (13.6 ppg, 5 rbg), Brandon Rachal (12.1, 5.8), and Jeriah Horne (11.1, 5.2) will await the winner of ECU/Memphis in the second round.  

(4) Wichita State

The Shockers are clawing to get back into the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season for the first time since 2012 . They currently are on the bubble in most predictions and need a strong showing in the conference tournament to bolster their resume. As is the case for several of the AAC teams, the Shockers boast a stifling defense that ranks in the top ten in the country. However the weakness for Gregg Marshall’s group is their inability to convert in the mid-range, where they are 75th in attempt rate, but 298th in conversion rate. The Shockers are pretty average from three and are their most efficient around the basket, where 7 foot leading scorer (11.3 ppg ) Jaime Echenique is stationed. Wichita State’s biggest threat from three is guard Tyson Etienne. Though they are one of the youngest groups in college hoops, the Shockers are very disciplined and make opponents work for every bucket and rebound. Sneaking into the final bye slot, the Shockers await the winner of SMU and Tulane on Friday. 

(5) UConn

UConn comes into the tournament as the hottest team in the conference, winning 5 straight games and 8 of their last 10. Senior guard Chistian Vital has been on an absolute tear during the Huskies best stretch of the season, averaging 24 points per game over the last 7 games to push his average to 16.4 ppg on the year to go along with 6 boards per game. Vital is joined in the backcourt by freshman James Bouknight, who has come on strong as the season has progressed, tossing in 16 points per game since Dan Hurley inserted him into the starting lineup in mid-January, per the Hartford Courant. Juniors Isaiah Whaley and Josh Carlton have been solid for the Huskies down low as of late, with Whaley grabbing 5 double-doubles since January  and Carlton grading out as the 19th best offensive rebounder in the country. UConn faces a pesky #12 seed in Tulane in a rematch from the final regular season game, which the Huskies won by 4, with Wichita State awaiting in the second round. I would not want to play the Huskies this weekend.

(6) Memphis

The Memphis season has been well documented locally by media members, fans, and anyone with the ability to form an opinion. The Tigers came into the season as the youngest team in college hoops with hopes of competing for a National Championship, but those hopes quickly faded away when James Wiseman was ruled ineligible and later left the team. Then the Tigers lost DJ Jeffries, their 2nd leading scorer and one of the only players on the roster who could consistently create his own show, to an injury in early February and things got really tough. Precious Achiuwa made a strong case for his eventual AAC Player of the Year selection with averages of 16 points per game to go along with 11 rebounds. Lester Quinones averaged 10.7 ppg as a freshmen, and the team will need him and sophomore shooter, Tyler Harris, to knock down shots from the perimeter if they want to defeat Tulsa, who looms after the opening matchup with ECU. Achiuwa and one of the stingiest defenses in the country allowed the Tigers to collect 21 wins on the season, but offensive woes (read: poor shooting and hella turnovers) caused the Tigers to drop too many games against inferior opponents and Memphis is on the outside of the bubble coming into the conference tournament.

(7) SMU

SMU is top 30 in the country in offensive efficiency, scoring 112 points per 100 possessions. Most of this damage is done from inside the arc, where they shoot 54% from two and 77% from the charity stripe. Kendric Davis, who has one of the top assist rates in the nation, leads one of the nation’s slowest, but most efficient offenses that has credible shooters from beyond the arc in juniors Isiaha Mike and Tyson Jolly. Both Mike and Jolly shoot better than 37% from 3 while leading the team in 3-pt attempts. Those same 2 guys join Feron Hunt in hauling in 6 rebounds per game, which shows SMU’s lack of depth. SMU has lost 5 of their last 6, a few that have come in excruciating fashion, and seems like a team that could be destined for an early exit.

One of the slowest teams in college basketball.

(8) Central Florida

Johnny Dawkins’ Knights tallied 16 wins during the regular season, with 7 of them in conference. They are led by 6’11 junior Collin Smith who takes over a quarter of the Knights shots on offense. This season UCF has been very streaky, with three different spells where they fell victim to three game or more skids. The Knights struggle to take care of the ball, turning it over on nearly 20% of their possessions. However, on the defensive end they force a turnover rate even higher. UCF will look to spread out the floor on offense and lean on their conference-leading 34% shooting from three – an attack lead by Darin Green, who drains over a pair of threes per game.

(9) South Florida

The Bulls (14-17) were projected to finish 5th in the league as they returned all 5 starters from last year’s team that won the CBI Championship and featured AAC DPOY LaQuincy Rideau, but USF lost reigning AAC Freshman of the Year, Alexis Yetna, in early November and was never able to recover. The guard tandem of Rideau (12.6 ppg, 4.2 apg) and David Collins (13.7 ppg) is still one of the best and most experienced backcourts in the conference, and this team is pesky as hell defensively. Unfortunately, without Yetna to lock down the paint the defense isn’t as good as it was expected to be. These guys also turn the ball over at a 22% rate (that’s ALMOST as bad as Memphis) which could play right into the hands of rival UCF, who the Bulls play in the 8-9 first round matchup. 

(10) Temple

The Owls (14-17), led by the AAC’s all-time leading scorer, Quinton Rose (16.4 ppg), finished 10th in the league, which is 3 spots below where the coaches tabbed them in the preseason. Temple sports a top-50 defense, but their offense has been absolutely putrid outside of Rose, ranking 323rd in the country in effective field goal percentage and even worse in other metrics. Junior guard Nate Pierre Louis put together a solid season for the 3rd consecutive year with averages of 11 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. The Owls lost 5 in a row to close the regular season, including losses to ECU and USF but split the season series with their first round foe, #7 seed SMU. Quinton Rose is one of the best players in the conference and has the ability to will this Temple team to a victory on any given night, it would not surprise me in the least bit if that were to happen in round one. 

(11) East Carolina

I really thought ECU, led by 2nd Team All-AAC selection Jayden Gardner, would be a dark horse in the American. Well, the Pirates certainly proved me wrong. They were only able to capture wins in 5 conference games this season. The only team they beat this year that is in the top 100 in KenPom is SMU, which they stole a win from in early January. On both sides of the ball ECU ranks in the bottom third in the country. As icing on the cake, the Pirates are one of the worst teams in the country at hitting threes.

(12) Tulane

Ron Hunter’s re-tooled Green Wave started out the season taking care of business against lowly opponents, winning 8 of their first 10 games. Once conference play arrived, they would only add to that win total by 50% (this means 12 total wins). Tulane does create turnovers at a very high clip of 23%, and they convert steals for points at a decent rate. However the rest of their offense is less than decent. Tulane has three guys earning 13+ points per game, but their field goal percentage leaves something to be desired. As a team, the Green Wave are 10th in the AAC in shooting percentage and last in FG% allowed. They need a miracle to advance in this tournament.

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