American Athletic Conference Play Preview

SMU gets into AAC play tonight against USF. Patrick projects the final standings in the AAC.

Through the college basketball season’s first seven weeks, the American Athletic Conference has been frighteningly disappointing. The teams expected to be at the top have not played up to expectations: defending national champion UConn is 6-4 and failed to win any of its three marquee nonconference games. SMU’s record is a respectable 9-3, but the Mustangs have looked sloppy at times. Memphis has been a disaster against good competition.

If that wasn’t enough, the bottom teams have amassed some eye-popping losses: Preseason sleeper Tulsa lost to Oral Roberts and Division II Southeast Oklahoma State, Houston lost to South Carolina State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (combined seven wins), Central Florida lost by 11 to three-win UIC and East Carolina lost to average mid-majors UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Asheville.

So where does that leave us, with conference play starting today? Good question, because anything could happen given what we’ve seen from this conference so far. But I’ll take a stab at predicting the next two-plus months.

(In projected order of conference finish)

1. SMU (9-3, 0-0 American)

In October, most of us at PonyStampede thought SMU would be 10-2 or 9-3 at this point because of a challenging nonconference schedule. Well, here we are at 9-3. But it hasn’t been that easy. Newcomers Justin Martin and Ben Emelogu have struggled, and Markus Kennedy missed the first 10 games because of eligibility issues. But I still think the Mustangs have the talent to win the conference, as long as they execute and do the simple things right. Most importantly, this team needs a leader. That means you, Nic Moore.
Projected conference record: 13-5

2. Connecticut (6-4, 0-0)

You’d think this talented Huskies team would have knocked off one of West Virginia, Texas or Duke, right? (OK, maybe not Duke). Plus the Yale loss was confusing. But chalk it up to a team trying to find its identity without Shabazz Napier. I still think the Huskies will play well in AAC play. Ryan Boatright (19.2 ppg) has been a go-to scorer, Daniel Hamilton (11.2 ppg, 6.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) looks like the AAC freshman of the year and Amida Brimah’s offense (12.2 ppg) has come around. That’s a recipe to compete for a conference title.
Projected conference record: 12-6.

3. Cincinnati (9-3, 0-0)

A big win on the road against N.C. State calmed the uneasiness over Mick Cronin’s indefinite absence. But before he suffered an unruptured aneurysm, he was getting the most out of a team that struggles to score, with seven players averaging more than 20 minutes but no player averaging double figures in scoring. The Bearcats were a question mark coming into the season, but they’ve shown they can play with good teams and should be near the top of the conference.
Projected conference record: 11-7

4. Temple (9-4, 0-0)

The Owls are the most improved team in the conference. The defense has allowed only 92 points per 100 possessions (30th nationally) after a disastrous 2013-14. Jesse Morgan (16.0 ppg) and Devin Coleman (7.3 ppg in 14 mpg) had to wait until December to play, but they bring life to an offense that has struggled. As long as offense is there, Temple should win 10-plus AAC games. I won’t be shocked if the Owls finish second.
Projected conference record: 11-7

5. Memphis (7-4, 0-0)

Kedren Johnson was supposed to lead an inexperienced backcourt, but his poor play (23 percent shooting) got him relegated to a reserve role. The offense has vanished against good teams (47 points vs. Baylor 56 vs. Wichita State, 55 vs. Oklahoma State). The frontcourt of Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin and Trayshon Burrell has provided some lift, but guard play needs to improve to finish with 10 wins.
Projected conference record: 9-9

6. Tulsa (7-5, 0-0)

What a disappointment. Tulsa entered the AAC as a sleeper after making the tournament last year, but it has suffered two bad losses and does not look ready to compete outside of Conference USA. The Golden Hurricane have stars in James Woodard 914.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Shaquille Harrison (14.3 ppg, 50 FG%) but the lack of depth is a concern. Unless a third scoring option steps up, don’t expect an above-.500 finish.
Projected conference record: 8-10

7. Tulane (9-3, 0-0)

A bit of a pleasant surprise. The nonconference schedule wasn’t extremely hard, but Tulane did well. No. 15 Saint John’s blew out the Green Wave, but it held its own at then-No. 13 Washington. Otherwise, Tulane mostly played mid-majors. Bad news: games against the likes of Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State are over. Expect some regression, but Tulane’s good trio of scorers (Louis Dabney, Jay Hook and Jonathan Stark) plus some bad AAC teams should lead to a decent conference record.
Projected conference record: 8-10

8. Houston (7-4, 0-0)

A solid start was forgotten after two horrible losses. Still, Houston has some solid pieces, and Kelvin Sampson won’t let his team finish with the bottom feeders. Jherrod Stiggers (17.6 ppg) is an underrated scorer, and junior college transfer Devonta Pollard (12.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg) has helped replace powerful big man TaShawn Thomas. Sampson will get the most out of this team, but expect a rebuilding year with some struggles.
Projected conference record 7-11

9. South Florida (6-7, 0-0)

Call me crazy for putting USF here, but I’m a big believer in Orlando Antigua. He still has a long way to go with building this team, but Corey Allen Jr. (16.9 ppg, 42 3P%) and Chris Perry (12.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) have impressed and will keep the Bulls out of the cellar.
Projected conference record 6-12

10. East Carolina (7-6, 0-0)

An abysmal defense from last season hasn’t improved, and I don’t think it will. Freshman guard B.J. Tyson and sophomore forward Caleb White are bright spots, but the Pirates simply can’t stop anyone. That’s a recipe for a long season.
Projected conference record 5-13

11. Central Florida (7-4, 0-0)

Despite a solid team shooting percentage, the Knights only average 97.3 points per 100 possessions (233rd) and surrender 105.3 (287th). They sit 275th in the KenPom ranks, and except for freshmen B.J. Taylor and Adonys Hernandez, just don’t have the talent to win many games.
Projected conference record: 4-14

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