As nonconference play winds down, the American Conference is at a key point. The league needs teams not named SMU, Cincinnati or Connectict to winning some big nonconference games to give it a little more depth and respect. These last two weeks before conference play starts are a great chance for Tulsa and Memphis to get a resume-building nonconference win. Even UConn and Cincinnati could use another good non-league win (sorry to exclude you from this resume-building talk, SMU).
1. SMU (7-0, AP No. 18, LW: 1)
Last week: No games
The nation is finally starting to catch on that SMU is pretty dang good. The Mustangs are an elite offensive team: they rank eighth in the country in points per possession (1.15), fourth in offensive rebound percentage (43.7) and 21st in two-point shooting percentage (55.9 percent).
This week: 12/16 vs. Nicholls State, 12/17 vs. Hampton, 12/22 vs. Kent State in Las Vegas.
2. Cincinnati (9-2, AP No. 23, LW: 2)
Last week: at No. 12 Xavier (L 65-55), 12/15 vs. Norfolk State (W 75-59)
The loss to archrival Xavier is more of a statement about how explosive and balanced Xavier’s offense is rather than a statement about Cincinnati’s issues, because Cincinnati doesn’t have a lot of issues. But the Bearcats didn’t do themselves any favors by shooting a lot of quick jumpers and giving Xavier transition chances. It’s a sign that the offense isn’t consistent enough yet, but it is still better than last year. Cincinnati is a very good team, but it won’t win the AAC if it can’t find some offensive chemistry in road games or against top competition. It has two great opportunities to do so this week.
This week: 12/19 at VCU, 12/22 vs. No. 4 Iowa State
3. Connecticut (6-3, AP No. 25, LW: 3)
Last week: vs. Ohio State (W 75-55)
Ohio State is in a transition year, but UConn’s 18-point romp on Saturday is a solid win for a team that disappointed in the Battle 4 Atlantis against beatable teams like Syracuse and Gonzaga. With every game, Jalen Adams makes a stronger case that he needs more minutes. The Huskies offense just looks better when he plays. Elsewhere. Omar Calhoun has been a quiet surprise. The senior guard hit all four of his three-point attempts against the Buckeyes and is shooting 44 percent from deep.
This week: 12/20 vs. Massachusetts-Lowell
4. Tulsa (7-3, LW: 4)
Last week: at Missouri State (W 70-61)
Tulsa avoided another bad loss it had last season by beating Missouri State on the road. The Golden Hurricane is crucial to establishing some depth and respect in the AAC, so getting a win against a KenPom top-50 Beavers team is a must for its own and the conference’s resume. When Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard are in peak form, it gets the rest of the offense going. When they aren’t, Tulsa struggles.
This week: 12/19 vs. Oregon State in Portland, Ore., 12/22 vs. Northern Arizona
5. Houston: (6-1, LW: 6)
Last week: vs. LSU (W 105-98 OT)
Houston has the worst strength-of-schedule in the country, so beating LSU was a must. Now the Cougars have to hope LSU straightens out its issues so the win is worth a bit more, because playing all these bottom-50 opponents hurts RPI regardless of outcome. Barring a crazytown bananapants upset, Houston will finish the nonconference slate 10-1. Even against these bad teams, the growing legend of Rob Gray shouldn’t get lost: he’s averaging a league-best 19.6 points per game, taking 36.6 percent of his team’s shots and shooting 49.5 percent from the field.
This week: 12/16 vs. North Carolina Central, 12/19 vs. Eastern Illinois, 12/21 vs. Grand Canyon
6. Memphis: (7-2, LW: 5)
Last week: vs. Manhattan (W 89-57), vs. Southern (72-67)
Memphis’ looming game vs. Ole Miss is also a must win for the team and for the conference. Right now, the Tigers’ don’t have much of a nonconference resume. Their best win is Ohio State, which may get diminished as a quality win when Big Ten play starts. Memphis’ performance so far this season can be summed up in two words: free throws. The offensive efficiency and shooting numbers aren’t very good, but Memphis gets a nation-best 29 percent of its points from the foul line. Unusual? Yes. Effective so far? Yes. Sustainable? We’ll see.
This week: 12/18 vs. Ole Miss, 12/22 vs. IUPUI
7. Temple (4-5, LW: 7)
Last week: at Penn (W 77-73), vs. Saint Joe’s (L 66-65 OT)
College basketball haters will point to the Temple-Saint Joe’s game as why college basketball was unwatchable: bad, unimaginative offense and a lot of bricks. I stood by my belief that the Owls were better than their record earlier this season. Last week, I questioned just how much better. This week, I’m not sure I believe it anymore. Saint Joe’s is a good team, but a beatable one in a rivalry game on Temple’s home floor. Temple misses Will Cummings offensively and the entire defense isn’t nearly as good as last year.
This week: 12/19 vs. Delaware State
8. Central Florida: (5-3, LW: 8)
Last week: vs. Florida Atlantic (W 75-61)
If not for Houston, the Knights would be my pick for most improved team, both now and projecting ahead to season’s end. They are miles better than last year on both ends of the court. Tacko Fall has been as advertised, but fellow newcomers A.J. Davis and Chance McSpadden provide a lot more scoring depth on the wings. If UCF can get a road win against solid mid-major Detroit and steal one from George Washington on Dec. 29, it has set itself up for a smaller postseason tournament with a solid conference season.
This week: 12/19 at Detroit, 12/22 vs. Bethune-Cookman
9. East Carolina (6-4, LW: 9)
Last week: vs. North Carolina A&T (W 71-60)
B.J. Tyson is playing the best basketball of his career, but the Pirates have beat up on bad teams faltered against their four best opponents. None of the offensive or defensive numbers jumps off the chart, which isn’t great considering the soft schedule. There’s not a whole lot to get excited about here.
This week: 12/16 vs. UNC-Wilmington, 12/19 at James Madison, 12/22 vs. South Carolina State
10. Tulane (6-4, LW: 10)
Last week: vs. Prairie View A&M (W 63-49)
If Tulane loses to Southern Mississippi, it will have a transition loss to a NAIA team. Just sayin’. Now I’ll say my obligatory nice thing about a Tulane freshman. Point guard Kain Harris' 5.4 percent turnover rate is 13th-best in the nation.
This week: 12/16 vs. No. 11 North Carolina, 12/19 at Mississippi State, 12/22 vs. Southern Mississippi
11. South Florida (2-8, LW: 11)
Last week: vs. NC State (L 65-46)
I didn’t think USF would beat NC State when projecting the AAC teams before the season, but that doesn’t change that USF has been worse than I predicted. Point guard Roddy Peters is out indefinitely with a foot fracture, which gives freshman Jahmal McMurray more playing time. He, not Peters, had been their best guard and has shown some promise amid the Bulls’ rough season.
This week: 12/16 vs. Jacksonville, 12/19 vs. UAB, 12/22 at Seton Hall