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AAC basketball pre-conference power rankings

PonyStampede breaks down and power ranks each AAC basketball team with conference play set to start.

American Athletic Conference teams are 84-49 so far, but just 6-15 vs. KenPom top-50 teams. The league had a tough time against good nonconference opponents last season, but built enough depth during conference play to get four teams in the NCAA tournament. That number doesn’t look repeatable, but the AAC’s best teams need to play better to develop any depth and respect for a league still searching for its identity and brand. Here’s how the teams look heading into conference play.

1. Cincinnati Bearcats (10-2, AP No. 22, KenPom No. 20)

Best win: 55-54 (OT) at Iowa State (KenPom No. 30)

Worst loss: 76-71 vs. Rhode Island in Connecticut (KenPom No. 44)

Reason for optimism: The Bearcats are top-40 in offensive efficiency and average 81.2 points per game. It’s indicative of Mick Cronin’s emphasis on recruiting players with more offensive skill. Kyle Washington looks like the most skilled big man Cincinnati has had in a while. Gary Clark and Troy Caupain are still among the best two-way players in the conference. Though not a team reliant on shooting, Cincinnati has more shooters than before. 

Cause for concern: Cincinnati doesn’t shoot many threes or get to the foul line often, but when it does, the results are not good. The Bearcats shoot 32.5 percent from 3 and 63.6 percent from the foul line. They also allowed opponents to shot 40 percent from 3 in their two losses. 

2. SMU Mustangs (9-3, KenPom No. 34)

Best win: 74-59 vs. TCU (KenPom No. 37)

Worst loss: 71-62 at Boise State (KenPom No. 89)

Reasons for optimism: After a bad start, SMU is 10-3 and finally looks comfortable offensively. Expecting some early difficulties after losing Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy was reasonable. Now, SMU has five players averaging between nine and 12 points per game, and Semi Ojeleye (18.1 ppg) is the league’s third-leading scorer. The Mustangs have good scoring balance and shooting ability all over the roster.

Cause for concern: It’s déjà vu all over again: After two midseason transfers, SMU is down to seven scholarship players. SMU survived the lack of depth for most of last season before going 7-5 in its last 12 games. It will have to do it again, only this time, it can play in the postseason. SMU allows opponents to shoot 32.6 percent from deep, but still gives up too many open shots from the perimeter. Opponents get 39 percent of their points from 3 against SMU, 12th-highest in the nation.

3. Houston Cougars (9-3, KenPom No. 53)

Best win: 82-77 vs. Rhode Island (KenPom No. 44)

Worst loss: 57-56 vs. Harvard (KenPom No. 139)

Reasons for optimism: The Cougars are the fourth-best 3-point shooting team in the nation and have four players who shoot at least 40 percent from deep. They’ve scored at least 72 points in all but one game this year. They run so much of the offense through Rob Gray (20.1 points per game), but they have three other players in double figures. Chicken Knowles has emerged as an effective center in his last season and Devin Davis is a great fit at the four spot in Houston’s offense, though he’s missed four games due to injury.

Cause for concern: Houston’s defense needed to improve for it to have a chance at a conference title or NCAA tournament bid. The Cougars have taken a small step on that end, but still gave up 80 points in two of their losses and 70 in two of their wins. 

4. Temple Owls (9-4, KenPom No. 85)

Best win: 81-77 vs. West Virginia in Brooklyn (KenPom No. 7)

Worst loss: 57-52 vs. New Hampshire (KenPom No. 156)

Reason for optimism: Freshmen guards Alani Moore (9.4 points per game, 26 in a win vs. Yale) and Quinton Rose (10.5) have exceeded expectations. Now with a healthy Josh Brown, Temple has one of its better offensive teams in a while.

Cause for concern: Temple has two wins vs. AP Top 25 teams (WVU, Florida State), but also three losses to teams outside the KenPom top 100 (UNH, Massachusetts, George Washington) show the Owls seem to play to their opponent’s level. That's a dangerous method in a conference with its share of mediocre teams.

5. Memphis Tigers (9-3, KenPom No. 81)

Best win: 99-94 in OT at Oklahoma (KenPom No. 54)

Worst loss: 84-77 vs. Ole Miss (KenPom No. 84)

Reason for optimism: Dedric Lawson is the obvious early favorite for conference player of the year. He’s the league’s leading scorer (21.3 points per game) and second-leading rebounder (11.3 per game). He and brother K.J. Lawson (15 points, 8.9 rebounds per game) give the Tigers a great scoring tandem.

Cause for concern: There’s little scoring depth behind the Lawsons. Markel Crawford averages 12.3 points per game and Jeremiah Martin’s offense has taken an impressive step forward, but he’s a defender and facilitator first. Memphis is extremely thin in the frontcourt after Chad Rykhoek’s injury and has just eight available scholarship players right now.

6. Central Florida Knights (9-3, KenPom No. 86)

Best win: 60-40 at College of Charleston (KenPom No. 90)

Worst loss: 58-49 vs. Penn (KenPom No. 157)

Reason for optimism: No player on any team UCF plays can match up with Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-6 center who averages 15.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. If B.J. Taylor and A.J. Davis get healthy, the Knights have three good scorers.

Cause for concern: Seven of UCF’s nine wins came against teams ranked 280 or worse. They played the nation’s 25th easiest schedule, and that includes a game vs. top-ranked Villanova. The Knights played worse against similar schedules previously, so give them credit. But don’t lock in expectations for a winning conference record until they beat someone.

7. Connecticut Huskies (5-6, KenPom No. 83)

Best win: 52-50 vs. Syracuse at Madison Square Garden (KenPom No. 45)

Worst loss: 67-58 vs. Wagner (KenPom No. 227)

Reason for optimism: Jalen Adams has become the elite scorer he was expected to be. He’s averaging 16.6 points per game and making 43.3 percent of his 3-pointers. UConn could also have five-star wing Hamidou Diallo join the team midseason if he chooses to commit and enroll.

Cause for concern: Adams has been the only consistent offensive player for the Huskies. Their offense is brutal to watch, averaging 67.8 points, shooting 29.2 percent on 3-pointers and averaging barely a point per possession. Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier are out for the season, but UConn lost to Wagner and Northeastern when they were healthy. The Huskies have played better as the season has progressed, but getting out of this mess will require something special.

8. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (6-6, KenPom No. 140)

Best win: 70-68 vs. Illinois State (KenPom No. 71)

Worst loss: 84-73 vs. Jacksonville State (KenPom No. 215)

Reason for optimism: Junior Etou, a transfer from Rutgers, averages 12 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and is one of the more offensively efficient players in the conference. He scored 40 points in Tulsa’s final two games of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. 

Cause for concern: Pat Birt, who’s known as a 3-point shooter, is hitting only 32 percent from deep. For Tulsa’s offense to get any better, it has to cut down on the turnovers (17 per game). Even with fewer turnovers, Tulsa doesn’t have enough scorers to be among the league’s top offenses.

9. East Carolina Pirates (8-5, KenPom No. 182)

Best win: 69-56 vs. North Carolina Central (KenPom No. 172)

Worst loss: 76-64 at Charlotte (KenPom No. 201)

Reason for optimism: The Pirates have an experienced starting five, with three seniors, a junior and a sophomore. Kentrell Barkley is one of the conference’s more underappreciated players, Caleb White can shoot and Andre Washington gives ECU a long-needed post presence.

Cause for concern: ECU hasn’t beat anyone good – six of their eight wins came against teams in the bottom 50 of KenPom’s ranks, and four of those came against the bottom 10. Even against the nation’s third-easiest nonconference schedule, they’re 298th in offensive efficiency and shoot just 42.6 percent from the floor.

10. South Florida Bulls (6-5, KenPom No. 235)

Best win: 70-65 vs. Rider (KenPom No. 200)

Worst loss: 78-62 vs. Florida Atlantic (KenPom No. 224)

Reason for optimism: The Bulls plays one of their better games of the season against their toughest opponent, South Carolina. They’re only two wins away from matching last season’s win total. 

Cause for concern: Jahmal McMurray, the Bulls’ top returning scorer from last season, left the program. So USF lost its best player from an already poor offensive team with one of the worst turnover rates in the country.

11. Tulane Green Wave (3-9, KenPom No. 275)

Best win: 84-75 vs. Southern (KenPom No. 237)

Worst loss: 70-63 vs. McNeese State (KenPom No. 225)

Reason for optimism: Tulane plays in New Orleans. There are lots of fun things to do in New Orleans. If nothing else, Tulane has a go-to scorer in Cameron Reynolds, who averages 16.7 points per game, fourth in the conference.

Cause for concern: Tulane lost to McNeese State.

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