Too big to be a mid-major, too small to be a power conference; that is the limbo that the American Athletic Conference finds itself in.
The AAC is still trying to find an identity and is struggling to gain respect, nationally. The fact that two of their most recognizable teams, Connecticut and Temple, failed to earn an at-large big in the NCAA Tournament field last year despite each topping 20 wins was a clear sign that this conference has a long way to go.
The American's biggest problem entering this season is that it is still comically top-heavy. In leagues like the Big Ten, Big 12 or ACC, even the lower-tier teams have the talent to spring an upset and remain competitive with the conference's best squads. But in the AAC the top four or five teams absolutely dominate the lower rungs of the league, creating a lot of blowouts and a situation where the league almost can't even take itself seriously.
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From a parity perspective, things aren't appreciably better this year. There are four teams that I would team as NCAA-caliber, which would double last year's two bids to The Big Dance. However, AAC preseason favorite SMU was hit with a postseason ban. That robs the league of a potential Final Four team and some much-needed national exposure.
The middle tier of this conference has expanded a bit. But the AAC desperately needs Connecticut and Cincinnati to play up to talent and expectations so that the league can continue to ride their coattails to national respect. If not, it could be a struggle for the third-year conference to maintain its spot among the Top 10 leagues in the college basketball realm.
Here are Doc's Sports 2015-16 American Athletic Conference college basketball predictions (with Robert's projected odds to win the conference title in parentheses):
The Favorite: SMU Mustangs (-200)
SMU spent the summer nursing dreams of a National Championship. But those dreams were snuffed out before the first shot of the 2015-16 season. In late September SMU was railroaded with a postseason ban for recruiting violations that will prevent them from playing in the AAC or NCAA Tournament. It was a brutal blow for one of the best teams in the country, and how the Mustangs respond to that challenge will really define their season.
Make no mistake about it: SMU is one of the nation's best teams. Point guard Nic Moore is perhaps the most clutch point guard in the country and one of the three or four best players in the sport at his position. Wing Keith Frazer, who was forced to miss the second half of last season because of academics, is back, as is dominating forward Markus Kennedy. That trio is as good as it gets, and the Mustangs may have added an even better player in Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert. The senior is an absolute stud and will tear up the AAC. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, two Top 100 freshmen, and two other guys that logged heavy minutes (Ben Moore started and Sterling Brown played a lot off the bench) and SMU goes nine-deep with no major weaknesses.
The Mustangs are one of the top defensive teams in the country, they are efficient offensively, they have All-American talent, and a clear go-to guy. This team has to be depressed about their situation this year. But that also means that they will max out trying to win the AAC title as well as any big nonconference games and tournaments that they play in.
The Challenger: Connecticut Huskies (+200)
My initial impression of this year's Huskies is that they would be overrated. Connecticut was incredibly shaky last year while missing the NCAA Tournament. Do-everything senior Ryan Boatright and his 17.4 points per game graduated, and the Huskies look like a program starting to wither. But then UConn managed to land transfer Sterling Gibbs. And his addition, along with that of two promising freshmen, really rounded out what looks like a raw-but-talented roster. Gibbs is on his third college team (Texas and Seton Hall) and he skipped out on Seton Hall after a tumultuous season in 2014-15. I don't fully blame Gibbs for why things didn't work out with the Pirates, and The Hall's loss is obviously UConn's gain.
Gibbs was in the Top 10 in the nation in three-point shooting last year and averaged 16.3 points per game. He'll need to co-exist with two up-and-coming studs on the wing in Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis, who combined for 22.5 points and 10 rebounds last year, and that trio can be lethal. Connecticut also has plenty of size in the post with seven-footers Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah serving as a two-headed center monster. Cornell transfer Shonn Miller and glue guy Kentan Facey are there for support, and if either freshman Jalen Adams or Steven Enoch catches on quickly then the Huskies will have an eight- or nine-man rotation just bursting with high-end athleticism and potential. Now it is on Kevin Ollie to get this team playing as a disciplined, cohesive unit, something he hasn't been great at in his first three seasons.
The Dark Horse: Cincinnati Bearcats (+500)
Cincinnati was one of the biggest overachievers in college basketball last year. They lost their three best players from the 2013-14 team, were just No. 257 in the nation in experience, and lost coach Mick Cronin for medical reasons midseason. I expected this group to crumble, but they didn't, winning 23 games and scoring another NCAA Tournament berth behind one of the best defenses in the country. The Bearcats now have five starters back from last year's team and are stocked with seniors. Cincinnati is tough to back because they don't score much; not a single player averaged over 10 points per game. But they grind teams down with their relentless team defense and wear teams down with their offensive execution. In many ways they are just like SMU (a team they swept last year), minus the NBA-caliber talent. The Bearcats have their top six scorers back and are a team to keep an eye on, for good or ill. Because of their limitations and style of play, the margin for error is razor thin with this group.
The X-Factor: Tulsa Golden Hurricane (+700)
Tulsa has its top eight players, including all five starters, back from the group that finished in second place (just a game behind SMU) in the AAC last year. Tulsa scoffed at the notion that the step up from Conference USA to the AAC would be a major one and put together a season that left them just barely outside the NCAA Tournament field. Tulsa enters this season as one of the most experienced teams in the nation, boasting a remarkable four three-year starters and seven seniors at the core of a group that's gone 44-24 the past two seasons. The dynamic backcourt of James Woodard and Shaquille Harrison combined to averaged 27.6 points and 10 rebounds and either feels comfortable making a clutch play. Tulsa was a Top 40 defensive squad and they take a team rebounding approach. They need to prove that they can play with - and beat - top-tier competition, though. They lost their three biggest nonconference games (OU, Wichita State, and Ok. State) by an average of 18 points per game last year.
The Disappointment: Temple Owls (+2000)
Temple was absolutely robbed of an NCAA Tournament berth last year and was, quite literally, the last team left out of the field. This group beat Kansas by 25 points and closed the year on an 11-3 rush but was snubbed in March. They did make a run to the NIT Final Four, losing a heartbreaker to Miami, and their jump from nine wins to 26 was the single-best improvement in that country. Temple averaged 25 wins per season from 2008 to 2013, making the Big Dance all six years. But they've missed out the last two tourneys, and this year's team looks a bit overmatched. Wing Quenton DeCosey is an all-league talent. But he's one of just two returning starters, and his 12.3 points per game aren't that far off from the 19.2 PPG tallied by Temple's next three top scorers. The Owls won't be as bad as the 2013 team. But they also won't meet expectations associated with this program's pedigree and they are still finding their footing since leaving the A-10.
Memphis (+1400) - Josh Pastner's coaching seat continues to warm up and he desperately needs a bounce-back season. Memphis has seen its win total drop from 31 to 24 to 18, and Memphis lost more talent than it gained this offseason as four key players, including top player Austin Nichols, have transferred out of the program in the last 12 months. Memphis was a disorganized mess last year and only won three games (in 15 tries) against teams in the Top 100. They will only improve this season if two transfers into the program - last year's key addition Kedren Johnson and this year's key addition Ricky Tarrant - learn to play together quickly. Even if Memphis does improve its shaky shooting and flailing ball handling, they still have to overcome the fact that only three players on the roster are taller than 6-foot-7 and two of them are freshman. Forward Shaq Goodwin is excellent. But he can't hold down the interior by himself.
Houston (+2500) - Houston has been a turnstile over the past two years with a seemingly endless amount of talent transferring out of the program. It was some housecleaning by embattled coach Kelvin Sampson. And this year he enters the season with a year in the AAC under his belt and the foundation of a roster he has at least had a part in assembling. Chemistry is going to be the biggest issue for this group as their top five players all started their college careers somewhere else. There is talent dotting the roster. But can they learn to play together? Also, Houston is another undersized team that will be relying on several junior college players for post support. That could cut either way, but I still expect this team to find its way into one of the second- (or third-) tier tournaments in March.
Central Florida (+5000) - UCF begins the bottom tier of the AAC and, honestly, its impossible to predict how these bottom four teams are going to shake out in the basement. Central Florida has a bit more upside than some of the other teams thanks to last year's pair of all-AAC freshmen, B.J. Taylor and Adonys Henriquez. They also added sophomore transfer A.J. Davis from Tennessee to give Donnie Jones a sweet sophomore core to work with. Also, unlike several other squads in the bottom tier, the Golden Knights have the post size to compete with the upper crust in the league. They have six players 6-9 or taller, including beefy Justin McBride (6-10, 325 pounds), massive 7-6 freshman project Tacko Fall, and returning power forward starter Staphon Blair.
South Florida (+7500) - Orlando Antigua parlayed several years as John Calipari's bagman into a head-coaching gig at USF. But it remains to be seen if he can actually coach, and his rookie season was a 9-23 mess. Granted, he has little to work with and is trying to lay a foundation for this program. But the talent level doesn't look much greater in Year 2. USF lost its two best players, and this team is really just a mish-mash of guys all wearing the same colored jersey.
Tulane (+7500) - I would've had Tulane as the worst team in the league were it not for two eligible transfers. Malik Morgan (LSU) and Jernard Jarreau (Washington) will be big additions to a tam that has six freshmen on the roster. Jarreau will pay huge dividends on defense and in the post, and Morgan needs to add scoring to help out explosive guard Louis Dabney. Those three won't be enough to get Tulane to the postseason, and they will be hard-pressed to top last year's 15 wins.
East Carolina (+7500) - For reasons that defy any and all logic, last year's second-best player, Terry Whisnant, declared himself for the NBA draft. (Spoiler alert: he went undrafted and is probably playing somewhere in Iceland.) If Whisnant had returned then ECU would've had a trio of serious scorers back and the core of an improving team. As it stands, they have all-rookie guard B.J. Tyson (12.5 PPG) and Caleb White (12.2 PPG) and not much else. ECU was weak defensively and horrible on the glass last year - and that was with them actually exceeding expectations in their maiden voyage in the AAC. Things will likely get worse before they get better.
Projected American Athletic Conference Standings:
8. Central Florida
9. South Florida
11. East Carolina
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has an unmatched streak of nine straight winning nonconference seasons and nine straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $12,130 in profit with his sides and totals the last two years alone and he has raked in a remarkable $60,600 in the last nine years with his nonconference picks (November and December) alone. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing season. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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