2018 AAC Basketball Predictions and Expert Betting Picks
The American Athletic Conference is still a league searching for respect. Residing in that limbo between major conferences, like the ACC and Big Ten, and the mid-major conferences, like the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West, the AAC is still trying to find its place in college basketball's national hierarchy.
This looks like a bit of a retooling year for the AAC. On one hand, that will make it difficult for them to maintain their current pace of five combined bids to the NCAA's and NIT each season. On the other hand, it should make for an exciting and unpredictable league title race.
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Despite a dearth of high-end teams in the AAC, there is still plenty of cache. A lot of name coaches are still plying their craft in this league. Guys like Kelvin Sampson, Johnny Dawkins and Frank Haith have had success at major programs. And newcomers Danny Hurley and Penny Hardaway bring a new layer of intrigue. So no, this league doesn't recruit the same level of talent that we see in some of the bigger leagues. But the coaching is fantastic overall, and that should help keep this conference respectable.
Here are Doc's Sports 2018-19 American Athletic Conference college basketball predictions:
The Favorite: Cincinnati Bearcats
Cincinnati enjoyed one of the best seasons in school history last year, going 31-5 and finishing No. 6 in the final AP poll of the season. They won the regular season and conference tournament championships. And they were one epic tournament collapse away from going to the Sweet 16. It is that last part that lingers, though, as the memory of a blown 22-point lead in the second half has haunted the team throughout the offseason. The Bearcats lost their three best players from last year's team to graduation, and now they have to start all over again. Jarron Cumberland, Cincy's nasty swing forward, is this team's unquestioned leader. He will need a lot of help from an unproven and untested group of running mates. Mick Cronin is an outstanding coach. And I'm pretty confident that he'll figure it out and have the Bearcats near the top of the standings again, even if they won't match last year's heights.
The Challenger: Houston Cougars
Kelvin Sampson posted his third straight 20-win season in Houston and was finally able to get over the hump, getting the Cougars back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. Now he will have to soldier on without one of the best players in school history, Rob Gray. Sampson has three of his top six players back this season, led by four-year starting point guard Galen Robinson and wing Corey Davis Jr. The rest of the roster is kind of a mishmash. And if the Cougars have a weakness, it is clearly their lack of size or presence in the post. That, and replacing Gray's ability to hit big shots. This team is not nearly as good as last season's group, and I expect them to take a step back.
The Dark Horse: Central Florida Golden Knights
If . That's the word hovering over this team. If they can just stay healthy. Because if the Knights can stay healthy I think they are clearly the best team in the AAC. B.J. Taylor is a proven stud. Seven-foot-six center Tacko Fall is one of the most unique players in the country. And transfer Aubrey Dawkins, coach Johnny Dawkins' son, could be a difference-maker. All three have been lost to injury at some point over the last two years. Beyond those focal points, UCF has a bunch of veteran role players that are not short on experience or ability. Again, if these guys can avoid the bad luck and injuries they've been shackled with the past two years, they have Sweet 16 potential.
The X-Factor: SMU Mustangs
Injuries crippled what should have been one of the AAC's best teams last year. The Mustangs hope for a bit better luck on that front this season. And they'll need it. Because once again Tim Jankovich will have one of the shortest benches in the country, choosing to stick with a tight seven-man rotation. Jahmal McMurray was excellent in his first year in the program and should take a step forward. If Jarrey Foster can rebound from last year's torn ACL, then SMU will actually have four starters back and two go-to guys. Size is still an issue, however, as SMU doesn't have a single guy on the roster taller than 6-9. This team is limited in too many ways to be considered a real AAC title contender. And even an NCAA bid might be a stretch. They will, however, play a factor in the league race.
The Disappointment: Wichita State Shockers
I have as much respect for Gregg Marshall as any other coach in the country. But I've seen this before. A couple of years ago Creighton, Wichita State's old Missouri Valley nemesis, brought a stacked team into a new home, the Big East. They finished in second place and had a great opening season despite the major step up in class. But then the Bluejays graduated a ton of talent and experienced and flopped back to a 14-19 mark in their second tour through the Beast. I see a similar setup for Wichita State this year. Last season they finished in second place in their first season in a new conference, the AAC. But Wichita State lost all five starters, an NBA draft pick and 90 percent of its scoring. They are completely rebuilding this season. And even though the AAC is down, I think the Shockers are going to struggle to stay in the league's top half. I think this team will have its streak of seven straight NCAA Tournament bids snapped.
Connecticut (+850) - I almost tabbed the Huskies as the X-Factor in this league. They have a new coach, Danny Hurley, that I really like. And they have one of the best players in the conference in senior guard Jalen Adams. That alone could make them a factor. Third-year players Christian Vital and (if he could ever stay healthy) Alterique Gilbert could become options. Beyond that is a whole lot of rebuilding. The Huskies aren't going to be very good at all. Bu I think Hurley will have them more competitive than people think.
Temple (+1800) - This is Fran Dunphy's 30th and final year as a college basketball coach. It will be interesting to see what that emotion and motivation does for this Owls team, which was a massive underachiever last season. This is Dunphy's 13th year in Philadelphia, and you know his upperclassman-laden roster would love to send him off with an NCAA Tournament bid. That may be a bit optimistic. But Temple isn't bereft of talent. Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston form a solid backcourt. And if last year's ballyhooed freshman class can make strides as sophomores, this team could be in business.
Tulsa (+2200) - Frank Haith deserves a lot more credit than he receives. He's posted three of four winning seasons at Tulsa and definitely outperformed expectations last winter. He'll try to do it again despite losing do-it-all forward Junior Etou. Tulsa has just two starters back and is short on high-end talent. Their hopes are that the seven-man sophomore class will develop and position them to compete at the top of the league next year. In the meantime, Haith will continue to coax wins out of this overachieving squad.
Memphis (+3000) - Penny Hardaway has taken over and is trying to breath life into a Memphis program that continues to struggle in the post-Calipari era. The Tigers have missed the NCAA Tournament four straight years. If they are to snap that streak, it will be on the backs of guard Jeremiah Martin, who averaged 19 points per game, and forward Kyvon Davenport. The five-man senior class has improved its winning percentage overall and in the conference in each of their three years on campus. If they are going to take the next step and get back to the dance, it will be because Hardaway and his exciting freshmen class pay instant dividends.
East Carolina (+8000) - The ECU basketball program is one of the worst programs in the country. They've had just two winning seasons in the last 20 years and just one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last 45 years (1993). Joe Dooley is back to coach the Pirates and try to recapture some of the "magic" of his first tour here. Dooley owns the school's best career winning percentage at a paltry .523. He has nothing to work with, and this should be another horrid season in Greenville.
South Florida (+10000) - Brian Gregory is a solid coach that I respect. And I do believe he will get things on a decent track in Tampa. But he's not there yet, and he actually lost a lot more talent than he gained on a team that went just 10-22 last year. This team will grind. But they won't do much winning and are just fodder in the AAC.
Tulane (+10000) - The Green Wave have sent back-to-back players into the NBA, which is almost unheard of at Tulane. Mike Dunleavy has done a good job of bringing an air of credibility to this program. But he is still just 20-42 over the past two years and will struggle after losing what were by far his two best players. They have a long way to go before they can crawl out of the league's bottom tier.
Projected American Athletic Conference Standings:
1. Central Florida
7. Wichita State
11. South Florida
12. 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 unrivaled run of 11 of 12 winning nonconference seasons and 10 of 12 winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked a remarkable $61,300 in the last 12 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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