With the American Athletic Conference tournament set to kick off Thursday in Hartford, a handful of teams have a shot at taking home the trophy and securing the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. So, which team will be cutting down the nets Sunday at the XL Center? The DC Sports staff weighs in.
Tyler Keating, Associate Sports Editor
I have seen the light, and it is first-year SMU head coach Tim Jankovich. The Mustangs have the most poised team in the American, and in a showdown with Cincinnati at Moody Coliseum earlier this season, they proved that they have the conference’s best defense. In the second half that day, the Bearcats were absolutely flummoxed by the length and fluidity of SMU’s zone as the Mustangs ran away with a win.
Jankovich also has Semi Ojeleye, a bulky forward who can score from anywhere and will be the best offensive player on the floor assuming SMU and Cincinnati meet again in the final. Those are the two best teams, destined for another collision in the championship game Sunday, and the Mustangs are slightly better.
Matt Barresi, Staff Writer
It’s the boring pick, but SMU is the best team in this conference and they are going to win the Conference Tournament. They have the most talent, as point guard Shake Milton and Ojeleye are both talented and physical specimens who will get opportunities in the NBA. Their supporting cast isn’t deep, but is talented and has tremendous experience. Their roster is diverse, giving them the ability to match up with different types of teams and players.
They’re No. 12 in KenPom, with the No. 12 Adjusted Offense and No. 24 Adjusted Defense. It’s not an easy feat to be top-25 in both, and further demonstrates their versatility, which could help them beat anyone in this conference. Not to mention, as the No. 1 seed, they have the easiest path, and will avoid Cincinnati, Houston, or even an upstart UConn, until the final. They’re rolling right now, whipping Tulsa and Memphis their last two games, and I fully expect to see that continue this weekend in Hartford.
Chris Hanna, Staff Writer
As much as I’d love to say that it’s March and UConn does nice things in March, I have to go with Cincinnati. The Bearcats put an absolute beating on the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion just this past Sunday, whereas the Mustangs almost blew it against a sans Jalen Adams UConn in the second half. Although Cincy struggled against SMU’s defense earlier this season, I believe that this Bearcats team is really well-coached by Mick Cronin (as much as I hate to say it) and will be prepared for the rematch in the final, as is expected to happen.
Plus, with scoring that can come from almost anyone, it’s hard to stop this Bearcats’ offense from getting enough points to win. Whether it be Troy Caupain, Gary Clark, Kyle Washington or Jacob Evans, so many of the Cincinnati players have the capability to single-handedly lead the team to victory. On the defensive end, the Bearcats limit opponents to just 60.2 points per game on 38 percent shooting from the field, so you know they have the ability to lock down an offense as well. And, after the way last year’s conference tourney ended for them, I think they’re going to stay focused until the buzzer sounds and take home the 2017 American title.
Matthew Kren, Staff Writer
Like Tyler, I am going with another first-year head coach, but it is Johnny Dawkins and the UCF Knights. After a rough start to the season, the Knights have been playing much better as of late, as they passed both the Huskies and the Tigers to grab the No. 4 spot in the tournament. The Knights have won their last five games, including a four-point win over the two seed Cincinnati. Led by B.J. Taylor who is averaging 17.2 points per game, Matt Williams, averaging 15.2 points and the AAC defensive player of the Year, Tacko Fall, who is averaging 11.5 points and 9.6 rebounds, the Knights have a solid core that could make a run. They split the regular season series against Memphis and only lost to No. 1 seed SMU by five points in mid-January. The Knights are a sleeper team who could be cutting down the nets on March 12.
Kenny Beardsley, Campus Correspondent
Every year, the Houston Cougars look poised to make a run in the American tournament but end up falling short—not this year. Houston saw themselves in prime position to make a run in last year’s American tournament but were upset by No. 10 seed Tulane, causing them to miss out on March Madness. This year, the Cougars will yet again need a win to catapult them into the Big Dance, and they seem to have the ammunition to do so. When it comes to Houston you must start with their backcourt, compiled of Damyean Dotson and Rob Gray. Both players were awarded All Conference First Team honors. There is no better backcourt in the AAC. Rob Gray led the AAC in points per game with 20.3, which helped Houston average 75.4 points per game, second in the American. Houston is in play to surprise the field if they can keep scoring and get past a likely date with the UConn Huskies.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Matt Kren is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenny Beardsley is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.