The verdict is still out on the American Athletic Conference as a whole.
Through three seasons, the AAC has sent ten teams to the NCAA Tournament, with the four bids last year being the sixth-most by any league, exceeding the SEC’s total (3). That’s the good.
The bad is how AAC teams have performed in the tournament: tot well—an 11-9 record, with non-UConn participants combining to go 4-8 in that span. The AAC hasn’t been represented in the Sweet 16 since 2013-2014, when UConn and Louisville did their part in the conference’s inaugural season.
UConn and Cincinnati are basically surefire locks to make this year’s NCAA Tournament. But what about the rest of the league?
If the greatest barometer of any conference is its depth, or lack thereof, it’s up to teams like Houston, Temple, and Memphis this season to improve upon the AAC’s 8th-ranked conference RPI—where it’s been for all three years of existence.
To Kelvin Sampson, Fran Dunphy, and Tubby Smith: Make the American Great Again.
Head Coach: Kelvin Sampson: 35-29 (2 years); 462-254 overall in 23 years
2015-2016 Record: 22-10 (Lost in 1st round of NIT)
2016-2017 KenPom: 85th (59th Offense, 140th Defense)
Coaches Poll: N/A
CBS Sports Poll: 72nd
2015-2016 Summary: The Cougars’ 22 wins last season were their most since a 24-win showing in 2007-08, back when Tom Penders was strolling the sidelines. Houston beat every AAC team at least once and won nine of its final eleven regular season games to earn a 2-seed in the conference tournament. It was there that UH was upset by lowly Tulane, sealing their NIT fate. Devonta Pollard (14.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG) will be sorely missed after helping make Houston basketball relevant again.
2016-2017 Outlook: The Tulane upset wasn’t the lone reason Houston had to settle for the second-rate postseason tournament. Houston’s inability to guard (179th nationally in Defensive Efficiency per KenPom), clean up the defensive glass (310th in Defensive Rebounding Rate), and schedule (308th toughest non-conference strength of schedule, of 351 D-1 teams) did the Cougars in. It’s no surprise then that Kelvin Sampson’s two biggest points of emphasis this year are overall defense and defensive rebounding. As for scheduling, the only two current KenPom Top-100 teams on Houston’s non-conference slate are Rhode Island and Arkansas. The backcourt is NCAA Tournament caliber, but it’s the frontcourt that will determine if the Cougars go dancing for just the second time in the last 25 seasons.
Key Players: Damyean Dotson (13.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG), a preseason First-Team All-AAC player, is now in his second season with Houston after transferring from Oregon. There’s not much the senior can’t do defensively, as affirmed by his 129.9 Offensive Rating last year—12th-best nationally…Rob Gray Jr. (16.0 PPG) took 34% of Houston’s field goals in 2015-16, the 13th-such highest percentage in the country. Sampson has been adamant about Gray Jr. improving his shot selection…Devin Davis, an Indiana transfer best known for getting hit by a car driven by a teammate, will have to be impactful right from the get-go and lead this frontcourt. He will start at the “4” and is coming off a 16 point (7-9 FG), 9-rebound performance in Houston’s exhibition.
Matchup with UConn: Houston’s first conference game this season is in Storrs on December 28th, with the rematch set to take place in Houston on February 22nd. The Cougars have won three of five meetings with the Huskies since they became league foes.
Head Coach: Fran Dunphy: 214-120 (10 years); 524-283 overall in 27 years
2016-2017 KenPom: 117th (154th Offense, 90th Defense)
Coaches Poll: N/A
CBS Sports Poll: 75th
2015-2016 Summary: Picked to finish 6th in the American Athletic Conference last year, Temple proceeded to go 14-4 in league play en route to winning the AAC regular season title. The Owls had a thin margin of error—their point differential in conference play was a modest +40—but won their final five regular season games that were decided by five points or less. SMU’s Nic Moore won AAC Player of the Year, robbing Quenton DeCosey (15.9 PPG), who at long last has exhausted his eligibility. Jalen Bond (10.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG) and Devin Coleman (9.2 PPG) also graduated from a squad that finally lost a nail-biter when it mattered most: a 72-70 setback in overtime vs. Iowa in the NCAA Tournament. Then again, just getting there was a huge accomplishment.
2016-2017 Outlook: Fran Dunphy has now won AAC Coach of the Year two straight seasons for Temple, who once again was chosen to finish 6th in the league. To doubt Dunphy is moronic, but guiding this year’s Owls will be his biggest challenge yet. That’s because he’s currently without two invaluable backcourt returnees in Josh Brown and Trey Lowe. Brown (8.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.8 RPG in 36.2 MPG) tore his left Achilles’ tendon back in May and has yet to participate in contact drills. The senior leader vows to play this season—the same cannot be said for Lowe, a sophomore who will redshirt following a single-car accident last February. Temple needs a pair of former complementary players to seamlessly transition into lead roles, plus rapid maturation from the three-man freshman class—an unlikely combination, to be blunt.
Key Players: Daniel Dingle (4.4 PPG, 20.7 MPG) is one of those seniors with much larger responsibilities now—any possible ascension for the versatile 6’7” wing starts with improving upon an unsightly 32.9% field goal percentage…Fellow senior Mark Williams (3.6 PPG, 9.4 MPG) appears to have the right mindset—now he must do his best Jalen Bond impersonation, and quickly at that. Obi Enechionyia (11.0 PPG) enjoyed a breakout 2015-16, and now he’s the go-to guy. Freshman Alani Moore, a three-star recruit ranked 140th nationally per Rivals, likely starts at point guard on Opening Night.
Matchup with UConn: The Huskies avoided a three-game sweep by Temple last year via an AAC Tournament semifinal win over the Owls. Prior to that, UConn had lost four straight to a Temple team that they should sweep this season (January 11th, February 19th).
Head Coach: Tubby Smith: 1st season; 557-276 overall in 25 years
2015-2016 Record: 19-15
2016-2017 KenPom: 93rd (116th Offense, 82nd Defense)
Coaches Poll: N/ACBS Sports Poll: 83rd
2015-2016 Summary: Succeeding John Calipari was always going to be an unenviable task for Josh Pastner, who is now out after seven seasons at Memphis. Mind you, Pastner wasn’t fired—that would’ve cost the university $10.6 million—but rather he was bought out for $1.255 million and is now the head man at Georgia Tech. The Tigers not only suffered 15 defeats last year—their most since the 2004-05 season—but they also parted ways with five of their top six scorers.
2016-2017 Outlook: Tubby Smith is now in charge, meaning the Tigers will play at a much more methodical pace—Memphis’ Adjusted Tempo was 13th-fastest in the country, per KenPom, while Smith’s Texas Tech squad ranked 284th in that category. Smith has by all accounts wasted no time instilling a defensive-first approach, but does he have the roster to get enough stops? The personnel attrition is real, but Memphis does have its top returning scorer in Dedric Lawson. Transfers Chad Rhykoek and Christian Kessee will be relied upon early and often.
Key Players: It all starts with Dedric Lawson (15.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG), the preseason AAC Co-Player of the Year who spiked his average to 19&10 over the final 12 games last year but is back on campus after poor measurable at the NBA Draft combine…Twin brother K.J. Lawson (8.8 PPG, 37% FG) was limited to ten games due to foot issues—both Lawsons posted sub-100 Offensive Ratings as freshmen and must take huge leaps in the efficiency department…Rhykoek was part of that loaded 2012 Baylor recruiting class alongside Isaiah Austin, Taurean Prince, and Rico Gathers, but has yet to appear in a college game due to—wait for it—four hip surgeries, plus hernia and groin ailments…Kessee is a grad transfer by way of Coppin State who made 88 triples last season.
Matchup with UConn: January 5th and February 16th are the dates. UConn shouldn’t lose either, so long as a combination of Kentan Facey/Amida Brimah/Terry Larrier don’t let Lawson go off for 40.