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2018 AAC Tournament Preview

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The American Athletic Conference Tournament starts Thursday. Here’s a look at the favorites, the dark horses, and who UConn will have to play along the way.

NCAA Basketball: AAC Conference Tournament-Cincinnati vs SMU David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

UConn has had great success in conference tournaments before, but based on the 2017-18 regular season, the chances of making a deep run this year seem low.

The Huskies are far from the favorites at the 2018 American Athletic Conference Tournament, but based on their recent performance at Houston, they might have an opportunity to be a dark horse. UConn has certainly had upset wins at the conference tournament before, even under Kevin Ollie, and the Huskies have a chance to pull off a surprising win again.

Their path to the NCAA Tournament automatic bid won’t be easy, though, as UConn will have to face some tough teams along the way. We preview UConn’s potential opponents below, as well as provide some background information on every other team at the AAC Tournament. There’s also a little bit of tournament history, some predictions, players to watch, and more.

UConn opponents

UConn starts off its tournament with Southern Methodist, a team the Huskies beat 63-52 in their only meeting this season. The Mustangs don’t have nearly the firepower they did last season, when they won the AAC Tournament, and won just two of their final eleven games, limping to a 16-15 finish. Leading scorer Shake Milton is day-to-day with a hand injury (he’s missed nine games), and injuries to other players have left Tim Jankovich with an eight-man rotation even if Milton is ready to go. They’ll shoot better than the 28.1% they put up against UConn in January, but SMU has been struggling for a while now, and they’re vulnerable to a loss. If Milton is healthy and plays well, though, the Mustangs could very well make a deep run in the AAC Tournament themselves.

If UConn gets past SMU, the Huskies will have to play the top-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats, who have to be considered the favorites to win the entire tournament. Mick Cronin’s squad has given UConn—and other opponents—fits all season, as the Bearcats have only four losses on the year, all of them to strong teams. This game will be very tough to win, but Cincinnati’s offense is bound to go cold in one of these games. If UConn gets a little bit of luck, playing this game at a neutral site might help out the Huskies.

Other favorites

Houston and Wichita State are the other two teams with a real shot of winning the AAC Tournament, and both will also be representing the conference come March Madness. They take differing approaches to the game—Wichita with its hyper-efficient offense and Houston with a more balanced strategy—but both have been effective all season long. Either one could upset Cincinnati in the final.

Dark horses

Tulsa ended up with an unexpected four-seed and first-round bye, and has struggled on defense all season, but the Golden Hurricane won eight of their last nine games and they spread the ball around and play the right tempo where they could easily upset a more talented team. Plus, with a favorable matchup in the quarterfinal no matter who wins the 5-12 game between Memphis and Central Florida, Tulsa has a clear path to the semis.

Temple’s record doesn’t look too impressive, but the Owls’ underlying numbers suggest the team is capable of a big upset, featuring a strong perimeter defense and a deep rotation. Philadelphia mainstay Fran Dunphy always has his team ready to perform in tournaments, and even with some bad luck in close games early in the season, the Owls could be priming themselves for an upset of Wichita State in the quarterfinals.

Longshots

Memphis and Central Florida are two teams that would have had a chance at a run, but season-ending injuries to each team’s best player has left them sputtering. Jeremiah Martin’s injury has left Memphis without its best defensive player, and while they were fine having only two reliable scorers, going down to just one will likely end their season. Meanwhile, AAC standout Tacko Fall won’t be playing in the conference tournament this year, and the UCF defense has fallen apart without him on the court. It’s an unfortunate fate for both teams, as either could have been solid with better health.

Mike Dunleavy has improved Tulane a lot in just his second season at the school, but the Green Wave just aren’t ready for a tournament run even if they do upset Temple. They graduate only one senior this season, though, so keep an eye on some of these players for next year, as further improvement could make Tulane a dangerous team.

South Florida and East Carolina are both, for lack of a better word, terrible. They’re not altogether worth skipping out early (even in the best days of the Big East, the bottom two teams were typically lousy), but these teams don’t pose a serious threat to any legitimate team.

Previous years

2014: Louisville beats future national champion UConn in the final as Russ Smith is named MVP.

2015: UConn again loses in the final, this time to Markus Kennedy and SMU.

2016: In their third try, UConn wins the AAC Tournament, and Daniel Hamilton is named MVP.

2017: SMU took everyone to the Ojeleye Factory as Boston Celtics rookie Semi Ojeleye and his combat muscles swept through the tournament pretty easily.

LISTEN: Friend of The UConn Blog Collin Sherwin Interviews Mike Aresco

Players to watch

By now, you’ve certainly heard of the best players on the big teams—Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans and Gary Clark, Wichita State’s Landry Shamet, and Rob Gray of Houston. There are a few other players worthy of your attention, though. Junior Etou of Tulsa is a versatile player who can score from anywhere within 25 feet, Melvin Frazier is way better than you would expect Tulane’s best player to be, and East Carolina’s Kentrell Barkley looked like the best player on the court for most of ECU’s two games at last year’s AAC Tournament.

Prediction

UConn gets past a hobbled SMU in the first round, Memphis easily dispatches South Florida, Temple and Tulane battle but the Owls come out on top, and Central Florida gets past East Carolina in a low-scoring matchup.

The favorites win out from there, as Cincinnati’s swarming defense is too much for the Huskies to handle, a shorthanded Memphis has a hard time scoring against Tulsa, Temple doesn’t come out strong against Wichita State, and Houston has no trouble with UCF.

Cincinnati should have an easy path to the final from there, as the Golden Hurricane aren’t built to exploit the Bearcats’ weaknesses, and Houston defeats Wichita State in a high-scoring affair. From there, Cincy should be able to top Houston and look ahead to a high seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

How to watch

Thursday’s first-round games are all on ESPNU. UConn-SMU will tip off at noon, and USF-Memphis follows them, with a break occurring before the two night games. The earlier of the two Friday quarterfinals will be on ESPN2, and coverage shifts back to ESPNU for the two night games.

The Saturday semifinals and Sunday championship—all afternoon games—will be broadcast on CBS.