Injuries may have derailed UConn’s season, but ultimately the derailment is what the NCAA Tournament selection committee looks at first. What that means, as the Connecticut faithful have understood for a while now, is that the Huskies will have to win the AAC Tournament outright in order to make the Big Dance. UConn has won the American Athletic Conference’s postseason tournament once and finished as the runner-up twice, but didn’t win a single game last season, and will be underdogs for most of the tournament.
That doesn’t mean that this Huskies squad can’t upset a couple teams to earn the conference’s automatic bid, but the news that Alterique Gilbert is unavailable makes things a little more difficult. That being said, upsets happen at the conference tournaments every year, and there’s no reason it can’t happen in the American this year. We’ve provided a rundown of what to look for at the AAC Tournament, including scouting reports on UConn’s opponents, a brief look at every team in the conference, players to watch, history, and more.
UConn, as the No. 9 seed, faces No. 8-seeded South Florida in the opening round. The Huskies split the season series with the Bulls, with each team winning convincingly at home, but USF getting the benefit of the home calls en route to 46 free throw attempts in a 40-minute game. Brian Gregory’s offense is dependent on getting those calls in the Bulls’ favor, as the team lacks scoring talent, but ranks first in the nation in free throw attempts. The USF defense is considerably better than its below-average offense, as they’re physical and deep, though often undisciplined. The Bulls represent a threat in their aggressive, sometimes ugly style of play, but if their tactics don’t work, they can easily be out-talented.
If UConn gets by South Florida, the Huskies will move on to play top-seeded Houston, undisputedly the top team in the American this year. Houston, ranking 11th in the AP Poll and 13th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, is the toughest opponent any team will face in the AAC. Houston did lose twice though, and both losses were to teams that UConn played tough despite injuries to at least one star player. Houston is a well-rounded team with very few weaknesses (though they are susceptible to fouling too often), and excels in perimeter defense and ball control. Kelvin Sampson’s team has limited holes, but can be vulnerable if a team establishes multiple areas of an offensive game and plays aggressively on the two gunners that lead the Cougars’ offense.
Houston should be considered a heavy favorite to win this year’s AAC Tournament, but if the Cougars are upset, the two teams in the best position to take home the championship are Cincinnati and Central Florida. The Bearcats, now seemingly just as known for their lack of success in postseason play as their brutal defense, won last year’s iteration of this event, and could easily repeat as champions behind their pressure defense that gives opponents fits and the Bearcats the ball. UCF might not have nearly the same pedigree, but has a senior-led team with several valuable players, and gigantic center Tacko Fall gives lesser teams no room to shoot. Either of these teams could win the championship.
I know I’m going to look really silly if they pull a couple upsets and win this whole thing, but I don’t see Temple being in the same tier as the AAC’s top three. The Owls are seemingly 50/50 to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large, and they are a solid team, but I simply don’t see them competing with the conference’s elite. Middle-of-the-road play doesn’t work against high-quality teams, and that’s what Temple will be facing in the semi-finals and championship game. In my eyes, the Owls are more likely to be upset by Wichita State in the first round than to beat Cincinnati and advance to the final.
Every year, in every conference tournament, there’s a team or two that surprises fans with a good run of solid play. Besides UConn, I see two other teams who may challenge for this title.
One is, of course, the Memphis Tigers, who will be hosting this year’s tournament, and will have the crowd behind them. Memphis’ fast-paced style of play is much different from what AAC teams are used to, and star player Jeremiah Martin is the type of guy who can lead a team to postseason success. The Tigers have plenty of experience (five of the Memphis’ top six scorers are seniors), and they’ve been improving as the season has progressed. That may not guarantee success, but if they beat lowest-seeded Tulane in the first round, they’ll have a tantalizing matchup against UCF in the quarterfinals.
Another team that has steadily—then rapidly—improved over the course of the season is Wichita State. The Shockers had a miserable January, but have won nine of their last 11 games, with the only two losses coming to Memphis and Cincinnati. The Shockers are well-coached and disciplined, and feature three steady upperclassmen leading a group of volatile freshmen. If one of the young players breaks out, Wichita State will be tough to beat.
Tulsa has talented players at the top, but lacks the depth to compete with the best teams of the conference, unless one of the Golden Hurricane’s leaders has an unexpected stretch of great play in them. SMU has a lot of talent, but lacks the depth and discipline to make a run; the Mustangs show little chemistry on offense and their defense is often incohesive. East Carolina isn’t talentless, but it’s seemingly concentrated entirely within two players, and the Pirates struggle to compete when even just one of them leaves the floor. Tulane hasn’t won a game since mid-December, and ranks as perhaps the worst team from any reputable conference.
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 the Huskies’ third try, UConn wins the AAC Tournament, and Daniel Hamilton is named MVP.
2017: SMU took everyone to the Ojeleye Factory as Semi Ojeleye and his combat muscles swept through the tournament easily.
2018: Gary Clark and Cincinnati beat Houston by one in a tight, defensive oriented game for Mick Cronin’s first conference tournament championship at Cincy.
Players to watch
The conference has been steadily improving top-to-bottom, meaning there are less true standouts in the league when there isn’t NBA-ready talent. Still, there are plenty of important players in the AAC who will have a big impact on their games in the tournament. Outside of team leaders such as Houston’s Corey Davis Jr., Memphis’ Jeremiah Martin, and Cincinnati’s Jarron Cumberland, there are a slew of players who could, one way or another, decide their team’s fate in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The eye-grabber for UCF is of course 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, but the key player is Aubrey Dawkins (son of Knights coach Johnny Dawkins), who is the type of steady, consistent presence every team needs. Temple’s Shizz Alston Jr. is the one dependable player for Fran Dunphy, as his shooting ability puts him a notch above the rest of his teammates. Wichita State is led by Markis McDuffie, a defense-first player who struggled to adjust to being an offensive leader, but has improved over the course of the season into a true two-way player.
Further down the bracket, Tulsa is led by the AAC’s most underrated player in DaQuan Jeffries, a true two-way player whose modest stats mask his huge impact. SMU’s Jahmal McMurray can score from anywhere on the floor. ECU’s Shawn Williams is the best shooter on the team and possibly the Pirates’ only hope for an upset win.
UConn opens up the tournament with a hard-fought win over USF, Memphis gets by Tulane easily, SMU outpaces Tulsa in the tournament’s first upset, and Wichita State shuts down East Carolina to close the first day of play.
In the quarterfinals, Houston out-talents a shorthanded UConn team, Memphis exploits its home-court advantage to beat an underwhelming UCF side, Cincinnati takes care of business against SMU, and Wichita State continues its hot streak to take down Temple.
Memphis’ luck runs out against a strong Houston team in the semifinals, but the game is closer than many will expect, and Cincy holds Wichita to a low-scoring game on the other half of the bracket.
In the championship, a rematch of last year’s final game, Houston proves itself to be the best team in the conference and raises its profile for Selection Sunday.
How to watch
If you aren’t traveling to Memphis to watch the games in person, Thursday’s first round games will all be on ESPNU (with UConn playing at 1 p.m. ET), the first two quarterfinals on Friday will be on ESPN2 before ESPNU picks up the night games, Saturday’s semifinals will both be on ESPN2 in the afternoon, and Sunday’s championship will be on ESPN at 2:15.