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2020 AAC Basketball Tournament Preview

UConn might be able to play its way into an at-large bid, but the safest bet is still winning the conference tournament outright.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

This time last year I was writing about UConn’s season being derailed by injuries, leading the Huskies to have less than a full bench right as they desperately needed to win the conference tournament. This year, they still do not have a full bench, but instead of derailing, the Huskies found the right track again after previously departing for the wrong station.

Honestly, that’s not a great metaphor, but what’s different about this year is that the Huskies are playing their best basketball of the year after the injuries. Weird!

As a result, the Huskies might not need to win the AAC Tournament outright in order to steal a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their path to March Madness still requires them to beat multiple bubble teams, but after that, a close loss in the conference final may still secure an at-large bid. The safest play is still, of course, winning the automatic berth, but getting to the final is the biggest goal.

Given their recent hot streak, the Huskies are considered by many to be a potential dark horse or an upset candidate. UConn hasn’t lost to the same team twice this year, and are capable of beating any opponent, but the Huskies still should not be considered a favorite but there’s reason for fans to be optimistic. 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 opponents

The Huskies open up play with Tulane, who finished last in the conference. While the Green Wave just had a narrow loss to UConn, don’t let that fool you—Tulane is still a year away from being a solid team, and they needed every break in order to keep the game close last weekend.

While players like K.J. Lawson and Christion Thompson have breakout potential in them, the Green Wave struggle to get easy buckets on the inside, which won’t get any easier against UConn’s much-improved defense that predicates on stopping ballhandlers at the perimeter. They don’t foul much, though, which could mean trouble if UConn’s outside shot isn’t falling.

After that, UConn would play Wichita State, which received a first-round bye. The Shockers are an underrated team with an excellent defense led by Jaime Echenique, who killed the Huskies on both ends in Hartford this season. They snuff out shots from all areas of the floor, and can swarm to create turnovers, which could cause issues for UConn’s underclassman guards. The one area where the Shockers struggle on defense is avoiding fouls, and the Huskies’ aggressiveness could pay off here. Wichita State doesn’t have a particular area of expertise on offense, which is another potential advantage for UConn to exploit.

If they win that game, the Huskies would play the winner of Cincinnati vs. UCF or South Florida, so Cincinnati. The Bearcats are once again a well-rounded team that don’t excel in any particular area, and have been terrible away from home. While UConn’s road record is quite bad, the Huskies have had several close losses on the road to solid teams. Cincinnati’s road schedule includes losses to Tulane, Bowling Green, and Colgate. Despite the veteran leadership of Jarron Cumberland, the Bearcats aren’t the same team they were last year, and are vulnerable to an upset on a neutral court.

The favorite

If the Huskies win their first three games, they’re on a crash course with Houston in the championship. Houston is the favorite to win the championship, and they’ve been the best team in the conference all season. Like the Huskies, the Cougars have improved as the year goes on with the help of an impressive freshman, Caleb Mills, but they’re also deep and show no real weaknesses. If I was setting odds, I would take Houston over the field.

Dark horse

Young teams tend to get better (relative to their competition) as the year goes on, and Memphis would be one of those teams. From a raw talent perspective, they have as much as anyone in the tournament, but their youth and shallow rotations might not translate into teamwide success. The Tigers’ defense is terrific but they struggle to score consistently—but they’re a dangerous team if they can cut down on turnovers.

Overrated

There’s one every year, and this doesn’t mean they can’t make a run, but I don’t see Tulsa as a particularly strong team. Going up against (likely) Memphis in the second round makes them the most probable first-round-bye team to lose their first game. They have some defensive ability, but can struggle to score, leading to a 40-point win (against Memphis) and a 33-point loss (against Cincinnati) in the span of two weeks. I’ll give the Golden Hurricane this—they’re the most volatile team in the conference, and that can make a big difference at tournament time.

Longshots

SMU spreads the ball and consistently gets easy points from the interior, but struggles with shot selection and doesn’t have a great defense. Temple is the exact opposite. UCF no longer has the defensive ability to make up for their lack of efficient scoring. South Florida can’t shoot. East Carolina is maybe not quite as bad as many people think, but shoots terribly from the outside.

Previous tournaments

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.

2019: Jarron Cumberland led the Bearcats to Cronin’s second AAC Tournament title, as Cincinnati repeated its title.

Players to watch

Besides the aforementioned standouts—Cumberland, Mills, Achiuwa, and Echenique—there are a few others worth keeping an eye on as well. Houston’s Nate Hinton has been the Cougars’ best two-way player as only a sophomore. East Carolina’s Jayden Gardner has had to carry more of a load than any other player in the conference, and he’s risen to the occasion. Tulsa guard Darien Jackson may be an X-factor if the Golden Hurricane are to make a run.

Prediction

South Florida bullies their Central counterparts out of the way to advance, UConn dispatches Tulane easily, SMU outpaces Temple in a slow battle where both teams shoot well, and Memphis easily turns aside East Carolina to end the first round.

Cincinnati then shouldn’t have much of a problem with whichever directional they end up playing (likely South Florida), UConn wins a hard-fought squeaker over Wichita State, Houston clobbers SMU, and Memphis keeps Tulsa out of the paint long enough to earn the upset.

UConn and Cincy fight, but foul trouble forces the Huskies’ hand and their run ends here, while Houston takes care of business against Memphis, holding the Tigers to just over 50 points.

Houston then ends Cincinnati’s reign of terror over the AAC with a 10-point win in the championship game that never feels close.

How to watch

The first round games on Thursday will all be broadcast on ESPNU, with UConn playing at 3 p.m. On Friday, the first two games (including UConn’s, if they advance) will be on ESPN2, and then ESPNU picks up the two evening games. Saturday’s semifinals will be on ESPN2 in the afternoon, and Sunday’s final will take place at 2:15 ET on ESPN.