American Athletic Conference Catchup: More membership changes on the way

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source: AP
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The inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference turned out to be a good one for the conference, with a UConn squad that finished tied for third going on to win the national title. But the March run of Kevin Ollie’s team wasn’t the only success for Mike Aresco’s conference, as Cincinnati won 27 games and a share of the regular season title and both Louisville (31 wins) and Memphis (24) reached the NCAA tournament as well. Add in an SMU program that took a major step forward in Larry Brown’s second season, and the American put forth a solid debut.

However the quest for national respect is something that didn’t come easily, with the Mustangs being left out of the NCAA tournament field and both Louisville and UConn receiving seeds that many deemed to be low. Improving the league’s standing from a national perspective is the next step for the American, and thanks to conference realignment the Cardinals won’t be around to help out as they’re joining the ACC on July 1. Rutgers (Big Ten) is also moving on, with East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa entering to move the total number of members to 11.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Losing Louisville hurts from a pedigree standpoint, but for a conference that’s new on the scene there’s also the chance for others to step forward. SMU’s turned into a program some consider to be a threat to reach the Top 10 in the national polls in 2014-15, with McDonald’s All-American Emmanuel Mudiay joining a roster that already boasts the likes of Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy. While the American has some programs that have been among the nation’s best for quite some time, the development of an SMU (and Houston as Kelvin Sampson begins his tenure) will be important when considering the long-term viability of the league.

UConn will be a factor as well, although they will need to account for the losses of Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and DeAndre Daniels. Cincinnati and Memphis also lost multiple key players from last season, but given their recent runs of success both teams should find a way to contend. Of the three newcomers Tulsa, which reached the NCAA tournament last season, looks best equipped to contend even with the change from Danny Manning to Frank Haith. But don’t overlook a Tulane squad that returns its top three scorers, led by shooting guard Jay Hook.

Three programs have new head coaches (Houston, Tulsa and USF), and given the roster and program turnover the 2014-15 season should be an interesting one in the American. It will be an important one as well, with the conference needing its members to make a few statements in non-conference play before beating up on each other.

THREE UP

  • SMU: The Mustangs’ non-conference strength of schedule (295th per rpiforecast.com) played a major role in their landing in the NIT as opposed to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, but thanks to the schedule Larry Brown’s put together to this point that shouldn’t be a concern in 2014-15. And with the talent both on the roster and arriving on campus, SMU will likely be the preseason pick to win the American come October. Emmanuel Mudiay’s arrival gives SMU a second McDonald’s All-American (Keith Frazier’s the other), and veterans Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy are back. The biggest question for SMU: how will they handle the bull’s eye that will come with the preseason expectations?
  • UConn: In two seasons at his alma mater Kevin Ollie’s successfully led the program through APR sanctions and won a national title. So what will he do for an encore? Losing the trio mentioned above hurts, but the return of Boatright is certainly a positive for the Huskies as they’ve got themselves a clear leader. And the newcomers on the perimeter (Daniel Hamilton, Sam Cassell Jr. and NC State transfer Rodney Purvis) do not lack for talent. However Amida Brimah having to undergo shoulder surgery doesn’t help matters, as the sophomore center will have to use the summer primarily for rehabilitation purposes. Brimah and Philip Nolan will need to take a step forward from a consistency standpoint, but given that perimeter rotation (Terrence Samuel and Omar Calhoun return as well) UConn will definitely be a contender.
  • Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane will be one of three debutants in the American, and even with the change in head coaches they’re well-positioned to be a factor. Tulsa’s biggest personnel losses from last season’s NCAA tournament team were Tim Peete and Patrick Swilling Jr., and they combined to average 13.9 points per game. With James Woodard, Rashad Smith and Shaquille Harrison all back for another season, Frank Haith has the pieces needed to hit the ground running. Also of note: all three of the players mentioned in the previous sentence are juniors, so they’ll (likely) be solid pieces for Haith and his staff to build around.

THREE DOWN

  • Memphis: To lose four senior guards is a tough proposition for any program, regardless of the ability of Josh Pastner and his coaching staff to land talent. The Tigers are going to be good, especially with Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols in the paint. But they’re going to be inexperienced on the perimeter, with Avery Woodson being a junior college transfer and both Pookie Powell and Dominic Magee yet to play a game at the Division I level. Within the conference the Tigers should contend, but the question is whether or not they have enough to be a Top 25 team.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats are in a position similar to Memphis, and in the trio of Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles head coach Mick Cronin has to account for the loss of guys who were productive with regards to both numbers and leadership. Players such as Troy Caupain and Shaquille Thomas will be key on the perimeter, and the same goes for Gary Clark, Quadri Moore and Octavius Ellis in the front court. Given the work Cronin and his staff have done in recent years Cincinnati will once again contend within the American, but given the key personnel losses they’re in a position similar to that of Memphis.
  • UCF: The Knights had one of the most versatile players in the American in Isaiah Sykes last season, and they won just four conference games (13-18 overall). With Sykes, Tristan Spurlock and Calvin Newell Jr. all out of eligibility UCF will have to replace its top three scorers. Kasey Wilson, who averaged 9.6 points per game in 2013-14, is the team’s leading returning scorer and that means the newcomers (keep an eye on Adonys Henriquez) will need to be ready to go from the start. This could be a tough season for Donnie Jones and his staff down in Orlando.

FIVE NEW FACES

  • Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU: Mudiay arrives on campus as the nation’s number two prospect according to Rivals, and he’s got the talent needed to have a major impact for the Mustangs. Mudiay’s a point guard, but with Nic Moore back he should see time off the ball as well. The expectation is that not only is Mudiay good enough to get SMU to the tournament for the first time in more than two decades, he’s good enough to lead the Mustangs deep into the 68-team event.
  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn: Like Mudiay, Hamilton was a McDonald’s All-American this year and the Californian will be a skilled scorer on the wing for Kevin Ollie. He doesn’t lack for confidence on the offensive end of the floor, and considering the many ways in which Hamilton can score that’s certainly understandable. His ability to knock down jumpers and beat teams off the dribble will be key for the Huskies given the loss of Shabazz Napier.
  • Kelvin Sampson, Houston: After serving as an assistant for two different NBA franchises following his unceremonious departure from Indiana, Sampson’s back in the college game as the Cougars look to improve their standing within the American. Sampson’s won nearly 65% of his games as a college head coach, so the success has clearly been there. The Cougars did lose Danuel House and TaShawn Thomas, but given Sampson’s track record the program won’t be down for long.
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati: Clark played on the same grassroots team as North Carolina signee Theo Pinson, and he’s a very good addition for the Bearcats. Ranked 87th by Rivals, the 6-foot-7 Clark runs the floor very well and is a tough customer in the front court. With Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles out of eligibility there’s the opportunity to earn significant playing time as a freshman, and Clark’s more than capable of doing just that.
  • James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard isn’t a newcomer to the Tulsa program, having played two years there already, but he is a newcomer to the American and a talented one at that. Woodard was Tulsa’s leading scorer last season, as he averaged 15.5 points per game while earning second team All-Conference USA honors. And in a league that will have to account for the loss of some very talented guards, Woodard is capable of stepping into that void.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. SMU
2. UConn
3. Cincinnati
4. Memphis
5. Tulsa
6. Temple
7. Tulane
8. East Carolina
9. UCF
10. Houston
11. USF

A season of highs and lows ends for Kansas in the Elite 8 again

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For the second season in a row, Kansas was one-win shy of a Final Four appearance, falling to Oregon, 74-60, in the Elite Eight on Friday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

This comes a year after Kansas, as the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, fell to eventual national champion Villanova in the Elite 8.

Just as stars such as Perry Ellis struggled in that regional final, so did KU’s freshman phenom Josh Jackson, whose quick two personal fouls that saddled him on the bench and appeared to take him out of the game mentally. Devonte’ Graham, averaging 20.0 points per game in the tournament, was 0-for-7 from the field. Frank Mason III’s first-half performance assured that Oregon would completely run away with the game before halftime.

The loss put an end to a tumultuous season for the Jayhawks.

Kansas entered the 2016-17 season as one of the favorites to win the national championship. The Jayhawks went on to win the Big 12 regular season title for an unprecedented 13th consecutive season. Frank Mason III, in the eyes of many, was the wire-to-wire national player of the year.

However, for all its accomplishments on the court, Kansas faced more than its share of issues off-the-court. Lagerald Vick, who was under university investigation for allegedly striking a female student. Carlton Bragg was arrested — and subsequently suspended — for drug paraphernalia. There was also the affidavit released a day before the start of the NCAA Tournament for the Jayhawks, detailing the incident outside a Lawerence bar from December involving both Vick and Josh Jackson. Even Devonte Graham’s arrest for an unpaid ticket made headlines during this string of non-basketball related news.

The Jayhawks downplayed talks of distraction before the start of the NCAA Tournament and backed it up by dominating opponents through the first three rounds. The average margin of victory was 30.0, and that includes victories over Michigan State and a 32-point beatdown of a Purdue team that held a massive mismatch on the interior.

It looked like Self was destined to add to his Hall of Fame résumé; a third trip to the Final Four — first since 2012 — was in front of essentially a home crowd. Instead, Oregon handed the Jayhawks their worst tournament defeat in the Bill Self era.

Seven times under Self, KU has made the Elite Eight and was sent home.

Perhaps, all would have been forgiven — or at the very least, overshadowed — had KU cut down the nets in Arizona.

Instead, its season ended in an all too familiar place.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.