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AAC Preview: Can SMU win the league without a postseason?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.

The AAC is in for an awkward season as the league’s best team — SMU — will likely be spending the majority of the season trying to win a yet-to-be-filed appeal with the NCAA that will allow them to participate in the NCAA tournament this season.

Then again, the AAC is one of those leagues whose existence still feels a bit awkward. The football-playing leftovers of the Old Big East, the AAC pairs some of the nation’s top basketball programs — UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati, Temple — with some programs that make you wonder if you need to redefine if the AAC is truly a high-major conference — East Carolina, Tulane, UCF.

In recent years, there’s been a clear-cut difference between the top of the conference and the bottom of the league. This year, with Houston and South Florida improving, that line may get a bit blurrier, but there is still a decided difference between the three or four real contenders — SMU, Tulsa, UConn and Cincinnati — and everyone else.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. SMU could win the league but may not be postseason eligible: If you read this site than you’re probably already aware of how I feel about the postseason ban the NCAA handed SMU. I hate it. I think it’s morally wrong simply because the people that pay the ultimate price — seniors Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert — are the ones that are actually hurt here. Because this SMU roster, which also includes Keith Frazier (who earned them that ban), Ben Moore and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, is good enough to not only win the AAC regular season title, but they have the pieces — and the head coach — to make a Final Four run.

Here’s to hoping that the appeal process takes six months. I want to see this team have a chance to play in March.

(UPDATE: Since this preview was published, SMU has announced that they will not appeal their postseason ban.)

2. This is the year for Tulsa to make their run: Frank Haith will never have a better chance than this to win the AAC. Looking beyond the fact that his backcourt of Shaq Harrison and James Woodard is as good as any in the league and that they are coming off of a season where they won 14 league games, the Golden Hurricane are about as old as you can get at the college level. They return their top seven scorers from last season — their first in the American and their first under Haith — and all seven of them are seniors. Tulsa’s roster is stacked with enough talent to win the league, but it will also lose enough talent to ensure that Haith will have a significant rebuild on his hands beginning in 2016-17.

3. UConn’s fifth-year seniors make the difference: Kevin Ollie has talent. There’s no question about that. Daniel Hamilton has a shot at being the AAC Player of the Year. Rodney Purvis was a top 15 recruit. Amida Brimah is one of the nation’s best shot-blockers. Jalen Adams is a stud. But the keys to this Husky team are going to be the fifth-year additions, Seton Hall transfer Sterling Gibbs and Cornell transfer Shonn Miller. Gibbs is exactly the kind of lead guard that has carried UConn in recent years, while Miller is exactly the kind of do-it-all four-man that the Huskies were missing last year.

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4. Memphis lost their best player: Josh Pastner really cannot catch a break. In July of this year, the Tiger head coach found out that Austin Nichols, who would have had a decent argument for being the Preseason Player of the Year, was leaving the program. The Tigers do add Dedric and K.J. Lawson, and Ricky Tarrant should theoretically help stabilize things at the point guard spot, but unless Kedren Johnson has magically turned into the guy he was three years ago at Vanderbilt or Shaq Goodwin has taken a giant step forward, the Tigers are probably the fifth-best team in the AAC, and that’s being optimistic. Another year without a trip to the NCAA tournament could mean that Pastner’s tenure in Memphis is over.

5. Don’t forget about Cincinnati with Mick Cronin back: Cincinnati’s fiery head coach Mick Cronin missed the majority of last season as he dealt with an unruptured aneurysm in his brain. He’s back now, and he should have the pieces to make an NCAA tournament run. Troy Caupain is back to captain the squad, while the likes of Octavious Ellis and Gary Clark return inside. In fact, Cincinnati essentially returns everyone that matters from last year, but the x-factor this season could end up being the addition of Justin Jenifer, a pint-sized point guard that could fill a role Cincy was missing a year ago.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “SMU. They are as good as anyone in the country, even with the ban. Nic Moore, the Player of the Year, is coming back, and they still have a guy like Markus Kennedy, who crushed us. When we played them we had control of the game until he went totally bonkers. We couldn’t handle him.”
  • Sleeper: “Houston. I think they will make a jump in what they were last year to this year. Kelvin Sampson is a really good coach and they add some kids (Ronnie Johnson, Damyean Dotson). They already had some players, too.”
  • Best player: “This may be surprising, but I think Daniel Hamilton at UConn is a terrific, terrific player. He’s one of the better players in the country and I think he’s going to be in line to have a breakout year.”
  • Most underrated player: “James Woodard at Tulsa. I’m sure people in the league realize he’s a good player, but I think that he’s one of the premier guards in the league. And I know how good some of the guards in the league are.”

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nic Moore, SMU

Moore, the reigning AAC Player of the Year, has been sensational in his first two seasons with the Mustangs after transferring into the program from Illinois State. As a junior, he averaged 14.5 points, 5.1 assists and 2.3 boards while shooting 41.6 percent from three. He’s the best guard in a league that’s stocked with talented perimeter players, and it’s a shame that his career looks like it’s going to be remembered by a postseason ban and a game-losing goaltend.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM:

  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn: Hamilton averaged 10.9 points as a freshman despite, at times, showing questionable shot selection and decision-making. Entering school with the rep of being a pure scorer, he also produced 7.2 boards and 3.7 assists a night.
  • Sterling Gibbs, UConn: Gibbs is a perfect piece for Kevin Ollie. A talented, veteran lead guard capable of taking over games and with the intestinal fortitude to take and make big shots. Hopefully, UConn fans forgive him for being related to Ashton.
  • James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard’s reputation is that of being a spot-up shooter, but he could very well end up being the best player on a team that will once again challenge for the regular season title.
  • Markus Kennedy, SMU: Kennedy’s numbers as a junior were impacted after he was ineligible for the first semester last season. He’s the best low-post player in the conference and a piece that can take over a game when he needs to.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa
  • Amida Brimah, UConn
  • Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
  • Louis Dabney, Tulane
  • Quentin DeCosey, Temple

BREAKOUT STAR: Gary Clark, Cincinnati

Clark is a prototype Cincinnati front court player: long and athletic with a motor that doesn’t stop running, and on a team that’s built around toughness, defense and outworking their opponents, Clark is a perfect fit. The 6-foot-8 sophomore isn’t going to put up huge numbers — he averaged 7.8 points, 7.2 boards and 1.3 blocks on a team that didn’t have a double-figure scorer last season — but he’s going to be an integral piece if the Bearcats make a run at a league title.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Josh Pastner, Memphis

This one is obvious. It feels like Pastner’s job has been on the line since he took over for John Calipari. While the success he’s had with the Tigers has been in line with just about every coach in the program’s history, he had the misfortune of following in Cal’s footsteps. The standards he has to live up to are overwhelming, and, needless to say, Pastner has not lived up to them. With Austin Nichols, arguably the best big man in the league last season, transferring out of the program this summer, Pastner is staring down the barrel of another season without an NCAA tournament trip. He better hope those Lawsons are the real deal.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : SMU should not be sitting out of the NCAA tournament. They could have made the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The perimeter battles at the top of the league. Nic Moore and Keith Frazier vs. Sterling Gibbs and Daniel Hamilton vs. Jordan Woodard and Shaq Harrison.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Feb. 13, Gonzaga at SMU
  • Nov. 25, UConn vs. Michigan
  • Dec. 8, UConn vs. Maryland
  • Nov. 17, Wichita State at Tulsa
  • Dec. 12, Cincinnati vs. Xavier

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @NoEscalators

PREDICTED FINISH

1. SMU: The best coach, the best point guard and the best big man. Whether or not they are eligible for the postseason, the Mustangs are the best team in the conference.
2.UConn: Landing Gibbs, Miller and Adams was key, but it will be the development of Hamilton, Purvis and Brimah that determines just how good the Huskies are this season.
3. Tulsa: A senior-laden squad, a talented backcourt and a year under their belt in a new league with a new coach. This is the season for the Golden Hurricane to make their run.
4. Cincinnati: It feels weird calling Cincinnati a sleeper, but that’s what the Bearcats are this year. Nothing they do is going to be glamorous, but there are few coaches that thrive are better blue collar coaches than the now-healthy Mick Cronin.
5. Houston: The Cougars are the most intriguing team in the AAC this year. They have a roster stocked with big names and a coach in Kelvin Sampson that has already proven how good he is. But they also had quite a bit of talent on the roster last season and they finished 4-14 in the league. Ronnie Johnson, L.J. Rose, Damyean Dotson, Devonta Pollard and Chicken Knowles. That roster should be relevant.
6. Temple: Losing Will Cummings will hurt, Jaylen Bond and Quentin DeCosey should be able to anchor a roster that returns some promising young talent.
7. Memphis: Losing Austin Nichols was a brutal blow, but if either Johnson or Tarrant solidifies the point guard spot, the Tigers should have enough on their roster to make an NCAA tournament push.
8. South Florida: Corey Perry Jr. graduated, but Roddy Peters, a former top 25 recruit, should be able to replace that production.
9. Tulane: The Green Wave return Louis Dabney and add Washington transfer Jernard Jerreau to help bolster their front court.
10. East Carolina: B.J. Tyson has a chance to put up some impressive numbers this season. ‘Wins’ may not be one of those numbers.
11. UCF: Am I the only one hoping that Donnie Jones pairs 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and 6-foot-9, 330 pound Justin McBride in his front court?

Kentucky, Duke, Arizona comment on player eligibility amidst FBI scandal

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On Saturday night, Kentucky won their third straight game over an opponent that will be in next month’s NCAA tournament. They were led by freshman Kevin Knox, who finished with 21 points just 36 hours after his name appeared in a report by Yahoo Sports in connection with a runner that was tied to disgraced NBA agent Andy Miller.

“I’m not here to talk about that,” Knox said in response to questions regarding the runner, Christian Dawkins, or the story that Yahoo published.

“That was all the university dealing with it,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said, adding that he did not discuss the matter with Knox. “I wasn’t involved in any way. But I felt good about it.”

“I was sure I would be able to play this whole week,” Knox told reporters. “I wasn’t really focused on none of that. I let Kentucky handle it.

“I just focused on me, focused on my game, and let them handle it. I slept well at night knowing I was going to be able to play.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went a step further, detailing precisely how he found out about the report and how Wendell Carter’s parents were involved. Carter’s mother called him while he was walking his dog and told him what was in the story. According to Coach K, Wendell’s parents went to break bread with Dawkins, but Wendell’s father did not like him and left immediately while Wendell’s mother stayed to be polite. She said she did not have anything to eat.

“It wasn’t a distraction because I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Carter told reporters after going for 16 points, 10 boards, four steals, four assists and two blocks in a win over Syracuse. “My family didn’t do anything wrong. No one around me did anything wrong. I knew I was going to play. Once I got out on the court, it was all good. It felt good.”

“We are very comfortable with where we are on this,” Coach K said. “We don’t feel like we are taking any chances with this. We very confident about this particular thing.”

Alabama told ESPN that any connection that Collin Sexton had to Dawkins or the Yahoo story was dealt with during his one-game suspension at the start of the season.

“We reviewed i, and after we reviewed it, we made the decision that Collin was going to be available for us,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “That’s the extent of it.”

Meanwhile, Arizona lost at Oregon after Sean Miller was replaced by Lorenzo Romar as head coach for the night. Romar offered no answers as to whether or not Miller, who was reportedly caught on a fire tap talking about a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton, will return to the program anytime soon because, as he put it, “I don’t know.” Romar was unable to even answer if he would be coaching practice on Sunday.

Troubled No. 14 Arizona loses 98-93 to Oregon

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EUGENE, Ore. — No. 14 Arizona played without coach Sean Miller and lost 98-93 to Oregon in overtime at the end of a difficult Saturday for the troubled Wildcats program.

Miller sat out a day after ESPN reported he was heard on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to current Wildcats freshman Deandre Ayton. The Wildcats also were without guard Allonzo Trier, who tested positive for the same banned substance that cost him 19 games last season.

“I believe it is in the best interest of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller said in a statement. “I continue to fully support the university’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated.”

The school did not specify why Miller didn’t coach against Oregon or if he will sit out any other games.

Ayton had 28 points and 16 rebounds for Arizona (22-7, 12-4 Pac-12), and Rawle Alkins added 24 points.

Oregon (19-10, 9-7) used a stellar performance at the line and a balanced attack to pick up its second straight win. Elijah Brown scored 22 of his season-high 30 points after halftime. MiKyle McIntosh added 20 points, including a key 3-pointer with 1:02 left.

Brown made 15 of 17 free-throw attempts as the Ducks connected on 20 of 24 foul shots overall. The work at the line helped them over a 58.6 shooting percentage and a 35-30 rebounding edge for the Wildcats.

Arizona also committed 17 turnovers.

Dylan Smith’s 3-pointer for the Wildcats tied it at 83 with 22 seconds left. Oregon’s Payton Pritchard missed a driving layup with 2 seconds remaining, sending the game into overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona’s immediate future isn’t clear beyond its last two games of the regular season at McKale Center. The Wildcats can clinch a share of the Pac-12 title with one more win.

Oregon push for relevance in the postseason discussion got a boost by beating the Wildcats, though the Ducks’ only route to NCAA Tournament may rest with winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas next month. Oregon closes on the road against the Washington schools.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: Bagley’s back, Miller’s gone, and Kansas got 14

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It should have been Deandre Ayton.

He spent the first 30 minutes of No. 14 Arizona’s date with Oregon absolutely dominating the Ducks. He had 17 points, 11 boards and two blocks in the first half. He finished with 28 points, 17 boards and four blocks. But he didn’t score in the last five minutes of regulation and he didn’t get a shot in overtime until he shot a three with 15 seconds left as Arizona lost 98-90 at Oregon.

Which is why Elijah Brown is the Player of the Day. He finished with 30 points in the win.

It’s worth noting here that Arizona’s day was so much more than just a basketball game. Sean Miller did not coach the team in Oregon. We don’t even know if he was in Oregon. Ayton had to release a statement to say he was not involved in anything that had appeared in recent reports. Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten, Allonzo Trier is still not eligible after he tested positive for another banned substance.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • WENDELL CARTER, Duke: Marvin Bagley was back, but Carter still posted this line: 16 points, 10 boards, four assists, four steals and two blocks. And he anchored the paint in a game where Duke allowed an ACC team to score 44 points. Not bad.
  • KEVAUGHN ALLEN, Florida: It feels like Allen has been in a season-long slump, but the junior guard, coming off the bench, went for 24 points and made two critical threes down the stretch as the Gators knocked off No. 12 Auburn in Gainesville.
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State: We’ve been waiting for him to show up, and he did on Saturday at SMU. He went for a season-high 26 points to lead the Shockers to a win on the road and keep them in the mix for an AAC regular season title.
  • KEVIN KNOX, Kentucky: Knox finished with 21 points as Kentucky won their third-straight game over an NCAA tournament team by double-digits. They beat Missouri by 22 points.

BUBBLE BANTER: Everything that happened on the cut-line

TEAM OF THE DAY

No. 8 Kansas knocked off No. 6 Texas Tech, 74-72, to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title. And it begs the question: Is this the best coaching job that Bill Self has ever done?

They lost Billy Preston. They have absolutely no depth, particularly in the front court. They had to bring a recruit into the program a semester early to make sure there were more than two front court players on the team. They lack toughness. They play small-ball without a small-ball four. They lost three games in Allen Fieldhouse, two of them by double-figures.

And they might win the toughest league in the country by two full games.

GAME OF THE DAY

Creighton knocked off No. 3 Villanova, 89-83, in an overtime thriller on Saturday afternoon.

Marcus Foster led the way for the Bluejays with 28 points while Khyri Thomas finished with 24 points, but Jacob Epperson was the revelation, finishing 12 points, five boards and two blocks in a season-high 23 minutes.

Villanova led by eight points late in regulation before Creighton, who had been inching closer to the bubble after struggling down the stretch in the last couple of weeks, all-but ensured that they will be dancing.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Pitt had absolutely no chance to win at home against No. 1 Virginia tonight.

I’m dead serious.

No chance, according to ESPN’s win probably graph. Look at this. It is 100 percent real:

ESPN win probability graph

That’s what happens when you shoot 1-for-22 through an entire half of basketball, scoring a full seven points. They were down 30-7 at the break. They lost 66-37. What an embarrassment.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

No. 6 Gonzaga put six players into double-figures as they went into the Marriott Center and knocked off BYU, 79-65. The Zags won a share of the WCC title as a result, splitting the title with No. 22 Saint Mary’s, who de-pantsed Santa Clara. Can we get a Round 3 in the WCC tournament final?

Jevon Carter became the first major-conference player in NCAA history to record more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in a career as No. 21 West Virginia beat Iowa State.

Trae Young is back. He had 27 points and hit six threes as Oklahoma snapped a six-game losing streak.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman finished with 28 points, eight boards, seven assists, two blocks and a steal as No. 21 Michigan mollywhopped Maryland. They were up 54-24. On the road. Ouch.

Gabe DeVoe scored 25 points as No. 15 Clemson erased a halftime deficit to knock off Georgia Tech, 75-67, at home.

Admiral Schofield finished with 25 points as No. 19 Tennessee knocked off Ole Miss in Oxford, 73-65, to move to within a game of first place in the SEC.

Young’s 27 help Oklahoma top Kansas State, end 6-game skid

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NORMAN, Okla. — Trae Young’s entertaining act wasn’t translating into wins for Oklahoma, and desperation had set in.

Finally, a more collective effort helped the Sooners snap their six-game losing skid. Young scored 28 points, his teammates chipped in, and Oklahoma topped Kansas State 86-77 on Saturday.

Young, the freshman point guard who leads the nation in scoring, was coming off a season-low 11 points in a loss to Kansas earlier in the week. He bounced back with a smart floor game — he made 7 of 10 shots from the field, including 6 of 9 3-pointers, and added seven assists.

Christian James scored 15 points and Brady Manek and Jamuni McNeace each added 10 for the Sooners (17-11, 7-9 Big 12), who shot 53 percent from the field.

“I talked to them and told them that I felt like our season was on the line,” James said. “We needed this. We came out and competed, and that showed tonight.”

Oklahoma hadn’t won since Jan. 30 and had dropped two straight at home.

“When you haven’t won in a while, it’s tough to stay plugged in and keep the right frame of mind,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “Happy for the guys. Proud of the way they made shots and got some stops and did the things they needed to do to get one in the right column.”

Kansas State handled Young in the first meeting and forced him into 12 turnovers as the Wildcats rolled past the Sooners 87-69 on Jan. 16. In the rematch, Young had five turnovers, though two came well after the Sooners had the game in hand. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said Young’s efficiency was the difference.

“Normally, he’s got 21 shots or whatever it is,” Weber said. “He still turned it over a few times, but he made shots and then made plays for them.”

Barry Brown scored 28 points and Dean Wade added 15 points and 11 rebounds for Kansas State (20-9, 9-7). The Wildcats made just 4 of 21 3-pointers.

Young matched his 11-point total from the Kansas game in the first eight minutes against Kansas State. He hit a 3-pointer late in the first half to close out an 18-point first half and give the Sooners a 43-35 lead at the break.

James scored in close and was fouled, and he made the free throw to put the Sooners up 52-38 with 15:45 remaining. Young hit a deep 3-pointer to put the Sooners up 55-40, and it looked like Oklahoma might cruise.

Kansas State worked its way back into the game and cut its deficit to 63-56. A 3-pointer and a short floater by Manek helped put the Sooners up 10. Another three by Young made it 71-59 with just under six minutes left, and the Sooners remained in control from there.

Kruger said he could sense a different approach from the start.

“General focus and the sense of urgency,” he said. “The awareness that we are running out of games and you got to line up and play better. I thought we played with that focus and that awareness throughout the game.”

BIG PICTURE

Oklahoma: The Sooners desperately needed this one to strengthen its NCAA Tournament resume. Though the Sooners have numerous quality wins, the losing streak was enough to raise questions.

Kansas State: The Wildcats were getting votes for the Top 25, but probably won’t get there with this loss. Overall, a road loss to a solid team likely won’t hurt the Wildcats’ NCAA hopes.

STAT LINES

Oklahoma shot 62 percent in the second half to maintain control of the game. The Sooners made 16 of 26 field goals and 4 of 10 3-pointers after the break.

QUOTABLE

Weber, on why Young shouldn’t be Big 12 Player of the Year: “To me, the Big 12 player of the year should be from the people who win the league. That’s just me. You know winning is what dictates who should be the Big 12 player of the year. But that is my opinion. Everyone has different opinions.”

No. 6 Gonzaga earns WCC title with 79-65 win over BYU

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PROVO, Utah — Johnathan Williams scored 16 points, and No. 6 Gonzaga clinched another West Coast Conference championship with a 79-65 victory over BYU on Saturday night.

The Bulldogs (27-4, 17-1) have won at least a share of 18 of the past 19 regular-season conference championships, including each of the past six seasons.

Zach Norvell Jr. had 15 points and five rebounds for Gonzaga, which got off to a fast start and also played well right after halftime.

Yoeli Childs led BYU (22-9, 11-7) with 19 points and eight rebounds. Elijah Bryant overcame a cold start to contribute 16 points, four rebounds, and three assists.

Gonzaga started the game with 10 straight field goals on its way to a 23-10 lead. BYU closed to 43-38 at the break, but the Bulldogs outscored the Cougars 32-18 over the first 16:30 of the second half.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Leads 13-6 in the all-time series against BYU, including four straight wins in Provo.

BYU: Is set for the No. 3 seed for the WCC tournament.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs earn some time off before playing the winner of the Loyola Marymount-Portland game in the WCC tourney.

BYU: The Cougars also are off before beginning play in the conference tournament.