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AMERICAN CONFERENCE RESET: What happens when your best team is banned from tourney?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the AAC.

AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nic Moore, SMU

Playing another steady season, the senior has no postseason to play for but is still the catalyst of one of the nation’s only unbeaten teams. Moore is among the conference’s leaders in points (15.5 ppg), assists (5.3 apg) and 3-point percentage (43 percent).

ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM

  • Nic Moore, SMU
  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn
  • Jordan Tolbert, SMU
  • Dedric Lawson, Memphis
  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. The AAC is a gigantic question mark against legitimate teams: The American has some teams with gaudy records atop the conference standings, but they haven’t been so good against strong competition. The league is a combined 1-11 against top-25 opponents on the season and UConn and Memphis have yet to play a true road game.
  2. UConn’s deep stable of wings can play together: One of the major question marks for the American this season is how UConn would look with so many talented perimeter-oriented players on the roster? So far, the group has played very well together as Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis and Sterling Gibbs are all enjoying strong seasons while Jalen Adams and Omar Calhoun provide some additional pop. The Huskies are shooting at 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range, so the offense has really clicked so far.
  3. Cincinnati is still a force to be reckoned with: Mick Cronin is back on the sidelines and Cincinnati is once again looking like a team that nobody wants to play. Despite not having a true star player, the rugged and balanced Bearcats have proven that they can hang with the nation’s elite teams. Cincinnati lost to Butler and Iowa State by two points each and were able to play with two of the nation’s better offensive teams.

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Who emerges to win the autobid with SMU being tournament ineligible?: The logical choice here would be Cincinnati since they’re off to a good start and have shown well in losses to elite teams, but UConn might have more talent when they’re expected to be healthy by February. Without SMU in the tournament, the league is in danger of getting only one or two teams into the field of 68 if nobody in the second tier has a great conference season.
  2. How will UConn adjust to the loss of Amida Brimah?: The Huskies are preparing to play the next six to eight weeks without the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year and this will be a huge stretch for UConn. Their interior defense has looked very mediocre at times without Brimah and they don’t have many big men behind him who are productive.
  3. Can Tulsa make a push towards a NCAA tournament bid?: Last season, Tulsa finished 14-4 in the American but still missed the NCAA tournament despite a very solid 22-10 record on Selection Sunday. Now armed with some better non-conference wins entering conference season, can the senior backcourt of Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard repeat a similar conference mark to help get Tulsa in the field?
Connecticut's Daniel Hamilton (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut’s Daniel Hamilton (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Tulsa stands at 8-4 and has played one of the tougher schedules in the conference. They beat Wichita State and Oklahoma State and have arguably the best back court in the conference.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Kelvin Sampson has put together a talented Houston roster filled with transfers, but LSU — without Craig Victor — is their only notable win this season and they lost to Grand Canyon. There’s reason to be hopeful about this group but until they do something of note in league play it’s tough to totally buy-in.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: UCF is off to a 6-4 start on the season, but Donnie Jones has never won more than five games in AAC league play. UCF likely needs a strong conference mark for Jones to keep his job.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. SMU (11-0): The Mustangs obviously can’t play in the NCAA tournament, but they’re still the class of the league and likely a legit top-25 team. It’s a shame Nic Moore and the other seniors can’t get one more crack at the Big Dance.
  • 2. Cincinnati (10-3): Don’t be fooled by Cincinnati’s three losses this season. All three were tight games and they came against Butler, Xavier and Iowa State. Mick Cronin’s team is balanced and very tough defensively.
  • 3. UConn (8-3): The Huskies absolutely have the talent of a NCAA tournament team, but their best wins have come against Michigan and Ohio State. This next stretch without Amida Brimah will be huge for them.
  • 4. Tulsa (8-4): The Golden Hurricane have an experienced backcourt in Harrison and Woodard and those two alone should win Tulsa a lot of games. After a 14-4 conference mark and NIT appearance last season, Tulsa is motivated to take the next step.

NIT teams

  • 5. Houston (9-2): There’s certainly enough talent for the Cougars to make the NCAA tournament but it remains to be seen if they can beat good teams, especially on the road. Rob Gray Jr. has been a consistent scoring force so far this season.
  • 6. Memphis (8-3): It’s been a decent start for the Tigers, and Dedric Lawson looks like a potential star, but it’s tough to see them in the NCAA tournament with their questionable guard play.

Autobid or bust

  • 7. East Carolina (8-5)
  • 8. UCF (6-4)
  • 9. Temple (5-5)
  • 10. Tulane (7-6)
  • 11. South Florida (3-10)

Deandre Ayton eligible to play for Arizona

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Arizona announced on Saturday afternoon that Deandre Ayton will be eligible to play the rest of the season. The Wildcats play at Oregon on Saturday night.

On Friday night, ESPN reported that Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap during the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball discussing a $100,000 payment to secure the services of Ayton.

The conversations that were intercepted were between Miller and Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller. According to ESPN, when asked by Dawkins if he should work through former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson to finalize a deal, “Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money.”

Miller will not be coaching for Arizona tonight.

“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. For now, my thoughts are with our team. They are a great group of young men that will support each other and continue their pursuit of winning a Pac-12 championship.”

McDuffie leads No. 13 Wichita State past SMU 84-78

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DALLAS — Markis McDuffie scored a season-high 26 points off the bench, including nine during the first four minutes of the second half, to lead No. 13 Wichita State to an 84-78 win over SMU on Saturday.

The Shockers (23-5, 13-3 American Athletic Conference) have won six straight games and are one-half game behind first-place Cincinnati. Wichita State will host Cincinnati on March 4 in the regular-season finale for both teams.

SMU (16-13, 6-10) lost for the sixth time in seven games since leading scorer Shake Milton (18 points per game) was sidelined with a hand injury.

McDuffie added to Wichita State’s 37-35 halftime lead on the first possession of the second half with a midcourt steal leading to a three-point play. A 10-1 run put the Shockers ahead 56-43 with 12:18 to play, and they led by as many as 17 points.

McDuffie, a junior forward, led Wichita State in scoring last season but missed this season’s first 11 games because of a stress fracture. He has primarily been a reserve since returning.

Jahmal McMurray led SMU with 28 points. McMurray has topped the Mustangs in scoring in five of the past six games.

Shaquille Morris had 21 points and 10 rebounds for Wichita State. Landry Shamet returned after missing the Shockers’ previous game because of illness and scored 10 points in 27 minutes, playing only eight first-half minutes because of foul trouble.

Because of injuries and NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, SMU played with seven scholarship players on Saturday and has had seven or fewer during its past seven games.

Wichita State failed to pull away during the first half despite a 21-12 rebounding advantage. The Mustangs shot 45.4 percent during the half and the Shockers 41.4 percent, both hitting six 3-pointers.

Wichita State got even for one of its two home losses this season, 83-78 on Jan. 17.

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers are 8-2 in true road games this season with one to play. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, they lead Division I in road wins (48) and road winning percentage (.857). They avoided a conference opponent’s sweep of a two-game season series for the first time since 2012-13 (Evansville, Missouri Valley).

SMU: The Mustangs opened the season 12-3, including wins over then-No. 2 Arizona and then-No. 14 USC, but have since gone 4-10. SMU will finish with a losing league record after winning the AAC last season at 17-1.

UP NEXT

Wichita State will visit UCF on Thursday.

SMU hosts Houston in its final home season of the season on Wednesday.

Shareef O’Neal decommits from Arizona

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Shareef O’Neal, the son of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, has decommitted from Arizona following the latest in the FBI scandal.

Considered a five-star prospect on Rivals, the 6-foot-9 Shareef becomes one of the best available prospects in the country in the Class of 2018.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller was reportedly caught on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to secure the services of freshman Deandre Ayton. The conversations that were intercepted were between Miller and Christian Dawkins, who is a focal point in the FBI’s investigation.

Recruiting has taken a major hit for Arizona over the last several months as the program lost five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly and now O’Neal due to scandal.

Sean Miller’s contract with Arizona pays him $5 million more if he’s fired for cause

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Following a bombshell report from ESPN on Friday night that Sean Miller is caught on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for superstar recruit Deandre Ayton, the Arizona head coach will not be coaching the Wildcats on Saturday night when they play at Oregon.

It seems as if Miller’s tenure in Tucson is coming to an end, which puts the University into a weird position. According to ESPN, the way that Miller’s contract is written, if he is fired for cause, he will receive twice as much money in a buyout — $10.3 million vs. $5.15 million — as he would receive if he was not fired for cause.

The reason for this?

According to Forbes, it appears to simply be a mistake that was made by Arizona when drafting the contract. In a section titled “Termination by University Without Cause; Liquidated Damages”, the contract states clearly that he’ll be entitled to receive 50 percent of his base salary for each year left on his contract. But in the section discussing what happens if Miller is fired FOR cause, the contract reads that “the University’s sole obligation to Coach shall be the payment of his Base Salary” for each year left on the contract.

His full base salary.

No agent in their right mind is going try and sneak something like that into a contract with a school because no school is going to be dumb enough to agree to put a clause like that in the contract. It is, quite literally, an incentive to break rules in order to get fired for cause.

What does that mean?

Well, Miller is probably not going to be fired for cause.

And if he is, he’ll double the amount of money that he’ll have to toss into his bank account while he figures out what the next move for him will be.

No. 19 Tennessee tops Ole Miss 73-65

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OXFORD, Miss. — Admiral Schofield scored 23 points, Jordan Bowden scored 15, Lamonte Turner scored 13 and No. 19 Tennessee earned a 73-65 win over Mississippi on Saturday.

The Volunteers (21-7, 11-5 SEC) jumped out to a 29-9 lead in the first 10 minutes and held off a rally by Ole Miss in the second half to earn the key road victory.

Neither team shot well from the floor with Tennessee shooting 39 percent and Ole Miss shooting 34 percent.

The Rebels (12-17, 5-11) struggled from long distance. Ole Miss shot 4 percent (1-for-23) from three-point range. Terence Davis, who was 1 for 7 on 3s, connected in the second half.

Breein Tyree led the Rebels with 17 points, Bruce Stevens scored 14 and Davis finished with 13.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: With Saturday’s win, the Vols remained behind No. 12 Auburn and in second place in the league.

Mississippi: The Rebels enter the final week of the season with an attempt to grab momentum heading into the SEC Tournament and the offseason.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will travel to Mississippi State on Tuesday before closing out the regular season at home against Georgia next Saturday.

Mississippi: Ole Miss travels to Kentucky on Wednesday and will host Vanderbilt on Saturday in the regular-season finale.