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American Athletic Conference Reset: Is the American the seventh power conference?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American.

MIDSEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rob Gray Jr., Houston

While Rob Gray certainly receives his just due within the American, not too sure this can be said nationally as well. The senior’s scoring average (20.7) is only one-tenth of a point better than what he produced last season, but Gray has improved noticeably with regards to his shooting percentages. The 6-foot-2 guard is shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three and 84.6 percent from the foul line, with all three numbers being improvements from last season’s numbers (47.3, 38.2, 81.3). Gray’s also averaging 3.7 assists per game, and overall he’s been a more efficient option than he was as a junior.

THE ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM

  • ROB GRAY, Houston
  • LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State: Shamet missed time early in the season due to a foot injury, but he’s shown why he’s considered one of the top guards in the country since returning. Shamet’s averaging 17.1 points, 4.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game,
    shooting 54.0 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from three.
  • SHAKE MILTON, SMU: Milton is a big reason why the Mustangs haven’t missed a beat despite losing multiple key contributors from last season’s team. The 6-foot-5 junior is averaging 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, leading the Mustangs in points and assists.
  • GARY CLARK, Cincinnati: While the 12.5 points per game may not jump off the page, keep in mind that Clark’s raised his scoring by nearly two points per game from last season and is on a team with four other players averaging at least 9.8 points per game.
    Clark’s also grabbing 8.6 rebounds per night, which ranks second in the American, and he’s also fifth in the league in steals and sixth in blocked shots.
  • TACKO FALL, UCF: Fall’s development while at UCF has been fun to watch, and as a junior he currently leads the American in field goal percentage (78.1) and blocked shots (2.1 bpg). The 7-foot-6 Fall, who’s averaging 13.8 points per game, is also fourth in the conference in rebounding (7.8 rpg).

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Cincinnati, Wichita State, SMU, Houston
  • NIT:Temple, UCF, Tulsa
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: UConn, Memphis, Tulane, USF, East Carolina
Jacob Evans ( Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. CINCINNATI CONTINUES TO DEFEND AT A HIGH LEVEL: The big question for Cincinnati entering the season is whether or not they could make strides offensively. Thus far they’re about the same from an efficiency standpoint, with this group turning the ball over a bit more but shooting better from the perimeter than last season’s group. Veterans Jacob Evans III, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are all double-digit scorers, as is sophomore Jarron Cumberland, and Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome has been an impact reserve.

What hasn’t changed for the Bearcats has been their effort on the defensive end of the floor, as Cincinnati is ranked fifth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com. A big reason for this is Cincinnati’s defense inside of the arc, with opponents shooting 39.4 percent from two and the Bearcats averaging a league-high 5.9 blocks per game. They don’t give up many second chances either, as Cincinnati is rebounding 74.3 percent of its opponents’ missed shots. That’s why Cincinnati enters league play as one of the favorites in the American.

2. WE’VE YET TO SEE WHAT THIS WICHITA STATE TEAM CAN BE WHEN WHOLE: While there have been some concerns voiced with regards to the Shockers defense, which is understandable given the issues in losses to Notre Dame and Oklahoma, this group isn’t too far off from what last season’s team produced from an efficiency standpoint (26th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency; 13th last season). The Shockers are ranked sixth in the American in three-point percentage defense (33.2), but they’ve done a decent job inside of the arc.

Here’s the thing: we still aren’t fully sure of what this group is capable of when whole. While Landry Shamet’s had enough time on the court to justify the preseason praise thrown his way, another key veteran just returned to the court. Markis McDuffie played nine minutes in his season debut on December 22 against FGCU, and his return gives Wichita State a versatile wing with size who can have an impact in a variety of ways. He returns to a team that currently has four double-digit scorers and a fifth option in guard Samajae Haynes-Jones who’s been an impact reserve. Once McDuffie shakes off the rust and Gregg Marshall gets the rotation to where he wants it, look out. And it’s not like they aren’t already good, either.

3. UCONN REALLY NEEDS TO MAKE SOME CHANGES OFFENSIVELY: No need to mince words here: offensively, this group is brutal. Sure there are individual talents on the roster, most notably Jalen Adams, Terry Larrier and Christian Vital, but the way in which UConn plays offensively makes things far more difficult than they need to be. According to kenpom.com just 39.0 percent of the Huskies’ made baskets have been assisted, which ranks 347th in the country. Wonder why this team’s shooting 31.0 percent from three and 40.1 percent from the field? There you go.

If UConn is to rebound from non-conference play and be a factor in the American, Kevin Ollie must figure out how to get his top options quality shots without having to rely solely upon dribble penetration. Because more often that not, especially with Alterique Gilbert sidelined by another shoulder injury, dribble the air out of the ball simply produces a challenged look. And until that occurs, it’s very difficult to envision the Huskies as a team capable of challenging the best teams in the American.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW WILL WICHITA STATE ADJUST TO ITS NEW LEAGUE?: The Shockers begin their first run through American play at UConn on December 30, and things will only get tougher from there. The home opener against Houston won’t be a cakewalk, and Wichita State also has to play Cincinnati, SMU and Temple both home and away (they’ll also face Houston twice). After being the preeminent program in the Missouri Valley, Wichita State will find more resistance at the top of the American.

That being said, Gregg Marshall’s program has done enough over the years both within its former conference home and nationally to garner a certain amount of respect. The league’s coaches picked Wichita State to finish second in the preseason poll, and in non-conference play the Shockers did little to discourage those who expect them to at the very least contend. But with the change comes getting used to new road environments and new styles of play/personnel. It will be interesting to see if there are any unexpected hiccups in Wichita State’s first run through the American.

2. THE CONFERENCE IS DEEPER THAN IT HAS BEEN IN YEAR’S PAST: While it appears that there’s some separation at the top of the American, with four teams (Wichita State, Cincinnati, SMU and Houston) being Top 40 teams according to KenPom and Temple not that far off, there are teams just outside of that quintet capable of pulling off some quality wins as well. That should make for an interesting conference slate, making it unlikely that the champion goes 17-1 like SMU did last season.

UCF has a very good front court duo in Tacko Fall and A.J. Davis, but they need B.J. Taylor to get healthy. Can UConn get its act together? How about Memphis, which for all the “doom and gloom” surrounding the program went 9-3 in non-conference play? And both Tulsa and Tulane have shown positive signs, with Junior Etou playing very well for the Golden Hurricane and Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds leading the way for the Green Wave. Wichita State’s arrival gives the American another quality team to carry the banner nationally, but the middle of the pack shouldn’t be overlooked either.

3. WHAT HAPPENS WITH UCONN AND MEMPHIS?: UConn’s struggles were touched on above, with the Huskies struggling to establish itself on offense and looking downright inept in blowout losses to Arkansas and Auburn. The conference opener against Wichita State gives this proud program a chance to add a quality win to its résumé while also restoring some confidence. After leading his first team, which was dealing with a postseason ban, to 20 wins and winning a national title the following season, Kevin Ollie hasn’t been able to sustain that momentum. That has to change.

As for Memphis, the questions for Tubby Smith’s program are primarily focused on recruiting. Class of 2018 point guard Alex Lomax has committed to Wichita State, which puts the pressure on the Memphis coaching staff to keep another talented local point guard prospect in Tyler Harris home. Throughout Smith’s tenure there have been questions asked regarding the program’s ability to keep local talent home. Simply put, this is something that needs to be addressed. What can help is putting an improved product on the FedEx Forum court, but when a team’s best wins are two-point home wins over Northern Kentucky and Mercer that won’t necessarily fire up the fan base. Games against LSU and Cincinnati in the next week give Memphis the opportunity to build some momentum.

Kevin Ollie (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. THE CONFERENCE CHAMPION HAS AT LEAST FOUR LOSSES IN LEAGUE PLAY: As noted above there’s no shortage of quality teams at the top of the American, especially with Wichita State now in the mix. While the prediction here is that the champion will have at least four conference losses for that reason, that would be a rarity for the American. Just once in the league’s brief history as the conference champion had four losses in league play, and that was when Temple won the conference in 2016.

That season four teams went to the NCAA tournament, and the number would have been five if not for SMU having to sit out for NCAA reasons. Expect a similar situation — without the NCAA issues, of course — with Cincinnati, Wichita State, SMU and Houston among that teams that will fight it out for the top spot.

2. FOUR TEAMS REACH THE NCAA TOURNAMENT: After seeing four teams earn NCAA bids in the aforementioned 2015-16 campaign, the American saw that number cut in half last season. The top of the conference is better this season, but based upon the NCAA’s RPI calculations (it’s not good but since they use the RPI, it’s being cited here) there is some work to be done. Temple (13th) and Wichita State (22nd) are both in the Top 25, which is particularly interesting given the Owls’ losses to La Salle (road) and George Washington (neutral).

Also, there are four other teams (Houston, UCF, SMU and Cincinnati) ranked between 62nd and 72nd in the RPI. The good news is that there will be some solid opportunities in conference play for teams to pick up quality wins. The question: how much value will the committee place on metrics such as Ken Pomeroy’s, which look at the American in a more positive light (at the top) than the RPI? Ultimately the American will do enough to get four teams into the Big Dance.

3. TWO PLAYERS SHARE PLAYER OF THE YEAR HONORS: In the first four seasons of the American one player has taken home the honors, with Shabazz Napier winning in 2014, followed by SMU players winning Player of the Year in each of the next three (Nic Moore twice, followed by Semi Ojeleye last season). Given some of the individual talents in the American, led by Houston’s Rob Gray and Wichita State’s Landry Shamet, it would not come as a surprise if two players were to share the award come season’s end. The coaches voting for such honors tend to reward winning. But if the league title race is a close one, it could result in multiple players being honored.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Kentucky drops out of the Top 25

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I’m not sure that this Kentucky season can be considered a worst-case scenario.

Kentucky fans have seen a worst-case scenario.

That came during the 2012-13 season, when a Wildcat team that was trending towards the back end of the top 25 lost their star center Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February, dooming them to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Robert Morris.

That is a worst-case scenario, and barring something totally unforeseen, this Kentucky team is not going to turn into that Kentucky team.

This group looks much more like the team we saw the following year, the one that featured Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed with a 24-10 record before making a run to the national title game. That team had plenty of talent, but they never quite gelled until March.

This year’s team does not have that same level of talent, but they are running into some of the same problems.

The question is whether or not this group actually has the potential to come together and make a run like that 2014 team.

RELATED: Kentucky just is not that good

And frankly, I still think they do. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a go-to guy while Kevin Knox had seemingly regained his confidence before a poor performance in the home loss to Florida. Quade Green has returned to the lineup, as has Jarred Vanderbilt, who might be the key to unlock the potential on this roster.

In an ideal world, Kentucky’s length and athleticism allows them to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams while the playmaking of Vanderbilt and Green makes their offense fluid enough that they overcome some of their shooting issues. I can still tell myself a story where Kentucky finds a way to put it all together for six straight games in March.

But that’s not who they are right now.

And with each passing game, I grow less and less confident that the elite will ever come out of this group.

Kentucky is not a top 25 basketball team right now. They are nowhere near one of the favorites to win a national title right now. And, at this point, Kentucky fans would do well to adjust their expectations, as a trip out of the Sweet 16 should be considered a success.

Here is the full top 25.

1. Villanova, 18-1 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Purdue, 19-2 (2)
3. Virginia, 18-1 (5)
4. Kansas, 16-3 (13)
5. Michigan State, 17-3 (7)
6. Duke, 17-2 (10)
7. West Virginia, 16-3 (4)
8. Arizona, 16-4 (8)
9. Xavier, 18-3 (11)
10. Oklahoma, 14-4 (6)
11. North Carolina, 16-4 (17)
12. Texas Tech, 15-4 (3)
13. Cincinnati, 17-2 (19)
14. Ohio State, 17-4 (22)
15. Auburn, 17-2 (18)
16. Tennessee, 13-5 (23)
17. Wichita State, 15-4 (9)
18. Clemson, 16-3 (20)
19. Saint Mary’s, 19-2 (NR)
20. Gonzaga, 17-4 (16)
21. Nevada, 18-3 (NR)
22. Florida, 14-5 (NR)
23. Rhode Island, 15-3 (NR)
24. Arizona State, 15-4 (14)
25. TCU, 14-5 (25)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Seton Hall, No. 15 Kentucky, No. 21 Michigan, No. 24 Miami

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Saint Mary’s, No. 21 Nevada, No. 22 Florida, No. 23 Rhode Island

VIDEO: Northern Colorado wins game with halfcourt buzzer beater

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Northern Colorado knocked off North Dakota on Saturday night thanks to a half court buzzer-beating three from Andre Spight.

Spight is averaging 20.3 points on the season and finished with 34 points and six assists in the 94-91 win.

Clemson’s Grantham tears ACL

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The news on Donte Grantham’s knee was not good.

No. 20 Clemson announced on Sunday morning that Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, would miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in a win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

“I’m disappointed that Donte’s career at Clemson had to end this way,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “He was putting together a terrific season statistically, but he really helps this team is so many ways. He’s been a pleasure to coach and it has been fun to watch him mature and grow into the leader of our program.”

Grantham was averaging 14.2 points and 7.1 boards this year.

The Tigers are 16-3 on the season and in line to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

VIDEO: West Virginia honored Andrew Jones before game vs. Texas

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The West Virginia basketball team donned burnt orange ‘Big 12 Strong’ warmup shirts with the No. 1 on the back in honor of Texas point guard Andrew Jones.

Jones was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this month.

Texas Tech also honored Jones before a game this week, and Texas has raised more than $100,000 for his medical expenses.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.