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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.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.