The stakes in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinal between No. 4 seed Cincinnati and No. 5 seed Connecticut were high to say the least. How close (or far) the two teams were to an NCAA tournament bid depends upon who was providing the opinion, but regardless of the conversation the best thing a team can do is live to fight another day.
The Bearcats and Huskies fought for a total of 60 minutes before determining a winner, with UConn winning by the final score of 104-97. And the win came five game minutes after one of the wildest sequences you’ll see in basketball, with Cincinnati’s Kevin Johnson hitting a three with eight tenths of a second remaining, only to have UConn’s Jalen Adams hit a 70-footer (a shot that some, most notably Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin, did not think should have counted) as time expired to force a fourth overtime.
Whether the shot was luck or skill, all that matters is the fact that it went in. And UConn took advantage of that extra life, with Adams and Daniel Hamilton leading the team to a much-needed win and a date with top seed Temple in Saturday’s semifinals.
Hamilton finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, and Adams scored 20 of his 22 points after halftime. And for the Bearcats guard Troy Caupain was sensational, as he countered with an AAC tournament record 37 points while also grabbing ten rebounds and dishing out five assists. Each team had five players in double figures, but in the end UConn was able to use the momentum gained from Adams’ miraculous shot in the fourth overtime.
UConn had just three RPI Top 50 wins entering the game, so this was a critical win in that regard. The RPI isn’t the only metric the selection committee uses, but it certainly is a factor in the process. Just as importantly, with the win UConn gets to continue to make their case for inclusion into the field and can still eliminate all doubt by winning the conference’s automatic bid.
Will fatigue be an issue? That’s certainly possible, and Kevin Ollie’s team will need to make the most of their recovery time before Saturday’s semifinal matchup with Temple. Just as big of a concern for UConn is figuring out how to get over the hump against a team that beat them twice during the regular season. That’s the same situation the Huskies were confronted with going into their matchup with Cincinnati, and thanks to the heroics of Adams and Hamilton they found a way to win.
American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards
There may not be another conference in America with as much on the line from a bubble standpoint this week as the American Athletic Conference. With SMU on the sidelines as a result of NCAA penalties, the other ten members convene in Orlando with the top dogs all looking to sew up a bid to the NCAA tournament. Winning the automatic bid is the best way to do that, but with four teams harboring realistic hopes of earning an at-large bid some will likely have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Temple managed to win the regular season title outright, but there’s still some work for Fran Dunphy’s team to do. The two-seed is Houston, whose non-conference slate likely puts them in a position where they need to win out in Orlando, and seeds three through five (Tulsa, Cincinnati and Connecticut) all find themselves on the bubble. That should make for an intense four days in Orlando, and only the winner will be able to breathe easy in the wait for the announcement of the NCAA tournament field.
The Owls managed to win their first outright regular season conference title since 2012, when they were still in the Atlantic 10. This year’s group has done it with defense, as in conference games they ranked third in field goal percentage defense and first in three-point percentage defense. Offensively senior guard Quenton DeCosey’s led the way, with forward Obi Enechionyia being a tough matchup due to his ability to step outside at 6-foot-9 and emerging as one of the American’s most improved players. Add in contributors such as forward Jaylen Bond and point guard Josh Brown, and Temple has enough to win the tournament. Close games shouldn’t cause much concern either, as in conference games decided by five points or less they’re 7-2.
And if they lose?: Houston
The Cougars arrive in Orlando as one of the hottest teams in the American, as they’ve won nine of their last 11 games (6-1 in their last seven). Forwards Damyean Dotson and Devonta Pollard combined to average 28.3 points per game in American play, and on the perimeter Rob Gray Jr. is the team’s leading scorer (16.3 ppg overall) and the point guard tandem of Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson and freshman Galen Robinson Jr. has been a positive as well. Kelvin Sampson’s rebuilding job has gone well to this point, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they landed the automatic bid.
Tulsa: Tulsa’s backcourt is very good, with James Woodard, Shaq Harrison and Pat Birt Jr. being the leaders. A key for Tulsa will be finishing defensive possessions with a rebound, as they ranked ninth in the American in defensive rebounding percentage (67.7) in conference games.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats are tough, and only UConn was better in league play when it comes to field goal percentage defense. With Troy Caupain running the point and Gary Clark in the front court, Mick Cronin has the pieces needed to make a run.
Connecticut: Kevin Ollie’s team led the American in field goal percentage defense, limiting teams to 38.4 percent shooting in conference games. But the offense has sputtered at times. If Daniel Hamilton looks to take over consistently, making plays for himself and others, this can be a dangerous team in Orlando.
Josh Pastner’s Tigers have the league’s top scoring duo in forwards Dedric Lawson and Shaq Goodwin, and there’s talent on the perimeter as well. But can they put it all together over the course of three days? That remains to be seen.
The Bubble Dwellers:
Temple: Opening with either East Carolina or USF won’t do much to bolster Temple’s argument for inclusion. But a loss to either would be damaging. Take care of business there and the Owls should be OK.
Houston: The Cougars likely need to win the automatic bid, thanks to the weakness of their non-conference schedule. They have wins over SMU and Temple on their résumé, but that may not be enough.
Tulsa: They face Memphis in the quarterfinals, and that’s a win Frank Haith’s team will need to get. They did pick up wins over SMU (in Dallas), Cincinnati and Temple last month, and there’s also the early season win over fellow bubble team Wichita State.
Cincinnati: Beat UConn in the quarterfinals Friday, which would be their third win over the Huskies this season. The Bearcats have wins over bubble teams George Washington and VCU to their credit, but there would be a lot less stress if they’d been able to close out Iowa State (81-79 loss) back on December 22.
Connecticut: Beat Cincinnati in the quarterfinals and that should sew things up for the Huskies. At the very least a win should get them another shot at a Temple team that swept the regular season series.
American Player of the Year: Nic Moore, SMU
Moore won the award last season and he’d be a good choice for the 2016 edition of the award as well. The senior point guard led the way for a team that was ranked for most of the season despite being ineligible for postseason play, averaging 15.9 points and 4.9 assists per game. A good case can be made for Temple’s Quenton DeCosey as well.
American Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy, Temple
Sure, this can be seen as giving the award to the man whose team was picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches poll. But Dunphy deserves this honor just as much for the way the Owls played once out of non-conference play. Temple began play in the American with an overall record of 5-5, only to take a considerable leap forward in conference play. Led by Dunphy and seniors DeCosey and Jaylen Bond, Temple won the American outright with a conference record of 14-4.
Nic Moore, SMU (POY)
Quenton DeCosey, Temple: If Moore isn’t the choice for league POY then it’s probably DeCosey, who was the leading option on the American’s best team.
Troy Caupain, Cincinnati: Caupain averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 assists per game in conference play. He was also fourth in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2).
James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard led the Golden Hurricane with an average of 15.6 points per game, ranking sixth in the conference in scoring.
Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The conference’s best freshman, Lawson paired up with Shaq Goodwin to form the highest scoring tandem in the American. And to think, he was originally supposed to be in the 2016 freshman class.
Second Team All-AAC:
Devonta Pollard, Houston
Shaq Harrison, Tulsa
Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
Gary Clark, Cincinnati
Shaq Goodwin, Memphis
Defining moment of the season: Temple hands SMU its first loss of the season
CBT Prediction: Houston continues its recent run of solid play, winning three straight to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
Abdel Nader’s jumper gives No. 11 Iowa State much-needed road win at No. 22 Cincinnati
Abdel Nader hit a three with 11.0 seconds left and Iowa State survived as the Bearcats got three looks at the rim on the final possessions, escaping Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Arena with an 81-79 win.
Georges Niang led the way for No. 11 Iowa State with 24 points and 10 boards, his lone assist coming of the final possession, when he broke down No. 22 Cincinnati’s defense and found Nader open in the corner. Monte’ Morris added 16 points and seven assists for the Cyclones, who got a surprise contribution from Deonte Burton off the bench, who finished with 12 points. The Cyclones also got a nice lift from Matt Thomas. He shot just 4-for-14 from the floor, but he finished with nine boards — eight on the defensive end — and four assists.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this win is that it came on a night where Jameel McKay, Iowa State’s lone rotation big man, finished with just five points and three rebounds, all of the offensive end of the floor. He was more or less a non-factor against a team that has one of the toughest and most athletic front lines in college basketball.
This was certainly the kind of confidence-boosting win that Iowa State needed. This is the kind of team that, on paper, they don’t match up all that well with, and the Cyclones went on the road and survived despite blowing a pair of 13-point leads and trailing on their final possession of the game. The Cyclones, their last two times they’ve played high major competition, needed a choke job from Iowa to win at home and lost to Northern Iowa in a game where they mad Wes Washpun look like Russell Westbrook.
There were quite a few people — myself included — that had their doubts about whether or not this Iowa State team can truly contend for a Big 12 title or a Final Four. Winning at Cincinnati isn’t definitive proof that the Cyclones are elite, but it is a nice little reminder that they have some dudes on that roster that can play.
As far as the Bearcats are concerned, they now have lost three of their four marquee non-conference games, the lone win coming over No. 20 George Washington at the Barclays Center. They lost by ten at No. 6 Xavier — no shame in that — and if Roosevelt Jones had missed a tough floater at the buzzer of their loss to Butler and Farad Cobb hits a tough-but-makeable three at the buzzer tonight, we would be looking at the Bearcats very differently right now.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that I’m still buying Cincinnati as an AAC contender despite their last two home losses.
AAC Preview: Can SMU win the league without a postseason?
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.
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.
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:
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?