After a good start in its first year of existence, the American Athletic Conference appears more and more to be a conference searching for an identity. On the hardwood, this became even more apparent as another year passed without a clear signature program, something that might surprise you at first.
You might look at the membership and think, The American has Cincinnati, Memphis and UConn, so they have their signature programs. They have SMU on the rise under Larry Brown, though we knew all along he wouldn’t be there for long given his age. But the bottom line tells a different story. Since UConn won the national championship in 2014, the Huskies have not been an elite program, missing the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and finishing in the middle of the pack in the conference this past season. Memphis has been trending downward, while Cincinnati has been a solid, consistent NCAA Tournament team but not one that has contended for a conference title. SMU has been on the rise, but they could not be a part of postseason play due to NCAA sanctions.
Then there is Temple. While not a charter member, having joined in the second year of the conference’s existence, the Owls already look like they need to be mentioned among the conference’s elite. The Owls lost a significant amount of production from their team a year ago that narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament, but they won the regular season title outright this year, even beating out SMU. The Owls were a decidedly mixed bag in non-conference play, whiffing in their best quality win chances while their worst loss was probably against a Saint Joseph’s team that ultimately won the Atlantic 10 Tournament, but they clearly grew during that time and aside from a setback at East Carolina avoided a bad loss during conference play.
The positive in all of this is that teams like Houston and Tulsa have emerged of late. They tied for third place this year along with Cincinnati, and both won at least 20 games. The Golden Hurricane made news a year earlier when left out of the NCAA Tournament after a long run before their first conference loss, and this year got over the hump, though not without controversy. The question now is if both can keep this going. The Cougars appear to be in a better place at the moment in terms of personnel, as they will lose Devonta Pollard but retain key players like Rob Gray Jr., Damyean Dotson and Galen Robinson, while Tulsa was carried by seniors Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard.
Related to the conference’s identity, there was a lot of movement in the coaching ranks after the season as four schools had coaching changes, and a fifth came close. Tulane fired Ed Conroy after six seasons at the helm, replaced by long-time NBA coach Mike Dunleavy. UCF parted ways with Donnie Jones after an up-and-down tenure that began with hope given the school’s facilities and potential. Former Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins will take his place. Later, Josh Pastner left Memphis to take over for Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech, and is replaced by former Texas Tech head coach Tubby Smith. It also looked like Mick Cronin might leave Cincinnati for UNLV, but he opted to return to continue leading the Bearcats. Then in July, Larry Brown stepped down as SMU head coach over a reported contract dispute, with head coach designate Tim Jankovich taking over as was planned when Brown was first hired.
The American Athletic Conference Tournament opened up with a pair of close first round games won by the lower seed, with No. 9 USF edging No. 8 East Carolina 71-66 and No. 10 Tulane eking out a 65-63 win over No. 7 UCF in a game featuring two coaches thought to be on the hot seat. But the first round was only the beginning.
No. 1 Temple took care of USF in the first quarterfinal 79-62. Next was an instant classic between No. 4 Cincinnati and No. 5 UConn, which needed four overtimes to settle. Along the way, the Huskies stayed alive with a buzzer-beater from about midcourt by freshman guard Jalen Adams. In the fourth extra session, UConn broke away from the Bearcats for a 104-97 win. Tulane and No. 2 Houston had a tough act to follow after that, but they did, with the Green Wave pulling off a surprising 72-69 win amidst reports that head coach Ed Conroy would be fired. No. 6 Memphis rolled over No. 3 Tulsa 89-67 in the last quarterfinal, a game that in theory sealed Tulsa’s fate as no better than the NIT.
UConn took care of Temple 77-62 in the first semifinal, then Memphis won its second straight blowout with a 74-54 win in Conroy’s last game as head coach at Tulane.
That set up a championship game that had implications for NCAA Tournament at-large teams, as UConn was thought to be in regardless of the result while Memphis would have stolen a bid with a win. UConn also had lost in the championship game the past two seasons. The Tigers were in the game early, but a 17-3 run helped the Huskies take a double-digit lead into the half. Memphis tried to rally, but was hampered by Shaq Goodwin’s foul trouble, and UConn relieved a few bubble teams with a 72-58 win to take home their first conference title since they won the Big East with a magical run in 2011.
Player of the Year: Nic Moore, SMU
Rookie of the Year: Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy, Temple
Defensive Player of the Year: Gary Clark, Cincinnati
Sixth Man of the Year: Markus Kennedy, SMU
Most Improved Player: Prince Williams, East Carolina
Troy Caupain, Jr. G, Cincinnati
Quenton DeCosey, Sr. G, Temple
Shaq Goodwin, Sr. F, Memphis
Nic Moore, Sr. G, SMU
James Woodard, Sr. G, Tulsa
- Four teams reached the NCAA Tournament, a number that likely would have been higher if SMU were eligible.
- SMU was third in the country in three-point field goal percentage and fourth in the country in scoring margin, field goal percentage and rebounding margin.
- UConn was sixth in the country in field goal percentage defense.
- Temple’s Josh Brown was eighth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio.
What we expected, and it happened: SMU was the class of the conference, at least for most of the season. A midseason slump, where they lost four of six from late January to mid-February (with a win over Gonzaga added in), was enough to knock them into second place.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Temple won the regular season title. Forget that most had SMU winning it; most didn’t think Temple would be an NCAA Tournament team, and maybe a borderline postseason team at that after pretty significant production losses. In case you haven’t already figured it out, though, Fran Dunphy can coach.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Houston rose up to tie for third in the conference. The Cougars finished ahead of the likes of Cincinnati and UConn in so doing.
Team(s) on the rise: Houston. Kelvin Sampson is already getting some results in his second season, as the Cougars finished tied for third this season and snagged the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. They made it to the NIT, losing to Georgia Tech in the first round. There’s plenty of room to grow, seeing as how they beat up on a weak and home-heavy non-conference schedule, but they went 6-3 on the road in conference play, so the first steps have been taken.
Team(s) on the decline: Memphis. The Tigers ruled Conference USA for years; it was basically them and everyone else. After a good first year in The American, however, they have had two years of decline, and while Tubby Smith can coach, he’ll be challenged to reverse that decline next season.
2016-17 American Outlook
An early look at favorites for next season should begin with UConn and Cincinnati. While both teams lose something, both also return plenty of talent. Cincinnati will have the only returning first team all-conference member in Troy Caupain, and he should be primed for a big year along with Gary Clark. UConn gets a boost from the return of Rodney Purvis, while Jalen Adams should be primed for a breakout year since his role is sure to expand and Amida Brimah should continue to hold down the fort inside along with Kentan Facey and Steven Enoch.
After that, it gets interesting. You can’t rule out Temple despite losing DeCosey, Jaylen Bond and Devin Coleman, as the names and faces change under Fran Dunphy but the bottom line – plenty of winning – remains the same. Obi Enechionyia may be the next star up for the Owls. Houston has several pieces returning and could be right there, especially since SMU and Tulsa take personnel hits that they won’t recoup right away, and Memphis will be in a true transition year between personnel losses like Shaq Goodwin and new head coach Tubby Smith. Teams that were further down the standings all appear to have some work to do to get into the first division and ultimately contention.
Speaking of the teams near the bottom of the standings this past season, next year figures to be a key year for the direction of programs like East Carolina and USF under their current coaches. Neither appears to be on the hot seat, but a lack of progress or a regression might have them there entering the following season.