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2016-17 American Athletic Conference Post-Mortem

July 18, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

We are starting to get a sense of the American Athletic Conference now that we are four years in. Who carries the flag is starting to take shape, and who may be right there with them is as well. We’re also seeing that one program most surely thought would be in the former category hasn’t really done that, and another may be moving even further away from that.

And all of this happens as another program enters the conference and should be instantly competitive.

When the Big East broke away, what was left with the American Athletic Conference was a group that figured to be paced by a few schools. UConn was one, and the Huskies had the best recent history (along with a national championship in the first year of the conference). Cincinnati was another, as was Memphis, and the thought was that SMU could rise under Larry Brown – at least, as long as he was in Dallas.

Cincinnati and SMU have held up their end of the bargain. This year, they were clearly the two best teams all season long, finishing four games ahead of third-place Houston. SMU has risen, and appears likely to stay there as Tim Jankovich is a good coach who is building off what Brown did.

UConn and Memphis, on the other hand, have not done that. We keep expecting the Huskies to become the conference’s signature program given their history, especially over the past three decades, but that simply hasn’t happened. This year, they hit rock bottom, decimated by injuries but under-performing even before the injuries dealt the biggest of blows to this team. It has some wondering if any goodwill the national championship in 2014 bought for Kevin Ollie has gone away, especially since the Huskies haven’t really seen a recruiting bump from that. Ollie’s staff got a little shake-up this off-season as well.

Memphis, however, looks to be in a worse position. Tubby Smith is not exactly energizing the fan base, although that’s not surprising because that’s just not who he is – he never has been a rah-rah guy who fires us fans. He has been a winner, a guy who gets results. He’s also never been known for his recruiting; even at Kentucky, a school that can get pretty much any kid they want, he didn’t exactly recruit one McDonald’s All-American after another. But at Memphis, the expectation is that you get good talent and coach them up to be even better. The Tigers watched several key players transfer after this season, and they aren’t exactly recruiting a team full of top 50 kids from Memphis even though there is usually plenty of good talent there.

We can’t forget about Temple, though this season makes it easy to do that. It was not a year to remember for Fran Dunphy’s club, but if past is prologue, we should expect this season to be an aberration. The Owls have had plenty of success since the conference was formed, and they could be among those who carry the flag for it as time goes on.

In the interim, Houston has risen, finishing third this year, and UCF made a big leap in Johnny Dawkins’ first year at the helm. UCF has always been seen as a program with great potential given its location and facilities, but has not harnessed it yet. They may be starting towards that now, though, if they can build off this season.

Next year, Wichita State joins the conference, and they should immediately contend. The Shockers have been on quite a roll of late, and they should help the conference, at least as long as Gregg Marshall is running the show. But will they bump the conference significantly overall? This past season, only SMU and Cincinnati made the NCAA Tournament, and both were No. 6 seeds. The Shockers were the class of the Missouri Valley of late, and have been better than they have gotten credit for, but whether they become a difference-maker of sorts is not a given. They were widely considered a bubble team, rightly or wrongly, and scheduling has been a challenge for them. Perhaps that changes given the perception of The American, and they end up having a better time getting quality non-conference opponents on a regular basis, but we won’t know that right away. Likewise, whether or not coming to The American translates into better NCAA Tournament access is far from a given as well, although in theory it should help a little.

The off-season saw just one coaching change, and it was one whose genesis was during the season. Before conference play, USF fired Orlando Antigua in the midst of an NCAA investigation into the program, with Murry Bartow running the program the rest of the way. After the season, former Dayton and Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory was hired to take over the program.

Final Standings

East Carolina

Conference Tournament

The conference tournament returned to Hartford this year, and it may have conferred a slight homecourt advantage for UConn as the Huskies scored one of the two wins by a lower seed over the four days.

The tournament began with just such a game, but it was a mild upset – if you call it that – as No. 9 East Carolina beat No. 8 Temple 80-69. No. 7 Tulsa edged No. 10 Tulane 66-60 and No. 6 UConn beat No. 11 USF 77-66 to end the Bulls’ challenging season that included a coaching change.

The quarterfinals had two good games sandwiched around two that were not close. No. 1 SMU survived a challenge from East Carolina with an 81-77, then No. 4 UCF blew out No. 5 Memphis 84-54 and No. 2 Cincinnati took care of Tulsa 80-61. The day ended with the biggest upset of the tournament as UConn took out No. 3 Houston 74-65, ending any slim NCAA Tournament at-large hopes the Cougars harbored.

The semifinals were a pair of double-digit games that went as expected, with SMU beating UCF 70-59 and Cincinnati knocking off UConn 81-71.

That gave us a championship game that most expected during the season, as Cincinnati and SMU were clearly the two best teams in the conference and split their regular season meetings, with the home team winning both meetings. SMU’s defense shut down Cincinnati, especially in the second half, leading the way as the Mustangs won 71-56 behind tournament Most Outstanding Player Semi Ojeleye.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Semi Ojeleye, SMU
Rookie of the Year: K.J. Lawson, Memphis
Coach of the Year: Tim Jankovich, SMU
Sixth Man of the Year: Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati and Ben Emelogu, SMU
Defensive Player of the Year: Tacko Fall, UCF

All-American Athletic Conference Team
Jalen Adams, So. G, Connecticut
Damyean Dotson, Sr. G, Houston
Rob Gray, Jr. G, Houston
Dedric Lawson, So. F, Memphis
Semi Ojeleye, Jr. F, SMU

Season Highlights

  • SMU forward Semi Ojeleye added the conference’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award to his Player of the Year honors.
  • UCF was third in the nation in field goal percentage defense, a big reason they won 12 more games than they did a year ago.
  • SMU was fifth in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, making 40.6 percent of their shots from long range.
  • Houston and Cincinnati were in the top ten nationally in fewest turnovers.
  • East Carolina’s Andre Washington and UCF’s Tacko Fall ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in the nation in blocked shots.

What we expected, and it happened: Cincinnati contended for the conference title and reached the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats have been a consistently good program under Mick Cronin, and along with SMU appear to be carrying the flag for the conference right now.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: UCF was a bit of an unknown entering the season with a new coach, though they had some talent. They were picked in the second division by most, and certainly weren’t seen as a likely postseason team. A fourth-place finish and Final Four run in the NIT were better than expected.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: UConn struggled to be a .500 team in conference play and was below that mark overall. Injuries were no small contributor to that, though what doesn’t bode well going forward is that the Huskies’ recruiting isn’t what it used to be from a talent standpoint.

Team(s) on the rise: UCF. Johnny Dawkins got results right away with a run to the NIT Final Four, and with Tacko Fall returning to school alongside B.J. Taylor and A.J. Davis, there is reason to be optimistic for more next year.

Team(s) on the decline: Memphis. Another year without postseason play has come and gone, but worse than that is what happened after the season. The Lawson brothers transferred to Kansas, others also left school, and recruiting as a whole does not look promising thus far under Tubby Smith. 2017-18 could be a long year in Memphis.


2017-18 American Athletic Conference Outlook

Wichita State joins the conference and should be a contender right away. The Shockers return just about everyone of consequence from a team that was widely thought to be criminally underrated this past season, and they will be talented and experienced.

Still, look for Cincinnati and SMU to be right there. The Bearcats will certainly miss Troy Caupain, but Gary Clark is one of the best players you never hear about, and Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington and Jarron Cumberland also return for a team that will continue to defend. SMU will certainly miss Ojeleye, as well as Ben Moore and Sterling Brown, but Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster are a good place to start.

UCF, on paper, should be in the top three. Matt Williams is no small loss, but with Fall and Taylor leading the way, a lot of this year’s NIT Final Four team returns.

UConn should have some talent once again, with Jalen Adams leading the way, but even if healthy, will they contend? The jury is out, and they lose a lot with the departures of Rodney Purvis, Amidah Brimah and Kentan Facey. Houston loses Dotson but returns conference scoring champion Gray and Galen Robinson Jr.

Temple should be better with Obi Enechionya leading the holdovers, with help from Shizz Alston Jr. and Quinton Rose. The Owls need to defend better, as only two teams allowed opponents to shoot better, and they also had the second-worst rebounding margin in the conference. Tulsa is right there with them in needing to defend better to see better results, with Junior Etou and Sterling Taplin leading their holdovers after a down year.

Memphis is primed for a further slide, as noted earlier, with all the player turnover. East Carolina has some uncertainty with the health of Jeff Lebo, though they have some talent in Kentrell Barkley and Jeremy Sheppard. Cameron Reynolds and Melvin Frazier will be bright spots for Tulane, while USF will certainly look different as Brian Gregory and his staff start their work building the program.

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