In the final American Conference Tournament before realignment completely changes the look of the league and makes it even more of a question about if it is a mid major or something entirely different, there is a team trying to make a case for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, a team trying to play its way off the bubble and out of Dayton, and a plethora of talented teams that would be eager to steal bids.
All games played at Dickies Arena, Fort Worth, Texas.
All times listed eastern.
First Round (Thursday, March 9), ESPNU
Game 1: (9) East Carolina vs (8) South Florida, 12:30 p.m.
Game 2: (10) SMU vs (7) UCF, 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: (11) Tulsa vs (6) Wichita State, 7:00 p.m.
Quarterfinals (Friday, March 10)
Game 4: Game 1 Winner vs (1) Houston, ESPN2, 1:00 p.m.
Game 5: (5) Temple vs (4) Cincinnati, ESPN2, 3:00 p.m.
Game 6: Game 2 Winner vs (2) Memphis, ESPNU, 7:00 p.m.
Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs (3) Tulane, ESPNU, 9:00 p.m.
Semifinals (Saturday, March 11), ESPN2
Game 8: Game 4 Winner vs Game 5 Winner, 3:00 p.m.
Game 9: Game 6 Winner vs Game 7 Winner, 5:00 p.m.
Championship (Sunday, March 12), ESPN
Game 10: Game 8 Winner vs Game 9 Winner, 3:15 p.m.
Houston (29-2, 17-1): Houston is the best team in college basketball. The Cougars are the only team that ranks in the top 10 in both offense and defense according to KenPom, and they’re fifth in both. Kelvin Sampson has turned Houston into one of the marquee programs in college basketball, with 10 NCAA Tournament wins over the last four tournaments, bringing back the glory days of yesteryear.
This year’s team is their best since Phi Slama Jama, having lost just two games by a combined seven points. Winners of 11 in a row, the Cougars boast one of the nation’s premier backcourts, with Jamal Shead, Marcus Sasser, and Tramon Mark. Those guys need no introduction. They’re national household names for college basketball fans at this point, and so is freshman big man Jarace Walker, who can do a little bit of everything.
The name that many might not know is J’Wan Roberts, who has put together a collection of dominant performances recently against Memphis, Tulane, and East Carolina. His play could end up being the difference between a really good basketball team, and being immortalized as national champions.
Memphis (23-8, 13-5): Memphis has been around the block before, as one of the deepest and oldest teams in college basketball. There’s a level of maturity to this year’s Tiger group that none of Penny Hardaway’s other teams have had. While there’s nobody who provides a matchup nightmare the way that Jalen Duren did last year, star guard Kendric Davis has been one of the best scorers in the country for each of the past three seasons.
Defensively, they're still an athletic group that is elite at forcing turnovers, with a plethora of high-level defenders trying to speed teams up. Alex Lomax, DeAndre Williams, Malcolm Dandridge, and Chandler Lawson all cause havoc on the defensive end of the floor, keeping teams from getting off high-quality looks.
Memphis isn’t going to live and die by the 3-pointer, but when they are hitting those outside shots, they're super dangerous.
Tulane (19-10, 12-6): Tulane plays one of the fastest paces in the country, and they’re a high-level shotmaking team. Guards Jalen Cook and Jaylen Forbes are both excellent scorers, capable of going off on any given night.
Despite their fast pace, the Green Wave don’t play a deep bench, but they haven’t quite struggled in late games as much as one would think, having won three overtime games in a four-game span.
UCF (17-13, 8-10): UCF is a very talented group, but they struggled mightily to find a rhythm once they got into American Conference play. Taylor Hendricks is one of the best freshmen big men in the country, with his versatile skillset on both ends, he’s been hyped up as a potential NBA Draft first-round pick and has been talked about being picked in the lottery.
Hendricks’ high-level athleticism allows UCF to play some very big lineups, with Hendricks at the four, and only one player below 6-foot-5.
UCF looks very convincing in a lot of their wins, especially on the defensive end, but they played really poorly in close games, stumbling to a 4-9 record in their last 13 games.
Cincinnati (20-11, 11-7): Cincinnati is a well-rounded basketball team who does a lot of things at a relatively high level. Their guards take care of the ball and hit shots, and they play some good defense, keeping teams off the 3-point line.
Sophomore big man Viktor Lakhin had a breakout season and is a menace defensively. Wes Miller also gets some good production out of Landers Nolley and David Dejulius.
Temple (16-15, 10-8): With star guard Khalif Battle out for the season, Temple’s status as a potential noisemaker in Fort Worth is in jeopardy. While Damian Dunn will put up points, losing batman to Dunn’s Robin is a huge blow.
Big man Jamile Reynolds had one of his best games of the season in Sunday’s loss to Tulane, and the length of Zach Hicks and Nick Jourdain at the forward spots does make Temple a tough matchup at times. However, after an 8-2 start in conference play, including a win at Houston, the Owls lost six of their last eight games, and limp into the conference tournament as a shell of their best self.
Wichita State (16-14, 9-9): Wichita State’s longest winning streak of the season was two games, and their longest losing streak was three games. The Shockers boasted one of the better defenses in the country in the first few months of the season, but when they got sped up in conference play, it didn’t quite stick.
Craig Porter is a triple-double threat, and a 5x5 (tallying at least 5 points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals in a game) threat as a 6’2 guard, and there’s a talented group around him. Jaron Pierre, James Rojas, and Jaykwon Walton are all capable of a big-time performance on a given day
USF (14-17, 7-11): Led by the diminutive, yet talented, transfer point guard Tyler Harris, USF won three of their last four games going into the end of the season, including a road win at rival UCF. The Bulls are one of the best rebounding teams in the AAC, ranking second in both offensive and defensive rebound percentages.
East Carolina (15-16, 6-12): East Carolina is a super young team, with most of their rotation being full of freshmen and sophomores. While watching, you can tell, because they don’t make a ton of shots, and they turn the ball over a lot. RJ Felton and Brandon Johnson have been the top scorers in the absence of Javon Small, who hurt his knee on January 11th.
SMU (10-21, 5-13): SMU was a miracle Hawaii buzzer-beater away from winning the entire Diamond Head Classic back in December, but their season has been downhill from there. They have just two wins above quadrant four since their wins over Iona and Utah State on the first two days in Honolulu. Zhuric Phelps had a strong season for the Mustangs, averaging 17 points and 4 rebounds per game.
Tulsa (5-24, 1-17): I don’t think it’s any secret that year one for Eric Konkol at Tulsa hasn’t gone according to plan. In addition to struggling immensely on both ends of the floor, the Golden Hurricane may be down three contributors for the tournament. Put simply, the American Conference had its way with Tulsa, whatever teams wanted to do, they could do it this season.
Players to Watch
Marcus Sasser, Houston (17.1 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.8 RPG)
Jamal Shead, Houston (9.9 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.2 RPG)
Jarace Walker, Houston (11.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG)
Tramon Mark, Houston (10.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG)
J’Wan Roberts, Houston (10.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG)
Kendric Davis, Memphis (21.5 PPG, 5.6 APG)
DeAndre Williams, Memphis (17.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG)
Landers Nolley, Cincinnati (16.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG)
Viktor Lakhin, Cincinnati (12.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
David Dejulius, Cincinnati (15.1 PPG, 5.3 APG)
Jalen Cook, Tulane (20.4 PPG, 5.0 APG)
Jaylen Forbes, Tulane (18.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG)
Kevin Cross, Tulane (14.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 4.2 APG)
Taylor Hendricks, UCF (15.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.7 BPG)
Ithiel Horton, UCF (12.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
Damian Dunn, Temple (15.4 PPG, 3.1 APG, 3.6 RPG)
Jamille Reynolds, Temple (10.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG)
Craig Porter, Wichita State (13.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 4.5 APG)
Jaykwon Walton, Wichita State (14.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG)
Tyler Harris, USF (16.6 PPG, 3.4 APG)
Russel Tchewa, USF (11.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG)
RJ Felton, East Carolina (13.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
Brandon Johnson, East Carolina (12.8 PPG, 8.3 RPG)
Zhuric Phelps, SMU (17.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG)
Efe Odigie, SMU (11.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG)
Zach Nutall, SMU (13.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.7 APG)
The Matchup I’m Praying For
Similarly to Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s, Houston-Memphis has become the premiere fixture in its league due to the competitiveness and quality of the games played. These are the two most talented teams in the American Conference year after year, and it’s circled on both teams’ calendars as soon as the schedule comes out. Given that Houston is leaving the AAC for the Big 12 after the season, we as a society, deserve one final battle in one of the most entertaining matchups that mid-major basketball has had to offer.
I’ve already mentioned how Houston is the best team in college basketball, and while it’s tough to beat a team three times, it’s also tough to beat a team that plays the way that Houston does as well as they do.