2018-19 AAC expert picks: Predicted order of finish, overrated and underrated teams at mid-term
The American is probably a three-bid league, but the top of the conference has a chance to break through in the NCAAs
College basketball's nonconference scheduled has almost entirely wrapped, so a recalibration of expectation is due.
As you can see below -- click those links to get caught up as we hit the start of league play -- we're taking stock of the most significant conferences in college basketball.
The AAC still qualifies and, if the new major hires in the league pan out, should only improve in standing in the coming seasons. For a couple of years now, I've leaned in on the "Major 7" expression in college basketball, including the AAC in the process. Metrics have shown there is a drop-off beyond the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big East and the AAC, be it in NCAA Tournament bids or nonconference winning percentage or overall efficiency margin.
And while the AAC is still worthy of the Major 7 designation, it's again bringing up the caboose in the conversation, rating as either No. 6 or No. 7 overall depending on which metric you consult.
But despite boasting one of the four undefeated teams left in college hoops (Houston), the AAC is still tethered by its bottom three programs. Outside of them, it's been a good first eight weeks of the season.
Here's how we think this league shakes out over the next 10 weeks.
Houston's undefeated. Cincinnati might be the best team. And UCF is set up to make the NCAAs as well. If Temple, UConn or SMU can win 12 games in the league, then this conference will be in the mix for four bids. Should that transpire, it would mark the third time in the AAC's six seasons that it earned four bids. That's the goal here. Three is fine, four is ideal, five (which won't happen in 2019) is how you bump up in the great conference hierarchy and become more entrenched.
Most overrated: UConn
Not an easy pick here, as I don't believe the top three teams in the conference are overrated. So with UConn's noticeable bump in profile with the hiring of Dan Hurley, I'll note that the Huskies fall well outside the purview of bubble territory at this point. There's a win over a who-knows Syracuse team, then nothing else of note.
The Huskies rank 89th in the Massey Composite, which is a wide-ranging resource that means out 47 metrics. UConn is 72nd or worse (and as low as 132!) in 45 of those metrics. If you're curious on the NCAA's official echelon, UConn sits at 95th in the NET. The Huskies have the potential to spoil in the American, but I'm skeptical this is a top-four team in the conference.
Most underrated: Temple
The Owls are 10-2 in this, the final season for Fran Dunphy as a coach. The 70-year-old is practically a Phily lifer and is one of the most revered and respected men in the history of basketball in that city, which loves its college hoops as much as any metropolitan area in the country. Dunphy's guided the Owls to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the previous dozen seasons. And eighth invite is within reach. Temple is hiding at 60th the aforementioned Massey Composite and has five of its 10 wins away from its home building.
Dunphy's got a good defensive team that isn't prone to turnovers. You talk to coaches, and they'll ask for few better combinations than a group of guys who play collectively well without the ball and don't have a habit of giving it away on offense. I think Quinton Rose, Shizz Alston, Nate Pierre-Louis and the rest of this TU team will be in the field of 68.
Player of the Year: B.J. Taylor, UCF
Senior guard B.J. Taylor is matching his preseason hype as the best player in the conference. The Knights are 10-2 thanks in no small part to Taylor's 120.0 offensive rating, boosted by his 17.5 points and 39.3-percent 3-point shooting. He's also dishing 2.8 assists, snagging 2.5 boards and is 81.3 percent from the foul line. His player efficiency rating is 21.1, which is the highest of his career. Taylor is our pick here not just because of the stats and because he's good, but because he's the most valuable player to his team of any in the American that is competing for a Big Dance bid.
Coach of the Year: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
The only pick. Houston has been trending up Tulsa. Kelvin Sampson's team is third nationally field goal percentage defense (35.8) and fifth in defending the 3 (25.8). Overall, it's a bear of a team on defense, and that's a testament to Sampson's approach. The Cougars are 13-0, obviously off to one of the best starts in school history, and could wind up as a 30-win team. If that happens, it would be just the fourth time in program history. The school record for wins in a season is 32, done by the 1983-84 squad.and will continue to rise if it can win in the AAC opener on Wednesday at home against
Freshman of the Year: Jayden Gardner, ECU
Jayden Gardner is flourishing in obscurity and on a bad team. East Carolina is just 7-5 in its first season under Joe Dooley, who's in his second tenure at the school. But Gardner is averaging 19.0 points and 8.8 boards and has the second-best PER of all freshman to Zion Williamson; Williamson's PER of 40.7 is out of this solar system, while Gardner's 29.6 is fantastic for a freshman. He's one to watch when ECU plays against the top teams in the league and gets the nod over Memphis' Tyler Harris.
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