Conference Reset: AAC will see battle at the top in its first year

If Rick Pitino is going to win the AAC without Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock needs to step up. (USATSI)
If Rick Pitino is going to win the AAC without Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock needs to step up. (USATSI)

We once again are doing our midseason catchup on the 11 biggest leagues in college basketball. We’re going to run these on the day leagues start conference play – or at least as close to them as possible. The AAC starts Tuesday, so let’s take a look at how the new league is faring so far.

Here’s the American Athletic Conference reset:

Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Connecticut, Memphis, Louisville

Teams with work to do: Cincinnati, SMU

Teams already out, barring a miracle: UCF, South Florida, Houston, Temple, Rutgers

Most memorable moment to date: Shabazz Napier’s buzzer-beater to beat Florida. Bringing to mind Rip Hamilton’s shot to beat Washington in the 1998 Sweet 16, Napier followed his own missed shot and hit a leaner as time expired to give Connecticut a 65-64 win over Florida. At the time, it kept the Huskies undefeated – and also cemented Napier as one of the favorites to win National Player of the Year honors. The Huskies will need more magic from Napier in the AAC season.

Storyline you were too busy to notice: Fran Dunphy has won at last 21 games in six straight seasons, but that streak will end this season. Temple lost most of its firepower from last season’s NCAA tournament team, and is sitting at 5-5 heading into conference play. Among those five losses are three home defeats, as well as a road loss at Towson. Four players are averaging at least 14 points per game, but the defense has been lacking. 

Coach feeling the heat: I can’t imagine any of the 10 coaches being fired after this season, but there are a few that need to start winning some games. Stan Heath received a six-year extension two seasons ago, but South Florida took a step back last season and isn’t expected to finish in the top half of the league. Houston has finished below .500 in each of James Dickey’s three seasons, but he should be fine too. 

Player who needs to step up: After winning Most Outstanding Player honors at last season’s Final Four, many expected Louisville’s Luke Hancock to become a more consistent contributor this season. It hasn’t happened. Over his past four games, Hancock has averaged 5.4 points and shot 7-for-21 from the field (4-for-13 from 3). Especially with Chane Behanan gone, Hancock will need to improve his consistency from the perimeter – while also getting more involved on the glass.

Team better than its record: We’ve mentioned Temple and its struggles already, but the Owls still aren’t as bad as that 5-5 record would indicate. Four of those five losses were by six points or fewer, including two by one point. They also own wins over UAB and Saint Joseph’s. With Fran Dunphy at the helm and Will Cummings running the show, Temple is going to win some games in the AAC.

Team not as good as its record: There’s a severe dropoff between the top five teams and the bottom five teams, so we’re going to go with the team in the bottom half with the most wins: South Florida. The Bulls are 9-4, with only two of those wins by more than 10 points. They lost to Detroit, Mississippi and Santa Clara, and also got steamrolled by Oklahoma State. Victor Rudd and Chris Perry are solid up front, but the guards have struggled.

Three must-see games:

  1. Cincinnati at Memphis (Jan. 4)
  2. Louisville at Connecticut (Jan. 18)
  3. Louisville at Memphis (March 1)

Player of the Year favorite: Before Shabazz Napier struggled against Maine and Stanford, he might have been the favorite for National Player of the Year. However, he’s bounced back nicely, and is the frontrunner at this point for AAC Player of the Year. He’s one of the best guards in the country, capable of knocking down shots from the perimeter, hurting teams off with the pull-up jumper, or distributing to teammates for open shots. At 15.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists, he’s a triple-double threat on many occasions – he even has one already this season.

Freshman of the Year favorite: Most of the top teams are veteran-laden groups; as a result, South Florida’s Chris Perry has won Rookie of the Week honors four times this season. He’s posted two double-doubles already, scoring in double-figures in six of his last seven games. Moreover, over his past three games, he’s shooting 19-for-27 from the field.

Probable all-league team:

Shabazz Napier (Connecticut); Russ Smith (Louisville); Joe Jackson (Memphis); Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati); TaShawn Thomas (Houston)

Ranking the teams from first to worst:

1. Louisville: Even without Chane Behanan, the Cardinals should be the favorite to win the league. Their interior takes a hit, but their backcourt is unchanged – meaning they can still go toe-to-toe with the perimeter groups of Connecticut and Memphis. Russ Smith and Chris Jones need to do a more effective job at initiating offense, but a smaller lineup with Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear playing forward could be interesting. Montrezl Harrell will have to shoulder the load inside.

2. Memphis: This season got off to a poor start for Memphis, with a 21-point loss at Oklahoma State in the second game. However, the Tigers have since bounced back, beating the Cowboys in a rematch and taking Florida to the wire at Madison Square Garden. The Tigers have terrific guards, led by Joe Jackson and Mike Dixon, but the key has been the development of Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols on the interior. If those two can consistently contribute down low, Josh Pastner’s team will have more ways to win games.

3. Connecticut: The gap between the top three isn’t very big, but until Connecticut gets consistent inside play, the Huskies sit at the third spot. Shabazz Napier is an All-American guard, while Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun are excellent complements. DeAndre Daniels has been up and down at times, but the key will be Connecticut’s ability to rebound and get points in the paint. They rely so heavily on the 3-point shot. If Napier is cold and the Huskies aren’t hitting shots, it’s tough for them to overcome.

4. Cincinnati: While the offense might be a work-in-progress (and that’s being kind), the Bearcats’ defense means they won’t be out of too many games this season. Mick Cronin’s team plays an elite-level caliber of defense, and hasn’t allowed more than 64 points in a game this season. Corralling the guards of Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut isn’t easy, but the Bearcats will make life difficult for them. Sean Kilpatrick is the primary scorer offensively, but he will need help on a regular basis in the AAC.

5. SMU: It’s tough to project what the Mustangs will do in conference play. They are 10-2 heading into Wednesday’s opener against Cincinnati, but the best wins are over Texas A&M and Wyoming – and the lone losses are to Arkansas on the road, and a neutral-site defeat to Virginia. They’re not bad, they’re not great – but they have the talent and defense to compete for an NCAA tournament bid. Nic Moore runs the show, and Yanick Moreira and Markus Kennedy guard the rim. Their depth is a huge asset.

6. Temple: We’ve discussed the Owls multiple times so far, but they will find ways to win games in the AAC. Fran Dunphy is a terrific coach, and he has four consistent options: Will Cummings, Dalton Pepper, Quenton DeCosey and Anthony Lee. They have to figure out to win close games consistently, but they have the core pieces to stay out of the bottom third.

7. UCF: Winners of five in a row heading into conference play, the Knights haven’t done anything all that impressive in the non-league, but Donnie Jones has his team poised to compete. They can score in different ways, and they crash the offensive glass. Isaiah Sykes is a terrific all-around player, and scorers like Calvin Newell and Tristan Spurlock are useful weapons.

8. South Florida: Back in 2012, South Florida won 22 games and went to the NCAA tournament. Since then, though, the Bulls have been trending downward. They won just 12 games last season, and it might be hard to break into the upper half of the league this season. There is some good young pieces inside with Chris Perry and John Egbunu, but the guards are struggling to create good offense.

9. Rutgers: Eddie Jordan knew it wouldn’t be easy when he took over after the Mike Rice scandal in the spring, and it hasn’t been. However, there have been signs of promise despite a 6-7 start and a four-game losing streak. Myles Mack has taken on most of the offensive burden, but guys like Kadeem Jack and Pittsburgh transfer J.J. Moore have helped. The defense has been the weakness.

10. Houston: Things looked optimistic after a 5-0 start, but two losses in Brooklyn ended up spiraling into a stretch in which the Cougars lost five out of seven games. Danuel House’s has certainly hurt, and there’s just not enough help for double-double machine TaShawn Thomas. The defense has struggled, especially on the perimeter. 

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