2014 American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview

By The Sports NetworkMarch 11, 2014 at 2:25 PM
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(SportsNetwork.com) - The inaugural American Athletic Conference Tournament will take place this week, as the 10-team field comes together at FedExForum in Memphis to determine a league champion.

The AAC came into existence in just the last year as an amalgamation of leftovers from the former Big East and a smattering of teams from Conference USA and the Atlantic 10.

Despite the lack of history for the conference there was plenty of talent to be had as five different teams in the league spent a bulk of the season in the national rankings, including defending national champion Louisville.

The Cardinals excelled in their one and only season in the AAC, as they join former Big East rivals Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the ACC next season. However, it is not Louisville that enters this tournament as the No. 1 seed.

That honor belongs to Cincinnati, which claimed the top spot by coin flip as the Bearcats and Cardinals were tied at 15-3 in league play when the regular season came to an end this past Saturday. The last time Cincinnati was the top seed in a conference tourney was in 2002 when it was still a member of Conference USA. However, Mick Cronin's group is no stranger to postseason success, with the team likely in for its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino lost some key players, like Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva, from last year's national championship team, but it didn't have much of an impact on the product the Cardinals put on the floor. If the coin landed on the other side for the tiebreaker, they could very well be riding into this event as the highest seed, which they did last year en route to their second straight Big East Tournament title.

Both Cincinnati and Louisville each received byes in the first round. The Bearcats will wait to take on the winner of a matchup between eighth-seeded Temple and ninth-seeded UCF, while the Cardinals will face either 10th-seeded South Florida or seventh-seeded Rutgers.

The rest of the second-round pairings are already set with sixth-seeded Houston battling third-seeded SMU in an all-Lone Star State affair, and fifth- seeded and tournament host Memphis challenging fourth-seeded Connecticut.

Kicking off the tournament on Wednesday is the bout between USF and Rutgers.

The transition to this new conference was not a smooth one for USF. The Bulls won all of three league games, dropping their 15 other bouts, including each of the last eight. One of several former Big East competitors in the AAC, the Bulls are just two years removed from their last NCAA Tournament appearance. However, they have rarely been a basketball powerhouse, with their 12-19 mark this year the third losing season in the last four. Putting together consistent offensive efforts is the problem this season, as the Bulls are the lowest scoring team in the AAC (65.5 ppg). The unit was not helped by the loss of point guard Anthony Collins to a knee injury in late December, as it left Victor Rudd (15.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) to carry the team nearly alone.

Opposing the Bulls is Rutgers, which brought in Eddie Jordan as head coach after the untimely firing of Mike Rice, following the release of tapes in which he verbally berated players during practice. Jordan, a former player for the Scarlet Knights, did not oversee much of an improvement this year. RU finished the regular season at 11-20 and 5-13 in conference, meaning any chance the Scarlet Knights have of ending their 22-year drought from the NCAA Tournament lies in their ability to stun the field and win this tourney. To do so they will need strong play from Myles Mack (15.1 ppg, 4.4 apg) and Kadeem Jack (14.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), and some bigger contributions from the rest of the roster.

Waiting in the next round for the winner between the Bulls and Scarlet Knights is Louisville. The Cardinals cut down the nets as national champs a year ago, and are once again in the mix this season. At 26-5 overall they tied with Cincinnati for the best overall record in the conference, while leading the league in scoring (81.8 ppg). The Cardinals are also a tough team to score against, letting up only 61.8 ppg on 39.7 percent shooting to their opponents. Russ Smith (17.5 ppg, 4.8 apg) was a key part of last year's team. He has helped ease the loss of Siva specifically by improving as a passer, adding to his already incredible scoring skills. The emergence of Montrezl Harrell (14 ppg, 8.3 rpg) cannot be understated.

In the other first-round matchup, the UCF Knights duke it out with the Temple Owls.

UCF was added to the AAC from Conference USA, a league in which it had great success in recent years with three 20-win seasons. The step up in competition was too much for the Knights this year, as they finished the regular season at just 12-17 overall and 4-14 against the conference. The Knights would certainly like to change course in their new league in terms of conference tournament play. They failed to make it out of the second round of the C-USA Tournament in their last seven seasons there, as they were ruled ineligible for last year's event. Obviously a team with only 12 wins all season faces an uphill battle to attain the tournament crown, but if Isaiah Sykes (16.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.6 apg) can get hot the Knights could at least go out on a competitive note.

Temple was supposed to make the move to the Big East this season, but the shifting landscape of the conference left the Owls out to dry and in the AAC, far from the major step up it thought it made in moving from the Atlantic 10. A perennial NCAA Tournament squad recently, Temple took a giant step backward this year, finishing with the worst overall record in the conference (9-21). However, they helped themselves out in terms of seeding by winning their last two games of the campaign, including an 86-78 triumph over UCF. For a team with six straight NCAA Tournament bids, a few wins at the end of the year doesn't mean much. Dalton Pepper (17.6 ppg) is the top scorer on the squad, and Anthony Lee (13.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) leads the conference in rebounding, but the Owls suffer from a lack of depth and defensive efficiency.

A win in the first round for either squad would give it a chance to face top- seeded Cincinnati.

Although it shared the regular-season crown with Louisville, the Bearcats are still champs for the first time since 2003-04 when they won the C-USA crown. However, they had been competing in the Big East in the eight years prior to this one. Their short-lived tenure in the conference was largely successful, with the team set to earn its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance regardless of the outcome of this tournament. The hallmark of Cronin's teams has been stifling defense and that has continued this season. The Bearcats are fourth in the country in points allowed (58.4 ppg). Sean Kilpatrick (20.9 ppg) is the leading scorer in the AAC.

Second round action actually begins with SMU taking on Houston.

The Mustangs were easily the most surprising team in the ACC this season. Led by legendary head coach Larry Brown, SMU finished with its best record since 1988 (23-8) and made its way into the national rankings for just the fourth time in school history and the first time since 1985. The Mustangs wound up 12-6 in league play, tied with UConn and Memphis for third place in the conference, but they grabbed the No. 3 seed by having a better head-to-head record against the Huskies and Tigers. Nic Moore (13.9 ppg, 4.7 apg) and Markus Kennedy (12 ppg, 6.9 rpg) form a solid inside-outside combination for the Ponies, who shoot the best percentage from the floor (.490) in the AAC, and are also effective on defense, yielding the third-lowest opponent field goal percentage (.375) in the country.

Houston may share the same state and conference origins as SMU, with both teams coming over from C-USA, but the Cougars did not have much in common with the Mustangs this year. Despite a four-game win streak they took into March, the Cougars finished a middling 16-15 overall and 8-10 in conference. However, it should be mentioned that even though Houston lost both contests with SMU during the regular season, the two games were decided by 11 points combined. The Cougars last claimed a league title in 2010 and has not gone to the NCAA Tournament since. TaShawn Thomas (15.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 2.6 bpg) and L.J. Rose (8.7 ppg, 5.6 apg) are the players to watch.

Second-round action will come to a close when Memphis takes the floor against UConn.

If the regular season is any indication this should be a competitive game that leans in favor of UConn, which swept a pair of meetings by a combined 15 points. Connecticut did a good job of beating up on the bottom half of the conference, but had trouble with the elite teams. They went 9-1 against seeds five through 10 in this tournament, but just 3-5 against the rest of the field, including 1-5 against Cincinnati, Louisville and SMU. Still, the Huskies have a strong enough resume' to expect a return to the NCAA Tournament after they missed out last year due to eligibility issues. Shabazz Napier (17.8 ppg, 6 rpg, 5.2 apg) leads one of the country's best backcourts, which could be a real strength for the Huskies, who proved in 2011, with Kemba Walker at the helm, that strong guard play can equate to a conference and national title.

Aside from their struggles with UConn, the Tigers enjoyed their first season in the AAC, after spending the previous 18 dominating C-USA. Memphis won each of the last three league tournament titles in its old conference and six total. It could very well be headed to a fourth straight crown this year, with this event being held on its home floor where it went 15-2 this season. A friendly crowd behind them should help the Tigers maintain their offensive pace. They rank second in the league in both scoring (78.4 ppg) and field goal percentage (.485), as well as rebounding (37.7 rpg), while at the top of the league in assists (17.7 apg). Joe Jackson (14.4 ppg, 4.6 apg) will serve as an effective foil for Napier in the first round, and any other guards the Tigers face should they advance.

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