Cincinnati Win Gets AAC on the Board, Only Six Weeks Too Late

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 18th, 2014

Let’s be clear: Cincinnati’s Wednesday night victory over San Diego State was very important for the Bearcats. Mick Cronin’s team was in urgent need of a quality victory, and it got one. But the Bearcats didn’t need the win nearly as badly as the American Athletic Conference. Before Cincy’s takedown of the Aztecs, the league’s best wins were over Wyoming, Dayton and Creighton. Let’s do that again: The league’s best wins were over Wyoming, Dayton and Creighton. Throw in Temple’s home victory over Louisiana Tech, and you VERY quickly have the entirety of the league’s victories over KenPom top-100 foes this season. Four top-100 wins, none over a team in the top 60 as of December 17. Conference USA, a league that nine of 11 AAC programs chose to leave of their own accord, has more than twice that number. More unflattering comparisons are available, but the point is already clear: The AAC is off to a disastrous start. For the sake of a league that once formed a significant portion of the Big East, San Diego State had to lose last night.

Winston Shepard Should Know: Troy Caupin's Bearcats, Not To Mention The Entire AAC, Needed Wednesday Night's Game Far Worse Than San Diego State Did

Winston Shepard Should Know: Troy Caupin’s Bearcats, Not To Mention The Entire AAC, Needed Wednesday Night’s Game Far Worse Than San Diego State Did (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports)

As far as early resumes go, Cincinnati’s looks pretty good, especially after last night. The bad isn’t so bad (their two losses came away from home to Ole Miss and Nebraska), and the Bearcats now have an actual win of substance. Further non-conference profile-bolstering opportunities also lurk in upcoming matchups with VCU (home) and NC State (road). Whether the Bearcats are good enough to take advantage of those chances is another story. The match-up with the Aztecs was billed as a “first to 50 wins” type of deal, but Cincy actually got by the Aztecs with some sneakily stingy shooting – 17-of-21 from the line, 21-of-42 on two-point field goals, and 4-of-11 from three-point range. Out of character? Certainly. Completely unsustainable? We’ll see. Expect the Cincinnati defense to remain as fortified as ever (among the top 25 nationally in defensive efficiency over the past four seasons, 26th this season), so the offense won’t need to come in bunches for the Bearcats to keep winning games. Keep an eye on sophomore Troy Caupin – the better his Sean Kilpatrick imitation, the more games this team will win.

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How Much Does Houston Miss TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House?

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 10th, 2014

As always, KenPom.com did the heavy lifting on the numbers.

Almost two years ago to the day, I penned a column on how much Houston missed its leading scorer, Joseph Young. Young had transferred to Oregon after the school fired his father from the position of Director of Basketball Operations and he is still lighting it up for the Ducks this season. Today I am going to revive the main idea of the column — that is, how much does Houston miss said player — and just plug the newer transfers in. Last season, junior TaShawn Thomas and sophomore Danuel House were far and away the best players on a very mediocre Houston team. Thomas led the team in nearly every category while shooting almost 60 percent from the field, and House was a close second in scoring and rebounding as well as the team’s most versatile two-way player. Unfortunately for Houston, both of those stars are playing college basketball elsewhere this season. Thomas is just across the state border at Oklahoma and House is even closer at Texas A&M.

TaShawn

Thomas Has Struggled This Season, But Houston Would Still Love To Have Him. (Nate Billings/The Oklahoman)

The circumstances surrounding Thomas’ and House’s decisions weren’t nearly as interesting as the ones in Young’s case, even though new coach Kelvin Sampson tried very hard to keep the duo around. But the impact of the loss of the two players is effectively greater because we are taking about two all-league talents instead of one, and because the Cougars may have had an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament this season with them in the lineup.

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A Few Good Reasons to Feel Good About Temple

Posted by mlemaire on December 3rd, 2014

Sometimes it can feel like Temple is the forgotten team in the AAC, and in some ways, it is a bit of an outsider. The Owls are the only basketball program that isn’t left over from the Big East or recently added from Conference USA, and because the basketball program has been decidedly “mid-major” since the John Chaney days in the mid-1980s, Temple doesn’t seem to fit neatly into either the “football” or “basketball” profile. Instead, the Owls serve as a bridge between the conference’s basketball standard-bearers and its bottom-feeders. A program that’s not quite good enough to receive the sort of attention that UConn and Memphis receive on the national level, but also a program much too good for college basketball enthusiasts to ignore. They are, however, worth paying attention to this season because as the conference has devolved into a mire of early mediocrity, the Owls have seemingly put last season’s 9-22 campaign behind them. Now, they aren’t all the way back, as evidenced by a blowout loss to Duke and a disappointing follow-up loss to UNLV, but they are obviously much improved and with head coach Fran Dunphy steering the ship, Owls’ fans should be feeling better about the state of the program.

Congrats to Fran Dunphy on His 400th Victory

Temple Coach Fran Dunphy Has Retooled The Team’s Defense And It Is Making A Big Difference. (Getty)

Temple remains under the radar this season and that makes a lot of sense, primarily because the Owls didn’t make a great first impression by scoring only 40 points in a season-opening win against American, and also because it hasn’t beaten anyone of note yet (although Louisiana Tech is pretty good). But in what is rapidly becoming a wide-open conference with more and more questions by the week, there are a few reasons folks should be higher on the Owls’ prospects this season than they currently are.

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What is Wrong With Memphis’ Kedren Johnson?

Posted by mlemaire on December 2nd, 2014

There is rust. There is regression. And there is whatever is going on with Memphis point guard Kedren Johnson. College basketball is littered with players who never “broke out” and there are even players who take a step back from one season to the next. But it isn’t very often that players crater as quickly as Johnson has. Two seasons ago, the Tennessee native was Vanderbilt’s best player and one of the best point guards in the SEC as a sophomore. He started all 33 games for the Commodores, leading the team in scoring (13.5 ppg), assists (3.6 apg), and steals (1.0), while ranking amongst the Top 100 players in the country in assist rate.

Is Kedren Johnson the answer for Memphis? Mark Humphrey/ AP

Those numbers were a big reason why the Memphis fan base breathed easier when the NCAA made Johnson eligible to play this season and they were also a big reason why basketball scribes like Jeff Goodman called Johnson a “difference-maker” for the Tigers’ brand-new backcourt. But instead of being the backcourt savior everyone expected him to be, Johnson has struggled. Actually, that’s misleading. Johnson hasn’t just struggled, he has stunk so bad that coach Josh Pastner can’t even keep him on the floor.

Johnson turned the ball over five times in 12 minutes in his long-awaited debut against Wichita State before Pastner couldn’t bear to watch him on the court any longer. He wasn’t much better in a limited role against Prairie View A&M either. Things got so bad that Pastner replaced Johnson with Markel Crawford in the starting lineup and then sat his supposed veteran leader for the entirety of the team’s blowout loss to Baylor. Johnson got a shot to redeem himself in the third-place game and promptly responded with 20 minutes of forgettable basketball (0-of-5 from the field, 1 assist, 2 rebounds, 3 fouls). Through four games, his turnover rate (44.8) is actually higher than his offensive rating (44.0)  and his defense has been so bad there were probably guys on the Indiana State bench wondering why they couldn’t get recruited to Memphis.

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AAC Bests and Worsts: Holiday Wrap-Up Edition

Posted by mlemaire on December 1st, 2014

Let’s start by putting it bluntly — the teams in the AAC did not have a very good week. The conference’s final three unbeaten teams — Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF — all lost for the first time this season and the supposed standard-bearers for the conference — UConn, Memphis, SMU, and even Tulsa — all lost high-profile games and the Huskies were the only team with a realistic shot to win their game. We are now nearly a month into the season and UConn’s 11-point win against Dayton remains the best win by an AAC team. These are not fun days to be an AAC basketball fan, but the season is young, and there is time for some of these teams to turn things around. So let’s get into the best and worst of the week:

For Ryan Boatright and the rest of the AAC, Thanksgiving week wasn't too kind. (US Presswire)

For Ryan Boatright and the rest of the AAC, Thanksgiving week wasn’t too kind. (US Presswire)

  • Worst Inbounds Defense With The Game On The Line: UConn had a chance for the conference’s first statement win of the season yesterday as they led Texas at home for most of the game. But Ryan Boatright missed a free-throw to put the Huskies up by three and Texas’ relatively simple play out of the timeout worked to perfection as Jonathan Holmes was left open to bury the game-winning three-pointer. Give the Longhorns credit, they executed the play about as well as it could have been executed. But Holmes is the Longhorns’ best player and it is inexcusable that he should be left all alone no matter how good the screen was and no matter how badly injured Boatright was on they play.

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SMU is Already on the Wrong Side of the Bubble

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 26th, 2014

When the NCAA Tournament Committee shocked many bracket prognosticators by leaving a ranked SMU team out of the field of 68, committee chairman Ron Wellman was quick to point out that the Mustangs’ non-conference schedule was a bit of a joke. Wellman had a point. The Mustangs played just two teams (Arkansas and Virginia) ranked among KenPom’s top 50 teams and lost to the both. The rest of the team’s non-conference wins — against the likes of Arkansas Pine Bluff and McNeese State — were easy for the committee to ignore.

Larry Brown (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Larry Brown Needs Some Quality Wins, and Fast (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

When SMU released its 2014-15 basketball schedule, it was evident that the school had listened when Wellman dumped on its non-conference schedule.The patsies are still really, really bad, but road games against Gonzaga, Indiana, and Michigan as well as home dates with Arkansas and Wyoming were supposed to make up for those RPI killers. The only problem is that in order for those games to boost the team’s RPI, SMU needed to actually win a few of them, which they haven’t done thus far.

Last night was the Mustangs’ latest lost opportunity as they let Arkansas run out to an early double-digit lead in the first half on the road and then were unable to claw all the way back into the game, eventually losing 78-72. That loss comes just five days after SMU kicked away a second-half lead on the road in a loss to Indiana. And that loss came just three days after the Mustangs were blown out by Gonzaga in Spokane. Individually, none of these losses are truly that bad. The Razorbacks, Hoosiers, and Bulldogs are all really good teams who should make the NCAA Tournament. But together, these losses show that SMU has now nearly struck out on its chances to get a non-conference win that would impress the NCAA Tournament Committee.

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AAC Bests and Worsts From Last Week

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 24th, 2014

“Bests and Worsts” is a new Monday feature where we will recap the best and worst from the previous week of college basketball in the AAC. 

It was not a great week for the AAC as all of the expected top teams in the conference lost in uninspiring fashion and the conference still doesn’t have a marquee win to hang its hat on — unless you count UConn beating Dayton. But we never pretended that the AAC would be the best conference in the country, just that it would be an entertaining season to follow, and that much still holds true. While other conferences have seen teams emerge from the pack, the American is still totally up in the air and that’s what makes it interesting for us to cover.

Best Reason for UConn Fans Not to Panic: UConn basketball fans aren’t quite as unhinged on Twitter as say, Kentucky fans, but they can be pretty active. So obviously it wasn’t long after UConn‘s disappointing loss to West Virginia in the final of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off that the Huskies’ faithful started speculating on what the loss meant. The Huskies were very bad from downtown (3-of-17) and turned the ball over a lot (19), but the tweet that best summed up how UConn fans should feel about the loss came from our friends at the Bleed Blue Blog.

Bleed Blue

Nothing proves a point better than some well-placed snark. Also, Bleed Blue makes a larger point, even if they weren’t trying to. It’s easy to overreact to early season games because there is nothing else to go on. But none of the teams around the country as anywhere near as good as they will be in January and February, so reading the tea leaves of an early-season loss to West Virginia isn’t the best way to evaluate the Huskies’ chances of repeating.

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Random Thoughts On Houston’s Win Over Morgan State

Posted by Nate Kotisso on November 23rd, 2014

Houston‘s win over Morgan State marked the home opener for new head coach Kelvin Sampson at Hofheinz Pavilion. Yes, the box score will tell you the Cougars won by 15 but watching it in person, it did not feel like a dominating performance from Houston. They shot about the same percentage from the floor (32.9 percent for Houston; 33.3 percent for Morgan State). As it turns out, the Cougars also turned the ball over more times than Morgan State (23-19) and had fewer steals (9-12). So I was left with no choice but to write some random thoughts on last night’s confusing result and other stuff.

Houston's Cavon Baker (12 points, 10 rebounds) attempts a layup. UH would go on to beat Morgan State 72-57. (Cody Duty/Houston Chronicle)

Houston’s Cavon Baker (12 points, 10 rebounds) attempts a layup. UH would go on to beat Morgan State 72-57. (Cody Duty/Houston Chronicle)

1. Both teams got off to rocky starts for different reasons coming into the game. Morgan State was playing their fourth game since opening the season on November 14. Two nights earlier, the Bears played at Northern Iowa and led the Panthers going into halftime (yeah, the same Northern Iowa that won at Stephen F. Austin last Tuesday). Houston was playing in only their second game since defeating Murray State in Murray also on November 14. Eventually, the Cougars woke up and the Bears were hiberna–, wait, still sleeping. Phew, that was a close one.

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All the Reasons to Love the AAC Coaches in One Helpful PSA

Posted by mlemaire on November 20th, 2014

On Tuesday the American Athletic Conference released what they are calling a “public service announcement” that is really just a quick pump-up campaign featuring some video and stills of the league’s 11 coaches in action. I am probably the only one (at last count, only 38 people have even viewed it), but I loved every second of it and that’s because any content focused on this group of coaches is worth examining. The marketing folks over at conference headquarters are smart to use the coaches as the league’s primary selling point. This is not only because most casual college basketball fans would have trouble naming five AAC players even if we gave them Emmanuel Mudiay, but because the league’s coaches are characters with colorful backgrounds and track records that make it far more interesting to follow. I legitimately got fired up about the upcoming season. And since I was fired up, I decided to channel some of that energy into capturing some of the best moments of the 30-second video to help everyone else understand why these coaches are so awesome. I’m not the only one fired up either…

Haith is pump

That’s right, even #Haith is excited for the new season. But he isn’t the only colorful coach in the conference. We’ve got UCF‘s Donnie Jones, seen below looking out onto the court as he realizes that Isaiah Sykes graduated last season. Either that or he is just remembering that Kevin Ware never actually made it to campus and that he really shouldn’t have followed that convicted felon on Twitter. Read the rest of this entry »

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AAC M5: 11.20.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 20th, 2014

AAC_morning5_header

  1. It didn’t take long for folks to start talking about whether Memphis’ Josh Pastner deserves to be on the hot seat after Tuesday’s abject disaster of a performance against Wichita State. It was longtime Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz who was postulating about Pastner’s job security after he got a chance to watch the Tigers play firsthand in South Dakota. Lutz is paid to have strong opinions and stick to them no matter how ludicrous, but Pastner dismissed the criticism after the game. Lutz is hardly the only smart college basketball mind who is worried about the Tigers, though, and just the fact that Pastner has to dismiss this criticism after the very FIRST game of the season is not a good sign of things to come. Many feel that because Memphis has commitments from two of the Lawson brothers that Pastner’s job is still safe, but the people calling the shots in Memphis are smart enough to know that any coach should be able to recruit talent to the program. For now, it’s way too early to be doing anything other than observing that the negative chatter has already started. But let’s just say that the Memphis Athletic Director Tom Bowen will be watching the progress of the Tigers very closely this season.
  2. UConn kicks off the Puerto Rico Tip-Off this afternoon by playing College of Charleston, and assuming that the Huskies can get past the Cougars (which may or may not be a safe assumption), they will follow that up by playing either Dayton or Texas A&M on Friday. The Flyers and Aggies are hardly the only good teams playing in this tournament and our friends at the UConn Blog were kind enough to do the heavy lifting and analyze every team in the event for those unwilling to do their own homework. Reading the scouting reports, it is clear that the Huskies should be the favorite to win three games, but the event also represents an excellent early test for Kevin Ollie‘s club. Both Dayton and Texas A&M have NCAA Tournament aspirations of their own, and potential finalists New Mexico and West Virginia should both be on the bubble at the end of the season as well. Early season tournaments aren’t necessarily a good barometer for a team’s prospects in March, but they are a great opportunity to boost an RPI and collect some good wins for the resume. It won’t be the end of the world is UConn doesn’t win the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, but we will get a chance to see the newcomers against legitimate competition.
  3. Torian Graham‘s career at Houston is over before he even played a single minute for the Cougars, as the junior announced on Monday that he was leaving the school for personal reasons. Some may remember Graham as a former top-100 recruit from the class of 2012 who committed and de-committed from North Carolina State before finding his way to Houston by way of Chipola Junior College. Head coach Kelvin Sampson recruited him after losing two key players to transfer, and the expectation was that Graham would immediately compete for time and help the offense with his size and shooting ability on the wing. Instead he didn’t play at all in the team’s season-opening win over Murray State, and while we won’t speculate on what Graham’s “personal reasons” for leaving were, he did say in a statement that he plans to pursue his basketball career elsewhere. Regardless of how good Graham could have been, his departure leaves the team painfully thin in the backcourt and will put an even larger onus on Cavon Baker and Eric Weary Jr. until L.J. Rose returns from injury.
  4. Since we are already talking about Houston, why not spend a little bit of time talking about how rich Kelvin Sampson is going to get coaching this team. The Houston Chronicle got its hands on the details of Sampson’s contract with the school and while I imagine a lot of these details are pretty standard fare in big-time college basketball, it’s still kind of shocking to see how much the university shelled out to lure Sampson from the NBA. Click on the link if you want to read all the details, but we should note that a compensation package worth $1.1 million annually with a base salary of $550,00 is pretty nice for a coach coming off a show-cause penalty. The additional detail that Sampson must pay back 85 percent of the total remaining base salary if he leaves for another college gig, and 50 percent of his remaining base salary if he leaves for an NBA gig, shows that Houston expects him to stick around for awhile.
  5. Cincinnati was the one of two AAC teams (the other was Tulsa) in action Wednesday night, and the Bearcats survived a 69-61 defensive slugfest with a solid Morehead State team. Perhaps the coolest part about that game is that the Cincinnati Enquirer dedicated a whole article to the Bearcats’ need to find consistent outside shooting and focused on junior college transfer Farad Cobb as the team’s best bet to step up. Cobb responded against the Eagles by shooting 6-of-9 from behind the three-point arc and pacing the Bearcats with 24 points and a couple of steals. The rest of the team went 3-of-13 from downtown on the evening, so the Enquirer was right on the money about the team’s shooting struggles as well as Cobb’s likely role. Now the Bearcats just need him to play like that so that they can consistently score.
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Poor Recruiting Hurts AAC More Than Losing Louisville Ever Will

Posted by mlemaire on November 19th, 2014

Last week, RTC national columnist Bennet Hayes asked if Louisville’s departure from the AAC would “cripple” the conference and rightly pointed out that the Cardinals’ consistent excellence and national pedigree would be sorely missed by a new conference still looking to find its way. But with all due respect to my colleague, he isn’t asking the right question. The AAC will absolutely miss Louisville, and the prolonged irrelevance of the teams replacing the Cardinals’ program should be a major concern. But the conference still has enough competitive programs to stay relevant in March. The real question is whether the top five or six teams can ever be consistently nationally relevant. The reason the answer to that question isn’t obvious is because the league can’t seem to attract much NBA-level talent and that all starts with recruiting.

Daniel Hamilton Was The AAC's Only Five-Star Recruit And Best NBA Prospect

Daniel Hamilton Was The AAC’s Only Five-Star Recruit And Is Maybe Its Best NBA Prospect

The early signing period for the recruiting class of 2015 officially came to close today, and after landing just one five-star prospect (UConn’s Daniel Hamilton) in the Class of 2014, things again look bleak for the conference. Only two five-star prospects (UConn commitment Jalen Adams and Memphis commitment Dedric Lawson) signed their letter of intent with an AAC school last week, and not coincidentally, UConn and Memphis are the conference’s only programs that can currently boast top 30 recruiting classes. Let’s break down just how unfavorably the AAC recruiting classes stack up to those from the rest of the major basketball conferences.

  • The AAC, the Big 12, and the Big Ten are the only three conferences without a commitment from one of the country’s top 20 players, but it’s almost a certainty that Kansas will land one if not two or three of the uncommitted five-star prospects.
  • The AAC has only six of the top 100 prospects in the country currently committed, far less than the Pac-12 (15), Big Ten (13), SEC (14), and the ACC (17). The Big East currently has seven top 100 prospects committed and the Big 12 has just five (again… Kansas).
  • Only the Big 12 has fewer schools among the top 30 recruiting classes in the country after the early signing period, and it seems highly unlikely that any other school from the conference will break into that group, although SMU is probably close.
  • Of the top remaining uncommitted prospects, only five-star center Diamond Stone is seriously considering an AAC school (UConn) while the rest of the uncommitted prospects seem to be considering SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 schools.
  • UConn and Memphis are responsible for four of the six top-100 prospects committed to play in the AAC, and Memphis’ highly ranked class has as much to do with their coaching hires and Dedric Lawson’s decision to reclassify as it does with Josh Pastner’s recruiting prowess.

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Four Thoughts On Memphis’ Season-Opening Debacle

Posted by mlemaire on November 19th, 2014

Another day, another nationally televised disaster for one of the presumed best teams in the AAC. Less than 24 hours after Gonzaga blitzed SMU in Spokane, Wichita State mugged Memphis in a game where the Tigers only looked good once Shockers’ head coach Gregg Marshall emptied his bench in the 71-56 win. Although neither SMU nor Memphis should be particularly proud of the way they played, at least SMU can say it ran into a buzzsaw in a hostile environment at The Kennel. Memphis, on the other hand, lost to a team that didn’t even play particularly well and they did it in relatively embarrassing fashion. The Shockers are a good defensive team, but the Tigers only cracked 40 percent from the field once Wichita State had entered its scrubs. The Tigers also turned the ball over 24 times, many in embarrassing fashion, and they only managed four assists for the game. I wish I didn’t have to think about Memphis’ performance again, but since I sat through the snoozefest, I will toss out some observations anyway.

Josh Pastner Should Be Ready For Criticism After Yesterday's Disaster. (Photo/Memphis Commerical-Appeal)

Josh Pastner Should Be Ready For Criticism After Yesterday’s Disaster. (Photo/Memphis Commerical-Appeal)

  1. Wherefore Art Thou Kedren Johnson? It would be one thing if Johnson had just missed a bunch of shots and turned the ball over because he was being aggressive, but the transfer junior, who was supposed to be the anchor of Memphis’ young backcourt, played just 12 minutes, missed his only field goal attempt, and turned the ball over five times without recording an assist. That’s not a tough-luck performance; that’s just a really, really bad performance. I am no fitness expert, but Johnson looked wider than I remember him and appeared very slow off the dribble. Josh Pastner couldn’t justify keeping him on the floor because he couldn’t stay in front of anyone defensively. Opposing point guard Fred Van Vleet is one of the best in the country at his position and he is an absolutely pest thanks to his quick hands, but Johnson is an experienced player with a proven track record of success in the SEC. The fact that he looked so bad doesn’t bode well for the Tigers, even if it is still really early. Read the rest of this entry »
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