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Monday, November 19, 2018

Men's Basketball

Analysis: Favorites to win and to upset in the AAC tournament


Senior guard Rob Gray led the Cougars all season and will need to be on his A-game for the Cougars to take the conference title. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

After a long season of basketball, the end is on the horizon for nearly a dozen teams.

The American Athletic Conference Tournament starts on Thursday, and the winner is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament, while the rest will have to wait to see if they have won one of the at-large bids.

For most of the teams, their seasons will end in Orlando barring a miraculous run to win the conference, but there are a handful of teams that could disrupt the top three and shake up the tournament.

The trio on top

No. 8 Cincinnati, No. 11 Wichita State and No. 21 Houston enter the tournament as the first, second and third seeds and favorites to win it all.

Cincinnati has been the most consistent of the trio and lost only two non-conference games this season against No. 3 Xavier and No. 23 Florida. In conference, the Bearcats lost on the road against Houston and then at home against Wichita State.

The Bearcats didn’t drop any games to any of the lower seeded teams thanks to their strong, consistent defense that has allowed the second least points per game in the nation.

Wichita State has been in the NCAA tournament each of the last six years, but this year it faced a new challenge: joining the AAC after leaving the Missouri Valley Conference, where they won five titles over the last six years.

The Shockers have mostly continued their winning ways but have dropped games to big name teams like Notre Dame, Oklahoma and SMU before injuries decimated their roster.

The Cougars have had the widest variance of the top AAC teams. At its peak, Houston took down Wichita State and Cincinnati while both were ranked in the top 10, but the team also lost to Memphis on Feb. 22 to Drexel at the beginning of the season.

While the Drexel game was in November, the foul problems have remained. Houston is still averaging more than 21 fouls a game.

But between Cincinnati’s strong run, Wichita adjusting to a new conference and Houston’s big wins late in the season, other teams have been left under the radar.

Looking to make noise

After starting the first half of conference play 4-5, Tulsa has since gone 8-1 and emerged as a sleeper pick in the conference tournament.

The fourth seed AAC team boasts a starting rotation with an average height of 6’5″. Tulsa players use their size to play a physical style, but they don’t give up too many reckless fouls, ranking No. 33 in fouls out of 351 teams with just 16 per game.

When playing Cincinnati, Tulsa was just three points behind at the end of the first half, but a 24-4 run to start the second gave the Bearcats a lead the Golden Hurricane could not come back from.

While Houston has had the widest variety in its performances in the top three, Temple has undoubtedly had the most variance in the conference.

At its peak, Temple defeated SEC regular season champion Auburn, the ACC’s third place Clemson and Wichita State.

On the flip side, Temple also lost to Drexel, and multiple teams — including Houston, Cincinnati and UCF — beat them in blowouts.

Temple is the biggest wildcard of the tournament and poses the biggest threat to Wichita State and Houston on that side of the bracket.

Last gasp

At one point this season, the AAC was looking at four or even five potential NCAA tournament teams. The SMU Mustangs were one such contender, but mid-season injuries sent them spiraling to the bottom half of the standings.

The Mustangs lost their two leading contributors on offense but still manage to remain competitive. SMU kept it at a two possession game against Wichita two weeks ago, and their losses have been far from blowouts, usually losing by around 10 points.

UCF is another team that had a good, but not great, start to the season before succumbing to injuries.

The Knights lost two key players at the very beginning of the season, and a third tried to play through injuries during the fall before finally needing surgery in January.

But they kept the Bearcats to just 49 points, their lowest total of the season, in a losing effort and nearly defeated the Cougars in February.

Luckily for UCF, the conference tournament is in Orlando, the Knights’ castle, where they have gone 11-4 this season. It’s still too soon to count them out.

If Houston’s shooting goes cold and foul trouble flares up, any of these teams have what it takes to bring down the Cougars.

While a poor performance from Cincinnati, Wichita State or Houston shouldn’t hurt their chances of making it to the NCAA tournament, they may end up being one of the last seeds.

A great performance could earn them a coveted top four NCAA seed.

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