The AAC Tournament might feature better basketball than you think

Each year about midway through the conference schedule I think “Hey, the American Athletic Conference is becoming a top-tier mid-major.” So far, every year I have been disappointed. This year is harder to read. The AAC will be one of just two mid-majors to send three teams to the NCAA tournament (the Big East is the other). UConn and Temple are a step above the rest, with USF a solid third, but the next six or seven league teams are capable of beating each other on any particular day.

The league scheduled two fewer conference games than in the past, and the growing parity in the middle of the pack has yielded unimpressive won-lost results. Four teams have identical 7-9 conference records, and parity is real in the conference. Two of those lower teams have beaten No. 3 South Florida, however, and bracket-busting is a distinct possibility.

Temple’s rise into the national rankings, and Central Florida’s amazing transformation from No. 10 seed last year to No. 4 this year under a new coach are encouraging signs for the league. Going into the AAC tournament, fans should ignore the conference records, and prepare for some exciting games.

Yes, UConn is prohibitive favorite, and Houston and East Carolina are pretty hopeless. But every other team can beat every other team on a good night, even though Temple has lost only to Connecticut and USF. That makes for good basketball. Past tournaments have been competitive and worth watching. Especially given the parity in the middle of the pack, this tournament should be a competitive toss-up.

The Tournament is held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut March 3-5. Friday and Saturday games will be televised only on ESPN3. Sunday’s Semifinals air at 5 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2 and 7:30 p.m. Estern on ESPNU, while Monday’s Final will be 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2.

No. 1 University of Connecticut Huskies (29-0; 16-0 American; RPI: 1)

Storrs, Connecticut

Geno Auriemma (32nd season)

Once again the number one team in the nation, UConn’s rebuilding year has turned into the talk of women’s basketball. The Huskies completed the program’s ninth perfect regular season, and those twenty-nine wins have extended UConn’s undefeated streak to 104 games.

Napheesha Collier. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Atletics.
Napheesha Collier. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Atletics.

The team that began the season with no All-American candidates could now have three. The most likely is 6-1 sophomore forward Napheesa Collier (20.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 56 blocks, .686 fgp) who has been stunningly consistent all season. In her last three games, she averaged 29.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and shot 80.4 percent from the field.

Fellow sophomore, 6-3 guard Katie Lou Samuelson, is the team’s leading scorer (20.7), and one of the nation’s best three point threats (.413). She is just the sixth Husky to score her 1000th point as a sophomore. She has expanded her game inside the three-point arc quite successfully this year.

Junior forward Gabby Williams is the best athlete in UConn history, and is a relentless defender and rebounder who has overcome her lack of post size (5-11) with unprecedented leaping ability, a nose for the ball, and the quickness to score around much taller defenders. She also leads the team with 152 assists (5.2 per game).

Junior Kia Nurse, the emotional anchor of the team and also its most accurate three-point shooter (.422), defends the best guard on opposing teams. She has missed four games with an ankle injury, but should return to play sometime during the tournament. Senior Saniya Chong is having a breakout season, contributing 8.1 points and 3.9 assists per game, while leading the nation in assist/turnover ratio.

Despite this firepower, UConn’s defense is what really sets the team apart. The starters are basically interchangeable: long, quick, athletic players who switch on every screen and communicate superbly in help situations. Teams average 35 percent shooting on the year, 27 percent from beyond the arc.

Prediction: Connecticut has never lost an AAC game. This tournament should not change that. Wins 105, 106, 107 and another title. No. 1 overall seed in the NCAAs.

Match ups: UConn plays the Tulsa-Memphis winner on Saturday at 2 p.m. (ESPN3); semi-final is Sunday at 5 p.m. (ESPN2); final Monday at 7 p.m. (ESPN2).

No. 2 Temple University Owls (23-6; 13-3; RPI: 18)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tonya Cardoza (ninth season)

Temple has improved steadily in recent years, and enter the tournament ranked (25/20) for the first time in school history. Their twenty-three wins (four more than last season) and 18 RPI guarantee them entry in the NCAA tournament, possibly as a five or six seed.

The four-guard offense features quickness and one-on-one shooting skills that are improved from last season, and significantly better from beyond the arc. Four guards average more than one hundred attempted threes (230 for Alliya Butts) on the year, and all shoot better than 35 percent from downtown, a major improvement from last season.

Senior point guard Feyonda Fitzgerald leads the team in points (16.9) and assists (7.3 apg) with an assist/turnover ratio of 3:1, seventh in the nation. Every part of her game has improved from last year, when she turned the ball over often and shot poorly on both threes and twos. This season she averaged .392 overall and .339 beyond the arc.

Temple's Alliya Butts. Photo courtesy of Temple Athletics.
Temple’s Alliya Butts. Photo courtesy of Temple Athletics.

Diminutive (5-4) junior Butts, like Fitzgerald, rarely leaves the court, and is the team’s most prolific (78-230) outside threat. She averages 14.9 points, and her aggressive perimeter defense frequently disrupts the opponent’s point-guard. Her sixty-four steals lead the team, which has forced nearly 100 more turnovers than they have committed.

Junior guard Donnaizha Fountain is another interchangeable part, with quickness, consistent scoring (14.1 ppg) and outside accuracy (.352).

The “different” guard is 5-9 junior Tanaya Atkinson. The team’s leading rebounder (8.3 rpg) has a much more solid build, whose strong post moves make her the primary threat in the paint despite her height. When focused, she can be unstoppable, as when she tallied 20 points and ten rebounds in a 30-point loss to UConn. When she drifts away, however, she becomes a liability, as her three points in a subsequent 45 point loss to the Huskies demonstrated. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, she should have plenty of fans in the stands for the tournament.

Prediction: Temple should reach the final after easy victory over the winner of the 7-10 game (likely Cincinnati, who they beat 88-64 last week), and a tough, exciting contest against USF, with whom they split the season series, losing by four in January and winning by six two weeks ago. Then, a loss to UConn, but a decent seed in the NCAAs.

Match ups: Houston-Cincinnati winner, Saturday at 6 p.m. (ESPN3); semi-final likely vs. USF Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU); final, if they advance, Monday at 7 p.m. (ESPN2).

No. 3 University of South Florida Bulls (22-7; 11-5; RPI: 34)

Tampa, Florida

Jose Fernandez (18th season)

South Florida was riding high at the start of February, ranked 22/23 in the polls. Then unexpected losses to Memphis and Central Florida, and a more understandable six point loss to Temple, knocked them into the RV category. This is the first time in the four years of the AAC tournament that USF has not been the No. 2 seed.

Coach Jose Fernandez has actually done a remarkable job rebuilding a winner after the loss of two All-Conference players (Courtney Williams and Alicia Jenkins) to graduation, and then losing his experienced point guard to injury just nine games into this season. Somewhat like UConn, USF’s success this season reflects remarkable transformations of bench players into solid contributors.

Junior point guard Laia Flores is sixth in the nation in assist/turnover ratio (3.03:1), and averages 8.6 points, up from 1.8 last year. She scored 13 points on 5-10 shooting this week against the UConn defense.

Sophomore forward (6-0) Katija Laska, this team’s leading scorer (19.6 ppg), was hampered by injury in the 2016 tournament. This season she is healthy, and has been a stalwart for USF. Nearly half her made shots (91 of 208) were from beyond the arc, from which she shoots nearly 40 percent. No one else is a real outside threat, however, as junior forward Maria Jespersen (15.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg) has lost the outside touch this year.

Senior wing (6-1) Ariadna Pujol logged just 8.6 minutes a game last season, contributing just 2.8 points. This season she plays nearly 35 minutes, averaging 12.9 points and getting to the free throw line for 139 attempts, making 102 (.734). She also leads the team in blocks.

Fernandez’ teams always play intense, physical basketball, and this year’s squad is capable of winning a game in the NCAA tournament as they did in the first round last season. The likely semi-final contest against Temple should be the best game of the tournament.

Prediction: An easy quarter-final win, then a tough contest with Temple. If they advance, another big loss to Connecticut.

Match ups: SMU-East Carolina winner Saturday at 8 p.m. (ESPN3); semi-final vs. Temple Sunday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU). Probably not the final Monday at 7 p.m. (ESPN2) v. UConn.

No. 4 University of Central Florida Knights (19-10; 9-7; RPI: 110)

Orlando, Florida

Katie Abrahamson-Henderson (first season)

In her first season, Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has brought Central Florida out of the cellar and into contention in the AAC. Last year’s No. 10 seed had just four conference wins, seven overall.

Freshman point guard Kornelia Wright has been a important new contributor (113 assists, 56 steals, 4.7 ppg), but the remaining roster is the same as last season. Abrahamson-Henderson has just made them all better.

UCF's Aliyah Gregory. Photo courtesy of UCF Athletics.
UCF’s Aliyah Gregory. Photo courtesy of UCF Athletics.

Junior guard (5-10) Aliya Gregory, UCF’s leading scorer, averages 16.7 points (up from 10.1 in 2016) and is shooting 45 percent from the field. Junior Zykira Lewis has improved her scoring average by a few points (15.5 ppg) and is also significantly more efficient.

The forwards, sophomore Touloupe Omokore (5-11) and junior Joclyn Massey (6-0) average 13 rebounds between them, and the Knights have out-rebounded opponents by ten boards on average all season.

Central Florida doesn’t score a lot of points, averaging just 64.1 per game, only a few more than last year. Each returner has improved slightly offensively. They also care for the ball on offense, surrendering more than 100 fewer turnovers than last year.

The real transformation of the Knights has been their vastly improved defense. An active and organized defense has limited opponents to 55.6 points a game, after surrendering 73.3 last year. They also have 100 more steals than a year ago. That eighteen point difference in points allowed is the real key to a winning season and a four seed.

Prediction: UCF will defeat a good Tulane team in the quarters by maybe ten, as they did last week. They get UConn in the semis. Another 35 point loss is likely. But that 20th win could easily translate into an NIT berth.

No. 5 Tulane University Green Wave (16-13; 7-9; RPI: 63)

New Orleans, Louisiana

Lisa Stockton (23rd season)

Tulane’s highlight film is their 63-60 loss to UConn February 18, in which they outscored the Huskies by 7 in the second half and were down just two with 15 seconds left. The Green Wave turned the Huskies over 18 times (to 12) in that game. But they still lost, because they committed 22 fouls, leading to 19 made UConn free throws. Ranked for a period in January, they have slid badly, and are no longer expected to make the NCAA tournament. They threw a scare into UConn, however, and a defensive effort like that one could lead to an exciting and successful tournament.

Players to watch: Junior G Kolby Morgan (5-8), (18.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, .398 3P), a lock for All-conference team; senior PG Leslie Vorpahl (5-4) (11.8 ppg, 6.1 apg, .368 3P)

Match ups: First round bye. Probable loss to No. 4 Central Florida, Saturday, noon; UConn to the winner Sunday. If they get there, it won’t be close again.

Prediction: A close, low-scoring contest against UCF, with Tulane losing another close one by single digits.

In brief: Tulane lost six of their last seven games leading into the tournament, all by 10 or fewer points. Last Wednesday, they lost to their quarter-final opponent, Central Florida, 56-51. They scored 62 or fewer points in those seven recent losing games, and also in eight other games (and two earlier games with just 63 points). They turned the ball over 85 more times than their opponents, and no player other than Morgan and Vorpahl had more assists than turnovers. If they are to surprise, someone other than the big two has to contribute significantly.

The first day teams – Friday, March 3

No. 6. Southern Methodist University Mustangs (16-13; 7-9)

Dallas, Texas

Travis Mays (first season)

Player to watch: Junior forward Alicia Froling (6-3) (13.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, .526 FG%)

Match ups: v. No. 11 Eastern Carolina, 8 p.m. Friday; No. 3 South Florida, 8 p.m. Saturday

Prediction: Should be an easy win against a terrible ECU team, but they lost to them by a point in January; if they advance, a likely loss to USF, but they lost to them by a single point in late January. Go figure. Here’s the parity of the league. It is possible, with a good weekend, that SMU could reach the semi-final.

In brief: Team has relied largely on 6-3 Froling this season. Very few contributions from the rest of the cast. Way too many turnovers, not enough assists. They did lose many of their games by fewer than five points, but they still lost them.

No. 7 University of Cincinnati Bearcats (16-13; 7-9)

Cincinnati, Ohio

Jamelle Elliot (eighth season)

Players to watch: Junior forward Shanice Johnson (15.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, .373 3P)

Match ups: v. No. 10 Houston, 6 pm Friday; No. 2 Temple 6 p.m. Saturday

Prediction: Cincinnati enters the game losing eight of ten in conference, including their last three. They beat Houston by 21 at home and by nine away, but recently lost to lowly No. 11 East Carolina. They will probably beat Houston, but Cincinnati’s inconsistency could make that a competitive first round game. If they advance, they lose to Temple by twenty.

In brief: Plagued by turnovers, the Bearcats compound their problems by allowing junior Ana Owens to take more shots than anyone else, despite hitting just 3 of 10 attempts. She’s the point guard, and should be distributing the ball to any number of more efficient shooters. Coach Jamelle Elliot fails every year to get this team to play with the focus, precision and intensity she showed as a player.

No. 8 Memphis Tigers (14-15; 7-9)

Memphis, Tennessee

Melissa McFerrin (ninth season)

Players to watch: Junior forward Cheyenne Creighton (14.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg); junior guard Brea Elmore (12.7 ppg; 3.0 apg)

Match ups: v. No. 9 Tulsa, 4 p.m. Friday; if they advance, No. 1 UConn, 2 p.m. Saturday

Prediction: A typical 8 v. 9 game, but with little offense. Probably pretty ordinary, but competitive. Lost to Tulsa 57-52 in their only meeting on January 4, 2017. Lost to UConn by 43 in their only meeting this year.

In brief: Too many turnovers, too little offense. Creighton is a solid but short (6-1) post presence, shooting 54 percent on the season. Elmore is a streaky shooter who can score inside & out. I wrote exactly the same thing before last year’s tournament. The team, and its best players have been static, while the league has improved around them. They were the No. 4 seed a year ago. Memphis split the series with South Florida, the only real sign of hope entering the tournament.

No. 9 University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane (9-20; 5-11)

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Matilda Mossman (sixth season)

Player to watch: Junior guard (5-4) Erika Wakefield(11.5 ppg); freshman forward (6-2) Kendrian Elliott (9.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

Match ups: v. No. 8 Memphis, 4 pm Friday; No. 1 UConn, 2 p.m. Saturday

Prediction: A typical 8 v. 9 game, but with little offense. Probably pretty ordinary, but competitive. Defeated Memphis 57-52 in their only meeting on January 4, 2017. Lost to UConn by 40 and 48.

In brief: Eleven players average over eleven minutes, and they spread the scoring around. As was true last season, too many turnovers, not enough rebounds, though Elliott has helped on the boards. Tulsa once again had the league’s worst attendance at 447 per home game, 100 fewer than last season.

No. 10 University of Houston Cougars (11-18; 4-12)

Houston, Texas

Ron Hughey (third season)

Players to watch: Freshman Jasmyne Harris (11.4 ppg; 5.5 rpg) Sophomore guard Serithia Hawkins (7.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg)

Match ups: v. No. 7 Cincinnati, 6 p.m. Friday; No.2 Temple, 6 p.m. Saturday.

Prediction: Houston lost to Cincinnati by 21 and by 9 points this season. An upset is possible, given Cincinnati’s recent futility, but unlikely. If they were to advance, they would lose by 20 to Temple on Saturday.

In brief: Houston has won nine games in the four years it has been in the AAC, but four were this year: Tulsa twice and East Carolina twice. All one can say is they are less bad than last year, largely because of Harris.  This team is in Texas, where are the players? I know you compete in Houston with Baylor, but not really with Rice, for women players. But really!

No. 11 East Carolina University Pirates (11-18; 2-14)

Greenville, N.C.

Heather Macy (seventh season)

Players to watch: Grad student forward Kristen Gaffney (Vanderbilt) (14.6 ppg; 6.6 rpg)

Match ups: v. No. 6 SMU, 8 pm Friday; if they advance, No. 3 USF, 8 p.m. Saturday

Prediction: One of ECU’s two conference wins was by one point over first round opponent SMU. They lost to USF by 31 and 10 in the two meetings this year. They probably lose in the first round, but could be a late game worth watching. Loss to USF by 20 if they advance.

In brief: Gaffney, a grad student who played at Vanderbilt,  has been a savior for the Pirates, who lost most of last year’s scoring to graduation. The team has energy and athleticism, but just cannot win. They look so much better than some other teams on paper, but they have had a miserable season. They will again graduate their two best players.

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