AAC Tournament kicks off with Connecticut in the driver’s seat

Katie Lou Samuelson. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Katie Lou Samuelson. Photo by Stephen Slade.

As the American Athletic Conference Tournament kicks off, Connecticut once again looks to be in full control.

The Huskies handily defeated South Florida last Monday, 82-53, to secure their fifth straight American Athletic Conference regular season title. The victory marked the tenth time they have been undefeated in regular-season play. And in seven of those undefeated instances, the Huskies went on to win the National Championship.

UConn has never lost an AAC contest since the league was founded – an 86-0 record. This season looks to be no different, as coach Geno Auriemma’s team will almost certainly secure their fifth tournament title Tuesday night, extending that streak to 89-0. There’s just no mystery about the ultimate tournament result.

But the game against USF at home on senior night had an uncomfortable feel for Husky fans. After a dominant first quarter in which they outscored the Bulls 29-12, UConn prevailed by just seven points in the second period, three in the third, and two in the fourth. In contrast, they totally dominated USF in a 51-point win in January.

The second half of this week’s matchup looked like the Huskies were cruising, and not playing with intensity. That raises one of many red flags for the team heading into the NCAA tournament. It is undeniable, however, that Auriemma is a master at preparing his team for the Dance, as his 11 Championships prove. And this team (like most UConn teams) does raise its play against the best opponents. But it has the disadvantage of playing most of January and February against unranked mid-major conference sisters, and that schedule can hide the team flaws that Auriemma is so quick to speak about in his press conferences.

The Huskies scored 29 points off 19 Bulls turnovers – the exact margin of victory. This is a credit to the UConn defense, which is among the top five in the nation. USF simply could not hang on to the ball against the quickness and anticipation of the Husky defensive pressure. But great teams – final four teams like Mississippi State (with the third-fewest turnovers in the nation) – don’t turn the ball over for those cheap baskets. Do the Huskies rely too much on steals?

They had just nine offensive rebounds out of 39 total. The shorter Bulls had 12 offensive boards. Tierra McGowan of Mississippi State averages six by herself. (To be fair, UConn ranks tenth in rebound margin (9.9) and MSU ranks 39th (6.3) Baylor is first at 18.7).

This all means nothing for the outcome of the conference tournament, which begins tomorrow, and we will explore the strengths of the Huskies (many) as well as their weaknesses (a few) before the NCAA Tournament.

But don’t pencil UConn in as National Champion just yet. This weekend, though, you can ink them in as ACC tournament champions. Given the near certainty of that outcome, who should fans watch in this weekend’s tournament? Several teams, actually. The AAC quarter- and semifinal games are often very entertaining basketball.

The AAC Tournament in brief

Expect the top three seeds – UConn, USF and UCF – to hold, as none has lost to a team below them this season. The likely Cincinnati vs. Houston game at 8 p.m. Sunday should be one of the best of the tournament. Wichita State has a fighting chance to defeat UCF for the fourth quarter-final spot, but the Huskies and the Bulls should play for the title just six days after their most recent contest.

Gabby Williams. Photo by Stephen Slade.
Gabby Williams. Photo by Stephen Slade.

No. 1 UConn (29-0; 16-0 AAC; RPI 2)

UConn has the nation’s best three-point shooter in Katie Lou Samuelson (.490), and the fifth- best in Kia Nurse (.474). It has the most versatile and athletic player in the game in Gabby Williams, who leads her team in rebounds (177 – 7.7 per game), assists (152 – 5.5/g) and steals (75) as a 5-11 small forward. Five players shoot over 50 percent. The Huskies are the number one team in assists and assist-turnover ratio, and fourth in field-goal percentage defense. They have five wins over top five teams this season, only two by single-digit points. They also have beaten ten top 25 teams.

Maria Jespersen. Photo courtesy of USF Athletics.
Maria Jespersen. Photo courtesy of USF Athletics.

No. 2 South Florida (24-6; 13-3; RPI 14)

USF has lost only one conference game to a team other than UConn – an outlier eight-point road loss to No. 6 seed Wichita State in January. Junior guard Katija Laksa leads the conference in scoring at 21.0 ppg,, and leads the nation in free throw percentage (96.3). The 6-0 guard is a versatile scorer who moves well without the ball, but can show frustration if closely-guarded. Her height allows her to be a good on-ball defender.

Senior forward Maria Jesperson is an all-around player averaging 18.3 points and 9.9 rebounds. She is crafty around the hoop, and shoots .346 from beyond the arc. Her toughness sets the tone for the team.

Point guard Laia Flores averages 6.6 assists per game, with an assist-turnover ratio of 3.66, fourth in the NCAA. She is primarily a distributor, but can shoot and hit the three when open, and scores when she needs to.

The Bulls deploy an active, well-coached defense that has held opponents to 65 or fewer points twenty times this season. Coach Jose Fernandez’ teams are always tough organized and resilient. USF is currently ranked 20th nationally, and are a certain NCAA tournament team.

Eight of 12 USF players, including four starters, are European citizens.

Jespersen and Laksa were named to the conference First Team on Friday.

No. 3 UCF (20-9; 12-4; RPI 44)

Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has engineered a remarkable turnaround for the University of Central Florida (“please call the team UCF” says the media guide) in just two years at the helm. Last year, she led a 14-win improvement (five in AAC play) over the 2015-16 season and a No. 4 seed in the AAC tournament. This year, the 12 conference victories give UCF two games before they met UConn.

This season’s only conference defeats are comprised of two each against the Huskies and USF. The team’s ball control offense leads to low-scoring, close games, but the Knights mostly win the close ones, despite an over-abundance of turnovers. An active and athletic defense averaged ten steals per game in conference play. The combination held conference teams under 50 points six times this year.

Freshman center Masseny Kaba has been coming on strong in conference play, averaging 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds against the AAC. The teams tallest player at 6-3, Kaba was named to the all-Freshman team on Friday. The other team stalwarts are senior guard Zakiya Saunders (15.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 69 steals) and sophomore point guard Korneila Wright (10.9 ppg, 129 assists). No one on the team shoots the three at all well.

No. 4 Cincinnati (18-11; 10-6; RPI 116)

This season, Cincinnati’s most competitive, secured coach Jamelle Elliott’s job after many seasons of middle-of-the-road conference finishes. The team has improved in every category, but the improvement rests largely on the shoulders of seniors Shanice Johnson (10.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Ana Owens (11.7 ppg, .364 3P) as it did last year. The addition of All-Freshman Team selection Limar’I Thomas has been a catalyst for success, and the 5-11 forward has averaged 10.3 points and 6.2 rebounds for the season.

The Bearcats are undersized, with no player over 6-1 logging serious minutes on the court, but they play tough, active defense, and have looked more organized on offense than in the past. Only Owens has a reliable outside shot, and the team turns the ball over far too frequently.

Cincinnati secured the four seed and its first round bye with a 61-57 win over Houston in the final regular season game. They will likely face Houston again on Sunday night, in what should be one of the tournament’s most closely fought games.

No. 5 Houston (20-10; 9-7; RPI 68)

Houston Coach Ron Hughey should be named AAC Coach Of The Year for the Cougars’ dramatic turnaround this season. This is a team that won just four AAC games in the last two seasons combined, but managed to be competitive just about every night in compiling an 9-7 conference record, and the first 20-win season in memory.

A team with no double-digit scorers in 2015-16 boasts four this season, led by sophomores Jasmyne Harris (19.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg,) and Angela Harris (14.5 ppg, 110 assists) (who are not related), who led the team in scoring last season as well.

Houston is an athletic, young team that plays hard and has responded to Hughey’s installation of a culture of effort is the team’s turnaround.

Houston will play No. 12 Tulsa on Saturday, and likely face Cincinnati Sunday. The winner of that game gets UConn on Monday.

No. 6 Wichita State (14-16; 9-7; RPI 135)

The Shockers are new the the AAC this year (from the Missouri Valley Conference), and have represented themselves well. Redshirt senior guard Rangie Bessard is the leader and star, averaging team-leading 19.6 points and 7.5 rebounds. She also leads the team with 89 turnovers. Angiee Tompkins, a 6-2 forward is the second leading scorer and rebounder, with rarely used but accurate three point range.

Wichita State’s conference games have been close affairs, with the exception of an embarrassing 124-43 loss to UConn in February. They defeated their first round opponent, No. 11 Temple, in the only meeting this year by a score of 88-81. This should be another competitive first round contest.

No. 7 East Carolina (15-14; 7-9; RPI 199)

Eleven on coach Heather Macy’s roster plays double-digit minutes, led by point guard Alex Frazier’s 28.8. No one on the roster has started all 29 games. No player scores in double-digits, and the team as a whole are horrible free throw shooters, averaging .585. Nobody shoots the three. The Pirates’ strength is a quick, harassing, relentless defense that has forced 100 more turnovers (633) than the team has committed, and 321 steals on the season. Both figures exceed UConn’s total.

ECU split the season games against first round opponent SMU, but one the more recent game, on February 3, by 29 points.

Everybody else

There is only a little to say about the remainder of the field, as the bottom five are inconsistent and not very good this season. But games on the first day are often close because small things make a difference at this level. Several of the first-round teams actually defeated their higher-seeded opponents during league play.

No. 8 Memphis (10-19; 5-11) plays No. 9 Tulane (13-16; 5-11) at 6 p.m. Saturday. Tulane Senior Kolby Morgan ranks ninth in career scoring among active NCAA players with over 2,100 points. She gets little support, but is worth watching. Cheyenne Creighton had 11 double-doubles this season for Memphis.

No. 10 SMU (4-12; 10-19) is a great rebounding team, but a poor shooting team. The Mustangs averaged 42.5 rebounds per game, and Dai’ja Thomas had 22 in a win over first round opponent ECU in January.

Tanaya Atkinson. Photo by Ben Solomon/American Athletic Conference.
Tanaya Atkinson. Photo by Ben Solomon/American Athletic Conference.

No. 11 Temple (11-18; 3-13) will play Wichita State in the tournament’s first game Saturday at noon. Temple Senior Tanaya Atkinson (21.0 ppg; 9.3 rpg) has been stellar this season, and was named the AAC Most Improved Player. They lost to Wichita State by seven, 88-81 on February 14, outscoring the Shockers by seven in the second half.

No. 12 Tulsa (3-13; 9-20) plays No. 5 Houston on Saturday at 8 p.m. The game is made interesting by the fact that one of the Golden Hurricane’s three wins was an 83-77 defeat of Houston on February 10. Shug Dickson leads the team in points (13.7) and takes a high percentage of the team’s field goal attempts, sinking just 37 percent of them.

Jim Clark’s 2018 American Athletic Conference regular-season awards

Defensive Player of the Year
Kia Nurse, Sr., G, UConn

Most Improved Player of the Year
Tanaya Atkinson, Sr., G, Temple

Sixth Player of the Year
Azurá Stevens, Jr., F, UConn

Ambassador Award
McKenzie Adams, Sr., G, SMU

Newcomer of the Year
Azurá Stevens, Jr., F, UConn

Team Academic Excellence Award

First Team All-Conference
Napheesa Collier, Jr., F, UConn
Kia Nurse, Sr., G, UConn
Katie Lou Samuelson, Jr., G, UConn*
Gabby Williams, Sr., F, UConn
Maria Jespersen, Sr., F, USF
Kitija Laksa, Jr., G, USF
Tanaya Atkinson, Sr., G, Temple

Second Team All-Conference
Zakiya Saunders, Sr., G, UCF
Azurá Stevens, Jr., F, UConn
Jasmyne Harris, So., G, Houston
Kolby Morgan, Sr., G, Tulane
Rangie Bessard, R-Sr., G, Wichita State

Third Team All-Conference
Ana Owens, Sr., G, Cincinnati
Crystal Dangerfield, So., G, UConn
Angela Harris, So., G, Houston
Cheyenne Creighton, Sr., F, Memphis
Brea Elmore, Sr., G, Memphis
McKenzie Adams, Sr., G, SMU

All-Freshman Team
Masseny Kaba, Fr., F, UCF
IImar’I Thomas, Fr., F, Cincinnati*
Lashonda Monk, Fr., G, ECU
Ariana Whitfield, Fr., G, SMU
Mia Davis, Fr., F, Temple*
Emani Mayo, Fr., G, Temple