As conference play begins, SMU, UConn and Cincinnati look like the AAC's top contenders.
As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the AAC:
SMU: Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they are prohibited from participating in the NCAA tournament this season. But that doesn’t undermine their status as the best team in the American and arguably one of the best in the country—having already notched wins over possible tourney teams Michigan and Colorado. SMU will probably suffer a few losses over the next two months, but it has separated itself from Connecticut, Cincinnati and other teams in this conference.
Connecticut: The Huskies already have suffered three losses, but all of them came against teams likely to make the NCAAs (Syracuse, Gonzaga and Maryland). Wing Daniel Hamilton has increased his scoring efficiency and is assisting on a larger percentage of his team’s buckets, and transfers Sterling Gibbs and Shonn Miller have bolstered UConn’s backcourt and frontcourt, respectively. The Huskies will be short-handed during a large chunk of conference play, though, while center Amidah Brimah recovers from a broken finger.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats are off to a promising start after bringing back most of their scoring and playmaking from a team that won 23 games and finished third in the American last season. Their defense has held firm and they’re scoring more on a per-possession basis. What’s more, the selection committee will have a hard time downgrading Cincinnati for any of the three losses it has suffered to date (Butler, Xavier and Iowa State).
Cincinnati. No team from this conference has emerged as a huge surprise. To wit: The squads voted in the preseason to finish in the top three of the league standings (SMU, Connecticut and Cincinnati) rank first, third and second, respectively, in the American in point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule. That said, the Bearcats merit a tepid round of applause for their uptick on offense: Coach Mick Cronin’s crew is scoring 1.14 points per possession, up from 1.03 last season. Keep this up and, assuming it holds the line on the other end of the floor, Cincinnati can push the Mustangs and Huskies for the conference crown. The Bearcats already came close to beating contenders (Butler and Iowa State) in two tougher leagues (Big East and Big 12).
Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are only a flop if assessed by an unreasonably unforgiving standard. They were voted in the preseason to finish fourth in conference, and it’d be premature to declare that they can’t do that. But Tulsa has dropped two games it probably should have won, to Little Rock and Oral Roberts at home. While the Trojans might be legitimately good—they’ve also taken down DePaul and San Diego State—Frank Haith’s crew will lament that loss to the Golden Eagles. Still, Tulsa’s other two defeats are hardly cardinal sins: It lost to undefeated South Carolina on a neutral court and tourney hopeful Oregon State on a not-so-neutral neutral court in Portland. In sum, the Golden Hurricane probably wished they’d handled the two small-league foes that beat them, but they can enter league play optimistic about their chances of playing up to expectations and possibly elbowing their way into the top three of the conference standings.
Player of the year so far
Jordan Tolbert, SMU. Tolbert’s teammate, senior point guard Nic Moore, cannot be ignored in this space. He’s running the show for a team with a perfect record that should win the conference. But Tolbert gets the nod over Moore because of his combination of rebounding and scoring efficiency. The Texas Tech transfer is grabbing 20.4% of the Mustangs’ misses, good for second in the country, ranks third in the American in Offensive Rating and leads the conference in Player Efficiency Rating and win shares per 40 minutes. Moore deserves plenty of credit for SMU’s sterling run to open the season, but the Mustangs wouldn’t be here without Tolbert, who was named AAC player of the week in consecutive weeks earlier this month.
Best non-conference win
Connecticut 75, Ohio State 55 (Dec. 12). There weren’t a lot of great wins from which to choose, but this one stood out because of the margin of victory and what transpired afterward. Four days after suffering a 10-point loss on a neutral court to Big Ten powerhouse Maryland—their third defeat in four games—the Huskies rung up 1.12 points per possession on a Buckeyes team that has yielded 0.92 PPP over 13 contests this season. That result didn’t seem like much at the time, given Ohio Sate had lost four of its six previous games, but the Buckeyes followed up by beating SEC preseason favorite Kentucky seven days after falling to Connecticut and will ride a four-game winning streak into Big Ten play. The win over the Wildcats won’t paper over the other holes on Ohio State’s résumé, but it suggests Thad Matta’s team has the potential to rebound from its overall ugly nonconference performance. Moreover, UConn’s win over Ohio State could look pretty good in a couple of months.
Must-see game in January
Cincinnati at Southern Methodist (Jan. 7). There’s a decent chance the Mustangs will enter February with a zero in the loss column, but this is shaping up as their most challenging contest in the first month of the new year. Southern Methodist can really score, but Cincinnati has sported a top-20 defense the last four seasons and is yielding only 0.89 points per possession in 2015–16. Before the Mustangs can start preparing for the Bearcats, though, they need to win at Tulsa tonight.