- The AAC struggled because of its lack of depth in 2016-17, but with Wichita State set to join the conference, it could show improvement in 2017-18.
The NCAA tournament tends to obscure everything that came before it in a given college basketball season. Which teams won those Thanksgiving-week nonconference tournaments? Which players were making compelling cases for national awards in December and January? The image of Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and other North Carolina Tar Heels cutting down the nets in Glendale moments after a six-point win over Gonzaga in the title game won’t fade away soon, but in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at what else happened during the 2016-17 campaign. This is the third installment of a conference-by-conference review series. We’ve already reviewed the ACC and the Big 12. Here’s the AAC.
Most important thing we learned: The conference suffered from a lack of depth
For the second time in four years, the American sent just two teams to the NCAA tournament, down from the four that danced in 2016 (a year that SMU was barred from postseason play). SMU and Cincinnati were the league’s clear top teams, and the Mustangs entered the tournament as 30-game winners ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 poll and 12th on kenpom.com. But both they and the Bearcats received No. 6 seeds, reflections of resumes that weren’t on par with the top teams in the country’s best conferences. Neither played an overly strong non-conference schedule, and in the end it left SMU with just two RPI top-50 wins (both over the Bearcats) and Cincinnati with three (Iowa State, Xavier, SMU), as no other American teams landed in the RPI top 50. The AAC’s overall kenpom.com adjusted efficiency rating dropped from +8.16 in 2015–16 to +5.90 this year, and the drop-off after its top two teams was notable.
Best game: SMU 60, Cincinnati 51 (Feb. 12, 2017)
The Bearcats came into this clash of the conference’s elite as winners of 15 straight, a streak the Mustangs put an end to behind a second-half comeback. It was a signature, validating win for an SMU team that had only recently broken into the AP Top 25 poll, a squad that wouldn’t lose again until the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was also revenge for a two-point road loss SMU had suffered to Cincinnati a month prior. The Mustangs used just six players in the February win over Cincinnati, with Semi Ojeleye playing 39 minutes and scoring 18 points, hitting 3 of 5 from behind the arc.
Best player: Semi Ojeleye, SMU
Ojeleye’s journey to SMU was long, having started his college career at Duke back in 2013 before deciding to transfer a month into his sophomore season. The highly-regarded recruit never quite clicked as a Blue Devil, and after leaving Durham it would be almost two full years before he took the court again as a Mustang. The 6’7” forward made the most of his return, averaging 19.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 48.7% from the floor and 42.4% from three in a breakout junior year. Ojeleye boasted the league’s highest offensive rating in AAC play and 29th best rating nationally, per kenpom.com. His ability to create his own shot off the dribble, score both inside and outside the paint, crash the boards and hit consistently from deep made him integral to the Mustangs’ success.
Best coach: Tim Jankovich, SMU
Jankovich took over the reigns at SMU after four seasons as an associate head coach there when Larry Brown resigned last July. He inherited a team that went 25–5 in a year it was banned from postseason play due to NCAA sanctions, but the Mustangs brought back just one of their four top scorers, senior Ben Moore. SMU didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25 poll but would finish the year ranked No. 11 after winning both the AAC regular season and tournament titles, perhaps the best illustrations of the job Jankovich did in Year 1 in Dallas. Along with Semi Ojeleye turning into a star, Jankovich oversaw the growth of guards Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster, who made vital sophomore jumps, and managed an extremely thin bench while leaning heavily on his starters. The Mustangs may have had a surprising first-round exit in the NCAAs, but it doesn’t erase everything else the Jankovich-led team accomplished in 2016–17.
Best newcomer: Kyle Washington, Cincinnati
Though also a conference newcomer, since Ojeleye was already covered under best player, Washington gets the nod here. The 6’9” junior came to Cincinnati after two years at NC State and had an immediate impact once he was able to suit up for the Bearcats. He got off to such a strong start—posting five double doubles in Cincinnati’s first eight games—that it forced opponents to key in on the junior who was unexpectedly leading the way. Washington led the team in usage and finished the year having averaged 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 51.0% shooting, serving a key role for a Bearcats team that won 30 games for the first time since 2001–02.
Biggest surprise: UCF
The Knights, picked to finish eighth in the league’s preseason poll, had their most successful season yet since joining the AAC in 2013. Led by guards B.J. Taylor and Matt Williams and anchored on defense by 7’6” sophomore Tacko Fall, Central Florida made great strides in former Duke star Johnny Dawkins’s first year as its head coach, going 24–12 overall and 11–7 in the AAC. An extremely weak non-conference schedule kept the Knights from getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, but it was an impressive turnaround for a team that had just 12 wins a season ago.
After a strong finish to the regular season, UCF made a run to the NIT semifinals, beating Colorado, Illinois State and Illinois along the way. Fall, who was seventh in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 13th in block percentage, earned conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. If the big man opts to return to school (he’s currently exploring his NBA draft options), the Knights will bring back a solid core of three of their top four scorers.
Biggest disappointment: UConn
The Huskies started the season ranked 18th in the nation and were picked to finish second in the conference. It all went downhill from there. UConn stunningly dropped back-to-back games to open its schedule—to Wagner and Northeastern, both at home—and it was immediately clear something was wrong. Then the team lost both freshman Alterique Gilbert, a top-40 recruit, and sophomore transfer Terry Larrier to season-ending injuries before the end of November (not to mention big man Mamadou Diarra, who never even saw the floor in 2016–17 due to injury).
A season that began with great promise seemed doomed not even three weeks in. By New Year’s, Connecticut was 5–8 and in the middle of losing seven of 10. The Huskies would go on to finish 16–17—the program’s first losing season since Jim Calhoun’s first year as head coach back in 1986–87—and fail to crack the RPI top-100.
One burning off-season question: How much impact will the addition of Wichita State have?
The AAC has already been atop plenty of off-season headlines thanks to the news that it will add Missouri Valley Conference powerhouse Wichita State starting with next season. The inclusion of the Shockers is already an instant boost to the conference’s profile, and they’ll likely be the preseason pick to win the AAC. The benefit of the league change in regards to Wichita State’s strength of schedule is obvious, but it also gives the rest of the American’s teams more opportunities to grab a resume-building win or two as well. For a conference that sent only a pair of teams to the Big Dance in 2017 and didn’t earn higher than a No. 6 seed, that’s significant. Will anyone take advantage?