AAC Midseason Check-in: Can Anyone Chase Down Houston?

The Cougars have played like a top-10 team nationally, but will anyone else from the AAC join it in the Big Dance?
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We're halfway through the 2020–21 college basketball regular season, and conference play is well underway across the country. As teams jockey for position both in their own league standings and for NCAA tournament seeding, Sports Illustrated is checking in on the seven major conferences in men's college hoops (American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) this week to see where each stands and how it's shaped up compared to preseason expectations.

First up, it's the AAC, where Houston is ruling the roost.

State of the Conference

In its first year without Connecticut, the AAC has turned in an underwhelming start to the season, to say the least. Only Houston is ranked in the top 50 of the ESPN power index, and the No. 8 Cougars are the only team ranked in the  AP Men's Top 25. Yes, the conference has had its fair share of starts, stops, cancellations and reschedules (take a number), but it's failed to seize the moment in key matchups to raise the league’s profile. Last season, the AAC was projected to feature two teams in the NCAA tournament, as it stands, that number looks more hopeful than probable.

Houston's Marcus Sasser and Quentin Grimes high five

Biggest surprise: Wichita State

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Shockers are slated here (I had to!) after the mass exodus last spring surrounding Gregg Marshall and his alleged physical and verbal abuse with players and coaches, which ultimately led to his resignation prior to the season. Still, despite the outside noise, Wichita State has put together an impressive showing so far this season, sitting at 4–1 in the league.

Tyson Etienne has emerged as a star this season, upping his points per game average by more than eight to 17.9. That’s ignited an offense that checks in at No. 2 in the AAC (74.2 ppg.). Also, a deeper dive into the Shockers' losses reveals even more promise in Kansas. They fell on the road to Houston after blowing a 10-point lead in the second half and were undermanned due to COVID-19 cases and contact tracing for two of their early losses. It’s clear that interim head coach Isaac Brown has the team in vintage form looking primed to compete for the league title.

Biggest disappointment: Cincinnati

What happened to the Bearcats? There were high hopes when John Brannen got Keith Williams and Chris Vogt back after they’d initially declared for the NBA draft, but so far this season the theme for Cincinnati has been missed opportunities. The Bearcats have been competitive but show no signs of expanding on last year’s 20-win season, which earned them a share of the regular-season title. Their biggest problem? The Bearcats can’t defend, ranking last in the conference in scoring defense at 72.3 points a game.

The current favorite: Houston

The Cougars remain the favorite to win the conference, even after preseason Player of the Year Caleb Mills opted to transfer to Florida State. If the old saying that “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships” is true, then the Cougars are on track to win their third regular-season title. Houston tops the league in scoring defense, allowing just 56.5 points a game this season, and out-rebounds its opponents by more than 10 a game. The Cougars are tough and gritty, and Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser are two of the most dangerous guards in the country. Kelvin Sampson’s crew is not one you’d want to see in your bracket come March.

The top challengers: Wichita State, SMU, Tulsa

In addition to the Shockers, SMU remains in serious contention to challenge Houston because of its ability to score in bunches. Currently, the Mustangs lead the league in scoring at 79.2 points a game. Also, Tulsa gave the Cougars their only loss of the season, a 65-64 squeaker in the friendly confines of the Donald W. Reynolds Center, and have the pedigree to grind out wins down the stretch. On Sunday, Tulsa toughed out a 58–57 win over Memphis as a prelude to their second meeting with Houston on Jan. 20. A sweep of the AAC top dogs would strengthen their case for the conference crown and beyond.

Dark horse: SMU

The Mustangs have a legitimate chance to beat most teams on any given night because Kendric Davis is at the controls. Davis is making a strong case for Player of the Year honors, leading the league in scoring (19.1 ppg.) and assists (7.7 apg). Even more impressive is that he’s just one of four players averaging in double figures for SMU, which not only leads the league in scoring (79.2 ppg) but also field goal percentage (46%). The Mustangs will need to carve out a few quality wins in the second half of the conference slate, but the potential is oozing in Dallas.

NCAA tournament outlook

As it stands, Houston is the only shoo-in come March. The AAC is stocked with marginal bubble teams like SMU, Wichita State, Memphis and Tulsa. The bad news for it is that the pandemic year isn’t doing teams any favors with limited opportunities to enhance their résumés down the stretch. That will make Houston’s bid to hold the line much more difficult with the proverbial bull’s-eye now covering the Cougars.