By Chris Molicki
While there will never be another Big East like there used to be, the American is starting to make a push to be in the conversation with the power six conferences. Cincinnati and Wichita St. are both elite teams that will be in a dogfight for the conference title until season’s end. But there’s a few other teams that are starting to make this conference, as a whole, a force to be reckoned with.
Down years for Temple and Connecticut have hurt, but if those two get back on track, this conference could very well be on the rise. Until then, here’s why I think there’s more to look at than Cincinnati and Wichita. This league should certainly get more than just those two bids.
Cincinnati: “This may be team X’s best team.” It’s a common phrase, but it really does hold true for Cincinnati. Mick Cronin’s squad has its usual stingy defense (second in the nation according to kenpom.com), but the team is also sporting a near top-50 offense. Jacob Evans and Gary Clark have been the engine of this team, but there’s four scorers in double figures, not to mention Cane Broome, a transfer who did score 23 points per game at Sacred Heart last year and can explode on any given night. The Bearcats routinely eviscerate teams–they haven’t won a game by less than double digits in over a month–and their only losses are to Xavier and Florida, two good tournament teams. However, their resume lacks a true signature win. They’ll look to get that in one (or both) of their meetings with Wichita St. coming up.
Wichita St.: Aside from a few hiccups, including last night at Temple, Wichita St. looks like the world beaters every team thought they’d be. The Shockers can score from anywhere on the floor, grab boards, and take care of the ball. Landry Shamet is their star player, but they’ve got a few others like Shaquille Morris (12.8 ppg), Markis McDuffie (7.8 rebounds per game), and Conner Frankamp (2.1 threes per game) who all make major contributions in a variety of areas. It still seems there’s a ceiling to reach with this team, and perhaps the Bearcats bring out the best in Wichita. Like Cincinnati, the Shockers could use a statement win despite blowing through most teams in their path.
The Second Tier
Houston: The Cougars are a high-powered offense that can stroke the ball well from deep, but their calling card may be putting the clamps down on defense. Senior Rob Gray is one of the conference’s finest players who should leave it all on the court when the conference tournament comes. Kelvin Sampson’s team is a pain to play against as they love to attack the offensive glass. They were able to knock off Wichita at home and have a neutral-court win over Providence under their belts, But slip-ups to Tulane, Drexel, and LSU have shown they’re not as consistent as the big boys in the American. If any team knocks off Cincinnati or Wichita, it will be Houston.
SMU: After losing Jerry Foster for the rest of the season just over a week ago, the Mustangs need to prove they can win without him. So far, it’s been a struggle. Shake Milton will do all he can as one of the more underrated talents, averaging 18 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. The Stangs are one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country and excel at forcing turnovers, so perhaps a team effort can make up for Foster and get this team into the NCAA tournament. Tim Jankovich has done great things for SMU so far, but this team can’t afford any more bad losses. Follow that advice, and add a win over Cincy or Wichita (or Houston), and their resume could be made.
Could Hang Around
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricanes were slumping, losers of 5 of 6, including tight defeats to Wichita and Temple. They finally got over the hump and knocked off SMU last night, keeping themselves in the hunt. The problem is they don’t do much else besides play hard-nosed defense. Their offense is below average, and that’s how you could probably categorize every other aspect of their team. Junior Etou and Sterling Taplin have been a formidable duo, but they need to string some wins together before it’s too late.
Memphis: The theme for Memphis is a common adage among college basketball programs: they beat up on the lower tier but can’t knock off any big teams, and they struggle on the road. The Tigers are a perplexing team in terms of their rebounding. They’re one of the best teams in the country in offensive rebounding (a major source of their points), but they’re one of the worst in defensive rebounding. Tubby Smith’s squad likes to rely on their defense and toughness to win ball games with guys like Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, and Jimario Rivers. However, they don’t have much of a shot against the more talented teams. With no big wins of note, Memphis’s hopes rely on winning the conference tournament.
UCF: The return of B.J. Taylor has been a godsend for this team, as he dropped 20 and 25 points in their two recent wins. However, his emergence was coupled by the loss of big man Tacko Fall, who is done for the year. UCF has the sixth best defense in the country according to kenpom.com, but also one of the worst offenses. Being that imbalanced will probably lead to a lot of close losses on their difficult remaining schedule. The Golden Knights held Cincy to only 49 points…but they only scored 38 of their own. This team needs to play to their strengths and get to the free throw line, otherwise the offensive droughts they experience will be their downfall.
Temple: Fran Dunphy’s group started conference play 0-4 and hasn’t quite been able to recover. While it seemed like the Owls could be in the above groups, their abysmal shooting numbers have prevented that from happening. Quinton Rose is the lone bright spot for a team that faced a tough schedule this year and wasn’t really up for the challenge. Temple is very careful with the ball, but when that’s your biggest strength, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Their win over Wichita yesterday keeps their hopes alive, but it may have been more desperation than anything.
Connecticut: You have to wonder if the magic from Kevin Ollie’s NCAA championship is wearing off. The Huskies sport a decent decent, but they’re one of the worst shooting teams in the nation, at any spot on the floor. All of their top 5 scorers shoot worst than 42% from the field. They’ve been blown out on a regular basis this season, and their best win was against SMU who just lost their second best player. The breakout of Jalen Adams hasn’t been enough to propel this team, and Connecticut is stuck in one of its ugliest seasons in recent memory.
Tulane: The Green Wave have been a mind-numbing team. On their home court, they’ve beaten SMU and Houston, but they’ve also lost to Connecticut and South Florida on the same hardwood. Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds have been beasts, but the truth is this team is just painfully average. Too many giveaways and not taking advantage of their own few turnovers, and Tulane hasn’t been able put together any consistent stretches. They lack back-to-back conference wins.
Avert Your Eyes
East Carolina: It’s hard to watch the Pirates play when they’re getting blown out most of the time. Michael Perry’s team has a truly atrocious offense, and their defense hasn’t been able to help them either–they’ve already given up 70 points 6 or more times in conference play. They haven’t won a home game since before Christmas, and their only two conferences wins were over the team that’s at the bottom of this list.
South Florida: The Bulls are in the bottom 30 in both offense and defense in the nation according to kenpom.com, making them one of the worst teams in all of college basketball. USF plays at a snail’s pace and doesn’t take enough threes. They’re surprisingly average shooting the long ball, and more of those shots could keep a less talented team semi-competitive. Looks like they’ll probably keep suffering crushing losses for the remainder of the season.