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The AAC Tournament tips off today with three clear favorites to cut down the nets in Orlando. The overall profile of the AAC really took a hit with the major injuries at SMU and Central Florida and the poor play of UConn and Temple. The conference is very top-heavy on paper, but that doesn’t mean the field doesn’t contain any potential sleepers.
Let’s examine the bracket for any futures value in the current market. I will also provide ATS predictions for each of today’s AAC matchups.
2018 AAC Tournament Overview
Dates: March 8-11
Location: Amway Center, Orlando, Florida
Defending Champion: SMU
All 12 AAC teams participate in the tournament, with the top four seeds (Cincinnati, Wichita State, Houston, Tulsa) receiving a bye into Friday’s quarterfinals.
Who Should Win
The Bearcats secured the AAC Tournament’s top seed with a dramatic victory at Wichita State to close the regular season. Cincy has length and athleticism at every position. It also defends at a historically elite level, limiting opponents to a ridiculous .86 points per possession (ppp). Coach Mick Cronin mixes in various looks on defense, including a pack-line principled man-to-man scheme, a tricky matchup zone, and full-court pressure (all with great effectiveness). Per Synergy, Cincinnati limits opposing offenses to a stupid-low .719 points per half-court possession, the lowest mark in the nation. The Bearcats defense also allows only .838 points per transition possession, the fourth-lowest mark in the country. In short, Cincy’s defense makes it a legit Final Four contender.
The offense, on the other hand, has issues. Senior forward Gary Clark is efficient around the rim and senior guard Jacob Evans can create offense, but the Bearcats still struggle to consistently execute in the half court. To have a shot against Cincy, teams must limit their turnovers and prevent second-chance opportunities.
The winner of the 8/9 matchup between UConn and SMU likely doesn’t stand a chance against the Bearcats. SMU had its season derailed by injuries to guards Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster. UConn has at least played respectable offense of late thanks to the two-man pick-and-roll between star guard Jalen Adams and 6-foot-8 wing Terry Larrier.
UConn won the only regular-season meeting with SMU, despite not having Larrier available. (Milton also played for the Ponies.) That said, it’s still awfully difficult to run pick-and-roll offense against SMU’s compact defense, but Larrier’s presence will help open up the floor this time around.
If Not Cincy, Then…
Wichita State +245
Let’s face it, after Sunday’s thriller at the Roundhouse, we all want to see a rubber match between the Shockers and the Bearcats. I would be shocked if we don’t get a third meeting for all of the marbles.
Wichita State has a roster that closely resembles Cincy in many aspects, as both teams are long, deep and physical. The key distinction is Cincy has an elite defense and suspect offense, while the Shockers are the complete opposite. In fact, this is coach Gregg Marshall’s best offensive team, as the Shockers score an impressive 1.22 ppp (fifth-best nationally). Conversely, this is also the worst defense Marshall has had at Wichita since his first year (2007-08). The Shockers’ backcourt and bigs have particularly struggled in pick-and-roll defense all year.
Next in Line
A rubber match between Cincinnati and Wichita State in Orlando seems inevitable, but No. 3 seed Houston is certainly good enough to play spoiler. In fact, it is the only team to defeat Cincinnati and Wichita State this season. The well-balanced Cougars run a simple, yet effective, 1-4 high offense through senior guard Rob Gray. Houston is also absolutely lethal in transition.
Defensively, the Cougars really pressure opposing ballhandlers in the half court. They also effectively limit penetration by walling off the paint with forwards Devin Davis, Fabian White and Breaon Brady. While Houston lacks size in the frontcourt, it can still effectively defend ball screens and hedge extremely hard because of its quickness and athleticism.
Houston will face the winner of No. 6 seed UCF and No. 11 seed East Carolina. The Pirates are barely worth mentioning outside of junior guard Isaac Fleming, who is a nightly triple-double threat. ECU is basically drawing dead with a lame-duck interim coach. It mustered only 39 points in 68 possessions in the only regular-season meeting with UCF.
UCF, meanwhile, can give Houston a game simply because it has one of the most elite defenses in the country. The gulf between UCF’s offensive (270th) and defensive (fifth) efficiency rankings is hilariously wide. The Knights are specifically dominant in defending at the rim. That said, Houston had no trouble running its pick-and-roll in the half court in a road win at UCF.
Potential Deep Sleeper
I still haven’t figured out if No. 4 seed Tulsa is good or not, which makes the Golden Hurricane somewhat intriguing. Watching them on film, they have great length and athleticism all over the court. Plus, junior forward DaQuan Jeffries could be a future NBA “3 and D” guy if he develops a slightly more consistent jump shot. But Tulsa also goes through stretches in which it completely stops running offense.
Tulsa does have a lot of potential on the defensive end, thanks to Jeffries. Coach Frank Haith will mix in 2-3 and 3-2 matchup zones, in addition to a pressing man-to-man. Unfortunately, potential semifinal opponent Cincy shredded that switching defense to the tune of 82 points in 60 possessions. Tulsa also heavily relies on the 3, despite shooting it at a middling mark.
The Golden Hurricane will face the winner of No. 5 seed Memphis and No. 12 seed South Florida, which promises to be a trainwreck. Memphis was flat-out embarrassed at home by the lowly Bulls, who are playing their best basketball of the season, to be fair. That loss ignited the fuse that led to all of the recent “Penny Hardaway to replace Tubby Smith” rumors. Memphis will either come out fully motivated to avenge that USF loss and fight for Tubby, or the Tigers have already quit. I don’t see any middle ground.
Most Intriguing First-round Matchup
Temple vs. Tulane
The No. 7 seed Owls are one of the most frustrating teams in the country. They are capable of playing with Wichita State (whom they upset) and Cincy, but also capable of losing at home to Memphis and Tulane (which they did). Temple has length for days on the perimeter with 6-foot-4 guard Shizz Alston, 6-foot-8 guard Quinton Rose and 6-foot-10 forward Obi Enechionyia. However, the Owls are extremely soft when it comes to defending at the rim.
Tulane could pose somewhat of a matchup problem for the Owls, as the No. 10 seed Green Wave can equal Temple’s perimeter length with 6-foot-5 guard Ray Ona Embo, 6-foot-6 guard Jordan Cornish and one of the country’s most underrated defenders in 6-foot-6 guard Mel Frazier. I might sound like I’m shilling for the AAC, but this league has two of the nation’s most overlooked second-round NBA prospects in Jeffries and Frazier.
Thursday ATS Predictions
UConn +2 (top prediction)
AAC Final Forecast
Cincinnati over Wichita State
Wichita State guard Landry Shamet pictured above; Photo credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports