- Matt Cox
(check out the American preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Jeremiah Martin, Sr., Memphis
Co-Coach of the Year: Brian Gregory, South Florida / Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Newcomer of the Year: LaQuincy Rideau, R Jr., South Florida
Freshman of the Year: Jayden Gardner, East Carolina
1. Houston, [The AAC] Has a Problem
Yes, I settled for the lowest hanging fruit of any cliche out there for this headline - but still, you get the picture. After leading Houston to a banner year last season, Kelvin Sampson gave Cougar fans one heckuva of an encore in 2019.
No Rob Gray… No Devon Davis… No worries at all…
The Cougars were one charge call (Temple) and one poor half (UCF) away from perfection, as Houston steamrolled through the non-conference en route to a 13-0 record before being stung only twice in league play. While last year’s tournament run was abruptly halted by Jordan Poole’s scissor-kick three at the buzzer, Houston has now positioned itself for an even deeper run this season - most bracketologists project the Cougars to wind up on the 3-seed line but they could be knocking on the door for a 2-seed if the top seeds continue to slip up in the conference tournaments.
2. Runnin’ with the Bulls
The transition time from ‘denial’ to ‘acceptance’ in terms of processing the fact that South Florida is actually a good basketball team took me about two months. This is a program that, despite it’s rather enviable location in sunny Tampa, Florida, had become a punchline in this league over the past four years. The Orlando Antigua experiment didn’t take long to go haywire, but perhaps that was a blessing in disguise given where Brian Gregory has this program headed now.
The Bulls did falter a bit down the stretch, in large part because of some critical injuries to burgeoning freshman big man Alex Yetna and bulldog point guard LaQuincy Rideau, but they enter the AAC tournament just one victory shy of their first 20-win season since 2011-12. The scary part is that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of this teams’ potential. Essentially everyone of importance is expected to return next season, including the aforementioned Rideau and Yetna, along with freshman Michael Durr and sophomores David Collins and Justin Brown. Memphis may drown out the offseason hype the Bulls deserve this summer, but don’t sleep on USF as a potential at-large candidate in 2020
3. Fran’s Last Stand
It’s been well reported that this is Stan Dunphy’s last ride on the merry-go-around before passing the baton off to Aaron McKie, the current coach in waiting, next season. Given how frequent Temple has been on the bubble over the last five years, it’s only fitting that the Owls are back in that familiar state of limbo this season. Currently, bracketmatrix.com has Temple toeing the line between an 11 and 12-seed, which means the Owls will put all their chips in the middle this weekend to ensure Dunphy gets one last ‘dance’ before sailing off into the sunset.
Man, what an opportune time for Penny Hardaway to take over at his alma-mater. The AAC championship is now relocating to Memphis with all rounds being played on FedEx Forum, the Tigers home floor. The rabid local fan base will be out in full force, which should give the blue-shaded Tigers a slight edge over the rest of their AAC competitors.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
We discussed Houston’s tournament outlook above, but it’s worth touching on the at-large prognosis for UCF and Cincinnati, both of whom will receive a bye to the quarterfinals in the AAC tournament. Both the Golden Knights and the Bearcats are safely in the field, currently hovering around the 7 to 8-seed territory in most projections, so an early loss shouldn’t snap any hopes of an at-large berth.
Dark Horse Team
While the home court advantage is an obvious reason for selecting Memphis as my dark horse, there’s a lot to like about the way this team is playing right now. In the last 30 days, the only blemishes on the Tigers’ resume are a 7-point loss at UCF and a 2-point loss at Cincinnati. The unbalanced schedule stripped Memphis of a chance to play Houston at home, which could’ve served as a NCAA tournament at-large launching pad had they gotten an opportunity for a rematch.
Regardless, the development of Penny’s young crop of freshmen is coinciding with Jeremiah Martin’s transformation into a human flamethrower. Martin has been simply unguardable over the past month and a half, earning kenpom.com’s ‘game MVP’ honors in five of the Tigers’ last seven contests. The only challenge will be overcoming a brutal draw - assuming Memphis lays waste to Tulane in Round 1, the Tigers will have to go through UCF and Houston just to reach the title game.
(9) UConn over (8) USF
(5) Memphis over (12) Tulane
(7) SMU over (10) Tulsa
(6) Wichita State over (6) ECU
(1) Houston over (9) UConn
(5) Memphis over (4) UCF
(2) Cincinnati over (7) SMU
(6) Wichita State over (3) Temple
(1) Houston over (5) Memphis
(2) Cincinnati over (6) Wichita State
(1) Houston over (2) Cincinnati