Teams from conferences not labeled as Power 5 Conferences, with a NCAA tournament bracket of 68 teams, can still make an impact with upsets and with sleeper teams. In my article last week, I talked about how the Big East could have some newer and surprisingly good teams. I also believe that case can happen in the American Athletic Conference this year, and it is not just because they inherited Wichita State before the season started.
Now this isn’t to say the usual suspects aren’t contending either. SMU, which was ranked for a lot of last year as well as this year, is still 13-6. The Mustangs are still doing well despite losing their two best players from last year, Semi Ojeyele and Sterling Brown. They currently have the 8th best defense in the entire nation, averaging 61.9 points per game allowed. And they have a few good scorers still too, in Shake Milton (18.3 PPG) and Jarrey Foster (13.2 PPG). However, the improved performances from other teams have them ranked 5th in the conference standings right now at 13-6 overall and 3-3 in the AAC. The Cincinnati Bearcats, another usual suspect, is right in the running again too. But this Cincinnati team has taken an even more massive leap from where they were last year. They are 2nd in the nation in total defense, only to Virginia, averaging 57.2 points per game allowed. And they also have a lot of upper class leadership stepping up, with guys like Jacob Evans, Gary Clark, Jarron Cumberland, and Kyle Washington all having nice seasons scoring and passing the ball. They also have a guy in Justin Jenifer, who despite not being much of a scorer (5.9 PPG) off the bench, is a very good passer who has high totals for bench players in assists per game (2.8) and leads the entire team in Assist-Turnover Ratio at 3.6. The Bearcats, with Wichita State’s most recent loss to SMU, have now moved into first place in the conference. And the 12th-ranked Bearcats should pass, barring a bad loss, the 7th ranked Shockers at the end of the week.
But in order to make a strong conference, you have to have more than just the usual suspects. And the first team on that list is everybody’s favorite story in college football, the UCF Knights. This one, I believe, has the lowest chance among the three new potential breakthroughs. This is due to being the 343rd ranked offense in the nation at just 63.2 points per game. On the other hand, their defense is ranked 3rd in the entire nation, allowing 58.5 points per game. How bad is their offense? Simple and pretty bad. They have a lot of guys with free throw percentages under 50. 3% and their top 4 scorers are shooting below 40% from the field. If UCF was a Power 5 team at a higher seeding, I would be very skeptical of them, as they seem like a mirror image of what Virginia is every year, who always underperforms in the NCAA tournament. However, there are still some things to like about this offense. They have a big man in 7’6″ Tacko Fall that is shooting 76% from the field and averaging 2 blocks per game. They also have guys off the bench that are efficient shooters. Junior Chad Brown (6’9″, 240 lbs.) is shooting 52.7% from the field while Montenegrin sharpshooter Djordjije Mumin is shooting 44.4% from three. So with the right game plan created around these particular specialist players, UCF can utilize that to possibly pick on a particular weakness of a team. From where they are right now, they would likely be a 13-14 seed assuming they don’t fall off. And with the right matchup and the ability to play their defense and power offense game, they may be a sneaky upset candidate.
Tulane Green Wave
Another team which may be worth watching is the Tulane Green Wave. You may be surprised that Tulane is actually succeeding at basketball, as they’re a team that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1995. However, I believe this Tulane team is legitimate. One thing to always factor when looking at a team as a sleeper is balance. Tulane ranks 135th in total offense and 173rd in total defense, which aren’t amazing but are still above average. And there are plenty of good factors to like about this offense that could play into Tulane’s hand down the stretch, one of which is their efficient shooting. They have three guys, including their leading scorer Melvin Frazier, shooting over 50% from the field, with another three shooting in the mid-40s. In addition, Frazier is shooting at a very high total of 59.1%, which ranks in the Top 100 in the nation. The second thing that I think can power Tulane is their free throw shooting. Free throw shooting often wins and loses tournament games, and what Tulane possesses should lean them towards the positive end. This is not to say they will instantly be ready for the moment mentally, as they are an inexperienced team and free throw shooting is very mental. However, statistically, this Tulane team should be very ready. With the exception of Junior forward Blake Paul, who is shooting 57.2% from the line, the rest of the Tulane team is right around or above 70% from the line, including 3 players at 74%, one at 76%, and one at 84.5%. Those kinds of numbers show that they have the ability to make key free throws down the stretch of games, which often times is the difference in NCAA Tournament games. This is assuming that the moment isn’t too big for this Tulane team, a University that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since the year I was born.
The last team that is also surprising, and in my opinion for real, is the 14-4 Houston Cougars. Like Tulane, the Cougars aren’t a regular staple in March Madness, making it only once in the last 25 years. Gone are the glory days of Phi Slama Jama where it seemed like they made the Final Four every year. This Houston team has been struggling for a while, and seem like an afterthought in whichever conference they are in, until this year. This Cougar team, like Tulane, has a nice mixture of offense and defense, ranking 63rd in total offense (79.6 PPG) and 70th in total defense (67.5 PPG allowed). They also have very efficient shooters, with most of their starting lineup and key bench players in the mid-40’s or higher when it comes to field goal percentage. They also have several shooters in the high 70’s and 80’s when it comes to free throw shooting, including their leading scorer Rob Gray (19.4 PPG, 85.9% FT). They also have three guys in their starting lineup averaging 3 assists per game or better, including Gray’s high total of 4 per game to go along with his 19.4 points. The combination of that, a talented defense, and a solid bench rotation should allow them to win in many different fashions, as they have all season long. Seeding will come down to where they are in the conference tournament, but the way they’re team is structured and the way they’ve played so far this season in the conference, they certainly have a chance to rise in the conference tournament and become a higher seed. But even if they’re not, they certainly can be a sleeper as an 11 or 12 seed in this NCAA tournament, due to good balance on both ends of the floor and solid shooting from several players.
All these sleeper teams combined with SMU, Cincinnati, and obviously perennial tournament threat Wichita State, give the American Athletic Conference several threats in this tournament. A 7-seeded UConn team won the NCAA tournament in 2014. A 9-seeded Wichita State team made it to the Final Four in 2013. Cincinnati and SMU have had strong programs with good players and coaches that may have enough this season to leave their mark. And for the three teams I mentioned spawning new parity and surprise within this conference, they will be looking to leave their own mark on this tournament. With the right factors and matchups occurring, I believe these teams can be very sneaky and pull off some upsets come tournament time.