2015 American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview

Mar 10, 2015 - 1:44 PM (SportsNetwork.com) - Teams in the new-look American Athletic Conference will start the 2015 league tournament after a sizeable landscape shift over the past offseason. Three first-round games start the action on Thursday, March 12 at Hartford's XL Center, and a champion will be crowned Sunday, March 15.

The AAC houses last season's national champion. The Connecticut Huskies, who host this year's conference tournament, finished as the runner up in the inaugural conference campaign last year after a 71-61 loss to Louisville in the title match. The Huskies earned the sixth seed this season, and will play on Thursday against South Florida.

Louisville departed for the ACC in the offseason, but the AAC brought in several new names that will compete for the title this year. The SMU Mustangs earned the top seed after a thrilling finish to the regular season. The Mustangs needed a win Sunday in the regular-season finale against Tulsa to lock up the No. 1 spot in the league, which they got by virtue of a 67-62 victory. SMU heads into the tournament having won six of the last seven outings.

Guard Nic Moore led the league's top scoring offense (69.5 ppg) with a 14.4 ppg mark, adding in a conference-best 5.4 apg. Coach Larry Brown's team also emphasized defense this season, as the Mustangs held opponents to just 59.8 ppg - second in the conference behind Cincinnati. The 15-3 in-conference Mustangs will await the winner of UCF and East Carolina in Friday's quarterfinal round.

Tulsa, the team SMU beat to garner the top seed, was awarded the second seed in the tournament and will also receive a first-round bye. The Golden Hurricane, last year's Conference USA champions, will play the winner of Houston and Tulane Friday.

The Golden Hurricane capped off their season at 21-9 overall, with a 14-4 record against the AAC field. James Woodard (14.9 ppg) and Shaquille Harrison (13.3 ppg) led a Tulsa squad that averaged 65.2 ppg this season. Tulsa will have to correct a two-game losing streak entering the postseason.

Cincinnati earned the third seed and will play either UConn or South Florida on Friday. The Bearcats finished their season on Sunday with a 12-point win over Memphis, finishing off a run of five straight wins heading into the tournament.

The Bearcats finished the regular season tied with Temple for the second most number of overall wins (22), but ended the campaign at 13-5 in conference play. Cincinnati possessed the worst scoring offense in the league (61.6 ppg), but more than made up for it with the AAC's best scoring defense (55.3 ppg).

Fourth-seeded Temple and fifth-seeded Memphis both earn byes into the quarterfinal round Friday, but don't need to wait for their opponent to be determined. The two teams face off head-to-head after each losing their only AAC Tournament game last season.

Temple went 13-5 in the conference this season, but lost the tiebreaker to Cincinnati. Known as a sturdy defensive team (59.9 ppg allowed), the Owls were able to defeat Kansas (77-52) in non-conference play, and defending national champion UConn twice during the regular season. Memphis lost two of its last three games heading into the postseason, and dropped its only match with Temple in the regular season, 61-60. Austin Nichols leads the Tigers in scoring at 13.3 ppg, and is the AAC's top shot blocker at 3.5 bpg. But Nichols remains sidelined with a sprained right ankle, which means the scoring duties fall to Shaq Goodwin, who nets 9.5 ppg.

The first round opens up Thursday with a contest between ninth-seeded UCF and eighth-seeded East Carolina. UCF concluded its season after four straight losses, finishing with a 5-13 record in league play. Freshman B.J. Taylor led the scoring charge this season with 12.5 ppg. The defense for the Knights was porous at best, allowing a league-worst 71.4 ppg to opponents on 45.6 percent shooting from the floor. East Carolina was led by its own freshman. B.J. Tyson netted 12.5 ppg to pace the team, which averaged 63.5 ppg this season. The Pirates closed out the campaign with losses in three of their last four games.

The 10th-seed Houston takes on seventh-seed Tulane in the second, first-round matchup. The Cougars picked up three consecutive AAC wins to end the season that were crucial in boosting the Cougars past USF in the standings. Houston is 4-14 against league opponents, and is led by guard Jherrod Stiggers (14.1 ppg). Tulane seriously struggled in conference play, losing 10 of its final 12 games of the regular season. The Green Wave were led by Louis Dabney, who averaged 13.7 ppg. Tulane ended its season at 6-12 against conference competition.

The final first-round matchup features defending national champion and sixth- seed UConn taking on 11th-seed South Florida. The Bulls lost all but three conference games this season (3-15), and were swept in the regular season by the Huskies. The Bulls allowed 68.4 ppg to opponents, and were led by Corey Allen Jr.'s 15.4 ppg. Allen is currently serving a suspension, however. Although Connecticut lost its last two games of the regular season, the Huskies still are garnering plenty of attention as the hosts of the tournament. UConn ended its season at 10-8 against the AAC, and was led by the conference's leading scorer, Ryan Boatright (17.8 ppg). Freshman sensation Daniel Hamilton chipped in with 10.8 ppg and a team-best 7.6 rpg.

The advantage for Connecticut lies in the venue, while SMU is the favorite to take the crown with a strong all-around game. It's possible for these two teams to meet up in the finals, but in the second year of the AAC Tournament. it's really anyone's title to win.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: SMU

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