The American Athletic Conference sent four teams to the 2019 NCAA Tournament, one more than it did the year before, and it finished ahead of the Pac-12 in kenpom.com’s conference rankings for the season.
Here are Stadium’s postseason grades for every team in the AAC, which take into account the preseason coaches’ poll, conference and NCAA Tournament finishes, and recent program trajectories.
The teams are listed alphabetically below.
The Bearcats were picked to finish second in the AAC preseason coaches’ poll, which is where they finished, behind Houston. After losing their top two scorers – Jacob Evans and Gary Clark – to the NBA from a team that went 31-5 in 2018, Cincinnati still managed an impressive 28-7 record in 2019 that was built around junior guard Jarron Cumberland.
Cumberland, who has since declared for the NBA Draft, saw his usage rate climb by roughly 10 percent from his sophomore to his junior season and he was named AAC Player of the Year after averaging 18.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
While arguably under-seeded, Cincinnati only received a No. 7 seed, which was a testament to how the AAC compares to other power conferences. The Bearcats lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 10 seed Iowa, which was certainly a missed opportunity for a Cincinnati program that has made the last nine NCAA Tournaments, but seemingly failed to make any noise each postseason.
After the season, Mick Cronin left for UCLA and Cincinnati hired former Northern Kentucky Coach John Brannen to a six-year contract.
The first year of the Dan Hurley era at UConn looked very similar, record-wise, to the last two years of the Kevin Ollie era. The Huskies went 16-17 in 2019, finishing tied for ninth, after the AAC preseason coaches’ poll placed them fifth.
You could make the case that their neutral-court win over Syracuse on Nov. 15 was their only win of note the entire season. They went 0-8 against the four AAC teams that made the NCAA Tournament – Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and Temple – and half of their six conference wins came against East Carolina (3-15 AAC) and Tulane (0-18 AAC).
UConn only enrolled one 2018 high school recruit – three-star point guard Brendan Adams – in addition to grad transfers Tarin Smith and Kassoum Yakwe, who ranked sixth and 10th, respectively, among the team’s scoring leaders. The Huskies had two former top-30 recruits in Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, plus former top-100 recruit and St. John’s transfer Sidney Wilson, so UConn had more top-end talent than most AAC programs, but it didn’t translate to on-court success.
The Pirates finished 11th in the AAC, which is where they were picked in the preseason coaches’ poll. They managed just three wins in conference play, including a regular-season sweep of last-place Tulane, which finished 0-18 in the conference standings. The third was an improbable home win against Cincinnati.
The first year of Joe Dooley’s return to East Carolina wasn’t much different from the last season of the Jeff Lebo era, but he led the Pirates to a 17-11 and 17-10 record in his first two seasons coaching them two decades ago, so there’s hope that he could win again.
His work is cut out for him.
East Carolina finished No. 282 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 227 defensively last season (No. 11 on offense in AAC play, No. 12 defensively) as the Pirates finished the year ranked No. 264 on kenpom.com – more than 150 spots behind tied-for-ninth SMU.
It’s not like the Cougars were supposed to be bad last season. They were picked to finish third in the preseason by the conference’s coaches. But to win the AAC regular season title by two games after losing their leading and third-leading scorers – Rob Gray and Devin Davis – from 2018 is more success than most observers could’ve imagined for 2019.
Houston’s 33 wins marked the first time the program’s win total cracked 30 since the school lost back-to-back national championship games in the early 1980s. The Cougars weren’t ranked in the AP Poll until mid-December, but they established themselves as a borderline top-10 team from late January through the end of the season.
After earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16, where they lost to No. 2 seed Kentucky 62-58. Other than a neutral-court loss to Cincinnati by 12 points in the AAC Championship, Houston’s three other losses came by five points or less and three of its four losses on the season were on a neutral floor or on the road.
This was a team that beat LSU, Oregon and Mountain West co-champion Utah State during non-conference play, so maybe the country should’ve realized sooner that the Cougars were really good, even if the AAC offered few games between ranked teams.
The Tigers finished fifth in the AAC in the first year of Penny Hardaway’s tenure at his former school, which was one place behind where they were picked in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Memphis finished 22-14, losing to regular season champion Houston by three points in the AAC Tournament semifinals and later falling to Creighton in the second round of the NIT.
If Memphis had picked up a win against LSU, Texas Tech or Tennessee during non-conference play, the Tigers could’ve made a stronger run at an at-large. On the bright side, 2019 marked the program’s highest win total since 2014.
Hardaway has already made waves on the recruiting trail with the nation’s No. 30 class in 2018 and a 2019 class that’s headlined by No. 1 overall prospect James Wiseman and ranks 11th nationally, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Compared to the Tubby Smith era and the end of Josh Pastner’s tenure, the tenor around the program has changed for the better since Hardaway was hired, so even though Memphis didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament in 2019, the season set the Tigers up for bigger and brighter years in the near future.
Using kenpom.com’s final rankings, SMU’s best wins last season were against UConn (No. 98), South Florida (No. 99) and Georgetown (No. 100). An 8-4 non-conference record was built on wins against sub-200 opponents and the Mustangs didn’t beat a single team that finished in the top half of the AAC.
They were picked by the conference’s coaches to finish seventh, but they tied for ninth.
SMU had one player, senior guard Jahmal McMurray, who was chosen for one of the three All-AAC teams as a second-team selection. Two years after winning 30 games and earning a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, SMU saw its season win total cut in half amid a 15-17 season.
The Bulls were picked last in the preseason coaches’ poll and they tied for seventh after going 8-10 in AAC play. So while South Florida was barely a top-100 team, it was at least competitive in its conference for the first time since 2012.
Brian Gregory’s team saw a 14-win improvement from Year One to Year Two, which was capped off by a CBI title win over DePaul in the best-of-three championship series.
South Florida led the country in free throw rate at 48.1 percent (meaning it attempted nearly one free throw for every two field goal attempts), it ranked 10th in offensive rebounding percentage and it ranked in the top 40 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
David Collins and Laquincy Rideau were named Third-Team All-AAC, and Alexis Yetna was a unanimous selection to the All-Freshman Team, so South Florida had some of the best individual talent in the conference despite not having any former top-100 recruits.
The Owls sent Coach Fran Dunphy off on the right note in the final season before he retired. Temple, which was picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches’ poll, tied for third in the conference, going 23-10 on the season and earning a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, a loss in the First Four isn’t worth hanging a banner, but it was the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016. Ultimately, home wins over Houston and UCF were wins that made the NCAA Tournament appearance possible for Temple.
Shizz Alston Jr. was a First-Team All-AAC selection and Quinton Rose was named to the Second Team.
We haven’t assigned many Fs in our postseason grades series, but going 0-18 in conference play and having your coach fired is one of the occasions that warrants an F.
Tulane was picked 10th in the preseason coaches’ poll, so the Green Wave wasn’t supposed to be good, but it finished last and went 4-27 on the season. Their season ended with 21 consecutive losses.
Looking back, it’s actually amazing that Tulane was able to beat South Dakota State on a neutral court in mid-November. The Green Wave finished the season ranked No. 283 on kenpom.com with the country’s 300th-most efficient offense and 232nd-most efficient defense.
Tulane is no stranger to really bad seasons, but 2019 was especially dismal.
The Golden Hurricane slightly exceeded expectations in 2019 after it tied for seventh following the preseason coaches’ poll that placed them at ninth last fall. A home win over Kansas State in early December was Tulsa’s best victory of the season, but it only managed one win against the conference’s four NCAA Tournament teams.
An 18-14 record was only two games worse than Tulsa’s 20-12 record in 2016, when the Golden Hurricane made the NCAA Tournament and were sent to Dayton for the First Four, but it lacked the quality of wins last season to approach the tournament bubble. The team was just 1-9 in Quadrant 1 and 10-0 in Quadrant 4.
Senior DaQuan Jeffries was named to the Third-Team All-AAC.
The Knights were oh so close to pulling off the biggest upset of the 2019 NCAA Tournament as they had No. 1 overall seed Duke on the ropes in the second round, but UCF’s two game-winning shot attempts were off the mark.
Had either gone in, UCF’s season obviously changes in an instant.
UCF was picked to win the AAC in the preseason coaches’ poll before finishing tied for third – three games behind regular season champion Houston. A road win against the Cougars in early March likely clinched the Knights’ NCAA Tournament berth and they earned a No. 9 seed, which set up the second-round matchup against Duke.
The Knights cracked the AP Top 25 Poll just once last season, when they were ranked No. 25 in early March before falling out of the rankings. They were 10th among “Others Receiving Votes” in the preseason AP Poll, and they finished the year No. 34 on kenpom.com, so they essentially lived up to expectations nationally as a solid power conference team that was supposed to be good — but not great.
Last season was the first time since 2011 that Wichita State didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, but it was viewed as a rebuilding year for the Shockers, who were entering their second season in the AAC and had lost their top five scorers from the year prior.
They were picked eighth in the preseason coaches’ poll before finishing sixth in the conference with a 10-8 conference record.
Wichita State won three road games in the NIT as a No. 6 seed, including wins over NCAA Tournament hopefuls Furman, Clemson and Indiana, before losing to Lipscomb in the semifinals.
After an 8-11 start, which included wins over Baylor and UCF, Wichita State went 14-4 the rest of the way, which provides hope for next season and beyond as the Shockers look to return to their status as NCAA Tournament regulars.