College Basketball Notebook: American Edition

-Welcome to Part 2 of our college basketball series! As mentioned in our article detailing the ACC Conference (be sure to check it out if you haven't already!), we will be doing an in-depth look at the ACC, American, A-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and WCC, and a separate edition for the rest of the mid-majors. Let's dive into the American Conference, one that could potentially send 3+ teams to the NCAA Tournament.

American: The Top-Tier

#7 Wichita State Shockers (15-4, 5-2):

-The Wichita State Shockers are a really solid team, although there is still a question as to how good the Shockers can truly be. Wichita State has lost back-to-back games to inferior opponents in SMU and Houston, and all of the strong momentum Gregg Marshall's team had built is gone. Wichita State has a balanced team, but it all starts with star point guard Landry Shamet (16.1 PPG, 5.3 APG, 2.9 RPG), who will definitely be a first team all-conference player. Shamet is an electric scorer (54.6% FG, 84.2% FT, 52.0% 3-PT), and his size (6'4), makes him a tough cover at the point guard position. The Shockers also possess an elite defender in senior Zach Brown, and have solid role players in Shaquille Morris (12.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.8 BPG), Conner Frankamp (11.8 PPG, 2.7 APG), Darral Willis Jr. (11.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG), and potential star Markis McDuffie, who is still working his way back from an injury. The Shockers need to break their funk before they face a team like Cincinnati, and there is plenty of time to do so. They have the talent to make a deep tournament run, they just need to be consistent.

Key Statistics:

-Wichita State is a tremendous rebounding team, as they currently rank 4th in the country in rebound margin (+10.6), and 88th in the country in offensive rebounds per game (11.7). The Shockers are one of, if not the best, defensive rebounding team in basketball, mainly due to Rashard Kelly (7.2 RPG), Darral Willis Jr. (6.4 RPG), Shaq Morris (4.4 RPG), Markis McDuffie (4.3 RPG), and Zach Brown (4.1 RPG) all averaging >4 RPG. The Shockers aren't the tallest team in the country, but they possess great length and are tremendous on the glass. That's a tough combination to match up with.

-The Shockers are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, evident by their rankings. Wichita State ranks 40th in opposing FG% (40.4%) and are average guarding the 3-PT line (opponents shoot 33.9%). Considering the Shockers hold teams to a low percentage of makes, and their success at cleaning up the glass, you have to be extremely efficient to beat the Wichita State Shockers. They have one of the best offenses in the country, and beating them in a shootout is rarely the right choice.

-Wichita State is so good at so many things, but they struggle a bit in the turnover game. The Shockers rank 327th nationally in steals per game (4.7 per game), and they barely win the turnover margin (+0.2 TO margin, 192nd in the country). I usually believe that the turnover battle is one of the most important, because it can dictate whether a team can win a few extra possessions. There isn't one single player that hurts Wichita State with turnovers, and their defense style doesn't generate a ton of extra opportunities. It is imperative that the Shockers improve in this area, to prevent opponents from getting extra shots.

#12 Cincinnati Bearcats (17-2, 6-0):

-The Cincinnati Bearcats are starting to hit their stride, as they have won ten games in a row after a brief two-game losing skid. As you'll see, a lot of teams in the American Conference play a similar style; most of them play at a relatively slow pace and try to win the game with defense. Cincinnati is no exception. The Bearcats are also led by a balanced attack, with Jacob Evans (13.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.5 APG), Gary Clark (12.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.0 APG), Kyle Washington (10.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and Jarron Cumberland (10.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.6 APG) all averaging double figures. The Bearcats have had trouble finding a replacement for Troy Caupain who graduated last season, but graduate transfer Cane Broome is starting to feel more comfortable in his role. Cincinnati is a very tough, and physical team, and one that most opponents fear. When you play the Bearcats, you're going to wake up very sore the next day. Truthfully, I believe the Bearcats are an extremely underrated team, that is currently the frontrunner to win the American.

Key Statistics:

-Cincinnati is an elite defensive team as previously mentioned. The Bearcats rank 2nd in the NCAA in scoring defense (they allow 57.2 PPG), and their opponents shoot a meager 36.5% from the floor (2nd best mark in the NCAA), and 33.1% from the 3-PT line (98th in the NCAA). Mick Cronin consistently coaches up some elite defensive teams, and this year is no different. This season alone, the Bearcats have only allowed opponents to score 70+ points twice (Savannah State in a blowout, and Xavier). That is insane, especially because the Bearcats have held opponents below 50 points four times.

-Perhaps a surprising statistic about the Bearcats is how they thrive in the turnover battle. Cincinnati, not known for being a press heavy team like West Virginia, ranks 23rd in the NCAA in turnover margin (+3.8), which is huge considering how elite their defense is. The Bearcats average 8.2 steals per game (31st in the NCAA), and block 5.5 shots per game (20th in the NCAA). These stats represent the little things that can swing a game, and the Bearcats thrive in them.

-Every team has their weakness, and Cincinnati's main one comes from the foul line, were the Bearcats shoot a poor 69.0% (236th in the NCAA). Out of Cincinnati's four key players (Evans, Clark, Washington, and Cumberland), only Clark shoots above 80% from the free throw line, while Cumberland only shoots 58.0%. In the NCAA Tournament, many games come down to whether or not a team can make their free throws. If the Bearcats don't get that weakness ironed out, they could be in for some trouble later on.

American: The Mid-Tier

Houston Cougars (15-4, 5-2):

-After today's win against Wichita State (by 14 points), it might be time to start taking the Cougars seriously. Houston is a pretty solid team that I thought might have had a chance to crack the Big Dance preseason, and they haven't done anything to deter me of my belief. Houston has some solid wins (Arkansas, Wichita State, Providence), and two bad losses (Drexel, Tulane). Houston's success starts and ends with senior guard Rob Gray, who should be first team all-conference. Gray (19.4 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.1 RPG) is the engine that drives the Cougars, evident by his 24 point outing today against Wichita State. Houston doesn't have much offense outside of Gray (only two other players average 10+ PPG), but they are a terrific 3-PT shooting team (39.7%, 27th in the NCAA). Houston's biggest weakness involves their defense, as they foul an insane amount (21.2 fouls per game, 10 players have fouled out, ranked 324th in the NCAA), but if they can reduce that number, they have a chance to go dancing.

SMU Mustangs (14-6, 4-3):

-The SMU Mustangs lost a lot of talent from their team that made the NCAA Tournament last year as a six seed, notably Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown and Ben Moore (three of their top four scorers). SMU has been holding steady this year however, thanks to a much-improved Shake Milton (18.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.5 APG) and Jarrey Foster (13.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.7 APG). SMU is a very talented 3-PT shooting team (41.7%, 9th best in the NCAA), and they have the 10th best scoring defense in the country (allow 61.9 PPG to opponents), although that is mainly a byproduct of their slow pace. SMU has to improve their awful free throw shooting (66.9%, 294th in the country), and like I previously mentioned, FT shooting can win or lose a game. If SMU doesn't improve in that area, then I'm not sure they'll be invited to the Big Dance.

American: Fringe Contenders

UConn Huskies (10-9, 3-3):

-The UConn Huskies have a lot of talent, have played a tough schedule, and have hung tight with a lot of good teams for at least 20 minutes (Michigan State, Syracuse, Arizona, Wichita State). However, lately, the Huskies have been awful, including blowout losses to Memphis and Villanova. UConn lost Alterique Gilbert just six games into the season, and they haven't rebounded. Jalen Adams is one of the best players in the country (18.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.2 APG), and his fellow teammate Terry Larrier is very talented in his own right (15.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG). UConn would probably play a little better if they learned how to pass the ball; the Huskies rank 349th out of 351 teams in D-1 basketball in assists per game (they average 9.6). Unless Jalen Adams can be the next magical guard to lead UConn on a conference tournament run (a la Shabazz Napier/Kemba Walker), then the Huskies will probably miss the tournament, again.

UCF Knights (13-6, 4-3):

-I would've put UCF in the mid-tier contenders if they weren't struck with awful news today, that 7'6 center Tacko Fall (11.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG), will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. It is a brutal blow for the Knights, as Fall is their leading scorer and 2nd leading rebounder. UCF has one of the best defenses in the country (3rd in scoring defense, as they allow 58.5 PPG), and opponents have a tough time shooting the ball as well (opponents shoot 37.6% from the floor, 32.3% from 3-PT). However, as good as UCF is defensively, they are horrible offensively. Now that Fall is out for the season, the Knights have only one double figure scorer, and their stats aren't good at all. UCF is ranked 343rd in the NCAA in scoring, 247th in FG%, 333rd in 3-PT%. Those numbers are putrid, and losing Fall hurts this team so much. It's hard to envision the Knights making the tournament.

Memphis Tigers (13-7, 4-3):

-Inexplicably, the Memphis Tigers are in the thick of things in the American. The Tigers experienced a mass exodus this summer, as star players Dedric & K.J. Lawson both transferred, among others. Memphis and Tubby Smith have rebounded rather nicely, and Jeremiah Martin has taken a huge step forward this season (18.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.1 APG). Memphis' problem is Martin is their main source of offense, so talented teams can really take him away. The Tigers are a poor offensive team (338th in 3-PT%, 206th in turnovers per game), but they find ways to win, thanks to their easier schedule. Memphis has no signature wins, and they haven't beat any teams of note (their best win is against UConn, who was missing Terry Larrier), but credit where credit is due, Memphis has been much better than anyone would have guessed.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane (11-9, 4-4):

Tulsa has been an interesting team this season, as they have some impressive wins (Kansas State), and a close loss to Wichita State. However, the Golden Hurricane just aren't that good of a team, and the American Conference is not very good this season. Tulsa has two pretty good players in senior forward Junior Etou (15.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and junior guard Sterling Taplin (12.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.1 APG), but they severely lack offensive firepower. Tulsa is a poor shooting team (43.9% FG), and they have a negative assist/turnover ratio, which means they need to lock up the automatic bid, or else they won't see the tournament.

Tulane Green Wave (12-7, 3-4):

-Tulane had a lot of success in non-conference play, as a 9-3 record is pretty solid. When you examine that record further, you realize the Green Wave didn't beat any solid teams. Tulane, like Tulsa, has two really good players in Melvin Frazier (16.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.5 SPG) and Cameron Reynolds (16.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.3 APG), and they are a pretty solid offensive team. However, the Green Wave rarely win the turnover battle (-1.4 margin for the season) or the battle on the boards (-0.5 rebound margin). Those numbers will make it necessary for Tulane to get the automatic bid.

Temple Owls (10-9, 2-5):

-Temple was a fringe team to crack the mid-tier, but I believe they are better than their record indicates. Temple has beaten Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina & SMU this year, but they have had a tough conference schedule so far, as they have already played Houston, UCF (with Tacko Fall), and Cincinnati. Senior Obi Enechionyia (11.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG) is still chugging along, and he forms a solid trio with Quinton Rose (14.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.9 SPG) and Shizz Alston Jr. (13.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.4 APG). Since Temple has an impressive resume, they have an extremely slim chance of landing an at-large bid, and they'd probably need to win 9 of their final 11 conference games, and beat Wichita State once to have a chance.

American: Non-Contenders

East Carolina Pirates (8-11, 2-6):

-East Carolina is a bad basketball team, and the most they can hope for is to spoil another team's tournament hopes. Barring any transfers, the Pirates should have their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th leading scorers returning next season, so maybe they can make a run next year.

South Florida Bulls (7-13, 0-7):

-South Florida, like East Carolina, is not good. USF loses their top three scorers to graduation, and current sophomore Tulio de Silva has had some big games this season. Perhaps he develops into a star building block for the Bulls next season, barring a transfer.

American: Players to Watch

1. F-Gary Clark (Cincinnati Bearcats, Senior)

-Gary Clark is the engine that drives the Bearcats, and he is one of the best players in the conference. Clark is basically averaging a double-double (12.8 PPG, 9.1 RPG), and is a phenomenal defender (1.5 SPG, 1.3 BPG). Clark can check an opposing team's best player thanks to his size (6'8, 225 lbs.), and athleticism, making him such a valuable player. Opposing defenses really have to hone in on Clark as well, as his 9.1 RPG makes him a terror on the glass. If the Bearcats make a deep run this year, it'll be in large part due to Gary Clark being a beast on both sides of the court.

2. G-Ben Emelogu II (SMU Mustangs, Senior)

-Ben Emelogu is one of the most underrated players in the American, as the senior guard has taken a HUGE step forward this season. Emelogu (10.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.4 SPG) has increased his scoring average by 6 points per game, his rebound average by 2.4 per game, and has doubled his steals per game. Emelogu is also a terrific shooter, evident by his 52.2% FG, 56.6% 3-PT, and 63.0% FT. Emelogu II is such a special player, especially as a perimeter shooter (he averages 4.2 3-PT attempts per game). If teams forget to check Emelogu on the perimeter, he can single-handedly shoot the Mustangs past a ton of teams in the country.

3. G-Conner Frankamp (Wichita State Shockers, Senior)

-Conner Frankamp is the X-factor for the Shockers, as he can be a lethal perimeter shooter at times. For the season, Frankamp is shooting 38.6% from 3-PT range, a steep decline from last season's 44.0%. While some of that has to do with Frankamp shooting more three pointers this year, it also has to do with his inconsistency. In Wichita State's last two losses to Houston and SMU, Frankamp shot 7-20 from the floor, including 4-12 from 3-PT range. Shooting 35% from the floor and 33% from deep isn't good, not at all. As a matter of fact, in Wichita State's four losses this season, Frankamp has shot just 39.5% from the floor, and 29.2% from 3-PT range. On the flip side, in key wins against Baylor, Marquette and Oklahoma State, Frankamp has shot 45.2% from the floor, and 52.6% from 3-PT range. If Frankamp can shoot the ball well, it makes all the difference in the world for the Shockers.

American: Key Upcoming Games to Watch:

Wednesday, January 24:

Temple Owls @ #12 Cincinnati Bearcats (9:00-CBSSN)

-A win for Temple here would be huge for their extremely slim tournament hopes. The Owls have solid talent, but they struggle on the glass, an area where the Bearcats have a lot of success. Cincinnati is playing at home which helps, and probably should take care of the Owls with relative ease.

Prediction: Cincinnati (65-48)

Thursday, January 25:

SMU Mustangs @ UConn Huskies (7:00-CBSSN)

-The SMU Mustangs really cannot afford to drop a game against the struggling Huskies, as they don't want to lose a game to a 10-9 team. UConn is basically in need of the automatic bid to make the tournament, but if they were to upset the Mustangs, maybe things could begin to change for UConn. The key, passing the ball, as the Huskies won't beat SMU's tough defense with isolation play.

Prediction: SMU (66-63)

UCF Knights @ #7 Wichita State Shockers (9:00-ESPN2)

-Wichita State has lost two in a row, and desperately need a confidence-boosting win. This will be UCF's second game without Tacko Fall, and they'll need B.J. Taylor to perhaps replicate his 25-point outburst against South Florida on Saturday. I doubt UCF has the firepower to make this game competitive against a hungry Wichita State team.

Prediction: Wichita State (72-47)

-Thanks for reading today's article, next conference up: the Atlantic 10! Be on the lookout for that post on Monday or Tuesday! And, be sure to give us a follow on twitter (@BeastlineSports)