AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
Preseason pick to win the league title: Cincinnati
Current pick to win the league title: Cincinnati
Projected NCAA tournament teams: 4 (Cincinnati, Wichita State, SMU, Houston)
Three conference player of the year candidates: Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State; Rob Gray, G, Houston, Shake Milton, G, SMU
Biggest surprise: Turns out Houston is more than just the Rob Gray show. The Cougars have rebounded from a head-scratching November loss to Drexel by putting together an NCAA tournament-caliber non-conference resume that includes victories over Arkansas, Providence and Wake Forest.
Biggest disappointment: Wichita State’s 10-2 start is perfectly acceptable, but it masks the fact that the Shockers have been a mess at the defensive end. They’ve given up 50 or more before halftime three times already this season, an issue they’ll have to clean up if they hope to win the league title in their debut season in the AAC.
Coach under the most pressure: Tubby Smith, Memphis
Outlook: While name-brand programs UConn and Memphis have once again faded from relevance, the AAC has weathered that nicely this season. Newcomer Wichita State has joined Cincinnati in the league’s upper tier while SMU, Houston, Temple and UCF have formed a very credible second tier. The title race could come down to whether the return of injured wing Markis McDuffie helps solidify a Wichita State defense that has been uncharacteristically shaky so far this season. If so, the Shockers may have what it takes to outlast Cincinnati in their debut season in the AAC. If not, the balanced Bearcats have the offensive firepower to take advantage with SMU also capable of pouncing should both favorites falter.