What Can SMU and Houston do in the American tournament?

Photo by John Hamilton

Let's get this out of the way right at the start. I say this with absolutely zero disrespect to SMU, Houston, or the other teams who play in the American Athletic Conference, teams who compete night in and night out in a tough conference.

UConn is going to win the conference tournament in the American and get the conference's automatic bid.

If a team gets an at-large bid in the conference, it'll be UCF or Cincinnati. These are, at this juncture, things we are almost 100 percent sure of. SMU and Houston won't be appearing in the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn't make this conference tournament a meaningless thing for these teams. Both can build off what they do in Uncasville this week.

SMU

The Mustangs enter the AAC tournament as the sixth-seed and will face 11th-seeded Memphis on Friday night at 7 p.m. Central on ESPN3.

SMU (13-15, 7-9) has had a tumultuous season thus far. In February, Sam Blum of the Dallas Morning News reported on some behind-the-scene issues with the team and head coach Travis Mays, which has been the main headline that people outside of Dallas have seen with the Mustangs's women's basketball team.

But to reduce SMU to just that report is to ignore that this is a team that's had some good moments in the 2019-2020 season.

SMU opened the season by winning their first two games, including a 55-43 win over Rice. While the Owls didn't turn into exactly who we thought they'd be this year, they're still a team that has a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament and that's arguably the best mid-major program in Texas.

They then dropped a close one to TCU, 57-56. The Horned Frogs are one of the top teams in the Big 12, and the Mustangs playing them that close is a testment to how good this team can be when things are clicking.

SMU also ended the season a high note, winning four of their final six games, including a 69-60 win to end the regular season against Memphis, who, as I mentioned, they play in the first round.

Offensively, SMU is led in scoring by Johnasia Cash and Kayla White, while Reagan Bradley and Amber Bacon both help lead the team's passing attack, as both average at least three assists. Cash is a junior, while the other three are freshman or sophomores. This is a young Mustangs team.

But defense is really where this team makes their mark. They rank 31st in opponent points per 100 possessions, and will have a chance to build on that strong defensive showing next year, as this is a team with no seniors on the roster. They'll also be adding Argyle's Rhyle McKinney, a dynamic scorer who should be able to make a pretty immediate impact.

If SMU beats Memphis, they'll face third-seeded Cincinnati next. The Bearcats beat SMU earlier in the year, scoring 73 points against them, one of the Mustangs's worst games defensively. If they win that, they likely face UCF, another team they haven't beaten this year, and then UConn, who blew them out.

It's a tough path for them. But for a fairly young team like SMU, this conference tournament has the chance to be a great learning experience and building block for next season.

Houston

The Cougars are the 10th seed and will face seventh-seed Wichita State on Friday night at 5 p.m. Central on ESPN3.

Houston (12-18, 5-11) hasn't had the same strong season as the school's men's team has had, but the Cougars beat a Big 12 opponent, Oklahoma, back in November, and beat SMU the first time the schools faced.

Houston has only gone up against its first round opponent, Wichita State, once this year, and the Cougars won a 64-56 game in overtime.

Houston's numbers aren't great this year. 228th in scoring offense and 257th in scoring defense. They're among Division I's worst teams in free throw and 3-point percentage. They have been a strong offensive rebounding team.

The team's arguably best scoring threat, Jasmyne Harris, was dismissed from the team after five games and you can see in the results that losing Harris was a big issue for the Cougars offensively. Since then, Dymond Gladney, Tatyana Hill, and Dorian Branch have all averaged 10-plus points per game, while Julia Blackshell-Fair is right behind at 9.9 points per game.

Like SMU, this is a fairly young team, with only Branch and Eryka Sidney being seniors. And also like SMU, Houston gets a boost next year as they add an espnW Top 100 prospect in Wheatley guard Laila Blair. Rankings can be imprecise, but Blair is ranked higher than any player committed to a Texas school that isn't Baylor, Texas, or Texas A&M. That should be a big boost for the program.

If Houston gets past Wichita State again, they'll face UCF in the quarterfinals. They lost 67-49 to them back on February 12th, early on Houston's current seven-game losing streak.

Houston would love to win their opening round game, at least, and end the year on a good note. That would give them something to grow from next season.

So, Can Anyone Beat UConn?

I've got to make a tournament prediction, so here it is.

UConn will win The American, and it won't be pretty for the other teams.

But this is the final year that UConn is in this conference, so we're likely going to see a much more competitive AAC going forward. The post-UConn landscape will be fascinating to watch. Can either SMU or Houston fill that power void? Both teams are located in major metro areas that are hotbeds of girl's basketball; with a viable path to the NCAA Tournament opened up, can these teams start to field better and better recruiting classes and become contenders? Can Houston creep up on Rice's recruiting territory?

Only time will tell, but after UConn's inevitable win in the tournament, it'll be time to prepare for a new-look conference.

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