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Owls, CUSA additions making splashy impact in AAC

American Athletic Conference newcomers Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, UAB and North Texas occupy four of the top five spots in the standings roughly halfway through their first season in the conference after departing Conference USA.

For some holdover AAC members, it’s been a case of long-lost family members moving back in and taking over the place.

“Basically the league is back together again after several separating (moves),” FAU coach Dusty May said. The latest moves reignite rivalries between the newcomers—which also include UTSA and Rice—and former conference mates that left CUSA for more lucrative exposure earlier. In 2008-09, the latter of May’s two seasons as a UAB assistant, the Blazers’ CUSA opponents included Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane, East Carolina and SMU, now all in the AAC (SMU exits after this year). In 2013-14, the first season in CUSA for FAU, North Texas, Charlotte and UTSA, the Golden Hurricane, Green Wave, Pirates and Mustangs all still were members.  

The difference among those schools, May said, is resources. The teams that joined the American earlier simply have a head start on the others because of payouts from the American’s TV package. “Those schools … were able to speed up their growth process with facilities, travels, budgets,” he said.

Yet today, if you kinda-sorta squint at the top of the standings (and miss USF), they look like a slightly scrambled version of the CUSA standings from a year ago. That’s probably not entirely unexpected, given that in 2022-23 FAU reached the NCAA Final Four, North Texas defeated UAB for the NIT championship, and Charlotte won the CBI.

Entering play Wednesday, Charlotte and FAU are tied at the top at 7-1, with North Texas and UAB next at 5-2. The only interloper from the old guard is up-and-coming USF at 6-1.

That puts the group ahead of storied legacy programs such as Wichita State, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa and even presumed national contender Memphis.

Even the other CUSA alumni that moved up this year, UTSA and Rice, have been a play or two from more impactful starts. Collectively the six CUSA alums are 27-18 overall—11-11 against each other and 16-7 against everyone else.

There’s a lot of basketball to be played—so far, for example, among the newcomers only UAB and UTSA have played ever-menacing Memphis—but the early results are indeed promising.

Here’s what’s transpired so far.

Charlotte (5-0 vs. CUSA alums, 2-1 outside): The 49ers dropped their AAC debut at SMU by four points but haven’t lost since. In the last four games of their seven-game winning streak, they’ve followed 20-point comebacks (Rice, UAB) with start-to-finish wins (North Texas, Tulane). Three of their five wins wins against recent CUSA rivals have been particularly eye-opening. First they upset then-No. 17 FAU 70-68 on two free throws with 1.7 seconds left. Then they out-defended North Texas, holding the Mean Green to 1-for-17 from the arc and controlling their 56-44 win from the opening tip. Most recently, they erased a 32-12 deficit to shock UAB 76-70.

FAU (4-1, 3-0): The Owls regrouped from the loss at Charlotte and have won six straight, but there have been close calls. FAU needed two free throws from Alijah Martin with 1 second left to flip defeat into an 85-84 victory at Tulane, three free throws from Johnell Davis to force OT before prevailing at UTSA 112-103, and a last-second 3 from Davis to escape North Texas last Sunday 66-63.

UAB (1-2, 4-0): The Blazers have two signature wins in the league so far. They’re the only team to have beaten USF (75-71), and on Sunday they outscored 19th-ranked Memphis by 12 over the last 15 1/2 minutes to finish off the Tigers 97-88.

North Texas (0-2, 5-0): Though beaten from the get-go at Charlotte and essentially at the buzzer by FAU, the Mean Green have shown that their rugged defense and deliberate style can succeed in the AAC. FAU and SMU each scored 66 points on the Mean Green, but the average from everyone else is 56.8.

UTSA (1-3, 1-3): If Davis hadn’t rescued the Owls with his tying free throws in regulation, and David Jones hadn’t done the same for Memphis with 23 seconds left in regulation, the Roadrunners would have swept both ranked AAC teams. Instead, all they have to show for 100-point efforts are two OT losses, including 107-101 to the Tigers at FedEx Forum. The Roadrunners aren’t 0-fers in conference overtimes, though. And this time the end-of-regulation heroics came at their end. Jordan Ivy-Curry—last seen by FAU fans lighting up the Owls for 38—hit two free throws with 3 seconds left to tie Rice 77-77 and bring on bonus basketball, which ended with the Roadrunners on top 89-82.

Rice (0-3, 1-3): The Other Owls, whose AAC win came 69-66 against Temple, also took a tough-luck overtime loss at Charlotte. How tough luck? Not only did 49ers guard Lu’Cye Patterson—the same player who beat FAU from the line—hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to force overtime, Rice later missed from the line at the end of OT when two makes could have forced a second overtime period.

And while we’re at it:

Memphis (1-1, 3-2): The Tigers won their first four league games before dropping three straight to USF (74-73) and Tulane (81-79) before UAB. Except for a 112-86 blowout of Wichita State powered by 13 second-half 3-pointers and the nine-point loss to UAB, their games all have been tight. The only outcome not decided by three points or less was the overtime win over UTSA.

USF (2-1, 4-0): The Bulls have split so far with two upper-echelon AAC teams, edging Memphis on the road 74-73 but losing to UAB 75-71.

USF’s conference start matches a 6-1 start in 2000-01—then in CUSA—as best in school history. Overall the Bulls are 13-5 under first-year coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, winners of 11-of-12, and no doubt causing their fans to count the days until FAU comes to Yuengling Center on Feb. 18. “Coach Abdur-Rahim is a very, very close friend,” May said. “He actually was on staff with me at Murray State years and years ago. I would imagine with the trajectory of their program and the trajectory of our program, we will develop a healthy rivalry.”

In the meantime, FAU is taking advantage of its bye week, spending more time smoothing out defensive rough spots before Tulsa visits Saturday. After that comes a rugged homestretch highlighted by road trips to UAB, USF and North Texas, home games with pesky Tulane and SMU, and a home-and-home with Memphis.

But the Owls are hardly alone in facing a challenging schedule. The next seven days alone beginning Wednesday bring UAB to North Texas, USF to North Texas and Charlotte to USF.

So much good basketball ahead, all around a conference with a balance of tradition-rich programs and rising giants.

“You have Temple. You have Wichita State, UAB and Charlotte. SMU for the time being. These are great, historical programs. We’re just excited to be part of it,” May said. “It’s really cool to see us and all these other schools on ESPN and ESPN2 regularly."

The only guarantee about the season-ending AAC Tournament is that excellent teams will occupy the high seeds. The question to be answered over the next month is which ones.

So far, the newcomers from CUSA are in great position.

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