2019-20 American Athletic Conference preview: After UConn, the league is wide open

ALBANY, NY - MARCH 29: Connecticut Huskies Guard Crystal Dangerfield (5) dribbles the ball past UCLA Bruins Guard Japreece Dean (24) defending during the first half of the game between the UCLA Bruins and the University of Connecticut Huskies on March 29, 2019, at the Times Union Center in Albany NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ALBANY, NY - MARCH 29: Connecticut Huskies Guard Crystal Dangerfield (5) dribbles the ball past UCLA Bruins Guard Japreece Dean (24) defending during the first half of the game between the UCLA Bruins and the University of Connecticut Huskies on March 29, 2019, at the Times Union Center in Albany NY. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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TULSA, OK – FEBRUARY 24: Tulsa Golden Hurricane Guard Alexis Gaulden (10) during a college basketball game between the UCONN Huskies and the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes on February 24, 2019, at the Reynolds Center in Tulsa, OK. (Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TULSA, OK – FEBRUARY 24: Tulsa Golden Hurricane Guard Alexis Gaulden (10) during a college basketball game between the UCONN Huskies and the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes on February 24, 2019, at the Reynolds Center in Tulsa, OK. (Photo by David Stacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Predicted finish: Ninth

Key returners (Last year’s stats):

G Alexis Gaulden, 5’8, Sr.: 11.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 35% 3PT
G Morgan Brady, 5’7, Jr.: 8.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 39% 3PT
G Rebecca Lescay, 5’8, Jr.: 6.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.6 SPG
F Desiree Lewis, 5’10, So.: 5.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG
G Maddie Bittle, 5’8, So.: 5.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG
F Kendrian Elliott, 6’2, Sr.: 5.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG

Biggest losses:

F Crystal Polk, 6’2: 13.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 48% FG

Newcomers:

G Destiny Johnson, 5’8, Fr.
F Emma Duerr, 6’3, Fr.

Head coach: Matilda Mossman, 9th season

After four straight losing seasons, Matilda Mossman has the chance to put together not only a winning team, but one that can reach the postseason. She’s brought the Golden Hurricane to the postseason just once since taking over in 2011 (a 2015 trip to the WNIT), but her program seems to have been building toward this year for a while. They finished 10-21 in back-to-back seasons from 2016 to 2018, then last year, over-performed in conference and won 13 games overall. It’s not great, but for a program that returns 10 letter-winners from a year ago, it puts them in a good spot. And Mossman needs that. This will be her 18th season as a Division I head coach and she’s never had an NCAA Tournament team. That won’t change this year, but Tulsa is on a positive trajectory.

Key non-conference games:

Nov. 30 vs. Marquette (Saint Mary’s Thanksgiving Classic)
Dec. 11 at Arkansas

Outlook:

Tulsa would prefer the headline to be that it brings back 10 players from last year’s team, including four of its top five scorers. We could just ignore that Crystal Polk averaged 13-and-7 and was named all-AAC third team. The Golden Hurricane were the worst team in the conference on the offensive glass, so losing someone of Polk’s caliber certainly hurts. She was also the best player in the AAC in terms of defensive rebounding rate and turnover percentage.

Desiree Lewis is the best bet to up her numbers dramatically and make up for Polk’s loss. She had three double-digit rebounding games and scored in double figures eight times last year. Alexis Gaulden is the sure-thing and returning star. She’s one of the best distributors in the conference but just needs to cut down on her turnover numbers in order for Tulsa to get the most out of its offense.

Speaking of which, the most concerning question going into the year: Can anybody — anybody at all — put the dang ball in the basket? Their Team Shooting page on herhoopstats.com is a bloodbath, riddled with sub-300 national finishes in field goal percentage, two-point percentage, three-point percentage…and just about everything else. Gaulden, Morgan Brady, and maybe Maddie Bittle are competent three-point shooters, but nobody else seems ready to consider shooting from more than a couple feet out.

Best-case scenario:

Tulsa gets enough wins in the non-conference to supplement an 8-8-ish AAC record and earn a WNIT bid. A team with so much returning talent as always a good bet to surprise some people, but the top half of the American just has too much for the Golden Hurricane to be a realistic contender. Not to fear, though: UConn’s leaving the league after this year, so there will be two more games on the schedule going forward that are vaguely winnable.

Worst-case scenario:

A team that couldn’t shoot is losing its most efficient player from the field and its leading rebounder in Polk. That seems worrisome. Another sub-.500 season where the Golden Hurricane struggle to beat teams in the upper half of the league is a real possibility.