Year two of American Athletic Conference basketball is upon us. What will it bring? Realignment already hit the league hard after its first year, as Louisville and Rutgers are gone. The Cardinals will Duke it out (pun intended) in the deep ACC, while Rutgers heads to the Big Ten.
Despite the shuffling, the AAC is brimming with confidence thanks to Connecticut’s championship run. Shabazz Napier won over many college basketball fans with his dominant March performance, and Kevin Ollie cemented his name as one of America’s top coaches in just his second year on the job.
Some folks in Big Blue Nation or in Durham will have something to say about talk of the Huskies repeating, but UConn is good enough to win the AAC. But who else can reach the NCAA tournament?
The committee had little respect for the league last year; all four teams that made the NCAAs were arguably underseeded, and SMU was snubbed. Will there be enough depth and quality teams in the league to change that lack of respect?
Let’s examine each team and find out.
In projected order of finish:
2013-14 record: 32-8, 12-6 AAC
Postseason: NCAA champions
2013-14 recap: The Huskies were college basketball’s top dog for the second time in four seasons. They were the first No. 7 seed to win a championship and did so by knocking off Kentucky 60-54. They also beat Florida twice, once in December and once in the Final Four. Shabazz Napier owned the tournament and the AAC last year, earning the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award and the AAC Player of the Year honors.
Notable losses: G Shabazz Napier, F DeAndre Daniels, F Niels Giffey
Notable additions: G Sam Cassell Jr., G Daniel Hamilton, G Rodney Purvis*
(Note: players that transferred after 2012-13 and sat out last season are included in “notable additions”, they are marked by an (*). Players who transferred after the 2013-14 season and will sit out are not included).
2014-15 outlook: This is Boatright’s team, but can he be the guy? He was great as UConn’s second option in his first three years, but can he lead the team like Napier did? He has had all offseason to grow into the role. Fortunately, he will have help replacing Napier’s production. Preseason Rookie of the Year Hamilton and N.C. State transfer Purvis are capable scorers. Junior college transfer Cassell Jr. can be a great shooter from deep, like Giffey was. UConn also returns big men Philip Nolan and Amida Brimah. Brimah can be an elite defender, but the 7-footer is still raw and has work to do offensively. Still, his rebounding and shot blocking are essential. UConn is good enough to win in March again, but the Huskies may need a few games to gel.
2013-14 record: 27-10, 12-6 AAC
Postseason: NIT finals
2013-14 recap: The Mustangs were the only team to knock of the national champions twice. That alone is worthy of a tournament bid, right? Unfortunately, the selection committee did not see it that way and kept the Mustangs out, even though SMU also beat ranked foes Cincinnati and Memphis by double figures. SMU still reached the NIT title game, but fell to Minnesota.
2014-15 outlook: Everybody knows about Emmanuel Mudiay’s situation at this point. Even without Mudiay, Larry Brown has a deep and versatile roster with 10 guys that can play. One beef with the Mustangs last year was their weak nonconference schedule. But this year they have five tough nonconference games (at Gonzaga, at Indiana, at Michigan, vs. Arkansas and vs. Wyoming) that will give them a big boost in strength of schedule. Markus Kennedy will likely miss some early games because of eligibility issues, but Ben Moore, Justin Martin, Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham are capable of replacing his production. Moreira dominated in the FIBA World Cup, and he will explode onto the scene this year. He could become the conferences’ most dominant player. Ben Emelogu was ruled eligible after transferring from Virginia Tech, and he gives the Mustangs much needed guard depth behind Nic Moore. Moore might be the conference’s best player, and he should lead Ponies to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.
2013-14 record: 24-10, 12-6 AAC
Postseason: NCAA third round
2013-14 recap: The Tigers did not miss a beat in their transition from Conference USA, reaching the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season. The senior-led team had plenty of good wins (two against Louisville, vs. Gonzaga, vs. SMU), but faded a bit down the stretch and lost early in the conference tournament. Memphis still beat George Washington in the NCAA tournament before falling to Virginia.
2014-15 outlook: Josh Pastner’s crew lost its four best guards from last season, leaving a backcourt full of players who have never played a minute of Division I basketball. Luckily, Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson was ruled eligible for this season and can lead the young backcourt. He averaged 13.5 points for the Commodores last season. But the Tigers will go as far as their frontcourt takes them. Forward Shaq Goodwin is as good any big man in the conference. His frontcourt running mate, sophomore Austin Nichols, is primed for stardom after winning Rookie of the Year in 2013-14. ?By season’s end, sophomore wing and former five-star recruit Nick King could establish himself as one of the better scorers in this league. Memphis lacks experience, but is talented enough to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth year in a row.
Projected starting lineup:
G Kedren Johnson
G Dominic Magee
G/F Nick King
F Austin Nichols
F Shaq Goodwin
2013-14 record: 9-22, 4-14 AAC
2013-14 recap: Temple lost five seniors from its 2012-13 team, including point guard Khalif Wyatt, who was one of the nation’s best scorers. The Owls failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, and they gave up an astounding 78.3 points per game.
2014-15 outlook: Fran Dunphy is too good of a coach to let Temple suffer a second straight bad season. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey are a good one-two scoring duo. Promising sophomore Josh Brown could emerge as the third option. Enechionyia, a long 6-foot-8 freshman forward, should play a lot of minutes right away. Bond, a Texas transfer, will also help in the frontcourt. The Owls have a tough nonconference schedule that includes as many as seven NCAA tournament teams from 2013-14. They’ll have to go through it shorthanded, as Morgan and Coleman will not be eligible until late December because of their transfers. Temple should be fully loaded and battle-tested in time for AAC play, and they have the pieces to complete the turnaround from last season and make a run at an NCAA bid.
Projected starting lineup:
G Will Cummings
G Josh Brown
G Quenton DeCosey
F Jaylen Bond
F Devontae Watson
2013-14 record: 21-13 (13-3 Conference USA)
Postseason: NCAA second round
2013-14 recap: In his second season as a head coach, Danny Manning led the Golden Hurricane to the Big Dance for the first time since 2003. Tulsa finished in a four-way tie for first in Conference-USA, won the conference tournament and gave UCLA a good battle in the NCAA tournament.
2014-15 outlook: Danny Manning quickly built a winner, but he’s at Wake Forest now. In comes Frank Haith, who has been to a few NCAA tournaments himself. Conference-USA quietly had some good competition, so Tulsa may not require much adjusting to the AAC if its solid play continues this year. There’s reason to believe it will, because eight players who recorded significant minutes returned. James Woodard is the team’s best player, and he could find his name on an All-Conference team at season’s end. Tulsa is one of the bigger sleepers in the nation, not just the conference. The field of 68 is within reach again.
Projected starting lineup:
G Shaquille Harrison
G James Woodard
F Rashad Smith
F Brandon Swannegan
F D’Andre Wright
2013-14 record: 27-7, 15-3 AAC
Postseason: NCAA second round
2013-14 recap: The Bearcats had their best season yet under Mick Cronin, winning a share of the American Conference crown. They allowed a league-low 58.4 points per game. But a Round of 64 loss to Harvard in the NCAA tournament stung, and exposed a team that struggled to score points all year. Yet Cincy’s possessed the AAC’s leading scorer, Sean Kilpatrick.
2014-15 outlook: The Bearcats venture into the great unknown: life after Sean Kilpatrick. How will they replace the player who scored 30 percent of their points? Keep doing what they do best: play defense. Morman, who redshirted last season, is a lockdown defender. He should play the same role that Shannon Scott did at Ohio State the last couple seasons. Cincy took another crushing blow when Lawrence, a former five-star power forward, transferred after his freshman season. Scoring will be a true team effort, but Mick Cronin teams make a living by winning low-scoring games. The Bearcats defense will keep every game close, but they might not have the offense or the talent to make it to the NCAA tournament. They could conceivably finish anywhere from third to seventh in the conference.
2013-14 record: 17-16 (8-10 AAC)
2013-14 recap: Houston suffered the loss of its best scorer, Joseph Young, prior to the season when his dad, Michael, was not retained as Director of Basketball operations. But the Cougars still had some talent. TaShawn Thomas was the AAC’s most underrated player. Danuel House became a force after he stepped into Young’s role. Houston still struggled to a 17-16 record, although it did beat SMU in the second round of the AAC tournament. After the season, head coach James Dickey stepped down, citing personal reasons.
Notable losses: Coach James Dickey, G Danuel House, F TaShawn Thomas, G Brandon Morris, F J.J. Richardson
Notable additions: Coach Kelvin Sampson, F J.C. Washington, F Devonta Pollard, F Bertrand Nkali, G Torian Graham, G Eric Weary Jr., G Cavon Baker
2014-15 outlook: Kelvin Sampson was dealt a huge blow when five players, including House and Thomas, transferred at the end of the season. Then in October, starting point guard L.J. Rose (2013-14 AAC assists leader) broke his foot and will miss all of nonconference play, leaving Cavon Baker to take his place. Baker is one of eight new faces on the Cougars roster this year, so Sampson is truly starting fresh. He has made 13 NCAA tournament appearances and one Final Four, but he will need a couple years to acquire the talent needed to make it in March. Houston will probably finish around .500 again, but in two years, watch out.
Projected starting lineup (at full strength):
G L.J. Rose (Cavon Baker while Rose is out)
G Torian Graham
G Jherrod Stiggers
F Devonta Pollard
F Danrad “Chicken” Knowles (yes, you read that correctly)
2013-14 record: 17-17 (5-11 Conference USA)
Postseason: Collegeinsider.com (CIT) first round
2013-14 recap: A year after winning the CIT, the Pirates were bounced from it in the first round. They had one of college basketball’s most lethal three-point shooters in Akeem Richmond, but struggled on defense, surrendering 70.9 points per game.
2014-15 outlook: The Pirates lost their leader and top scorer in Richmond, but they return nearly everyone else. Tejada is a great scorer who should see decent minutes as a freshman. Prince Williams should be a good sixth man again. ECU has an easy nonconference schedule and could enter AAC play with only a few losses, but the Pirates will struggle to match the five conference wins they had in C-USA last year, although the return of Marshall Guilmette from injury will help shore up a bad defense. They might steal a win against one of the AAC’s better teams, but even a berth in the CIT is no guarantee.
2013-14 record: 17-17 (8-8 Conference USA)
Postseason: College Basketball Invitational (CBI) first round
2013-14 recap: The Green Wave had a rough go in its nonconference schedule, going 8-7, although it did play Kansas State, Washington and Wake Forest. Despite featuring three players who scored at least 13.9 points per game, Tulane only scored 63.6 points per game. It lost to Princeton in the CBI.
2014-15 outlook: Louis Dabney, Jonathan Stark and Jay Hook contributed 68 percent of the Green Wave’s scoring last season. Fortunately for coach Ed Conroy, all of them return. But where will more offense come from? Tre Drye could build on a solid junior season. Freshmen Pinckney and Roberts Jr. could help, but there isn’t much depth otherwise. The trio of Dabney, Stark and Hook should keep the Green Wave a step about the bottom of the conference, but Tulane won’t finish with a .500 conference record like it did last year in C-USA.
Projected starting lineup:
G Jonathan Stark
G Louis Dabney
G Jay Hook
F Tre Drye
F Payton Henson
2013-14 record: 13-18, (4-14 AAC)
2013-14 recap: After three successful years under Donnie Jones, the wheels fell off in year four, although moving to the AAC did UCF no favors. Isaiah Sykes was one of the conference’s best all-round players, leading his team in points, rebounds and assists. The Knights were one of the better rebounding and scoring teams in the conference, but played poor defense and shot free throws at an abominable rate (61.4% as a team).
2014-15 outlook: Jack-of-all-trades Sykes is a major loss, and an ill-timed one for a Knights team that needs to show improvement to keep Jones’ seat from getting too hot. Big man (think 325-pound big) Justin McBride is a bear on the inside, but he can tire quickly. He’s a slightly lesser version of North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks (Meeks is a bit more nimble and has slimmed down). Jones has gotten it done on the recruiting trail, bringing in promising freshman Henriquez and Taylor, so there’s potential for improvement. Just don’t expect it this year. However, those gold and black pinstriped jerseys will always make UCF more appealing to watch.
Projected starting lineup:
G Daiquan Walker
G Matt Williams
G Adonys Henriquez
F Kasey Wilson
F Justin McBride
2013-14 record: 12-20 (3-15 AAC)
2013-14 recap: Since making the NCAA tournament in 2011-12, USF has faded fast. The Bulls were gored last year by the rest of the AAC, although they did beat SMU. Senior Victor Rudd was a bright spot, averaging 16.1 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Notable losses: Coach Stan Heath, F Victor Rudd, G Martino Brock, C John Egbunu, G Shemiye McLendon, F Zach LeDay
Notable additions: Coach Orlando Antigua, G Troy Holston, G Dinero Mercurius, G Nehemias Morillo, F Jaleel Cousins, F Ruben Guerrero
2014-15 outlook: This roster turnover makes Houston’s look small. Six scholarship players, including All-Rookie selection Egbunu, transferred after last season. Enter Antigua, a former John Calipari assistant and a first-time head coach who got the job after the Steve Masiello fiasco. Praised for his enthusiasm, Antigua is the perfect guy for this rebuild. He coached 24 NBA draft picks during his time as an assistant at Pittsburgh and Kentucky. But he is starting off in a tough spot; USF has three players who played NCAA basketball last season. He will have to wait a year before Maryland transfer Roddy Peters can play, but the former four-star point guard recruit will make an instant impact. As far as this year, Chris Perry will probably be the team’s best player.
Nonconference games to watch:
Nov. 17: SMU at Gonzaga- The season’s first battle of top 25 teams.
Nov. 18: Memphis vs Wichita State (in South Dakota)- Wichita State takes on one of its tough nonconference opponents at an interesting neutral site.
Nov. 30: Texas at Connecticut- Texas’ dominant frontcourt vs. UConn’s strong backcourt. A top-ten test for the defending champs.
Dec. 13: Oklahoma at Tulsa- Two of the nation’s most underrated teams square off. Tulsa guard James Woodard faces his brother, Sooners guard Jordan Woodard.
Dec. 18: Connecticut vs. Duke (in N.J.)- The Huskies and the Blue Devils have combined for eight national titles and three of the last five. Duke freshman center and Preseason National Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor faces a tough test against Amida Brimah.
Dec. 20: SMU at Michigan: Another battle of top 25 teams. SMU’s solid three-point defense faces a Michigan team full of excellent three-point shooters.
December 22: Kansas at Temple- Two historically strong programs battle in Philadelphia. Kansas superstar freshman Cliff Alexander leads the Jayhawks against popular sleeper pick Temple.
Conference Preseason picks
Player of the year: Nic Moore, G, SMU
Coach of the year: Larry Brown, SMU
Freshman of the year: Daniel Hamilton, G/F, Connecticut
Sixth Man of the year: Rashad Ray, G, Tulsa
Defensive player of the year: Deshaun Morman, G, Cincinnati
Most improved player: Nick King, G/F, Memphis
Breakout Star: Yanick Moreira, F, SMU
Coach on the hot seat: Donnie Jones, Central Florida
Surprise team: Temple
Projected all-conference teams:
G Nic Moore, SMU
G James Woodard, Tulsa
G Ryan Boatright, Connecticut
F Shaq Goodwin, Memphis
F Yanick Moreira, SMU
G Will Cummings, Temple
G Quenton DeCosey, Temple
G Kedren Johnson, Memphis
F Amida Brimah, Connecticut
F Austin Nichols, Memphis
F Markus Kennedy, SMU
G Deshaun Morman, Cincinnati
G Dominic Magee, Memphis
G/F Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
F Obi Enechionyia, Temple
F Jaleel Cousins, South Florida