Matt Visinsky

American Athletic Conference Basketball Season Preview

Patrick breaks down the 2015-16 season in the American Athletic Conference!

Year three of AAC hoops is here after quite an eventful offseason. The defending league champion can’t play in the postseason, Memphis had an ugly parting with its best player and in good news, Mick Cronin will return to his normal coaching duties. But the busy offseason can’t hide that the league should be the deepest and most competitive it has been in its brief history, and maybe the most talented too. 

What’s trending

SMU Mustangs

The NCAA banned SMU from postseason play after it found SMU committed academic fraud. Which means a top-20 team with a great returning core led by conference player of the year Nic Moore cannot defend its conference tournament title or avenge its heartbreaking NCAA tournament loss to UCLA. SMU opted not to appeal the ban or Larry Brown’s nine-game suspension. While that’s a good move for the long-term, it does deprive the AAC of a team that would bring it more attention in March. The onus is on Connecticut, Cincinnati, Tulsa and Temple to play at a high level, but also on the Mustangs to play well when they are only playing for pride. The latter is hardly a concern, since SMU returns a lot of talent and can still defend its regular-season title.

Depth, perception and respect

For the second straight season, the NCAA selection committee didn’t think too highly of the AAC. RPI conference ratings ranked it eighth and KenPom ranked it tenth (below the Missouri Valley and West Coast Conference). The AAC had six teams in the KenPom top 100, but the other five were all ranked 220th or worse. SMU and Cincinnati were the conference’s only NCAA tournament teams, and 23-win Temple was snubbed despite a 25-point win over Kansas. Temple’s worst loss was Saint Joe’s (163rd in KenPom rankings), but that was the Owls’ only loss outside the top 100. This year’s preseason ranks reflect the league’s projected improvement. Four teams are in the top 50, six in the top 76 and only one below 200. 

Influx of talent

The incoming talent across the board is a big reason why the AAC should be deeper. Twelve former four-star players (nine freshmen, three transfers) will make their debuts in the AAC this season, and eight of the 11 teams in the AAC now have at least one former four-star recruit. (Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina don’t). Thirteen total Division I transfers will debut in the AAC this year. Memphis’ Ricky Tarrant (transferred from Alabama), UConn’s Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall), South Florida’s Roddy Peters (Maryland), Houston’s Damyean Dotson (Oregon) and Houston’s Ronnie Johnson (Purdue) proved themselves at their previous stops and will be critical pieces of their new teams, while SMU’s Semi Ojeleye (Duke) is a former five-star who just couldn’t crack the rotation. Without further ado, here’s the full breakdown of the teams, projected starting lineups, all-conference teams and awards, and best nonconference games.

***Teams listed in projected order of finish***

Connecticut Huskies


2014-15 record: 20-15, 10-8 AAC

Postseason: NIT first round

2014-15 recap: The Huskies did not reach the NCAA tournament a year after winning it all. They scored eight fewer points per game and seven fewer points per 100 possessions in 2014-15 than they did when they won the national championship.

Additions: PG Sterling Gibbs, F Shonn Miller, CG Jalen Adams, PF Steven Enoch

Losses: PG Ryan Boatright, SG Terrance Samuel, PF Rakim Lubin

(Note: players that transferred after 2013-14 and sat out last season are included in “additions.” They are marked by an (*). Players who transferred after the 2014-15 season and will sit out are not included).

2015-16 outlook: The Huskies topped the 70-point mark just seven times last season and saw their offensive efficiency numbers drop outside the nation’s top 100. But help is on the way. Gibbs, who averaged 16.3 points per game for Seton Hall last season, will step in at point guard to replace Boatright, but five-star freshman Adams will play major minutes as well. The do-it-all Hamilton (above) was the only freshman to have 300 points, 200 rebounds and 100 assists last year. Rodney Purvis was a little uneven in his first year after transferring from N.C. State, but he still had eight games with at least 17 points and averaged 17.8 points in the season’s final six games. He and Hamilton should be even better this year. Connecticut has the talent and depth to get to and win in the NCAA tournament, but Hamilton, Purvis and center Amida Brimah’s continued progression as offensive players will determine just how far the team can go.

Projected starting lineup: Sterling Gibbs, Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton, Shonn Miller, Amida Brimah

SMU Mustangs

Matt Visinsky

2014-15 record: 27-7, 15-3 AAC

Postseason: NCAA first round

2014-15 recap: SMU won both the AAC regular season and conference tournament titles en route to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1993. It lost to 11-seed UCLA on a controversial goaltending call.

Additions: PG Sedrick Barefield, CG Shake Milton, G/F Jarrey Foster, *PF Jordan Tolbert, F Semi Ojeleye 

Losses: SG Ryan Manuel, C Yanick Moreira, C Cannen Cunningham

2015-16 outlook: The buzz around SMU’s rise the last couple seasons has died since the NCAA gave it a postseason ban, but Larry Brown’s team can’t be overlooked. The on-paper talent is every bit as good (and maybe better) than Connecticut. Nic Moore is the conference’s best player, Markus Kennedy is in the best shape of his career and Ojeleye is going to be a force once he’s eligible in December. He’s had a year of practice under Brown before playing in a game, which helped Moore and Kennedy when they transferred three years ago. Freshmen Milton and Foster will see minutes right away, and Barefield will get more comfortable in his role as Moore’s backup once the season goes along. The team has stuck together since the ban and it shouldn’t affect their morale or chances at a conference title. Don’t be surprised if the Mustangs repeat as regular-season champs. They’re good in just about every area.

Projected starting lineup: Nic Moore, Shake Milton, Sterling Brown, Ben Moore, Markus Kennedy

Cincinnati Bearcats

Jamie Rhodes - USA Today Sports

2014-15 record: 23-11, 13-5 AAC

Postseason: NCAA second round

2014-15 recap: Health problems forced coach Mick Cronin to stop coaching after the Cincinnati’s ninth game, but the Bearcats still went 13-5 in conference play, earned an 8-seed in the NCAA tournament and knocked off Purdue in the opening round. 

Additions: PG Justin Jenifer, SF Jacob Evans, PF Tre Scott

Losses: SF Jermaine Sanders, CG Ge’Lawn Guyn, SG Deshaun Morman, 

2015-16 outlook: Cincinnati has built its brand on defense, but this year, the offense could be as good as it’s been in a long time. The Bearcats aren’t going to score 70 points per game, but they should be more efficient and make a few more shots. Farad Cobb should only improve as a shooter. Evans, a four-star recruit, will provide shooting help off the bench as a freshman. Troy Caupain has flown under the radar and is becoming a playmaker at point guard. Octavius Ellis (above) and Gary Clark are tough and gritty frontcourt players. The rotation from last season is largely intact, with Sanders the only departed major contributor. If the offense makes even the smallest improvement, Mick Cronin’s bunch will contend for the conference title until the end.

Projected starting lineup: Troy Caupain, Farad Cobb, Shaq Thomas, Gary Clark, Octavius Ellis

Tulsa Golden Hurricane


2014-15 record: 23-11, 14-4 AAC

Postseason: NIT second round

2014-15 recap: Tulsa finished second in the AAC in its first season in the league, but early losses to Oral Roberts and Division II Southeast Oklahoma State and a lack of a quality wins kept the Golden Hurricane out of the NCAA tournament.

Additions: PG Sterling Taplin, SG Kajon Brown, SG Pat Birt

Losses: SF Keondre Dew, SG Stevie Repichowski, SG Micah Littlejohn

2015-16 outlook: If Tulsa is going to make an NCAA tournament run, it’s going to happen this year. The Golden Hurricane returns every player who averaged at least seven minutes per game last season, including eight seniors. James Woodard (above) and Shaquille Harrison may be the best backcourt pair the league, but the key will be offensive consistency from other players. That means the supporting cast of Rashad Smith, Rashad Ray, Marquel Curtis and D’Andre Wright needs to step up and simply make more shots. Even Woodard can improve on his 41 percent mark from the floor. Tulsa shot only 42 percent from the floor last year (32 percent from three) and scored 99.4 points per 100 possessions, all 230th or worse nationally. Birt, a JUCO transfer and former Horizon League all-freshman team selection at Illinois-Chicago, made 39 percent of his threes for the Flames in 2013-14. The floor for Tulsa is pretty high, but the offense will determine if it can break through and make the NCAA tournament. Avoiding a loss to a Division II team will help too.

Projected starting lineup: James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison, Marquel Curtis, Rashad Smith, D’Andre Wright

Temple Owls


2014-15 record: 26-11, 13-5 AAC

Postseason: NIT semifinals

2014-15 recap: Temple avoided bad losses and had 23 regular season wins, but was left out of the NCAA tournament. The Owls may not have passed the committee’s “eye test,” since they shot 38 percent from the floor (341st nationally). Temple earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT but lost to Miami (Fla.) in the semifinals.

Additions: SG Levan “Shizz” Alston, SG Ayan Carvalho, SF Trey Lowe, C Ernest Aflakupi 

Losses: PG Will Cummings, SG Jesse Morgan, SF Nick Pendergast

2015-16 outlook: Temple loses 35 percent of its scoring in Cummings and Morgan. They’re tough losses, but given the offense’s woeful numbers and some promising talent still around, it’s not the end of the world. It’s Quenton DeCosey's (above) time to lead the offense. The senior finished second on the team in both scoring (12.3 ppg) and rebounding (4.6 rpg), but he will have help from Josh Brown, who replaces Cummings at point guard. Jaylen Bond anchors the frontcourt, but look for the lengthy Obi Enechionya to take a big sophomore leap and provide a scoring threat in the frontcourt that didn’t exist last year. Freshmen Alston and Lowe bring shooting that Temple didn’t have last year, and they add needed depth on the perimeter. Betting against Fran Dunphy isn’t a good idea and Temple should top 20 wins again, but it lacks the firepower to finish in the conference’s top three or to be more than an NCAA tournament bubble team.

Projected starting lineup: Josh Brown, Quenton DeCosey, Daniel Dingle, Obi Enechionyia, Jaylen Bond

Houston Cougars


2014-15 record: 13-19, 4-14 AAC

Postseason: none

2014-15 recap: The Cougars had a lot of roster turnover before Kelvin Sampson’s first season at the helm. They lost 14 of their first 15 conference games but won the final three to avoid a last-place finish.

Additions: PG Ronnie Johnson, PG Galen Robinson Jr., CG Rob Gray, wing Damyean Dotson, PF Xavier Dupree, PF/C Kyle Meyer

Losses: SG Cavon Baker, SG Jherrod Stiggers, SF J.C. Washington, PF Mikhail McLean, PF Egi Gjikondi

2015-16 outlook: This might be the most interesting team in the AAC. Houston brought in a lot of talent that’s ready to play right away. Former top-100 recruit Johnson averaged 10.6 points per game in two seasons as Purdue’s starting point guard and will play the same spot, at least until L.J. Rose returns from injury sometime in December. JUCO transfer Gray scored 10-plus points in three of the four games in Cougars’ August trip to China. He’ll battle LeRon Barnes (two double-doubles last season) for a starting spot. Oregon dismissed Dotson amid a sexual assault investigation, but he’s an immense talent who should start right away. Devonta Pollard (above) is the best returning player, and Meyer is a former Iowa center who brings much-needed size (6-foot-10, 225). Bertrand Nkali will compliment Meyer after redshirting last season. Lastly, three-star freshman Robinson Jr. was a nice local pickup, and Dupree is a junior college transfer and versatile four-man. Houston isn’t an NCAA tournament team yet, but a winning season is a real possibility.

Projected starting lineup: Ronnie Johnson, Rob Gray, Damyean Dotson, Devonta Pollard, Kyle Meyer.

Memphis Tigers

Binary DataMemphis Shaq Goodwin.USA TODAY SPORTS

2014-15 record: 18-14, 10-8 AAC

Postseason: none

2014-15 recap: Despite a talented roster that featured first-team all-AAC forward Austin Nichols and six other former four-star prospects, the Tigers mustered just one win over an RPI top 50 team and missed the tournament for the first time since 2010.

Additions: PG Ricky Tarrant, PG Jeremiah Martin, CG Randall Broddie, SG Craig Randall, SG Dante Scott, SG Raquan Mitchell, SF K.J. Lawson, PF Dedric Lawson, C Nick Marshall

Losses: PG Pookie Powell, PG D’Marnier Cunningham, PG Jordan Manse, SF Nick King, SF Chris Hawkins, PF Calvin Godfrey, C Austin Nichols

2015-16 outlook: Memphis has some intrigue as well, but not for all the same good reasons as Houston. The Austin Nichols saga painted Josh Pastner in a less-than-favorable light, especially because his team is coming off a disappointing 18-14 season. He’s facing plenty of pressure to win this year. The Tigers overhauled their roster, bringing in eight freshmen and Alabama graduate transfer Ricky Tarrant. There’s plenty of talent, but not much experience. Freshmen will need to play a lot of minutes and produce right away. Tarrant brings stability (13.1 ppg, 2.0 apg last season) to the point guard spot, where Memphis struggled a season ago. A front court composed of seniors Trahson Burrell and Shaq Goodwin highly regarded freshman Dedric Lawson should carry the team. If everything clicks and the freshmen grow up fast, Memphis could find itself in the NCAA tournament and in the top four of the conference. But that’s a lot to expect in a much deeper AAC, especially without Nichols.

Projected starting lineup: Ricky Tarrant, Markel Crawford, Trahson Burrell, Dedric Lawson, Shaq Goodwin

UCF Knights


2014-15 record: 12-18, 5-13 AAC

Postseason: none

2014-15 recap: Donnie Jones found two freshman stars in B.J. Taylor (above) and Adonys Henriquez, but the Knights ranked near the bottom in most defensive metrics and lost a conference-worst six games to teams ranked 200 or worse in the rankings.

Additions: PG Brendan Boyle, SG Chance McSpadden, SF Tanksley Efianayi, *SF A.J. Davis, PF/C Chad Brown, C Tacko Fall

Losses: PG Brandon Goodwin, SG Marshall Holmes, PF Dylan Karrell, PF Kasey Wilson, 

2015-16 outlook: Seven through 11 in the conference are pretty open. Every team in the bottom half added a lot of talent, especially the league’s bottom four from 2014-15. The Knights brought in the most and return budding players in Taylor and Henriquez. While Goodwin’s transfer hurts depth, he had turnover issues (2.9 per game) and wasn’t a great defender. Fall’s height (7-foot-6) and defensive ability made him a well-known commodity, but he’s still awaiting NCAA clearance and ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reports he could sue the NCAA. Fellow freshman Brown is a good defender and shot-blocker in his own right. McSpadden (freshman) and Efianayi (JUCO) are talented wings, and Davis is a hybrid forward who sat out last season after transferring from Tennessee. Three-point sniper Matt Williams (38 percent from deep in 2013-14) is back after missing last season with an injury. UCF got what it needed: defensive help, size in the frontcourt and a couple more offensive playmakers. The Knights are headed in the right direction. A .500 season is possible, but Fall's ineligibility puts a big dent in those hopes. Also, 110.3 points allowed per 100 possessions (318th nationally) isn’t fixed overnight.

Projected starting lineup (without Fall): Daiquan Walker, B.J. Taylor, Adonys Henriquez, Staphon Blair, Justin McBride

East Carolina Pirates


2014-15 record: 14-19, 6-12 AAC

Postseason: none

2014-15 recap: Freshman guard B.J. Tyson (above) was a unanimous AAC All-Rookie team selection, but ECU lost five games to teams ranked 200 or worse and three nonconference games to teams ranked 170 or worse.

Additions: PG Charles Foster, SG Kentrell Barkley, PF Clarence Williams, PF Deng Riak.

Losses: PG Paris Roberts-Campbell, PG Antonio Robinson, SG Terry Whisnant, SG Greg Alexander, PF Keith Armstrong. 

2015-16 outlook: The Pirates were abused in the paint all season last year. Three-pointers accounted for 35 percent of their scoring, largely because they didn’t have anyone big or agile enough to be a good low-post scorer, much less defend or rebound consistently. They shot 45 percent on two-pointers (281st) and allowed 53 percent shooting on twos (330th). Jeff Lebo added some size in freshman Deng Riak (6-foot-10, 225 pounds), plus forwards Michel Nzege and Michael Zangari are a year older and a little bigger, but still have to substantially improve. The backcourt of touted JUCO transfer Foster, Tyson and Caleb White will score, but defense is still going to be an issue all around. ECU should be better, but will have to fight just to get to .500.

Projected starting lineup: Charles Foster, B.J. Tyson, Caleb White, Michel Nzege, Michael Zangari

Tulane Green Wave


2014-15 record: 15-16, 5-13 AAC

Postseason: none

2014-15 recap: A surprising 11-3 start (including 2-0 in conference) with a win at Memphis turned a few heads, but Tulane dropped 13 of its final 17 games and had two separate five-game losing streaks in conference play.

Additions: PG Von Julien, CG Kain Harris, *SG Malik Morgan, SF Melvin Frazier, PF Taron Oliver, PF Blake Paul, C Jernard Jarreau

Losses: PG Jonathan Stark, PG Keith Pinckney, SG Jay Hook, SG Josh Hearlihy, PF Aaron Lieberman, PF Tre Drye, PF Peyton Henson 

2015-16 outlook: Stark and Hook are massive losses, but Ed Conroy quietly landed a talented recruiting class. He pulled a coup in landing local talent Frazier, who had listed a top four of Arkansas, LSU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State before deciding to stay home. The versatile small forward could find himself in the starting lineup depending on how big or small Conroy wants to play. Transfers Morgan (LSU) and Jarreau (Washington) bring experience and solid defense, and Morgan could emerge as a second scoring option. Guard Louis Dabney (above) should put up some big offensive numbers as the primary scorer, but it won’t be enough until the youth around him develops. As long as Tulane doesn’t experience another mass transfer epidemic, the future holds promise. If everyone matures quickly, the ceiling this year is probably eighth in the conference.

Projected starting lineup: Kain Harris, Louis Dabney, Malik Morgan, Jernard Jarreau, Dylan Osetkowski

South Florida Bulls


2014-15 record: 9-23, 3-15 AAC

Postseason: none

2014-15 recap: The Bulls finished at the bottom of the conference for the second straight season. But they beat NCAA Tournament Cinderella UAB in overtime on the road, a small consolation prize in year one of a full-scale rebuild.

Additions: PG Jahmal McMurray, *PG Roddy Peters, PF Angel Nunez, PF Luis Santos

Losses: PG Anthony Collins, CG Corey Allen Jr., SG Dinero Mercurius, PF Dre Clayton 

2015-16 outlook: Orlando Antigua is making the right moves, but this is still a multi-year rebuild. USF’s outlook got worse when guard Troy Holston Jr. tore his ACL in June, which could sideline him for the season. He was the Bulls’ best offensive player down the stretch last season, averaging 17.5 points in his final six games. Beefy center Chris Perry (above) returns after an injury-filled season and should flirt with a double-double in most games, and Peters should have an immediate impact after transferring from Maryland. The former four-star recruit should become the team’s best player. Peters, Perry and a healthy Holston might have been enough to get out of the cellar. USF has more talent than last year, but it’s still a year away from moving up.

Projected starting lineup: Roddy Peters, Nehemias Morillio, Bo Ziegler, Chris Perry, Ruben Guerrero

Ten Non-Conference Games to Watch

Nov. 13: Temple vs. North Carolina. The Owls square off against the preseason No. 1 Tar Heels on opening night in Annapolis, Md.

Nov. 17: Tulsa vs. Wichita State. This is the Golden Hurricane’s best chance to do what it couldn’t do a year ago: beat a quality nonconference opponent.

Dec. 8: SMU vs. Michigan. Fill-in head coach Tim Jankovich will look to get a signature win while Larry Brown is suspended.

Dec. 8: Connecticut vs. Maryland. Get the split-screen feature ready. The Huskies marquee nonconference game comes in the Jimmy V Classic under the spotlight at Madison Square Garden. Kevin Ollie’s squad will face a loaded Terps team that many thought should have been ranked No. 1 to start the year.

Dec. 12: Cincinnati at Xavier. This crosstown rivalry can get personal (ask Yancy Gates or Kenny Frease), but it’s also going to be a battle between one of the nation’s more efficient offenses from a season ago and a perennially tough Bearcats defense. 

Dec. 13: Houston vs. LSU. The Cougars welcome in a Tigers team full of young talent, led by preseason National Player of the Year favorite Ben Simmons. Houston’s overhauled roster will try to challenge LSU’s youngsters in their first high-major road game. 

Dec. 22: Cincinnati vs. Iowa State. The Bearcats defense against a powerful, high-scoring and balance Cyclones offense will be a fun early Christmas present.

Jan. 23: Connecticut vs. Georgetown. The Hoyas are one of the nation’s most underrated teams and will face an old Big East foe as the final part of a tough nonconference schedule.

Feb. 13: SMU vs. Gonzaga. SMU will look to avenge last year’s 16-point loss in Spokane. Larry Brown will be back on the sidelines for this Saturday night showdown.

Feb. 17: Temple vs. Villanova. The best game in the Big 5 goes down on Broad Street this year. Temple’s staunch perimeter defense faces Villanova’s talented backcourt capable of making it rain three-pointers.

Projected All-AAC Teams

First team:
Nic Moore, SMU
James Woodard, Tulsa
Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
Markus Kennedy, SMU
Amida Brimah, Connecticut

Second team: 
Sterling Gibbs, Connecticut
Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa
Rodney Purvis, Connecticut
Damyean Dotson, Houston
Octavius Ellis, Cincinnati

Honorable Mention:
Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
Quenton DeCosey, Temple
Louis Dabney, Tulane
Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Devonta Pollard, Houston

All-rookie team:
Shake Milton, SMU
Jalen Adams, Connecticut
Trey Lowe, Temple
Melvin Frazier, Tulane
Dedric Lawson, Memphis

End-of-season individual awards:
Player of the year: Nic Moore, SMU
Coach of the year: Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Rookie of the year: Dedric Lawson, Memphis

Other individual picks:
Sixth Man of the year: Jalen Adams, Connecticut. He might not start right away, but Adams is already too good a scorer to keep off the floor.

Defensive player of the year: Obi Enechionyia, Temple. He’s a rugged and long defender who can guard most positions.

Most improved player: Josh Brown, Temple. The junior’s offensive numbers should improve now that it’s his time to shine at point guard.

Best under-the-radar player: Roddy Peters, South Florida. Peters’ name may not be under the radar, but his play will get overlooked on a rebuilding team.

Biggest impact transfer: Damyean Dotson, Houston. Dotson returns to his hometown and could become Houston’s go-to scorer and one of the best wings in the conference.

Biggest impact freshman: Dedric Lawson, Memphis. The former McDonald’s All-American should start right away at power forward for the Tigers. He’s long and is solid in just about every area.

Under-the-radar transfer: Jordan Tolbert, SMU. He’s tough, versatile and will be a crucial piece to the Mustangs’ frontcourt depth. 

Under-the-radar freshman: Trey Lowe, Temple. The Owls lacked impact shooters ago, and that’s exactly what Lowe is.

Surprise team: Houston. Kelvin Sampson is a winner and Houston added a lot of experienced, much-needed talent, especially up front.

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