Reinhold Matay - USA TODAY SPORTS

AAC Basketball 2016-17 Season Preview: UConn, Cincinnati preseason favorites

PonyStampede's complete breakdown of the 2016-17 season in the American Athletic Conference, featuring team analysis, nonconference games to watch, projected all-conference teams and individual award winners.

The American Athletic Conference finally built some depth last season. It placed four teams in the NCAA tournament and its highest-ranked team (per KenPom) was ineligible for postseason play. Entering its fourth season, the league now has to prove it can sustain that level of competition to build a brand as a respected conference. 

Conference headlines

Coaching changes

The AAC had four coaching changes this offseason after having none a year ago. Tulane and Central Florida made coaching changes after two straight seasons near the bottom of the standings. Former NBA head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. replaces Ed Conroy at Tulane, while ex-Stanford head man Johnny Dawkins takes over for Donnie Jones at UCF. Josh Pastner left Memphis for Georgia Tech, and one-time national title winner Tubby Smith replaces him after coming over from Texas Tech, which he built into a tournament team in three years. The surprise move came over the summer when Larry Brown abruptly resigned as SMU's head coach. Tim Jankovich, who served as acting head coach during Brown’s nine-game NCAA suspension, was promoted to replace him. Jankovich takes over a roster with plenty of talent, but the other three face rebuilding jobs.

An NCAA investigation…again

SMU couldn’t play in any postseason event last season due to an NCAA-imposed ban resulting from findings of academic fraud. Now, the NCAA is investigating South Florida for academic fraud believed to be surrounding current player(s). Assistant coach Oliver Antigua resigned the same day the school announced the NCAA was investigating “potential violations of NCAA bylaws and university standards” into one of its athletic programs. The NCAA has not given the university a notice of allegations.

Growing depth

In 2014, the selection committee left out SMU, which had 23 wins and four wins vs. KenPom top 40 teams. It stuck a 4-seed on Louisville, which finished as KenPom’s top-ranked team. In 2015, it included only two teams, neither higher than a 6-seed. Last year, though, the committee picked four AAC teams, including the surprise selection of Tulsa. The committee’s respect for the AAC has grown since its inaugural season, but the league needs to have similar depth if that trend is to continue. With Temple limping into this season and Tulsa losing eight seniors, which teams will step up to keep a similar level of depth? Furthermore, can any team become the first from the AAC to reach the NCAA tournament’s second weekend since 2014?

Team Breakdowns (In projected order of finish)

1. Connecticut Huskies

Steven Branscombe - USA TODAY SPORTS

2015-16 record: 25-11, 11-7 AAC

Postseason: NCAA Second Round

2015-16 recap: After an inconsistent regular season, the Huskies won the AAC tournament with the help of Jalen Adams’ beyond-half-court heave to force a fourth overtime in the quarterfinals vs. Cincinnati.

Additions: G Alterique Gilbert, G Christian Vital, G/F Terry Larrier*, G/F Vance Jackson, F Juwan Durham, C Mamadou Diarra

Losses: G Sterling Gibbs, G Omar Calhoun, G Sam Cassell Jr., F Daniel Hamilton, F Shonn Miller, C Phillip Nolan

(Note: players that transferred after 2014-15 and sat out last season are included in additions. They are marked by an (*). Players who transferred after 2015-16 and will sit out are not included).

2016-17 outlook:

In three years since the AAC formed, UConn has won a national title and a conference tournament title. Oddly enough, those have both come without a regular season title. The Huskies have finished at least three games back of the regular-season champion each year. This year looks like their best chance of winning the regular-season crown.

Talent hasn’t been an issue for Kevin Ollie. Now, he has talent and fit. Former five-star recruit Jalen Adams (pictured) is now the primary point guard, where Connecticut had some unnatural fits the last couple seasons. He and fellow point guard Alterique Gilbert, the highest-ranked freshman in the conference, could see the floor at the same time. UConn’s title-winning teams often featured two point guards. Former top-50 recruit and VCU transfer Terry Larrier and four-star freshman Vance Jackson should step in on the wing for Daniel Hamilton, who left for the NBA. Amida Brimah needs to get back to being an elite post defender and rim protector after a finger injury hindered him in conference play.

Bottom line: There is a little inexperience, but UConn has the most talented roster in the conference and should be better on offense with Adams at point guard.

Projected starting lineup: Jalen Adams, Rodney Purvis, Terry Larrier, Kentan Facey, Amida Brimah

T-2. Cincinnati Bearcats

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

2015-16 record: 22-11, 12-6 AAC

Postseason: NCAA First Round

2015-16 recap: The Bearcats lost in the NCAA Tournament to Saint Joe’s, 78-76, when Octavius Ellis’ game-tying dunk came one-tenth of a second too late.

Additions: G/F Jarron Cumberland, F Nysier Brooks, C Kyle Washington*

Losses: G Farad Cobb, F Shaq Thomas, C Octavius Ellis, C Coreontae DeBerry

2016-17 outlook: 

Mick Cronin has made the Bearcats into a physical team that plays tough defense. They’ve finished in the top 20 in defensive efficiency in each of the last four seasons. But they haven’t shot better than 45 percent as a team in Cronin’s tenure because of a lack of offensive skill. Recently, he has put more emphasis on bringing in players with better offensive ability. 

This year’s roster has more offensive skill than any one he’s had recently. Gone is Farad Cobb, the team’s best 3-point shooter, but only consistent threat from deep last year. That should change. Jacob Evans had 26 points in the NCAA tournament loss to Saint Joe’s and is a capable shooter. N.C. State transfer Kyle Washington brings offensive skill not seen in many previous Cincinnati big men under Cronin. All-conference players Troy Caupain and Gary Clark (pictured) return as well. Four-star freshman Jarron Cumberland is an aggressive wing who can shoot at a high level. 

Bottom line: Cincinnati has overcome weak offense before, but has the parts to make its offense a strength, not a liability. That would really help the Bearcats reach the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2012.

Projected starting lineup: Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson, Jacob Evans, Gary Clark, Kyle Washington

T-2: SMU Mustangs

Matt Visinsky

2015-16 record: 25-5, 13-5 AAC

Postseason: None

2015-16 recap: Postseason-ineligible SMU started its season 18-0 and was the nation’s last unbeaten team, but went 7-5 in its final 12 games and couldn’t repeat as conference champs.

Additions: G Tom Wilson, G Dashawn McDowell, F Semi Ojeleye*, F Harry Froling

Losses: G Nic Moore, F Markus Kennedy, F Jordan Tolbert

2016-17 outlook:

When a team loses a Hall of Fame coach and conference player of the year, its performance is expected to decline. SMU, though, may not drop much. Tim Jankovich takes over for Larry Brown, but inherits a talented roster even with the loss of Nic Moore. 

Only four of the nine scholarship players appeared in a game for SMU, so the roster is a little light on experience. Shake Milton (pictured), the top returning scoring guard, is Moore's replacement at point guard after playing mostly off the ball last year. Former five-star recruit and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye will replace Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert in the frontcourt. He has been with the team since December 2014, but has not played in a game after sitting due to transfer rules and then redshirting. Offensively skilled freshman big man Harry Froling will help Ojeleye at center. Jankovich wants to shoot the 3-pointer more, and he has a deep group of shooters. Don’t be surprised if senior forward Ben Moore, the team’s top returning scorer and a preseason first team all-conference selection, is the only player on the roster who doesn’t make a 3 all year.

Bottom line: SMU’s offense should be one of the conference’s best and will help them get back to the NCAA Tournament. With consistent defense, the Mustangs could challenge for the league title.

Projected starting lineup: Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster, Sterling Brown, Ben Moore, Semi Ojeleye

4. Houston Cougars

Troy Taormina-USA Today Sports

2015-16 record: 22-10, 12-6 AAC

Postseason: NIT first round

2015-16 recap: The Cougars improved their conference win total by eight games in Kelvin Sampson’s second year as head coach.

Additions: G Morris Dunnigan, G Armoni Brooks, F Devin Davis, C Valentine Sangoyomi

Losses: G LeRon Barnes, G Eric Weary, G L.J. Rose, G Ronnie Johnson, F Devonta Pollard

2016-17 outlook:

Houston won 22 games, finished tied for third in the conference and finished 61st in KenPom’s final rankings, yet hardly was discussed as an NCAA tournament team. Look no further than a horrid nonconference schedule that included only three teams ranked 130 or higher (and none higher than 80). Two of those were losses. Losing to Tulane and South Florida in conference play didn’t help either.

Houston did finish with the AAC’s top scoring offense (77.4 ppg), scored 1.16 points per possession, had the 22nd-lower turnover rate and 26th-highest offensive rebounding percentage. The backcourt of Galen Robinson, Rob Gray (pictured) and Damyean Dotson averaged 37.8 points per game last year and should be strong again. In the frontcourt, former Indiana Hoosier Devin Davis should help Danrad Knowles, whose play dipped last year.

Houston has chances for good non conference wins - it hosts Rhode Island and goes to Arkansas. The bigger issue, though, is defensive improvement. The Cougars finished 179th in defensive efficiency, allowed opponents to shoot 48.3 percent on 2-pointers and gave up a lot of offensive rebounds. 

Bottom line: Houston has chances for good nonconference wins and should have an exciting offense again, but has to play better defense if it wants to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

Projected starting lineup: Galen Robinson Jr., Rob Gray, Damyean Dotson, Devin Davis, Danrad Knowles

5. Temple Owls


2015-16 record: 21-12, 14-4 AAC

Postseason: NCAA First Round

2015-16 recap: The Owls won the regular-season conference title by winning nine of their final 11 games, but were only the seventh-highest ranked team in the conference, per KenPom.

Additions: G Alani Moore, G Quinton Rose, G Isaiah Lewis, C Damion Moore

Losses: G Quenton DeCosey, G Devin Coleman, F Jaylen Bond, C Devontae Watson

2016-17 outlook:

The defending regular-season champions enter this season already hampered by injuries. Point guard Josh Brown injured his Achilles in May and is uncertain to play this year. Wing Trey Lowe is redshirting due to injuries sustained in a car crash in March.

Temple also loses its leading scorer (DeCosey), best 3-point shooter (Coleman) and leading rebounder (Bond). So there’s a lot of turnover here from an offense that wasn’t that great last season (139th in adjusted efficiency). Three-star freshman Alani Moore will step in for Brown, while sophomore  Levan "Shizz" Alston and four-star freshman Quinton Rose should pick up bigger roles with the departures and injuries in the backcourt. Obi Enechionyia (pictured) is the team’s top returning scorer, and the Owls need a lot out of him.

Bottom line: there is some talent here, but Temple’s new faces need to produce right away for the Owls to reach 20 regular-season wins. 

Projected starting lineup: Alani Moore, Shizz Alston, Daniel Dingle, Obi Enechionyia, Mark Williams

6. Memphis Tigers

Reinhold Matoy - USA TODAY SPORTS

2015-16 record: 19-15, 8-10 AAC

Postseason: None

2015-16 recap: Dedric Lawson was the AAC’s Rookie of the Year, but the Tigers had few other bright spots in their second straight season without playing in a postseason tournament.

Additions: G Keon Clergeot, G Christian Kessee, G/F Jimario Rivers, C Chad Rykhoek

Losses: G Ricky Tarrant, G Kedren Johnson, G Avery Woodson, G Randall Broddie, F Trahson Burrell, F Shaq Goodwin, C Nick Marshall

2016-17 outlook:

Another transfer-filled offseason has less attention with Tubby Smith now in charge and the return of the team’s best player, Dedric Lawson (pictured). But it’s still not great.

Three players transferred (Broddie, Woodson, Marshall) and three double-figure scorers (Tarrant, Burrell, Goodwin) exhausted their eligibility. Smith isn’t inheriting a lot of depth or experience, but he has Lawson, the favorite to win the conference player of the year. After Marshall’s transfer, the only form of frontcourt help is Baylor grad transfer Chad Rykhoek, who graduated without ever playing a minute of college basketball as a Bear. So Lawson needs to have a monster season and stay on the court as much as possible. His brother, wing K.J. Lawson, also a former four-star recruit, needs to play to his potential after an Achilles injury limited him last year. Avery Woodson transferred to Butler, leaving Memphis without its only dependable 3-point shooter. Christian Kessee, a grad transfer from Coppin State who made 88 3-pointers a year ago, will try to fill that role. 

Bottom line: Tubby Smith’s transformation of Texas Tech from cellar dweller to tournament team is impressive, but unless both Lawsons play really well, there’s just not enough depth or talent to finish with a winning record in conference play this year.

Projected starting lineup: Jeremiah Martin, Markel Crawford, Jimario Rivers, K.J. Lawson, Dedric Lawson

T-7. East Carolina Pirates

Ronnie Moore

2015-16 record: 12-20, 4-14 AAC

Postseason: None

2015-16 recap: The AAC’s worst defensive team (1.1 points allowed per possession) finished in a tie for second-worst in the conference.

Additions: G Shawn Williams, G Jeremy Sheppard, G Elijah Hughes, G Raquan Wilkins, F Jabari Craig, C Andre Washington

Losses: G Prince Williams, G Lance Tejada, G Charles Foster, G/F Grant Bryant, C Kanu Anja, C Michael Zangari

2016-17 outlook: 

The Pirates return most of their rotation from a year ago, but they were also not very good last season. The returning experience doesn’t mean they’ll leap from four wins to 10-plus wins. 

ECU has some good pieces though. B.J. Tyson (pictured) has been the team’s best player the last two years. Kentrell Barkley should be even better after a strong freshman season on the wing. He can do a little bit of everything. Caleb White led a shooting-happy team in 3-pointers, and he’s back. The loss of Prince Williams leaves the team without a true point guard. Jeremy Sheppard, a former UCF signee, is one option for minutes there. Up front, Andre Washington comes over from Wake Forest. He’s a 7-footer, but hasn’t played since 2014-15 and was a reserve when he did play. Deng Riak, one of the more highly touted recruits to commit to Jeff Lebo, missed most of his first season with an injury. If he’s healthy, he should play meaningful minutes.

Bottom line: ECU has enough returning pieces and a couple good additions to have its best season as a member of the AAC and finish above .500 for the first time in four seasons. A winning conference record would be a surprise though.

Projected starting lineup: B.J. Tyson, Kentrell Barkley, Caleb White, Michel Nzege, Andre Washington

T-7. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Tulsa Athletics

2015-16 record: 20-12, 12-6 AAC

Postseason: NCAA First Four

2015-16 recap: Behind eight seniors, Tulsa sneaked into the NCAA tournament as the last at-large team.

Additions: G Lawson Korita, G Travis Atson, G Jaleel Wheeler, G Corey Henderson Jr., G Joseph Battle, F Geno Artison, F Will Magnay, F Martins Igbanu, F Junior Etou*

Losses: G James Woodard, G Shaquille Harrison, G Rashad Ray, G Kajon Brown, G/F Marquel Curtis, G/F Rashad Smith, F Brandon Swannegan, F D’Andre Wright, F Emmanuel Ezechinonso

2016-17 outlook: 

The movie “Eight Men Out” tells the story of eight players on the Chicago White Sox intentionally playing to lose the 1919 World Series. The modern-day, slightly less interesting use of the phrase could apply to Tulsa’s loss of eight seniors. 

No one who returns played in more than 10 minutes per game last year. After such turnover, it’s hard to know how good Tulsa is until it actually plays a game. After losing all-conference players James Woodard and Shaq Harrison, the Golden Hurricane won’t be as good as last year. The team has a couple certainties: Pat Birt (pictured) is going to shoot and make a lot of 3-pointers. Junior Etou, a transfer from Rutgers, should give Tulsa good minutes at the “5” spot. 

Elsewhere, there’s little experience. Lawson Korita was a standout shooter in high school, but he’s a freshman. Three-star wing Travis Atson was known as a more aggressive player, but he's also a freshman. Corey Henderson Jr., a former Wichita State guard and junior college transfer, hasn’t been cleared to play yet. Former three-star recruit Geno Artison signed with Fresno State in 2014 and redshirted, then went to junior college. Jaleel Wheeler is another junior college guard who should be in the mix for minutes. 

Bottom line: Birt may lead the conference in 3-point makes and Etou should be one of the league’s better big men, but Tulsa has too much turnover and not enough talent to stay at the top of the conference.

Projected starting lineup: Sterling Taplin, Lawson Korita, Pat Birt, T.K. Edogi, Junior Etou

9. UCF Knights


2015-16 record: 12-18, 6-12 AAC

Postseason: None

2015-16 recap: After starting 5-4 in conference play, the Knights dropped eight of their final nine games and lost to 11-seed Tulane in the AAC tournament.

Additions: G Ceasar DeJesus, G/F Nick Baynard

Losses: G Daiquan Walker, G Brendan Boyle, G Adonys Henriquez, F Shaheed Davis, F Staphon Blair, C Justin McBride

2016-17 outlook:

Johnny Dawkins took Stanford to the Sweet 16 in 2014 and won 156 games, but don’t expect those results right away at UCF. The Knights haven’t won more than 13 games since 2012. Their conference record improved one game last year, but they only beat the three teams that finished below them.

Dawkins wasted no time overhauling the roster, but four of his additions won’t play this season due to transfer rules. He also inherits one of the most turnover-prone offenses in college basketball. Former all-rookie selection B.J. Taylor (pictured) returns after missing all of last season with an injury, but top three-point shooter Adonys Henriquez transferred to St. Louis. A.J. Davis and 7-6 center Tacko Fall should provide good production in the frontcourt. With Daiquan Walker out of eligibility and Chance McSpadden out until at least December with an ACL injury suffered this summer, the Knights are without their two main ball handlers from last year. 

Bottom line: Dawkins should bring in good players eventually, but the Knights have been terrible on offense recently and won’t improve enough to see a big jump in wins.

Projected starting lineup: B.J. Taylor, Matt Williams, Nick Banyard, A.J. Davis, Tacko Fall

10. South Florida Bulls


2015-16 record: 8-25, 4-14 AAC

Postseason: None

2015-16 recap: The Bulls were the only AAC team not to reach 10 wins, but had the conference’s sixth-leading scorer in Jahmal McMurray (15.2 ppg).

Additions: G Mike Bibby, G Malik Fitts, G Geno Thorpe*, C Isaiah Manderson*

Losses: G Roddy Peters, G Nehemias Morillo, F Angel Nunez, F Chris Perry, C Jaleel Cousins

2016-17 outlook: 

The program is under investigation, and Orlando Antigua hasn’t done anything to inspire much confidence in his two years as head coach.

The Bulls were one of the 10 worst 3-point shooting teams in the country last year (28.6 percent) and weren’t much better inside the arc (46.2 percent, 267th). They also had a troublesome offseason in addition to the NCAA investigation. Chris Perry, the team’s second-leading scorer last season, was dismissed from the team. Roddy Peters, a former top-50 recruit, was also dismissed. Four-star wing Troy Baxter signed with USF last fall, but got a release over the summer and is now at UNLV. 

There are a few dependable players, though. Penn State transfer Geno Thorpe should help in the backcourt and 6-11 Texas Tech transfer Isaiah Manderson will provide more frontcourt depth when he’s eligible in December. Jahmal McMurray (pictured) averaged 15.6 points per game as a freshman, but is suspended for the first six games of the year. Troy Holston Jr. averaged 15.7 points in the final nine games of 2014-15, but missed last season after tearing his ACL. Tulio Da Silva, one of Antigua’s highest-ranked signees, is eligible after sitting last season due to academic issues.

Bottom line: USF should improve a little bit thanks to its additions, but it’s also hard to get worse than last season.

Projected starting lineup: Jahmal McMurray, Troy Holston Jr., Bo Zeigler, Tulio Da Silva, Ruben Guerrero

11. Tulane Green Wave

Rob Kinnan-USA Today Sports

2015-16 record: 12-22, 3-15 AAC

Postseason: None

2015-16 recap: The AAC’s last-place finisher had the conference’s worst offense (.92 points per possession).

Additions: G Ray Ona Embo, G Colin Slater, F Darian Jones, F Sammis Reyes

Losses: G Louis Dabney, G Kajon Mack, F Jernard Jarreau, C Dylan Osetkowski, C Taron Oliver

2016-17 outlook: 

Four years ago, consistent loser SMU hired a former NBA head coach, and it worked. Last-place Tulane has nothing to lose with hiring Mike Dunleavy Sr. But he’s in for a rough time at first.

As bad as UCF and USF were on offenses last year, Tulane was worse. The Green Wave finished 300 or worse in adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, free throw rate, 2-point percentage and 3-point percentage. Tulane’s best player is gone: Dylan Osetkowski, who averaged 11.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, transferred to Texas. Leading scorer Louis Dabney exhausted his eligibility. Dabney’s departure and a new coach should give former highly touted recruits Kain Harris and Melvin Frazier (pictured) a chance to make an impact. Frazier spurned LSU, Memphis and Oklahoma to play for his hometown team. Three-star freshman Colin Slater should also get a chance to play right away.

Bottom line: Like USF, Tulane can’t get much worse. Breakout seasons from Frazier and Harris would help, but Tulane looks like the worst team in the conference.

Projected starting lineup: Kain Harris, Malik Morgan, Melvin Frazier, Cameron Reynolds, Ryan Smith

Ten Nonconference games to watch

UConn in the Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23): The Huskies are part of a loaded field that includes Georgetown, Oregon, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

SMU at USC (Nov. 25): Two teams that may surprise despite losing some important pieces from last year meet in L.A.

Cincinnati at Iowa State (Dec. 1): The Bearcats go to Ames after losing to the Cyclones at home a year ago.  

UConn vs. Syracuse (Dec. 5): Conference title contender vs. a Final Four team at Madison Square Garden. Doesn’t get much better.

SMU vs. TCU (Dec. 10): These two teams are football rivals first, but TCU has some intrigue with Jamie Dixon now in charge.

UConn at Ohio State (Dec. 10): UConn won this matchup at home last year, but this year it’s in Columbus against a more experienced Buckeyes team.

Houston vs. Rhode Island (Dec. 10): The 23rd-ranked Rams’ visit to Houston is a great opportunity for the Cougars to get something they didn’t have last season: a quality nonconference win. 

Temple at Villanova (Dec. 13): This matchup once again looks like the most interesting in the Big Five this year.

Memphis at Oklahoma (Dec. 17): The AAC’s popular deep sleeper pick will to go Norman to play Oklahoma, which lost four starters from last year’s Final Four team.

Jan. 26, Cincinnati vs. Xavier (Jan. 26): Xavier beat its crosstown rival in each of the last three seasons.

Projected all-conference teams

First team:

Troy Caupain, Cincinnati

Damyean Dotson, Houston

Gary Clark, Cincinnati

Dedric Lawson, Memphis

Semi Ojeleye, SMU

Second team:

Shake Milton, SMU

Jalen Adams, UConn

Rob Gray, Houston

Rodney Purvis, UConn

Ben Moore, SMU

Honorable Mention:

Jahmal McMurray, South Florida

B.J. Tyson, East Carolina

Jacob Evans, Cincinnati

Amida Brimah, UConn

All-rookie team:

Alterique Gilbert, UConn

Alani Moore, Temple

Colin Slater, Tulane

Vance Jackson, UConn

Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati

End-of-season individual awards:

Player of the year: Dedric Lawson, Memphis

Coach of the year: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati

Rookie of the year: Alterique Gilbert, UConn

Defensive player of the year: Amida Brimah, UConn

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