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American Athletic Conference Preview

Sat, 11/15/2014 - 6:56pm

The inaugural season is in the books for the American Athletic Conference, and the UConn Huskies represented the AAC with a national title. Last season was marked by the enormous chasm between the five subpar AAC teams and the five tournament-caliber AAC teams who battled for the conference title all season long. In the end, the regular season conference title, the conference tournament title, and the national title went to three different teams in the conference. But all of that is behind us now, and the conference lineup looks a little different this season. Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) have departed and have been replaced by Tulsa, Tulane, and East Carolina. Gone, too, is the dynamic guard trio of Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, and Sean Kilpatrick that fought tooth-and-nail for Conference POY honors. The AAC may continue to be dominated by a handful of teams, but some sleepers lurk in the lower tiers of the conference and it’s still anybody’s guess who will come out on top after what should be a physical, rugged, painfully low-scoring slate of intra-conference games.

1. Southern Methodist

2013-2014 Record: 27-10

NIT Runner-Up

Top Returning Players: Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy, Keith Frazier, Yannick Moreira, Ben Moore, Sterling Brown, Cannen Cunningham, Ryan Manuel

Key Additions: Justin Martin, Ben Emelogu, Jordan Tolbert

Key Departures: Nick Russell

The outlook for this season is bright for the Mustangs. The outlook for any Larry Brown-coached team is usually going to be pretty bright. But the elephant in the room all season long is going to be what this team could have been had elite recruit (and potential #1 overall pick next year) Emmanuel Mudiay had not decommitted from the program to play professionally in China. Regardless, this is a team that could step up and take command of the AAC this season. 6 of their top 7 scorers return, including the deceptively talented, Nate Robinson-esque point guard Nic Moore and power forward Markus Kennedy, who was one of the best post players in the conference in his first season playing D-I basketball after two years of JUCO ball. In addition, Larry Brown added three high-profile transfers in Martin (Xavier), Emelogu (Virginia Tech), and Jordan Tolbert (Texas Tech), all of whom posted double-digit season scoring averages prior to coming to SMU.

There’s a lot of continuity and experience for this team, and they should be a cohesive unit that hits it stride in November and keeps it rolling on through to the tournament. Many felt the Mustangs were snubbed but the NCAA Selection Committee last season, but they did themselves in with an underwhelming schedule and a lack of quality wins. But they get to face Gonzaga and Indiana on the road in the next week, so there are some excellent chances to post some early resume-building wins. This team has momentum following a deep NIT run and, Mudiay or no Mudiay, they have no excuse for missing the Big Dance this season. I predict they earn a bid and more, as they’re my pick to win the conference this season.

2. Connecticut

2013-2014 Record: 32-8

National Champion

Top Returning Players: Ryan Boatright, Amida Brimah, Omar Calhoun, Phillip Nolan, Terrence Samuel, Kentan Facey

Key Additions: Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton, Sam Cassell Jr, Rakim Lubin

Key Departures: Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey

Rodney PurvisRodney PurvisThe defending national champs are sporting a different look this year after losing over 60% of their scoring in the offseason. Shabazz is gone after a decorated career, and now this is Ryan Boatright’s team. As a freshman, Boatright was incredibly prone to bad decisions as far as shot selection and ball security goes. As a sophomore, he learned to play second or third fiddle a little better and, as a result, posted relatively underwhelming numbers en route to a national title. I piled on him quite a bit in last year’s blog as he didn’t always seem to be giving Shabazz the support he needed and had several extremely quiet nights. But now, he’s the guy and there’s little doubt he’s going to take the conference by storm. He’s quite possibly the frontrunner for conference POY, but he’s going to need some help. That’s where Rodney Purvis comes in. The one-time McDonalds All-American-turned-disgruntled NC State player-turned-UConn transfer sat out last year and will now get his chance to play in a more suitable environment. Along with freshman Daniel Hamilton (ranked 30th in his class by ESPN), a long, rangy wing with a knack for scoring, and JUCO transfer Sam Cassell Jr. (the fact that Sam Cassell’s son is in college makes 19-year-old me feel old), the Huskies will have a crowded, scoring-minded backcourt. This could take them a long way, but it could also lead to chemistry issues, furthermore, front court depth is a big question mark, as it was last year. Amida Brimah is a long, rangy, super-raw center who will likely lead the conference in blocks, but he needs to round out his game (although he was named to the Preseason All-Conference Second Team). His 20-point outing against UCF last season hints at his big-time potential, but he, along with Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey, are very unproven.

All in all, it could be a slow start for the Huskies. The roster has a lot of guys who are talented but unproven and who may have trouble developing chemistry at first. Tests against Texas (Nov. 30th) and Duke (Dec. 18th) will be very telling as UConn tries to get rolling heading into the conference season. They have more talent than maybe anyone in the conference, but Boatright and Purvis need to take the next step to push coach Kevin Ollie’s defending champs ahead of SMU and Memphis.

3. Memphis

2013-2014 Record: 24-10

Lost in Round of 32

Top Returning Players: Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols, Nick King, Kuran Iverson

Key Additions: Kedren Johnson, Dominic Magee, Trahson Burrell, Calvin Godfrey, Avery Woodson, Chris Hawkins

Key Departures: Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon Jr., Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford

It seems to be the same storyline every year for the Memphis Tigers, at least every year since Josh Pastner took over after the departure of John Calipari: Memphis brings in a talented group of freshmen, the team underwhelms in the regular season, gets a mediocre seed, and loses in the early rounds. Last year was no different as one of the top freshman classes in the nation, in conjunction with long-time fixture at point guard Joe Jackson and a host of other talented guards, were not able to make it past the Round of 32. This year, Memphis doesn’t have the talented incoming freshmen. Dominic Magee (ranked 67th in his class by ESPN) is the highlight from this recruiting class, but JUCO transfers Trahson Burrell and Chris Hawkins can be difference makers. This Tigers team’s strength will be in its returning duo down low, Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols.

Goodwin is the only player on the roster who has played for the team for at least two seasons and a lot of weight is on his shoulders. He’s strong and physical and he has good athleticism for a post player, but his post game has been work in progress. Nichols showed promise in his freshman season despite a lack of significant opportunities with all the talent in the Tiger backcourt. He can bang down low and battle for rebounds and he’s just a real prototypical old school big man. The sophomores on this roster came in with a lot of promise last year, and now it’s their chance to shine. Nichols, Nick King, Kuran Iverson, and Dominic Woodson were all highly-acclaimed recruits and could give Josh Pastner an elite frontcourt if they all take a few steps forward in their development. There are some question marks at guard as a lot of the load will fall on freshmen and JUCO transfers, but the talent on this squad is palpable. They open their season against Wichita St., a matchup which they aren’t really expected to win. A win in that one would be huge, especially since this could be an inconsistent Tiger team that may take a while to hit their stride due to all the turnover at guard. A tournament berth is likely but far from guaranteed for this squad, and they have an outside shot at taking the conference title away from SMU and UConn.

4. Tulsa

2013-2014 Record: 21-13

Lost in Round of 64

Top Returning Players: James Woodard, Rashad Smith, Shaquille Harrison, DAndre Wright, Rashad Ray

Key Additions: Keondre Dew

Key Departures: Pat Swilling Jr.

In the NCAA tournament, the 13 seeds are always intriguing. Though not quite good enough to garner an at-large bid, they usually raced through their own conference slate and are looking to give an elite team a run for its money. What casual AAC fans, particularly fans of your UConn’s and your SMU’s and your Memphis’s and your Cincinnati’s may not realize is that Tulsa, who won a fairly strong Conference USA last season, was one such 13 seed. And though they got defeated pretty handily by 4-seed UCLA, they return their top three scorers and five out of the top 6 and could pose a very real threat to the aforementioned big three.

Guard James Woodard was the only non-SMU/UConn/Memphis player named to the preseason All-Conference First Team after averaging 15.5 PPG last season. The 6’3” junior can stroke it from outside and rebounds very well for his size. He’s the unquestioned leader of this team but he gets help from Rashad Smith, a 6’7” junior guard, and Shaquille Harrison, a 6’4” junior guard. This is a team that went on an 11-game winning streak at the end of the regular season last year to put away the conference title before losing to UCLA. They have some size inside to compete with the physical frontrunners, and James Woodard is almost certainly going to be in the running for Conference POY. In addition, coach Frank Haith has proven himself at Missouri with a 2012 National Coach of the Year Award and is among the conference’s best. Tulsa may surprise some people by hanging around the top of the conference, but the foundation is there for big things.

5. Cincinnati

2013-2014 Record: 27-7

Lost in Round of 64

Top Returning Players: Shaquille Thomas, Jermaine Sanders, Troy Caupain, GeLawn Guyn, Kevin Johnson

Key Additions: Gary Clark, Octavius Ellis, Coreontae DeBerry, Quadri Moore, Farad Cobb

Key Departures: Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson, Titus Rubles, Jermaine Lawrence

Last season came to a disappointing end for the Bearcats. After they won the regular season conference title, they got beat in the conference semifinals, then upset in their first tournament game by Harvard. And soon after, forward Titus Rubles, center Justin Jackson, the Bearcats’ anchor in the post, and All-everything guard Sean Kilpatrick all graduated. So the cupboard is a little bare the Bearcats, and the program that usually sports a top 25 team may find themselves floating around .500 this season. The good news is they have an excellent coach in Mick Cronin, and they return a host of experienced role players in forwards Shaquille Thomas and Jermaine Sanders, and guards Troy Caupain and Ge’Lawn Guyn. Thomas was the leading scorer and minutes leader of the bunch (albeit with a mere 6.8 PPG) and is expected to take the biggest step up. Some help is on the way for Cincinnati with freshman power forward Gary Clark, one of the better freshmen in the conference. Clark is a versatile scorer and a great rebounder and his talent, attitude, and work ethic have been drawing rave reviews in Cincinnati. In addition, JUCO transfer Coreontae DeBerry, a 6’10”, 270 lb. center, is a load in the post and will help a lot in replacing Justin Jackson.

This team may not have the offensive firepower of teams like Temple, South Florida, and Central Florida, but it should bring back the same defense and brutal physicality that was the identity of last year’s team. Cronin is a great coach and though this team may not be as good as its predecessor, it should surprise some higher-ranked squads along the way. An 8-day test of Nebraska, San Diego State, and VCU (all ranked) in mid-December will tell us a lot about what this team is made of.

6. Temple

2013-2014 Record: 9-22

Missed Postseason

Top Returning Players: Will Cummings, Quenton DeCosey, Daniel Dingle, Mark Williams, Josh Brown, Devontae Watson

Key Additions: Jesse Morgan, Obi Enechionyia, Devin Coleman, Jaylen Bond

Key Departures: Dalton Pepper, Anthony Lee

Last year’s Temple team would’ve probably fit in a lot better in college football as it played a lot of good offense and no defense. Four players averaged over 13.6 PPG, but they still finished near the bottom of the AAC heap. And now, Temple loses leading scorer Dalton Pepper, and skilled power forward Anthony Lee, one of the better big men in the conference. But this doesn’t mean they have no chance of improving. A solid foursome of newcomers should bolster this roster tremendously. Shooting guard Jesse Morgan is a transfer from UMass that averaged a more-than-respectable 13.4 PPG in his last season at UMass. Freshman forward Obi Enechionyia is a promising big man with a great deal of potential. And transfers Devin Coleman (Clemson) and Jaylen Bond (Texas) transferred from high profile schools to get more playing time at Temple. These four bring a lot of shooting to a Temple roster all ready full of guns.

Regardless of what kind of impact the newcomers make, one thing is for certain: Will Cummings is going to score a lot of points for the Owls. Even with Dalton Pepper on the roster, Cummings lit up teams night in and night out and finished the year with a 16.8 PPG average. He should compete for conference POY this year and likely has an even better shot at the conference scoring title. Temple could be really bad or they could be surprisingly competitive; regardless, they’ll score a lot of points and play some very entertaining basketball.

7. South Florida

2013-2014 Record: 12-20

Missed Postseason

Top Returning Players: Chris Perry, Anthony Collins, Corey Allen Jr

Key Additions: Nehemias Morillo, Troy Holston, Ruben Guerrero, Jaleel Cousins

Key Departures: Victor Rudd, Martino Brock, John Egbunu

Like Temple, last year’s 12-20 South Florida team lost perhaps its two best players to graduation, including do-everything forward Victor Rudd. So one would think that there’s not a lot to like about this South Florida team. But there’s a couple reasons why I’m not completely dismissing the Bulls this season. First of all, point guard Anthony Collins is back after missing most of last season due to injury. He’s an excellent distributor and will help be a steadying influence for a team that was chaotic and disorganized at times last season. Secondly, sophomore forward Chris Perry showed some signs of greatness last season. He had 18 double-digit scoring outputs last season, and he was the key to the mild success the Bulls had early in the season. When the Bulls struggled in conference play, Perry was struggling as well. But the powerful 6’8”, 266 lb. power forward should be significantly better this season, and I expect this offense to run through him. Collins and Perry, along with shooting guard Corey Allen Jr., give this team a solid nucleus to build upon. Replacing Victor Rudd won’t be easy, and the transfer of John Egbunu hurts, but, as with Temple, I actually expect this team to improve its record from last year. Non-conference games against NC State, Alabama, Seton Hall, and Florida State will give the Bulls a test, but those are all games they could potentially steal.

8. Houston

2013-2014 Record: 17-16

Missed Postseason

Top Returning Players: Jherrod Stiggers, LJ Rose, Danrad Knowles

Key Additions: Devonta Pollard, JC Washington

Key Departures: TaShawn Thomas, Danuel House

The hiring of Kelvin Sampson by Houston definitely moved the program in a different direction, for better or worse. In hiring Sampson, the Cougars get a great coach and (albeit questionable) recruiter. But following the coaching change, TaShawn Thomas, a three-year fixture at the program, transferred, as did Danuel House, leaving the Cougars without their top two scorers from last season. The burden now falls on a trio of key returners. Jherrod Stiggers, the only remaining double-digit scorer, is a streaky shooting guard who only connected on an abysmal 39% from the field last season, but he has talent and he’s aggressive. He needs to gain consistency to be the lead offensive threat for this team. L.J. Rose, the former transfer from Baylor and point guard, is perhaps the most steady, consistent player on this roster. He averaged over 5.5 APG last season, but even he only shot 40% from the field. And Danrad Knowles, the rail-thin power forward fresh of off a promising freshman season, has shown flashes of greatness here and there and could be primed for a breakout year. He had 19 against Alcorn State and another 19 on 7-7 shooting against Temple last season. He also is shaping up to be a great rim protector and will play a huge role in replacing TaShawn Thomas. As far as newcomers, not a lot of talent was added to this roster, although Devonta Pollard, the Alabama transfer, is now eligible and ready to do damage in the frontcourt. Freshman J.C. Washington is also a good face-up power forward.

The outlook for this team is a little scary considering the offensive inconsistency of Stiggers and Rose. But Kelvin Sampson, like him or not, can do a lot with a little. Houston will win some games this season and probably finish with a respectable conference record.

9. Tulane

2013-2014 Record: 17-17

Missed Postseason

Top Returning Players: Louis Dabney, Jonathan Stark, Jay Hook, Tre Drye, Cameron Reynolds, Payton Henson

Key Additions: Keith Pinckney

Key Departures: None

In its first year in the American Athletic Conference after being in the C-USA, Tulane could certainly be in over its head as it faces off against teams like SMU and UConn and Memphis. But there is hope for the Green Wave. All six of their top scorers from last year return, including their high-scoring trio of guards, Louis Dabney, Jonathan Stark, and Jay Hook, who averaged a collective 43.6 PPG. Dabney and Stark could both have outside shots at First Team All-Conference, and Hook is a deadly outside shooter (47%). Keith Pinckney, a heady point guard with great passing abilities, joins this crowded backcourt. The post could be an issue for Tulane, as they don’t quite have major conference talent down low to bang with guys like Markus Kennedy and Shaq Goodwin. But these players are already comfortable playing with one another and should get off to a rolling start.

10. Central Florida

2013-2014 Record: 13-18

Missed Postseason

Top Returning Players: Calvin Newell, Kasey Wilson, Justin McBride, Matt Williams, Staphon Blair

Key Additions: Adonys Henriquez, AJ Davis, BJ Taylor

Key Departures: Isaiah Sykes, Tristan Spurlock

Last season came to a maddening close for UCF. After an 8-3 non-conference slate, they lost nine straight early on in conference play and played horrific defense down the stretch. Like Temple, they put points up but couldn’t get stops. And like South Florida, they now have to adjust to life after their do-everything forward, Isaiah Sykes.

But it’s not all bad. Senior point guard Calvin Newell had some excellent performances last season and return to this squad, along with forward Kasey Wilson, a solid rebounder and post scorer. And Justin McBride, the massive 6’10”, 325 lb. bull of a kid will be entering his sophomore season. He can’t stay on the floor for very long, but when he started getting playing time in February, he was incredibly efficient around the rim and should play a larger role in the offense this season. Freshman Adonys Henriquez is a smooth wing player with good slashing ability, and AJ Davis is a transfer from Tennessee with great length on the perimeter. All in all, this is a UCF team that could struggle even more mightily on defense, but with the scoring they’ll get from Newell and his supporting cast, they could surprise some teams at home.

11. East Carolina

2013-2014 Record: 17-17

Top Returning Players: Caleb White, Paris Roberts Campbell, Prince Williams, Michael Zangari, Antonio Robinson

Key Additions: Terry Whisnant, Kanu Aja, Lance Tejada, BJ Tyson, Michel Ofik Nzege

Key Departures: Akeem Richmond

Like Tulane, East Carolina will be aided in their transition to a major conference by the return of most of their nucleus. Unfortunately, the one missing piece is Akeem Richmond, the 18 PPG scorer who graduated in May. It could be a difficult season for the Pirates, who just lack the talent to match up with a lot of their AAC counterparts. Caleb White and Paris Roberts-Campbell can score from the wings, and Terry White (FSU) and Kanu Aja (JUCO) are solid transfer pickups, but this is a team that finished .500 in the C-USA just last year and lost their best player. They could get beat up this season, but they have a chance to prove me wrong depending on how they show against 6th-ranked North Carolina December 7th.

First Team

Ryan Boatright – UConn
Markus Kennedy – SMU
James Woodard – Tulsa
Will Cummings - Temple
Austin Nichols – Memphis

Second Team

Shaq Goodwin – Memphis
Chris Perry – USF
Nic Moore – SMU
Quenton DeCosey – Temple
Rodney Purvis - UConn

Third Team

Danrad Knowles – Houston
Shaquille Thomas – Cincinnati
Keith Frazier – SMU
Jesse Allen – Temple
Louis Dabney – Tulane

Projected NCAA Tournament Teams

SMU
UConn
Memphis

NIT Teams

Tulsa
Cincinnati

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