This season is the American Athletic Conference’s debut, and the AAC is looking to take its place among the nation’s elite basketball conferences. Following the Big East’s split in March, the conference’s “football schools” (Cincinnati, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida, and UConn) combined with four Conference USA schools (Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, and Southern Methodist), and Temple to create the AAC. And though the new league is more football-focused than the old Big East was, it certainly has the potential to make some noise on the college basketball landscape. Defending champion Lousiville, an experienced UConn team, and a Memphis team that brings in a highly-touted group of freshmen, lead the pack.
1. Louisville Cardinals
2012-2013 Record: 35-5 (14-4 Big East)
Won National Championship
Key Departures: Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng
The defending national champs lost their gritty point guard, Siva, and their strong inside presence, Dieng, and star forward Chane Behanan is suspended indefinitely for a violation of school policy. But coach Rick Pitino is among the best, and this squad has enough pieces to put up a strong defense of their title.
“Russ-diculous” Russ Smith returns to put up big numbers for the Cardinals after declaring for, then withdrawing from, the NBA draft in the summer. Another prominent storyline is the return of guard Kevin Ware from his gruesome, well-documented leg injury in the Elite Eight of last year’s tournament. Final Four Most Outstanding Player Luke Hancock returns, in addition to Wayne Blackshear, an athletic wing scorer. A strong recruiting class enters the mix, as well. Three top 100 recruits, including Hargrave Military Academy teammates Terry Rozier and Anton Gill, along with Chris Jones, JUCO Player of the Year last year, headline this class. Finally, Montrezl Harrell, a long, athletic NBA forward prospect who came off the bench last season, looks to capitalize on his huge potential now that his minutes will see a dramatic increase.
One could argue that Siva was the engine that made the national champs go, and it remains to be seen whether Rozier and Jones can fill those shoes. The most glaring weakness is likely the center position. Harrell has decent size, but is not a great post defender. Freshman Mangok Mathiang has decent size (6’10”) but is still an unknown quantity and may not yet be ready to make an impact for the Cardinals. Forward Stephen Van Treese could also have an expanded role. If the Cardinals can find a way to lock down the post, and Russ Smith can become a more consistent scorer, they could challenge for the national championship again this season, especially if Behanan is available for the postseason.
2. Connecticut Huskies
2012-2013 Record: 20-10 (10-8 Big East)
Banned from postseason (in 2012-13)
Key Departures: None
The Huskies are once again eligible for the NCAA tournament, and Shabazz Napier is looking to make the most of it. The senior point guard transformed into an elite player and will only be better this season. He’s always been an intense perimeter defender, but he took his offense to the next level last season and combines with junior Ryan Boatright to be one of the most talented backcourts in the nation.
Coach Kevin Ollie’s squad returns its top 6 scorers from last season, so there’s plenty of experience in play for the Huskies. In addition to Napier and Boatright, forward DeAndre Daniels had a breakout year last season and will play a key role in complementing Shabazz inside. Forwards Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander are back for the senior seasons, and both played for the national champion Huskies team of 2011. Freshman Kentan Facey headlines this modest freshmen class, and is ranked #66 by Rivals.com among incoming freshmen. Finally, Lasan Kromah, a 6’6” transfer who averaged 11 PPG at George Washington, was granted immediate eligibility and will step right in defense, size, and shooting for the Huskies.
The Huskies don’t have the incoming talent or the success of the previous year that Louisville has, but what they do have is experience. What was already a good team last season should pick up right where they left off, especially now that they have more to play for. Shabazz Napier is a veteran point guard and a stud, and he has the pieces around him to make a serious postseason run. The Huskies lack size and defense in the post, so that could haunt them all season, but this is a very talented veteran team.
3. Memphis Tigers
2012-2013 Record: 31-5 (16-0 C-USA)
Lost in Round of 32
Key Departures: Adonis Thomas, DJ Stephens, and Antonio Barton
Memphis boasts an incredible recruiting class this year, ranked #3 by Rivals.com, only behind Kentucky’s historic group of freshmen and Kansas’ Wiggins-Selden-Embiid-headlined class. These newcomers combine with an already-talented nucleus to make a formidable roster…on paper. But, as with most Josh Pastner teams, the challenge will be making reality match expectations. Fortunately, this year’s group of talented Tiger players will be more battle-tested come tournament time than in the past after playing AAC teams in January and February rather than the typical slate of C-USA foes.
Point guard Joe Jackson is the heart and soul of this team, and possibly the best point guard in the conference. His fellow senior guards Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford will provide more of an outside scoring punch. Michael Dixon, formerly of Missouri, is one of the more high profile transfers eligible to play this season and averaged 13 points per game for Missouri in 2011-2012. Finally, this talented group of freshmen includes 6’8” forward Austin Nichols (ranked #17 by Rivals.com), 6’8” swingman Kuran Iverson (#28), 6’7” swingman Nick King (#46), 6’5” guard Markel Crawford (#59), 6’9”, 315 lb. center Dominic Woodson (#80), and point guard RaShawn Powell (#95).
The talent is there for the Tigers. Now Josh Pastner has to prove he can put it all together and lead his team to multiple postseason victories. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses for this team, but they must maintain consistency now that their level of competition has been raised. This year, they will be much more prepared to take on tournament-level foes. Memphis has the potential to be just as good as anyone in this conference, and even if they don’t meet expectations, they will still finish near the top of this conference. But there is certainly a lot to like about this team.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats
2012-2013 Record: 22-12 (9-9 Big East)
Lost in Round of 64
Key Additions: Jermaine Lawrence and Kevin Johnson
Key Departures: Cashmere Wright, JaQuon Parker, and Cheikh Mbodj
The defensive-minded Bearcats enter the first ever AAC season as one of the more underrated contenders in the league. While the big three of Louisville, UConn, and Memphis are expected to duke it out for the conference title, Cincinnati, led by guard Sean Kilpatrick and coach Mick Cronin. They now have a greater chance to stand out and rack up the wins in a conference not as deep as the old Big East.
Kilpatrick was voted first team all-conference by the coaches at media day after leading Cincinnati with 17 PPG last season. Forwards Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson are the next-highest returning scorers from last season for the Bearcats and should have expanded roles this season. A lot of pressure will be on this recruiting class to come in and perform right away. Power forward Jermaine Lawrence, ranked 26th nationally by Rivals.com, is Cronin’s prize recruit this season and will make an immediate impact with his quickness and athleticism. He can create numerous mismatches at the 4 spot.
Many pieces are gone from last season, but as long as Cincinnati has Kilpatrick, they will be competitive. If he can continue to take the reins of this team and develop into an elite guard, he will contend for AAC Player of the Year. The X-factor for the Bearcats will be the ability for Lawrence, Rubles, and the other supporting members of this team to step up, take some of the pressure off Kilpatrick, and force opposing defenses to focus on more than just their star guard. This is a good defensive squad, but scoring will be of utmost importance for Cronin’s squad this season. If everything comes together, this Bearcats team could surprise people and hang in there with the big three in the conference title race.
5. Southern Methodist Mustangs
2012-2013 Record: 15-17 (5-11 C-USA)
Key Departures: None
Despite middle-of-the-road projections for SMU, there’s a lot to like about Larry Brown’s team this season. A very good recruiting class is on its way in, headlined by shooting guard Keith Frazier, plus the top five scorers from last year’s team return. The problem is that that team went 15-17 despite playing in the C-USA. They’ll have to make a big jump to compete in the AAC, but unlike some of their fellow C-USA-turned-AAC teams, they have the talent to make the transition.
The Mustangs’ trio of returning guards, Jalen Jones, Nick Russell, and Ryan Manuel combined for 40.1 PPG last season. Added to that combination is Keith Frazier, ranked 18th nationally by Rivals.com and voted conference preseason Newcomer of the Year. He should come in and create instant offense. Three transfers bolster this hearty recruiting class. Nic Moore, a sophomore point guard from Illinois State, averaged 10 points and 3.9 assists per game two seasons ago. Markus Kennedy is a big power forward who saw limited action at Villanova. And Yannick Moreira is a 6’11” power forward from South Plains C.C.
Larry Brown has assembled a fine combination of veteran talent and exciting newcomers. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, a lot of their best players are guards, particularly off guards. They will need for Moreira, Kennedy, and returning starting center Cannen Cunningham to raise their game to a major conference level if they want to stay competitive; however, this is a solid team from top to bottom and they have more upside than nearly any other AAC team. They could easily end up in the tournament at season’s end.
6. Houston Cougars
2012-2013 Record: 20-13 (7-9 C-USA)
Key Additions: Jaaron Simmons and LJ Rose
Key Departures: Joseph Young and Leon Gibson
After reeling in several high-profile recruits the last few years, coach James Dickey has a talented team that’s ready to contend in a major conference. This is an exciting, athletic squad that averaged 78 PPG last season, good for 10th in the nation. Though leading scorer Joseph Young transferred to Oregon, big man TaShawn Thomas and guard Danuel House are a superb duo for the Cougars. Houston made the College Basketball Invitational last season and look to top that with their first NCAA tournament berth since 2010.
Thomas was voted to the preseason All-Conference second team after scoring 16.9 PPG and 9.8 RPG last season. The strong 6’8” power forward plays bigger than his height and will be one of the more imposing post presences in what is a guard-dominated conference. Meanwhile, sophomore House, good complementary wing scorer last year, should step up and become the primary option on the perimeter following Young’s departure. Guard Jherrod Stiggers is a good 3-point shooter and, coupled with House, will stretch the floor for the Cougars. Baylor transfer L.J. Rose could also get in the mix at point guard after being ruled eligible to play immediately.
Houston will have to adjust to a much more rigorous conference schedule, but they have the size and athleticism of a major conference squad. Offense was no problem for Houston last season, but they need to gain discipline on defense, especially when they play grind-it-out, former Big East teams. If everything can come together for them, they have a good shot at returning to the NCAA tournament and should give the bigger-name teams in the conference some trouble throughout the year.
7. South Florida Bulls
2012-2013 Record: 12-19 (3-15 Big East)
Key Departures: Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, Jawanza Poland, and Shaun Noriega
The South Florida Bulls struggled through last season, particularly during conference play. Perhaps a fresh start in a new conference is exactly what Stan Heath’s team needs to get back in contention. Led by a solid returning nucleus of Victor Rudd and Anthony Collins, a pair of preseason All-Conference second teamers, the Bulls hope to be on their way back to respectability.
Rudd is a 6’9” small forward with great length and athleticism. He led the Bulls in scoring with 12.3 PPG last season. Collins is a quick scoring point guard who could thrive with improved talent around him. Senior guard Martino Brock will have an expanded role this year, and he showed that he can thrive as one of the key guys when he averaged 14 points for South Alabama before transferring to USF. Finally, incoming center John Egbunu is ranked 83rd nationally in the class of 2013 by Rivals.com. Stan Heath hopes that he and freshman power forward Chris Perry will give them the post presence they desperately needed last year.
The Bulls hope to cut short their rebuilding period and return to the level of the USF team that made the round of 32 in 2012. Rudd and Collins are veteran studs, but other players will need to step up and create for a team that ranked 331st nationally in points per game last season. The development of Egbunu will be crucial. If he can give the Bulls a post presence, that will open things up on the perimeter for the Bulls, allowing Rudd and Collins to lead this team to a much-improved record this season.
8. Central Florida Knights
2012-2013 Record: 20-11 (9-7 C-USA)
Key Additions: Stephen Haney
Key Departures: Keith Clanton
This Central Florida team is nearly the same squad as last year. The only major difference is the loss of Keith Clanton, who graduated after leading the Knights in rebounding and blocks. Thus, Isaiah Sykes, a preseason All-Conference selection, will be expected to pick up the slack. After being a solid, but not tournament-worthy mid-major for the last few years, the Knights have a better chance to prove themselves against a tougher conference schedule.
Aside from Clanton, the other seven leading scorers form last season return. Sykes is a big, strong guard who can score, defend and rebound. He averaged 16 PPG last season. Forward Tristan Spurlock is entering his senior year and will hope to replace Clanton as the go-to rebounder and inside scorer. Guard Calvin Newell and forward Kasey Wilson also return on the perimeter. As far as incoming recruits, the cupboard is a little more bare than that of UCF’s fellow C-USA transferees. Swingman Steve Haney is the most notable recruit, but is not expected to make a large impact immediately.
Central Florida should be competitive in the AAC this year, but there’s not a lot of support for Isaiah Sykes. Post play could be a concern for UCF, as well as outside shooting, something that was not a big part of the offense last season. But if the veterans on this team can step up and support Sykes, this is a potential top 25 team.
9. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2012-2013 Record: 15-16 (5-13)
Key Additions: JJ Moore and Junior Etou
Key Departures: Eli Carter and Dane Miller
Rutgers has spent the last few seasons as a Big East cellar dweller, and there’s a chance that could continue in the AAC. The good news for Rutgers is that veterans Myles Mack and Wally Judge return, and J.J. Moore, one of the more high-profile transfers in the country, debuts for the Scarlet Knights. And following the firing of Mike Rice after news of his tirades in practices went public, former NBA head coach Eddie Jordan was hired to lead this team.
Mack is the speedy little engine that will make this Rutgers team go next season. He’s not on the level of some of the other stud point guards in this conference, but he averaged a respectable 13.6 PPG last season. Wally Judge, the former McDonald’s All-American, hasn’t quite fulfilled his potential, but he’s still a more-than-capable post player, something that Rutgers will be in great need of this season. At 6’9”, Judge is the Scarlet Knight’s tallest player. Jerome Seagears is third returning starter from last season and is an aggressive slasher on the wing. Freshman Junior Etou adds athleticism at the power forward spot.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t about to make a jump to the top of the conference, but there is a decent base here. Mack and Judge are both solid players for Jordan to build around. The main problem for Rutgers is that they are severely lacking in size. There are no true centers on this team, and post defense and rebounding could be a problem this year. The Scarlet Knights may not be the worst team in the AAC this year, but they are still a long way away from making the Big Dance.
10. Temple Owls
2012-2013 Record: 24-10 (11-5 Atlantic 10)
Lost in Round of 32
Top Returning Players: Anthony Lee, Will Cummings, and Dalton Pepper
Key Additions: Josh Brown
Key Departures: Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, and Jake O’Brien
While it might seem ludicrous to project Temple, a team that has made six straight tournaments, to be the worst in the conference, this is a team that returns almost none of its rotation from last year and has no high profile recruits coming in. Power forward Anthony Lee is the primary bright spot for the Owls, but coach Fran Dunphy has his work cut out for him in replacing do-it-all point guard Khalif Wyatt, starters Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, and sixth man Jake O’Brien.
Lee is an athletic power forward who was the leading rebounder for the Owls last season. Will Cummings will also play a larger role as the only other player to play more than 12 minutes per game last season. Shooting guard Josh Brown is ranked 132nd nationally and may have to come in and be an immediate difference maker for Temple. Beyond those three, Dalton Pepper, the one-time transfer from West Virginia, may be a key player and will provide outside shooting and defense. 6’10” post player Devontae Watson, a sophomore, could also play big minutes.
Ultimately, several players are going to have to step up for the Owls if they’re going to extend their streak of tournament appearances to 7. Realistically, the drop could be severe for Temple. But Coach Dunphy is a very good coach, so there’s still plenty of hope for the Temple Owls.
Tashawn Thomas – Houston
Chane Behanan – Louisville
Russ Smith – Louisville
Shabazz Napier – Uconn
Joe Jackson – Memphis
Montrezl Harrell – Louisville
Victor Rudd – USF
Sean Kilpatrick – Cincinnati
Ryan Boatright – UConn
DeAndre Daniels – UConn
Anthony Lee – Temple
Isaiah Sykes – UCF
Jalen Jones – SMU
Michael Dixon Jr. – Memphis
Keith Frazier – SMU
Top 5 Prospects
1. Montrezl Harrell F, Louisville
Harrell is raw and relatively unproven, but he’s has potential beyond that of any other player in this conference. He’s incredibly long (7’4” wingspan) and athletic and explosive. At age 19, there’s still plenty of time for him to continue to develop and fine-tune the rougher aspects of his game. He’ll get a much larger role in the Cardinals gameplan this season, and if he can seize the opportunity, he could sneak into the lottery.
2. Jermaine Lawrence F, Cincinnati
Lawrence is just a freshman and will need time before he can begin to think about the NBA, but should be a key contributor right away for the Bearcats. He’s a skilled offensive player with an inside outside game that should make him effective right away and he should only become more effective over time as he gains weight.
3. Shabazz Napier G, UConn
Napier has developed into a lethal threat on both ends of the court. His perimeter defense is among the best in this draft class, and his ballhandling and slashing ability are also at an elite level. He’s a bit small for a point guard, but there could be first round potential depending on Napier’s development this season.
4. Russ Smith G, Louisville
Smith is an elite scoring guard and was arguably the best player on last year’s national championship team. He can drive, score in transition, and get to the line, where he is an 80% shooter, very effectively. He has a reputation for being a streaky shooter and a loose ballhandler, so he needs to tighten up his game if he wants to stay in the NBA, but his raw scoring will earn him a shot.
5. Chane Behanan F, Louisville
Behanan is an undersized, but strong power forward who is excellent on offense. He’s got scoring instincts and is among the nation’s most effective finishers in the post. The indefinite suspension could hurt his draft stock, as could his lack of height and length, but he should be in the mix for the Cardinals come tournament time and will once again prove that he can play with the best post players in the land, giving him a shot in the NBA.