AAC Conference Preview

 

LEAGUE PREVIEW

 

This is now the fifth year since the American Athletic Conference formed from the Big East. During this time, the conference has seen both highs and hardship. In 2014, the Connecticut Huskies won the National Title out of this conference. Since then, no team has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This could be the year that the conference bucks that trend, as it has a group of teams far deeper than anything seen in the past three years.

 

Top to bottom, this is a conference that can be defined by improvement. With aspirations of being a top-level league, the teams of the American have bought in and greatly improved their basketball programs. UCF and Houston made major coaching hires that have begun to pay dividends. SMU has built on the foundation laid by Larry Brown. They haven’t missed a beat since his retirement. Tulane and Memphis have both recently hired proven coaches in Mike Dunleavy and Tubby Smith. Even programs like Tulsa and East Carolina have stepped up their game since joining the American, with the Golden Hurricane even earning a tournament berth in 2016.

 

Adding to these improving programs is Wichita State. Since 2010, the Shockers are 208-42. They’ve made a Final Four and been awarded a number one seed. In the MVC, Coach Gregg Marshall guided the Shockers to 5 regular season titles in those 7 seasons. Now, they get to test themselves against a tougher group of teams. But they’ll do it with a stacked roster, one that rivals or even surpasses the 2013-14 squad that went 35-1. In their first season in the AAC, Wichita State is an immediate force. They are one of two preseason favorites. Let’s take a look at whether the Shockers are our projected conference champion:

 

 

PROJECTED STANDINGS

 

  1. Wichita State
  2. Cincinnati
  3. Central Florida
  4. Connecticut
  5. SMU
  6. Temple
  7. Houston
  8. Memphis
  9. Tulsa
  10. East Carolina
  11. Tulane
  12. South Florida

 

The AAC projects as a league with four tiers. Among these schools, there are seven teams in this league with legitimate hopes of making the NCAA tournament. The Shockers and Bearcats are the two best teams in the league, and two of the best ten in the country. They form the top level of this conference. Consider them as locked in as can be into making the 2018 NCAA tournament. After that, there’s a group of five teams that could realistically finish in any order from third to seventh. Each of these teams come into the season with aspirations of a deep postseason. The third layer is teams ranked eighth to eleventh. These are teams that are either adjusting to a new coach, like Memphis, or still a year away from being competitive, like Tulsa. However, these are programs that have the potential to compete in the near future, and may even pull off an upset or two this year. The bottom tier is the cellar. That’s South Florida. It’s tough to remember that this program improved so much in the old Big East that they made the 2012 NCAA tournament and came a few seconds away from a Sweet 16. They are at the beginning of a deep rebuild, and will struggle against every other team in the league.

 

PRESEASON ACCOLADES

 

 

Player of the Year: Landry Shamet, Wichita State (pictured above). The redshirt-sophomore guard was incredible last year, averaging 11.4 points a contest and splashing 44 percent of his threes. He’s a dynamic floor general and has the length to be a terrific defender. He’s going to torment teams all the way to the first round of the 2018 NBA draft.

 

Freshman of the Year: Alterique Gilbert, Connecticut. He was supposed to be Robin to the Batman of Jalen Adams until he injured his shoulder in the third game of the season. He was granted a medical redshirt, so retained his freshman eligibility. He’s a former McDonald’s All-American with some of the best handles in his high school class.

 

Defensive Player of the Year: Tacko Fall, Central Florida. His height automatically makes him a defensive beast. Fall will anchor the middle of the defense and provide a safety net for guards on the perimeter. As he gets more experienced, he becomes more dangerous with each passing year.

 

First Team

 

G Jalen Adams, Connecticut. The junior is one of the most underrated players in the country. He had a sophomore season that rivaled both Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier. For the Huskies to hit their goals, he’s going to have to emulate their third seasons, too.

 

G Rob Gray, Houston. The three-year starter is all about offense. He averaged over 20 points a game last season. With an improved cast around him, this could be the year that Gray leads the Cougars back to the NCAA tournament.

 

G Shake Milton, SMU. The Oklahoma native was the last major recruit landed by Larry Brown at SMU. He’s lived up to the hype. As a sophomore, the 6’5” combo averaged 13 points and 4.5 assists a game. This season, he’s the alpha male. In fact, he was the AP’s pick for preseason AAC player of the year.

 

G Landry Shamet, Wichita State. See above. He’s the best player on the league’s best team. Shamet enters this season with a made triple in 25 straight games. He’s the kind of leader that can will a team to victory when others are having off nights.

 

F Gary Clark, Cincinnati (pictured below defending Jalen Adams). Anyone remember Perry Ellis and how it felt like he was in school forever? That’s Clark. He’s a defensive animal and has a killer instinct on the court. There aren’t many veterans any coach would take into battle over Clark.

 

 

Second Team

 

G B.J. Taylor, Central Florida. Taylor has increased his scoring efficiency each season. With Tacko Fall as the thunder down low, he’s the lighting from the perimeter. He’s also a secure ball handler that brings confidence to his teammates.

 

G Jacob Evans, Cincinnati. After averaging 13.5 points a game for the Bearcats as a sophomore, the wing is ready to take another leap as a junior. He was a finalist for the Jerry West award a season ago, which goes to the nation’s top shooting guard. The sky’s the limit.

 

F Markis McDuffie, Wichita State. An integral piece to the Shockers, McDuffie led the team in scoring last year as a sophomore. He rebounds well and can hit the three-ball with ease. Him and Shamet will be deadly in pick-and-roll situations.

 

F Kyle Washington, Cincinnati. The former NC State player blossomed last year, to the tune of 12.9 points a game on 51 percent shooting. He even showed the ability to hit from deep in 2016-17, a skill which makes him all the deadlier in 2017-18.

 

C Tacko Fall, Central Florida. At 7’6”, there is no college player taller than the Senegalese big man. Last year, he showed considerable growth, especially on the offensive end. As his skills on that side of the ball catch up to his defensive prowess, expect Fall to be a menace for opponents.

 

TEAM PREVIEWS

 

Wichita State: The Shockers have already been discussed extensively in this preview. That’s because they’re a really, really good team. They return each and every piece from a rotation that last year Ken Pomeroy tabbed as a top ten team. Behind Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie, the Shockers have the star power that can pound other teams into submission. Former Kansas Jayhawk Connor Frankamp has completely set in with Coach Marshall and the Shockers. He’s a sharpshooting guard that hits threes with accuracy, in bunches. They’ll be tested before getting to their new conference, with non-conference games against both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, in addition to the Maui Invitational. With all the returning firepower, there’s no reason for the Shockers not to have one of the greatest seasons of anyone in the country.

 

Cincinnati: Quietly, Mick Cronin has built the Bearcats into a top-caliber program. Though they lose the team’s heartbeat Troy Caupain to graduation, virtually everyone else comes back for Cincy. This includes their top three scorers, all of whom were cited in our predicted all-conference teams. Last year as a freshman, Jarron Cumberland was a superstar off the bench, a role he will continue to thrive in this season. Replacing Troy Caupain in the starting lineup will be guard Cane Broome. In 2015-16 as a sophomore at Sacred Heart of Fairfield, Connecticut, he averaged 23.1 points a game. He adds even more firepower to a team that scored more than Coach Cronin’s teams usually do last year. Cincy is always known for their defense. With Gary Clark leading the way in his final season, that will continue to be the calling card for the Bearcats. However, this year, they should score enough to be taken seriously as a threat to reach the Final Four.

 

Central Florida: The rebuild was quick for former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins. In his first season at the helm. Coach Dawkins guided the Knights to a 24-12 record and a run to the NIT Semifinals. This followed a run of three consecutive losing seasons. The leaps Tacko Fall made from freshman to sophomore year were a big key to the team’s improvement. He’s not just height, though. The skills and instincts he’s developed are just as important to his reputation as one of the premiere post defenders in the country. While Fall may be the main attraction, B.J. Taylor is this team’s leader. The junior guard has been a starter from day one. He’s a strong ballhandler and has shown the ability to hit the triple. With a returning cast that includes A.J. Davis and Nick Banyard, there’s more to this team than just the two stars. They’ve got the players and the coach to challenge anyone in the league and make a run at a tournament berth.

 

Connecticut: There may not be a team with a more volatile set of projections for this season. The Huskies lost a lot from last year due to both graduations and transfers. It was a rough offseason for a fan base that also saw its top recruit decommit and get released from a letter of intent. But UConn marched on, landing under-the-radar players with big potential. Still, no one would be overly surprised for the young Huskies to struggle this year. At the same time, there’s a lot of potential in this lineup. It mostly rests at the feet of Jalen Adams. He had a dynamite year in 2016-17, averaging 14.4 points, 4.3 boards, and 6.1 assists a game. Without a strong supporting cast. Getting back Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert from injury will pay dividends. Guard Christian Vital, who was forced into major minutes and responded wonderfully last season, completes the core of the team. If they all gel and the newcomers produce enough, UConn could push for a ranking and comfortably make the tournament. Be on the lookout for an in-depth preview of the Huskies from College Pride Press later in the week!

 

SMU: The Mustangs lost a lot from a team that spent a good chunk of the season ranked in the top 25. However, their season was spoiled by an upset loss in the first round. Even still, there’s lots of optimism surrounding the team that they will again make the Big Dance. It starts with Shake Milton, a dynamic junior whose combination of size and skill means he could play his way into All-America conversation. Jarry Foster, another big guard, is the other top returning player. Graduate transfer Akoy Agau adds some much-needed muscle to a frontcourt that lost most of its minutes to graduation and the NBA Draft (Semi Ojeleye). Under the radar are a pair of freshmen. Expect both guard Elijah Landrum and power forward Ethan Chargois to begin building strong careers with the Mustangs. Should the pieces come together around Milton, SMU will claim some scalps and make the tournament.

 

Temple: With both of their top scorers back from last year, Temple has just as much hope for this season as anyone. Junior Shizz Alston has exceled playing for his hometown school out of Philly. He averaged 14 points and 4 assists a game last year as the lead guard in Fran Dunphy’s offense. Meanwhile, forward Obi Enechionya has gotten miles better in each of his first three seasons. He would have been the next person to make a preseason all-conference team. He’s 6’10” with post skills and the ability to hit from three. Matchup nightmare. They’ll get to test themselves early in the season, with a game against Villanova on December 13th. Big things will be expected from wing Quinton Rose after a strong freshman year.  The Owls have dreams of playing in the tournament. And there’s a chance they get there.

 

 

Houston: Rob Gray (pictured) could average 25 points a game this year. He’s that good on the offensive end. He’s a strong free throw shooter that can rain from deep and attack the rim with the best of them. While Gray can get his shot himself most of the time, the task of ensuring it’s in the flow of the offense falls to point guard Galen Robinson, Jr., who averaged nearly 5 assists a game in 2016-17. Getting positive production from the front court will be key, or else teams will be able to lock in on Gray, Robinson, Jr., and senior Wes VanBeck as the top scoring options on the perimeter. Look for JuCo transfer Chris Harris, Jr. to provide important support. With Kelvin Sampson at the helm, the Cougars will have a grizzled veteran guiding their team. The Cougars have a pedestrian non-conference schedule, but if they win the games they should, then play well in conference, they should be in the thick of the NCAA conversation.

 

Memphis: Tubby Smith’s first year in charge wasn’t horrible. They managed to go 19-13, thought did not get invited to a postseason tournament. Then, all hell broke loose during the offseason. Six players transferred, including dynamic forward brothers K.J. and Dedric Lawson. The ranks were replenished by five JuCo transfers, including a pair of JuCo All-Americans in Kyvon Davenport and Kareem Brewton, Jr. Raynere Thornton is also a big time JuCo prospect that will be counted on to produce right away. Some additional help should come from the trio of three-star freshmen coming in, of whom guard Jamal Johnson may provide the most support. With the new players on the roster, an NCAA Tournament berth may be too much to ask for from Coach Smith. But there is potential for this team to surprise.

 

Tulsa: Before the 2016-17 season, Tulsa lost ten players (including walk-ons) from the previous year’s team that went to the NCAA Tournament. Predictably, last season was difficult for the Golden Hurricane, as a team with nine newcomers finished below .500. One player who was on both the talented 15-16 and young 16-17 team was forward Junior Etou, a native of Congo. As the primary weapon last year, Etou averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. He could flirt with all-conference honors this year. A soft non-conference schedule should give the rebuilding team a chance to rack up some victories before conference play. Given how young Tulsa was, they’ve got a lot of returning players who know each other. Coach Frank Haith’s team may still be a year from challenging the top of the league, though there is always the chance they arrive ahead of schedule and make noise behind Etou.

 

 

East Carolina: For the Pirates, the backcourt will be the key to how far Jeff Lebo’s team goes. Kentrell Barkley (pictured) had an electric sophomore campaign. The 6’5” guard averaged 13.2 points and an impressive 7.6 rebounds a game. He’s one of the best on the glass in the country that isn’t listed as a forward or center. Point guard B.J. Tyson is entering his fourth year as a crucial piece of the rotation. However, behind these two stalwarts, there isn’t much left on the roster. A bunch of transfers and mid-level recruits round out Coach Lebo’s team. For East Carolina to be competitive this season, Barkley will have to approach herculean levels of production. While the Pirates are not likely to complete the rebuild this season, it’s clear Coach Lebo has a plan and is slowly improving and adding talent to the roster.

 

Tulane: Just like East Carolina, Tulane will rely heavily on their best player. Cameron Reynolds averaged 17 points and almost 7 rebounds a game last year, scoring in a variety of ways and often keeping Tulane from getting blown out. As a senior, he’s got a shot at averaging 20 points a game. The rest of Tulane’s roster, unfortunately, is not overly impressive. Still, based on Reynolds alone, it’s likely that Tulane will improve on their win total of 6 from a season ago. Coach Mike Dunleavy, Sr. has got the pedigree of a longtime NBA head coach. However, in only his second year in charge of the Green Wave, it’s unlikely to see anything more than a minor improvement.

 

South Florida: Amongst major conferences, there may not be a bigger dumpster fire. They are missing their two best players from last season, including Jahmal McMurray, who left the program after three games. While there isn’t nothing on the roster, the pieces the Bulls do have don’t add up to much. Brazil native Tulio Da Silva showed some promise as a freshman last year, and Troy Holston proved to be a solid contributor when the role was thrust on him. Still, the multiple transfers and graduations have left the Bulls a low-caliber roster that will struggle to win games even against the middling teams of the AAC. Brian Gregory is in his first season as head coach, so he should be given a chance to try and right the ship. As of now, however, he is building from the ground up. 2017-18 will not be a pleasant season for the Bulls.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The AAC is far deeper than it was a season ago. Teams are slowly improving behind solid coaching hires. However, it is still a league trying to forge its own identity. At five years old, the AAC has seen the ups and downs of college basketball. This is an important season for the conference. Most of its unproven teams are trending in the right direction. A strong season that sees Wichita State and Cincy spend every week in the top 25 and make the second weekend, in addition to a total of four to five bids, would go a long way in firmly establishing the American as a true high major conference.

 

 

 

 

PHOTO LINKS

 

AAC Logo: http://wnct.com/2016/09/14/american-athletic-conference-wont-move-championship-from-ecu-over-hb2/

 

Wichita State Logo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wichita_State_Shockers

 

Landry Shamet: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Landry-Shamet-93287/

 

Jalen Adams and Gary Clark: http://www.courant.com/sports/uconn-mens-basketball/hc-uconn-men-jalen-adams-cousy-watch-list-1018-20161017-story.html

 

Kentrell Barkley: https://247sports.com/player/kentrell-barkley-64455

 

Nick Schwartz
Senior History major at UConn, and planning to attend graduate school in the future. One of the best moments of my life was winning a national title my freshman year. Husky basketball is a lifestyle! Avid New York sports fan, as well: Yankees, Giants, Knicks, Rangers! Also root for Manchester City and NYCFC.