LWOS coverage of the college basketball season continues with the American Athletic Conference (AAC) preview. The AAC is one of the best mid-major conferences in the country and should be a three bid league this year, at least. There is plenty of talent in this league, but as usual, these teams will be known for their toughness.
American Athletic Conference Basketball Preview
11. Temple Owls
Key Returners: Jake Forrester, De’Vondre Perry
Key Losses: Quinton Rose, Alani Moore, Nate Pierre-Louis
Key Newcomers: Nick Jourdain, Jahlil White, Quincy Ademokoya
Temple started the Aaron McKie era last year and it did not go great. He now has to deal with the departure of his two best players. Luckily, he has done well on the recruiting trail and is hopeful to have two transfers be granted eligibility to help improve this roster. Forrester and Perry can be great players. If I had to pick one, I would say Forrester makes a big leap and becomes an all-conference type of player. If he doesn’t, Temple will struggle mightily. It is still early in the Temple rebuild, but this is an important year to make some progress or else the future starts to look a lot darker.
10. Tulane Green Wave
Key Returners: Jordan Walker, Ray Ona Embo
Key Losses: TeShaun Hightower, Christion Thompson, KJ Lawson, Nic Thomas
Key Newcomers: Sion James, Jadan Coleman, Kevin Cross (Nebraska), Jaylen Forbes (Alabama), Gabe Watson (Southern Miss), Oton Jankovic (Vanderbilt)
Ron Hunter has his hands full this season. Tulane lost four of its top five scorers from last season and struggled to replace them on the recruiting trail. However, Hunter did secure four transfers that all can impact this team. The transfers make this team difficult to rank because experience matters a lot. However, these guys have never played together and this is essentially a brand-new team. Tulane will take some lumps this year, but I would bet Hunter is the man for the job.
9. East Carolina Pirates
Key Returners: Jayden Gardner, Tristen Newton, Brandon Suggs, JJ Miles, Tremont Robinson-White
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Noah Farrakhan, Derrick Quansah
East Carolina is one of the rare teams that returns basically everyone that played any meaningful minutes. While they struggled last year, this type of consistency is important. The Pirates should be better this year. They also surprised people picking up Farrakhan who had offers from several high-major programs. They are now a solid team one through six and can definitely surprise people and win some games. This year is certainly a step in the right direction for the Pirates.
8. University of Central Florida Knights
Key Returners: Darin Green, Brandon Mahan, Sean Mobley
Key Losses: Dazon Ingram, Ceasar DeJesus, Collin Smith
Key Newcomers: CJ Walker (Oregon), Darius Perry (Louisville), Jamille Reynolds, Isaiah Adams
Johnny Dawkins and crew will need to rely heavily on transfers this year. Walker and Perry will be the two best players on the court for the Knights. They will also need Green to take a big step forward and then they will have a solid core. It is unlikely that this team can compete because the depth is quite thin, but Dawkins has worked some magic for the Knights in the past. Unfortunately, losing Collin Smith, as he opted out, will hurt the Knights chances. By no means is UCF a cakewalk, but they just do not have the depth that the teams ahead of them possess which knocks them down a bit in the rankings.
7. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
Key Returners: Brandon Rachal, Darien Jackson, Elijah Joiner
Key Losses: Martins Igbanu, Jeriah Horne, Lawson Korita
Key Newcomers: Keshawn Williams, Peyton Urbancic
Tulsa was the most surprising team last year after finishing tied for first in the AAC. Frank Haith has done a great job so far and that may continue this year. Now that Tulsa is less of a shock, they may suffer some more losses than last season. The loss of Horne to transfer is problematic, but they do return plenty of their scorers and talent. The addition of Williams is key as he is a solid combo guard. Tulsa is going to be tough to handle for the better teams in the AAC. If they can win the games they should, and knock off a few teams that are at the top of the conference they can make noise. Regardless, Haith seems like the man for the job.
6. Wichita State Shockers
Key Returners: Tyson Etienne, Dexter Dennis, Trey Wade
Key Losses: Jaime Echenique, Erik Stevenson, Jamarius Burton, Grant Sherfield,
Key Newcomers: Alterique Gilbert (Connecticut), Jaden Seymour
The Shockers have struggled the last few seasons. This season, they also lost three of their best players to transfer. Things are strange for Gregg Marshall but he still has the talent and Wichita State is going to be competitive. The addition of Gilbert is extremely important. He can be an all-conference type of player and he will need to be. Dennis and Etienne are the other keys to this team. They need to shoot it well and then the Shockers can do some shocking. They can certainly compete for a top-four spot and possibly a tournament berth, but that will depend on how good the AAC is overall.
Recently, reports have swirled about Marshall and the way he runs his program. To say the least, Marshall will not be the head coach much longer. This obviously affects the season for the Shockers. It also helps to explain all of the player movement in recent years. There are far more questions than answers right now, but let’s wish the best for the players.
5. South Florida Bulls
Key Returners: David Collins, Justin Brown, Michael Durr, Alexis Yetna
Key Losses: Laquincy Rideau
Key Newcomers: Caleb Murphy, Prince Oduro (Mississippi State), Luke Anderson (Iowa State)
South Florida wasn’t great last year, but they also were not nearly as bad as was expected. While they finished sub .500 in the conference and overall record, they do return nearly everyone and add a solid trio of players. Oduro and Anderson should have immediate impacts and Murphy is one of the best recruits in Bulls history. It seems like South Florida is ahead of where they should be at this point. However, it still seems unlikely that the Bulls reach the big dance. Year four of the Brian Gregory tenure is an important one.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats
Key Returners: Keith Williams, Chris Vogt, Mika Adams-Woods
Key Losses: Jarron Cumberland, Tre Scott
Key Newcomers: David DeJulius (Michigan), Tari Eason, Viktor Lakhin, Gabe Madsen, Mike Saunders
Obviously, losing Cumberland is a massive problem. While Cumberland was not at his best last season, losing your best player is never easy. Scott was also a steady presence for John Brannen and that will hurt too. However, the Bearcats did have enough talent to win the AAC last year. The addition of Dejulius will help to offset some of the concerns in the backcourt. Additionally, Williams and Vogt can take a step forward this year. Cincinnati is the same team they always are. They will bring energy and physicality and always be in games. The question is whether or not they can score on the other end. If they can, the Bearcats can make the tournament. This appears to be more of a reloading year for Brannen, but it is possible they could still be dancing.
3. Memphis Tigers
Key Returners: Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, DJ Jeffries, Alex Lomax, Damion Baugh
Key Losses: James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Tyler Harris
Key Newcomers: Moussa Cisse, Ahmad Rand, Landers Nolley (Virginia Tech)
Penny Hardaway has done well on the recruiting trail in his first few seasons at Memphis, but he has not had as much success on the court as expected. While he does return most of his talented freshman class from last year, he loses the two most talented players in Wiseman and Achiuwa. Shot selection is an important key to the Tigers success. An interesting part of this is the recently granted eligibility of Nolley. The transfer from Virginia Tech is a volume scorer and will add another backcourt weapon to this squad. The questions will be in the frontcourt. If Cisse can have some positive impact on the offensive end then Memphis can earn a tournament berth. Hardaway will have to do some serious coaching to make sure this team plays together. If they do, they can be extremely dangerous.
2. SMU Mustangs
Key Returners: Tyson Jolly, Kendric Davis, Feron Hunt, Ethan Chargois
Key Losses: Isiaha Mike
Key Newcomers: Yor Anei (Oklahoma State), Darius McNeill (Cal)
The Mustangs are an interesting team. They return three of their best players who will all be upperclassmen this year. The defection of Mike to the NBA draft is difficult and is the reason they will not be able to contend with Houston for the conference crown. Regardless, the backcourt of Jolly and Davis is outstanding. Davis is primed for a breakout year and that is exactly what the Mustangs need. While they will take some lumps, it does seem likely that they will make the NCAA tournament. There was not one senior on the roster last year, so this season is the chance for everyone to take a step forward and make some noise in the AAC.
1. Houston Cougars
Key Returners: Caleb Mills, Quentin Grimes, Dejon Jarreau, Fabian White Jr. Marcus Sasser
Key Losses: Nate Hinton
Key Newcomers: Tramon Mack, Jamal Shead, Kiyron Powell, Reggie Chaney (Arkansas)
The Cougars have spent three straight seasons being ranked consistently. Kelvin Sampson has Houston as a perennial tournament team and that does not seem to be changing any time soon. Losing Hinton is significant, but for the most part, this team stays the same. Grimes and Mills should take big leaps this year and one or two of the freshmen can have big seasons. Most likely, it will be Mack, who is the third highest-rated recruit in Houston history. It would be quite surprising to see the Cougars not take the AAC crown. There is a very good chance Houston can be a top-five seed this season. They will defend and they will run and score.
American Athletic Conference Awards
Player of the Year: Caleb Mills, Houston
Mills was outstanding last year and earned second-team All-AAC. This year, he should take another major step forward and make Houston tough to beat. The best player on the best team is often widely considered to win Player of the Year so Mills has a good chance. Houston does have a lot of depth so they will spread the wealth a bit which could hurt Mills in this award.
Rookie of the Year: Noah Farrakhan, East Carolina
Farrakhan should have as much of an opportunity as any freshman in the AAC. While East Carolina will not be near the top of the conference, that should actually help Farrakhan’s chances. Look for him to play a lot of minutes and have some big nights. The other person that I considered here is Caleb Murphy who should be a solid contributor for South Florida.
Coach of the Year: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Sampson can win this award every year. He has put Houston in contention from the minute he stepped on campus and that will continue this year. It would be tough to see Sampson not win, but if he doesn’t, Frank Haith may surprise people with a repeat performance from last season.
All-AAC First Team
Caleb Mills (Houston), DJ Jeffries (Memphis), Kendric Davis (SMU), Jayden Gardner (East Carolina), David DeJulius (Cincinnati)
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