LWOS continues its coverage of the 2021-22 college basketball season with its preview of the AAC. The AAC is a sneakingly good basketball conference every year. In the 2020-21 season, the conference ranked 3rd in win percentage. Two of its teams made the NCAA Tournament, and one of its teams won the NIT. The same team that won the NIT also landed the top two recruits in the class of 2021, creating an interesting question in the conference: Memphis or Houston? Can the glitz and glamour of Memphis topple the consistency of Houston? What other teams will surprise or collapse under the difficult season? The AAC is a conference of twists and turns, and the audience is along for the ride.
2021-22 AAC Basketball Preview
11: East Carolina Pirates
Joe Dooley led his squad to a 7-1 record entering 2021. Once 2020 became 2021, the Pirates went 1-10, eliminating any chance they had of achieving a high ranking in the AAC. Losing Gardner is awful for ECU as he was the dominant big man for the Pirates in Dooley’s high-low attack. The only issue was that the high-low attack was the downfall of ECU. In a team with no shooters, the Pirates were unable to generate any offense outside the post. This year, Dooley hopes to change the game plan. Through Jackson, a 35% three-point shooter, the Pirates want to use size and shooting. Hopefully, Miles and Suggs are able to improve their alright shooting percentages to free up space for Debaut and Frink. Robinson-White and Newton are simply playmakers, awful at shooting. However, Tabbs brings his 40% three-point shooting to the Pirates.
Tabbs is a skilled player for the Pirates, but he comes with heavy baggage. For example, he missed half of the season due to a knee injury. Furthermore, he missed the remainder of the season due to a violation of COVID-19 protocols. Tabbs is a shot in the dark for a team that needs to take chances. Reyes seems like the only freshman that could see legitimate playing time as he fits Dooley’s love for using size; however, if Tabbs deals with injuries or attitude issues, Small could fill in and give the Pirates serviceable minutes. If everything works for the Pirates, they could be a difficult play for some AAC teams, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the Pirates.
10: South Florida Bulls
Brian Gregory’s Bulls look nothing like his 2020 team. The team was absolutely gutted, and because of this, there are tons of questions surrounding USF. Furthermore, the team lost five of its six top scorers, leaving Caleb Murphy as the only main scorer from the 2020 team; however, Murphy was also one of the most unreliable options for USF. He was unable to shoot and struggled with turnovers, facing stagnant play after the team’s COVID shutdown in February. Since he is a proven scorer in Gregory’s guard-driven offense, Murphy should be able to thrive for USF, but he needs to tweak his offensive game in order to become the threat that USF knows he can be. Greene and Smith join Murphy in the ballhandling duties, but both Greene and Smith suffered from efficiency issues of their own, meaning Murphy will have to step up and work on his efficiency.
USF ranked 335th in 2P%, but that percentage should be improving due to USF adding some shooters. Boggs shot 44% from three, which should help clear out the lane for more two point opportunities. Yetna and Durr left, causing a giant hole in the frontcourt and leaving Gregory to replicate the production of those two. Walker could do well, but he’s an enigma as he did not play in Knoxville due to a toe injury. The other players such as McCreary, Matos, Hines, and Tchewa could be decent options, but none of those players has enough experience to help the Bulls. Tchewa is the only one with any experience in Gregory’s system, but he underwhelmed in his one year. This season is dependent on USF helping Caleb Murphy develop and the various transfers becoming key pieces to help the system.
9: Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Frank Haith and Tulsa always seem to follow a pattern. They have an amazing year followed by a disappointing year. After a disappointing 7-9 record in conference play, will Tulsa turn that record around and be a threat in the conference? No. Jackson did use his extra year of eligibility, and Horne returns after a pretty good year at Colorado. Other than those two, the team lacks any offensive consistency. Haith’s zone defense is excellent, but it requires teams to beat the Golden Hurricane through shooting, something that teams will figure out in no time. However, the team should be difficult for most teams with long defenders like Draine, Horne, and Haywood. The team has size, but that size has to be used properly.
The Golden Hurricane also struggled with rebounding last year, something that does not seem to improve this year. Horne did rank second in the PAC-12 in defensive rebounding rate, but he seems to be the only one who can truly help Tulsa. The team was also unable to space the floor. The main playmakers will be Haywood and Embery-Simpson, two players who do not thrive in Haith’s pick and roll system. Expect Jackson and Horne to be the main scoring options while Griffin is a possible catch-and-shoot threat. After those three, the team seems to be struggling offensively, creating little hope for the Golden Hurricane. This may be a low ranking, but Tulsa just seems to not be as flashy as usual.
8: Tulane Green Wave
Ron Hunter led Tulane to a last place finish in 2020 and a tenth place finish in 2021. It seems that the Tulane is slowly improving its positioning in the conference; however, this team is quite uninspiring. Losing Walker and Watson does hurt Tulane because those two were two of the top three scorers. Cook and Baker should help relieve some of scoring load from Forbes, Baker especially. Baker did play off the ball at UNC Asheville, but he is capable of handling the ball. James could help with ballhandling duties, but he needs to improve his offense skillset or he won’t be seen as a threat. Forbes could be another ballhandler, but he succeeded from the arc, shooting 36% from three. Forbes will probably shoulder a bulk of the scoring load for Tulane while Baker helps alleviate some of the pressure.
Baker seemed to be improving his jump shot, a 10% increase, before injuring himself eight games into the season. Speaking of three-point percentage, Tulane was absolutely atrocious, shooting below 30% and finishing 319th nationally. Forbes was Tulane’s only reliable shooter, and Tulane added Spencer, who shot 44% at La Salle. Maybe other players like Cross and McGee are able to improve their shooting percentages, giving Tulane even more shooting. Spread pick and rolls work when the team can shoot, so maybe the offense will work more smoothly. The defense, a staple of the Green Wave, should also be good as James and McGee are back to wreak havoc while Day and Baker should also cause trouble for other teams.
Tulane will not be in the upper half of the AAC. However, the team is showing steady improvements, meaning they could be a fun team to watch. However, every team ranked higher than the Green Wave is slightly better. As long as Tulane doesn’t finish last, it’s an improvement for Hunter.
7: Temple Owls
Temple barely had a season last year, playing only three games before January 11th. No one really knows if Aaron McKie is a good coach. This could be the year that viewers see his true talents. The Owls ranked 332nd in 2P%, showing that the Owls struggled at getting quality shots around the rim. The team wants its three young guards, Dunn, Battle, and Williams, to score and distribute around the rim, something that is difficult when the team can’t score. The team can draw fouls, but sometimes the referees don’t call fouls, meaning that the Owls produce some horrific shots. If those three can take a significant leap in production, the Owls will be higher than seventh; they also need a more productive guard, something that Miller could be. He’s 6’5″ and possesses the same driving ability.
Temple needs bigs that can stretch the floor, something that Moorman and Perry could do. Sage Tolbert is not the replacement for these two, but Nick Jourdain went 5/7 from three in his final three games. If he improves on that, it could be pivotal for the Owls. An improvement on offense could elevate Temple because its defense has been solid in Mckie’s last two years as coach. Opposing teams struggle to get into the paint, but when the offense is stagnant, it’s difficult for the defense to continue its excellence. The guards have the ability to score and are talented, but unless the shot selection improves, there should be concern about Temple’s potential. However, wait and see how McKie does before fully judging the Owls.
6: Cincinnati Bearcats
John Brannen is gone for having “jeopardized and/or disregarded the well-being, health, and safety of student-athletes.” That was a major issue as most of the team entered the transfer portal as soon as the season entered. Once the Bearcats hired Wes Miller, he was able to lure some players out of the portal, a sign that he has some trust from his players. Under Miller, UNC-Greensboro went 125-43 in the last five years. He’s an energetic coach that should be able to inject life into a program facing a crisis. Miller’s defensive IQ is high, meaning the Bearcats should be a good defensive squad. He likes to press and use various zones and man-to-man coverage in order to control the tempo.
Ado will be the centerpiece of the defense, averaging 2 blocks a game last year at Mississippi St. Koval will be a shot-blocking backup for Ado, giving the Bearcats two scary centers. The guards, Dejulius, Adams-Woods, and Saunders, are defensive enigmas because Brennan never allowed them to go for steals. Miller will have to unlock the grit, but it can be done. Miller relied on defense to create offensive opportunities, something that should happen at UC. If it doesn’t happen, Miller can use Davenport, an offensive weapon on the wing. Dejulius is another offensive option, but he has to find his footing because he was awful under Brennan. Newman also has the potential to be a deadly slasher if he reaches full form similar to his first year at Clemson. The defense will be great, but the offense has too many questions for the Bearcats at the moment.
Cincinnati could be a team that could surprise a lot of people, but for now, the Bearcats seem poised to be competing for top of the ACC.
5: UCF Knights
Critical Losses: None
Johnny Dawkins and the Knights lost no impact players from the 2020-21 season. This is great news for Dawkins because the program won seven of its last ten games. Sure it was a disappointing year for the Knights, but it seems to be a promising 2021-22 season. Perry was electric for the Knights. UCF scored 111.3 points per 100 possessions; without him, that total dropped to just 100.7. His development could carry UCF even higher in the AAC. His presence on the court helped elevate the play of Mahan, Walker, and Adams. Will those three see an even bigger jump in a full season with Perry? They are able to score, but they will also generate tons of turnovers if given too much freedom.
Adams should be one to watch out for because he was very raw last year; with a year of development under his belt, he could terrorize defenses with his midrange jumper. Green and Fuller give even more wing depth for the Knights. Green is a shooter and Fuller is the slasher, so they are able to give the Knights a variety of options. The defense also has the potential to be dangerous. The Knights have so much talent, and they added a rim protector in Mbacke Diong, something they desperately needed. This team was good towards the end of the season but lacked one crucial position, a big man. If everything works, UCF could be a top three or four team in the AAC and an NCAA Tournament team; however, that is a hypothetical, meaning UCF is middle of the pack.
4: Wichita St. Shockers
All seemed lost after Wichita St. lost its previous coach; however, Isaac Brown was an excellent interim coach, leading the Shockers to a first-place finish in the AAC. It may be difficult for Brown to recreate the magic of last year, but he definitely has the talent to get close. Etienne will definitely be the best player on the Shockers. In the 2020-21 season, Etienne shot 39% from three while attacking the basket with ferocity, winning Co-AAC Player of the Year. He evolved as an isolation scorer, something that will be extremely useful for Wichita St. Udeze should be a post threat while Dennis should be a threat beyond the arc. A name to watch on the Shockers is Ricky Council, a 6’6″ guard who possesses tons of potential. He could help make Wichita St. dangerous.
Grant made First Team D-II All-American and possesses a great offensive game, meaning he will either challenge Porter for the starting point guard job, or he will help Council solidify the bench. Jackson and Pleasant should have a battle for a starting position as well as both guys are bruisers who possess the ability to space the floor. Pleasant has the experience, but Jackson is the better rebounder, something the Shockers desperately need. They surrendered 11 offensive rebounds against Drake, which ultimately lost them the game. If the rebounding improves, Wichita St should be third or better in the AAC. The offensive talent is there with Etienne, Udeze, and tons of shooters. It all falls on whether or not Wichita is able to make it all work.
3: SMU Mustangs
SMU seems to be in an interesting situation. The Mustangs seemed to be a promising team before COVID ultimately ruined their season, and many key players left. This interesting season caused Tim Jankovich to publicly defend his job status. Now Jankovich is on the hot seat as the Mustangs have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2017. Jankovich will also have to ensure that the Mustangs do not blow any more second-half leads, something the Mustangs did constantly in 2020-21. Davis should help the Mustangs not wither away in the second half. He has incredible vision, can be a consistent ballhandler and is efficient with shooting the ball. He can lead the Mustangs’ fastbreak offense, helping them win many games. If he weren’t playing for SMU, Davis would be a definite All-American candidate.
After Davis, the guards somewhat fell apart, meaning Jankovich added Michael Weathers, a very talented athlete who should pair nicely with Davis. Shooters Bandoumel, Nutall, and Todorovic should be helpful with spacing the floor. In the paint, SMU added Marcus Weathers, Michael’s twin brother, to be a bruiser in the paint and grab offensive rebounds, a crucial part of SMU’s offense. Clark should also help ensure that rebounds are snatched and distributed to Davis. If Clark can return to his old self, before he tore his meniscus, he could be a steal for the Mustangs. Jankovich also switched to man-to-man defense, a great move as the Mustangs improved drastically. Jankovich wants opponents to beat him on difficult two-point attempts. This will be hard with some scary shot blockers in Clark and Jasey.
If the offense is as stellar as the defense, Jankovich shouldn’t have to worry about his tournament drought for much longer.
2: Houston Cougars
Could Kelvin Sampson’s squad be better than Memphis? Absolutely. Jacob Stephens has Houston ranked 24th in his LWOS Preseason College Basketball Rankings. However, looking at the talent right now, there is a gap between Memphis and Houston. I wouldn’t be shocked if Houston overtook Memphis as #1 because Houston plays such an intense style of basketball. Houston’s man-to-man defense allows no one to score easy baskets, suffocating the offense. Losing Jarreau does hurt the defense a smidge as he was the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. There are plenty of talented defenders for Sampson to use. He also added Moore, whose statistics appear similar to Jarreau’s defensive statistics. Chaney and White are the defensive backbone of this team, able to guard various positions. These defensive big men also contribute to the offense as offensive rebounds were absolutely crucial for the Cougars last year.
With Grimes and Jarreau gone, Sasser seems primed to be the main scorer for the Cougars. He can shoot and be dominant in the pick-and-roll, which is vital for the Cougars. Edwards is his wingman, a proven scorer at Texas Tech. Edwards was great as a freshman and has only improved since then. Expect him to see an improvement under Sampson. Mark has the potential to be a great player for Sampson. He just needs to improve other parts of his game before becoming a true threat. White is a real post threat for the Cougars and seemed to be improving his shot in the limited time he was given last season after returning from an injury. He could allow Houston to have a real player in the post, something the Cougars have lacked for many years. The offensive ceiling rises if the Cougars can get production out of him.
This team might have a higher ceiling than Memphis, but it also has a way higher floor due to the intensity of its defense. Don’t be shocked if Houston wins the AAC regular season, but Memphis outperforms in March Madness.
1: Memphis Tigers
Memphis seemed poised to finally be in AAC title contention under Penny Hardaway before it added two of the best players in the Class of 2021, Bates and Duren. Hardaway is under an immense amount of pressure. If he fails with the amount of talent he has currently, he could lose his job this year. Like Houston, the defense is stellar as Hardaway utilizes his team’s size and athleticism to make it impossible to score. Williams became a two-way machine for the Tigers, and when paired next to Duren, a ridiculous shot-blocker, Memphis will be impossible to score on in the paint. Sometimes Hardaway switches into a zone, leaving opponents to figure out an offensive game plan. Every rotation player, despite Alex Lomax, looks to be over 6’5″, so expect Penny to utilize that to his advantage.
He could switch his one through five to create some lineups that would make opposing teams miserable. Quinones, Nolley, and Timberlake should all be used in the backcourt due to their defensive versatility and skill. Simply put, the defense isn’t what’s lacking. The offense is what held the Tigers back. Williams is key for the Tigers to succeed as he’s able to distribute the ball, score, and rebound. The offense could run through him. If Penny opts to start the jumbo-sized lineup, expect Bates to handle the ball. Bates was seen running the point for Ypsilanti Prep, and reports have surfaced that Memphis promised him the position.
Memphis will also have to improve its awful habit of turning the ball over in order to have all the offensive talent shine. Memphis has snipers from three in Nolley and Quinones and adding Bates to the roster only improves the shooting. Nolley and Bates will have to improve on their shooting choices as both are seen taking some horrific shots, but if they make them at high volumes, Penny shouldn’t complain. This shooting excellence should allow for Williams and Duren to dominate down low. If Memphis can discipline itself on the offensive side of the ball, this team should be unstoppable. The defense is there to suffocate opposing teams, and the offensive talent is there. Memphis desperately needs to be successful this year. If the Tigers don’t perform to standards, it may cost Penny Hardaway his job.
AAC Awards Predictions
C0-AAC Player of the Year: Kendric Davis and Tyson Etienne
Both of these players are the clear #1 option on their teams, meaning they will be seeing a lot of the offense run through them. Davis is the primary ballhandler for the Mustangs, plays lots of minutes, takes lots of high-efficiency shots, and leads SMU’s fantastic fastbreak offense. His vision should make the Mustangs a viable threat in the AAC. Etienne won Co-ACC Player of the Year last year, thriving in Wichita State’s motion offense. He can draw contact and get to the line, shoot from three, and can set his teammates up for high percentage shots using his drives. He has so much offensive versatility that he seems poised to improve from his 2020-21 campaign. If his finishing around the rim and midrange game improves, he could be taking the title home by himself.
As for why Bates and Duren aren’t on the list, Memphis is loaded with so much talent that Bates and Duren could potentially overshadow each other, causing some controversy. The talent is definitely there, but the environment may not be the best for them to fully thrive in order to win this award.
AAC Coach of the Year: Penny Hardaway
Tim Jankovich should be in contention for this award if SMU plays to its full potential. The same mindset should be had with Johnny Dawkins of UCF. However, if Memphis performs to its ceiling, the top ten range, Penny Hardaway has to win AAC Coach of the Year. If he can improve the offense when it was atrocious last year, he should be rewarded because Memphis’ offense was atrocious. If Houston outperforms Memphis, Kelvin Sampson will win the award; however, based on the predictions, Penny Hardaway will win Coach of the Year.
Co-Newcomer of the Year: Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates
Memphis’ two freshmen have an insane amount of talent and expect Memphis to use both of them exceptionally well. Duren is a defensive monster and has a smooth post-game with an arsenal of moves. He also seems to be developing into a playmaker, which would greatly help the Tigers. He also seems to be developing a perimeter game, something that would be horrifying for opposing teams. They would only hope to contain him. Bates is an enigma in college basketball. He will be burdened with most of the ballhandling duties, which would give him tons of opportunities to score with his immense talent. However, he is a reclassified freshman who has never faced college pressure, and he’s had issues with his shot selection in high school. However, Penny Hardaway should help ensure that neither of these things occurs, meaning Bates should flourish with Memphis.
It’s too hard to choose only one of these amazing freshmen; therefore, Bates and Duren share the award.
All-AAC First Team: Kendric Davis, Tyson Etienne, Marcus Sasser, Emoni Bates, Jalen Duren
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