Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The inaugural campaign for the American Athletic Conference was a good one, as Shabazz Napier and the Connecticut Huskies fought their way to a National title, Louisville continued its reign as one of the top college programs in the country, while Memphis and Cincinnati were also stout, and SMU came out of nowhere to post 27 wins.
Napier and Louisville are both gone, as is Rutgers, which shifted to the Big Ten. Replacements are on hand in Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. Obviously the talent pool has become a bit diluted, but there remains a nice stock of very good squads in this league, which will have to prove itself once again this season.
When Larry Brown and his Mustangs were left out in the cold on Selection Sunday, it was deemed one of the biggest snubs of the 2014 field. SMU will be seeking redemption this season and has the pieces in place to break into the NCAA Tournament. Nic Moore was an All-AAC First-Team selection at guard, and Markus Kennedy is an incredibly athletic forward. The only thing missing from the equation is Emmanuel Mudiay, largely considered the No. 1 point guard prospect in the country, who committed to SMU before deciding to go overseas. Even without Mudiay, the Mustangs are set up for big things in 2014-15.
Ready to burst the Mustangs' bubble are both UConn and Memphis. Napier may not be around any more, but Ryan Boatright and Amida Brimah should emerge as stars this season for the Huskies, who have a long tradition of excellence, having won four national championships in the past 16 seasons. Memphis is another team that can be penciled into the NCAA Tournament bracket just about every season. The Tigers have gone to the Big Dance in eight of the last nine year and, this season, they have a powerful frontcourt led by Shaq Goodwin.
Cincinnati had its roster gutted, especially with the loss of Sean Kilpatrick, but defensive-minded coach Mick Cronin always seems to keep the Bearcats in the mix.
Newcomers Tulsa and Tulane should hit the ground running in their new league. The Golden Hurricane may have a new coach in Frank Haith, but they return four starters from last season's NCAA Tournament squad. The Green Wave are also fortunate to have four returning starters, including Louis Dabney, Jonathan Stark and Jay Hook, each of whom averaged more than 13 points per game last season.
Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey form what could be a potent combination in the backcourt for Temple, but some key departures and question marks in the frontcourt will keep Fran Dunphy's squad from making a run. Houston has even bigger holes to fill, even after hiring a new head coach in Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars also have to find replacements for TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House, who both decided to transfer. ECU is the other new squad in league and it also has four returning starters. However, Akeem Richmond is not one of them.
The state of Florida may be in for some tough basketball this season, at least outside of Gainesville. The Bulls went through an odd offseason, where they hired a coach, then had to hire a new one. Losing two of their top scorers didn't make the summer any easier. UCF has an influx of youth, but it will take time for the new Knights to develop.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: SMU
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. SMU 2. Connecticut 3. Memphis 4. Cincinnati 5. Tulsa 6. Tulane 7. Temple 8. Houston 9. East Carolina 10. South Florida 11. UCF
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
SMU: When SMU made the huge move to hire Larry Brown in 2012, there were those who doubted whether it would actually improve a program that hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993. Even though Brown managed to turn the Mustangs into a 27-win team in just his second season, there were still doubters come last March. The Mustangs certainly didn't help themselves leading up to the revealing of the field of 68, losing three straight games, including a 68-64 decision to sixth-seed Houston in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. They will be attempting to leave no doubt this time around. Moore (13.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 spg) developed into a star at both ends of the floor. His disruptive play on defense helped the Mustangs rank 22nd nationally in scoring defense (62.2 ppg) and seventh in opponent field goal percentage (.385). Markus Kennedy's ability to protect the rim (1.2 bpg) didn't hurt either. Kennedy is much more than a shot-blocker, however, as he led the team in rebounds (7.1 pg) while ranking second in scoring (12.4 ppg), all while shooting 53.4 percent from the floor. Efficient shooting was a team-wide strength, as the Mustangs ranked 19th in the country in field goal percentage (.483). Losing Nick Russell (9.9 ppg) may take some time to get over, but Sterling Brown (4.4 ppg) is one of the top returning players, who is ready to be a bigger part of the offense. Transfers Justin Martin (Xavier) and Jordan Tolbert (Texas Tech) provide additional depth.
CONNECTICUT: In his first two seasons at head coach after replacing the legendary Jim Calhoun, Kevin Ollie has logged an overall record of 52-18, as well as a national championship following the seventh-seed Huskies' stunning run last spring. All of that came with Napier and his clutch shot-making ability on the floor. Ollie's job will be a bit tougher this season, especially with the added weight of loftier expectations so early in his career. Boatright will be there to help. The 6-foot guard played second fiddle to Napier in the backcourt last season, but he is the primary weapon now. Boatright can score (12.1 ppg) and pass (3.4 apg), and he showed off his ability to cause a ruckus on defense in the national title game against Kentucky. He still needs to create his own shot, something Napier excelled in, and shoot a better percentage from the field (.391) if he is to follow in his former backcourt mate's footsteps. Napier is obviously the major loss, but DeAndre Daniels (13.1 ppg, 6 rpg) and Niels Giffey (8.4 ppg) were also key contributors last season. Ollie has to find someone else to man the post and another 3-point shooter. Brimah (4.1 ppg, 3 rpg, 2.3 bpg) played meaningful minutes in the postseason and has already shown he can block shots. Now he needs to clean up the glass and provide some scoring. Omar Calhoun (3.8 ppg) was a starter two seasons ago and gets a shot at earning his spot back, while NC State transfer Rodney Purvis is a major addition.
MEMPHIS: The backcourt was the strength for the Tigers last season, but losing Joe Jackson (14.1 ppg, 4.5 apg), Michael Dixon Jr. (11.8 ppg), Geron Johnson (8.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Chris Crawford (8.7 ppg, 3 apg) means head coach Josh Pastner may need to switch up his approach. That could mean big things for Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg) and Austin Nichols (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.2 bpg). Goodwin has the most star potential and is the only returning double- digit scorer. Both Nichols and Goodwin shot better than 58 percent from the field last season, but those numbers may dip with increased offensive responsibility. The Tigers will likely take a step back as an offensive team overall, following a season in which it ranked fourth in the country in assists per game (17.4). However, they could be menacing on defense, especially on the interior as both Goodwin and Nichols are excellent help defenders who will make opponents think twice before driving to the basket. Kuran Iverson (2.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg) will add some depth to the frontcourt, especially if he can produce at a high level with more minutes. Redshirt freshman Markel Crawford, who has suffered an ACL injury the last two seasons, and sophomore Pookie Powell should be the new faces in the backcourt, although freshmen Dominic Magee and Jordan Manse could be in the rotation as well.
CINCINNATI: The Bearcats just couldn't seem to get out from under UConn's shadow last season. Cincinnati actually won the AAC regular-season title, and Kilpatrick was on the short list for AAC Player of the Year. However, the Huskies' national championship run and Napier's ascendancy to college basketball legend made many forget about Cronin's crew. As a reminder, the Bearcats went 27-7 overall, 15-3 in league play, while making it to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season, although they lost in the second round. Defense has long been a point of emphasis for Cronin and that should continue. Cincinnati ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense last season (58.4 ppg), and it was also a top-20 team in opponent field goal percentage (.395). Some improved offense would go a long way, as the Bearcats often looked disjointed at that end, shooting an AAC-worst 42.5 percent from the field. They will have to find ways to score without Kilpatrick (20.6 ppg) and to clamp down on defense without AAC Defensive Player of the Year Justin Jackson (11.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg. 2.9 bpg). Ge'Lawn Guyn (4.5 ppg) played in all 34 games last season and should be a key component this time around. Shaquille Thomas (6.8 ppg) also got plenty of work, as did Jermaine Sanders (5.7 ppg).
TULSA: When making the transition to a new league, having experience is a major plus. Tulsa is one of the those fortunate squads teeming with returning players, including four starters. It would have been even nicer to have the same man at head coach, but the Golden Hurricane had to say goodbye to Danny Manning in the offseason, after he took the job at Wake Forest. In steps Frank Haith, who was formerly the head coach at Missouri. The Tigers never won fewer than 23 games under Haith, including a 30-5 finish his first year on the job. However, last season's squad did not make the NCAA Tournament, something that Tulsa did accomplish by winning the Conference USA Tournament. Replicating the success of last season will be a challenge in a new league, but one the Golden Hurricane are equipped for. James Woodard (15.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is a fine scorer and excellent rebounder in the backcourt. Rashad Smith (12 ppg, 4.9 rpg) provides additional scoring punch from his spot in the frontcourt. His ability to score efficiently (.545 FG percentage) is a real strength. Shaquille Harrison (9.6 ppg) and D'Andre Wright (7.4 ppg) also return to the starting lineup, while Rashad Ray (6.8 ppg) continues to be a sparkplug off the bench. One area that needs improvement, especially if Tulsa hopes to contend right away, is the glass, as the Golden Hurricane secured only 36.2 rebounds per game last season.
TULANE: Like its fellow C-USA rival Tulsa, the best thing going for Tulane is the experience on the roster. Yes, the Green Wave went only 17-17 overall last season and 8-8 in league play, but they were working in a new batch of players. Most of last year's group is back, which is why the Green Wave could immediately be competitive in their new league. However, all that experience won't mean much if the squad can't figure things out on offense. The Green Wave were among the worst two teams in C-USA in scoring (63.6 ppg), field goal percentage (.413) and assists (9.2 apg). If Dabney, Stark and Hook can take the next step, the Green Wave should easily make improvements. Dabney (15.2 ppg) was the top scoring option for the team last season, while Starks (14.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) ran the point, creating shots for himself and teammates alike. Stark also has endurance to burn, as he played a team-high 37.2 minutes per game. Hook (13.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) can shoot from just about anywhere on the floor and performs well on the glass. Tre Drye (6.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg) is not much of a scorer, but he is a returning starter with a lot of skill on the boards. Tulane will be even better if it receives better production from the bench, which gets an infusion of talent from touted recruit Keith Pinckney and Kajon Mack, who missed last season with an injury.
TEMPLE: The Owls enjoyed a long stretch of success leading into their debut in the AAC last season. They made six straight NCAA Tournaments from 2008 to 2013, winning 20 games in each campaign and fitting into the national rankings a few times as well. Everything came crashing down last season, as Fran Dunphy and his team finished a mere 9-22 overall. It was the first time since the 1975-76 season that Temple failed to win at least 10 games. It was also just the second losing season in North Philadelphia over the last 30 years. A major problem was on defense, an oddity for a Dunphy-coached squad. The Owls were last in the AAC in scoring defense (78.1 ppg), while allowing foes to connect on 47.4 percent of their shots from the floor. Before Dunphy can address the issues plaguing his team, he will have to find replacements for Dalton Pepper (17.5 ppg) and Anthony Lee (13.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg), the latter of whom transferred to Ohio State. Pepper was the team's leading scorer, but didn't do much else. Lee led the AAC in rebounds per game and developed into a solid offensive option. DeCosey (15.4 ppg) will slide into the go-to scorer's role. He is a versatile threat, who can make the occasional 3-pointer as well as put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. Cummings (16.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) was second on the team in scoring last season, and he is also a talented passer. He is a disruptive defender as well, logging 1.5 steals per game last season. Devontae Watson (2.5 ppg) and Mark Williams (4.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) each played in at least 30 games and the return of Daniel Dingle adds depth.
HOUSTON: There are a lot of new faces in Houston this year, with the most noticeable patrolling the sidelines. After serving a five-year show cause penalty, Sampson is back in the college ranks once again. Sampson was last the head man at Indiana after successful runs at Washington State and Oklahoma. Originally, Sampson had a nice roster to work with at Houston, but the transfers of TaShawn Thomas (Oklahoma) and Danuel House (Texas A&M) leaves a lot more work to do in terms of roster construction. Thomas merely led the team in scoring (15.4 ppg), rebounds (8.1 pg), blocks (2.7 pg) and steals (1.2 pg) last season, while House (13.6 ppg) was the second option offensively. Neither has an immediate successor. Sampson will lean on Jherrod Stiggers (11.2 ppg) and L.J. Rose (8.9 ppg, 5.5 apg) to keep the team rolling on offense. Stiggers is the leading returning scorer, while Rose will need to beef up his own offense, while continuing to dish out assists at an accelerated pace. Mikhail McLean (2.6 ppg) played 28 games last season, but his minutes were limited. Expect more exposure for the 6-foot-8 forward, especially on a team desperate to improve on the glass. The Cougars ranked last in the AAC in rebounds (34.6 pg) last season, and that was with Thomas crashing the boards.
EAST CAROLINA: The addition of ECU to the AAC roster does not greatly enhance the league's national standing. The Pirates won 23 games just two seasons ago, but they haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993. That 2012-13 campaign marked the first time they had ever won 20 games. ECU regressed back to a mediocre finish last season, recording an overall record of 17-17, which included a 5-11 mark against Conference USA foes. Now the Pirates find themselves in even more dangerous waters. They may however, be able to survive the growing pains of being a new team in the conference because of the returning talent. Caleb White (12.3 ppg) is the top returning scorer and Paris Roberts-Campbell (11.5 ppg) was also a double-digit point producer last season. However, without Richmond (18 ppg) the Pirates need more of their personnel to show a knack for putting the ball in the basket. That's where Prince Williams (9.2 ppg, 3.6 apg) and Michael Zangari (8.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) come in. Zangari started all 34 games last season, and Williams was an excellent scorer off the bench. Antonio Robinson (4.9 ppg) is another returning starter, who will be asked to take a few more shots. Another need for the team is to develop a steady presence on the boards, after ranking near the bottom of C- USA in rebounds last season (33.7 rpg).
SOUTH FLORIDA: At the end of March former Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello was brought on to replace the fired Stan Heath in Tampa. In April, following an embarrassing revelation about Masiello's degree from Kentucky, or lack thereof, the Bulls were putting out help wanted ads again. They settled on Orlando Antigua, who served as an assistant under John Calipari the last six years. It will take some time for Antigua to be on the same level as his former mentor. He inherits a USF squad that ranked last in the AAC in scoring last season (65.6 ppg), so priority No. 1 is finding some more offensive success, a task made difficult by the graduations of Victor Rudd (16.1 ppg) and Martino Brock (9.5 ppg) and the transfer of John Egbunu (7.4 ppg). Getting back a healthy Anthony Collins will help the team at both ends of the floor. The 6-foot-1 guard has never been much of a scorer (career 8.6 ppg), but he averaged 6.5 assists per game during the 2012-13 season, before losing most of last season with a knee injury. He underwent offseason surgery to alleviate the issue and should be back to setting up teammates right away. Corey Allen Jr. (9 ppg) will be Collins' primary target. Allen Jr. is the team's top returning scorer, but he needs to shoot better than 39.4 percent from the floor he did a season ago. Chris Perry (8.9 ppg) will also be called upon for greater production.
UCF: The argument could be made that no team in the AAC will miss a player as much as UCF will miss Isaiah Sykes. The 6-foot-6 guard did just about everything for the Knights last season, leading the team in scoring (17.2 ppg), rebounds (7.2 rpg), assists (3.5 apg) and steals (1.7 spg) on his way to an All-ACC Second-Team selection. Even with Sykes, the Knights still finished a miserable 4-14 in league play, part of a 13-18 overall effort. Without him, things could get worse. Compounding matters is the fact that Tristan Spurlock (11 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Calvin Newell Jr. (10.1 ppg) are gone as well, leaving not a single returning player who averaged more than 10 points per game in 2013-14. Kasey Wilson (9.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is what amounts to the top offensive option now, as well as the team's best returning rebounder. He will still need help in both areas, especially if the Knights hope to lead the AAC in rebounds as they did last season (38.2 rpg). Matt Williams (6 ppg) played a fair amount as a reserve scorer last season, and Staphon Blair (4.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg) returns as well, ready to be a full-time starter. There are a host of newcomers, with five true freshmen listed on the roster. Adonys Henriquez and B.J. Taylor are the top prospects.