The AAC is a misfit conference by its very nature, a collection of castoffs and scraps from what once was the Big East and what would have become the new Big East before the seven Catholic schools took off with the Madison Square Garden contract. But to its credit, the AAC produced the NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies a season ago, immediately putting itself on the map. This year, the league, however top heavy, does have a few teams that are Final Four threats. And that’s enough for a conference to stay relevant in the national landscape.
11. UCF Knights
Last Year’s Record: 13-18 (4-14)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 1-17
Head Coach: Donnie Jones
Key Players: B.J. Taylor, Kasey Wilson, Staphon Blair
Hard to imagine how it’s not going to be a very tough year for UCF. The Knights lose their best player from a season ago in Isaiah Sykes and almost all of their other production is gone, too. If they’re going to go anywhere, returners Stephon Blair and Kasey Wilson, two starters from last year, will have to be key factors. Jones is also hoping that local recruits B.J. Taylor and Adonys Henriquez will learn quick. They are very talented but may be asked to do too much too soon. With eight freshman and sophomores, Central Florida might get good eventually, but right now the experience just isn’t there, and this team will struggle in a difficult league.
10. East Carolina Pirates
Last Year’s Record: 17-17 (5-11, C-USA)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 3-15
Head Coach: Jeff Lebo
Key Players: Caleb White, Terry Whisnant, Paris Roberts-Campbell
East Carolina took a big step back last season in Conference USA, barely managing an overall .500 record. Now they have to take a major step up league wise, and will likely struggle with that transition. The good news is they do have some talent returning. Caleb White shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and averaged 12.4 ppg. Paris Roberts-Campbell hauled heavy minutes and was solid at shooting guard. Prince Williams was good as well, leading the team in assists with 3.6 assists per-game.
Newcomer Terry Whisnant, a Florida State transfer, has high expectations and was a big-time high school player in the state of North Carolina. Winston-Salem transfer Michel-Ofik Nzege will be an energy player who makes this team better defensively. Overall, Jeff Lebo has some pieces, but ECU likely just doesn’t have enough talent to make a serious impact yet in the AAC.
9. Temple Owls
Last Year’s Record: 9-22 (4-14)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 5-13
Head Coach: Fran Dunphy
Key Players: Will Cummings, Quenton DeCosey, Daniel Dingle
It is a rare down period for Temple Owls basketball; perhaps they need Young Jeezy to get involved. Fran Dunphy missed the NCAA Tournament last season for only the second time in his stint at Temple, and it will be next to impossible for the team to make it back this year.
Temple will need their returning guards Quenton DeCosey and Will Cummings to do it all for them this season. Both were big-time scorers from last season who should be able to continue to put up big numbers. Returning from injury is guard Daniel Dingle and will need to make an impact, while Davante Watson is a big man with raw talent but still needs to put a lot of it together. However, Temple lost Anthony Lee and Dalton Pepper, and they only won nine games with those players a season ago. Even if Cummings is an All-AAC talent, Temple simply isn’t deep enough to do much this season.
8. USF Bulls
Last Year’s Record: 12-20 (3-15)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 5-13
Head Coach: Orlando Antigua
Key Players: Anthony Collins, Chris Perry, Corey Allen Jr.
It was a wild off-season for USF. First they fired long-time coach Stan Heath, then attempted to hire Manhattan’s Steve Masiello, but you all know the story there. In the end, Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua landed the job and will have some work to do to make South Florida competitive.
The Bulls were terrible last season, but they do return three players who should take big steps forward. Senior guards Anthony Collins and Corey Allen Jr. will bring a veteran presence to the Bulls’ backcourt. Collins is a preseason All-AAC pick and should be able to be a big-time play-maker if he stays healthy. Forward Chris Perry was solid as a freshman last season and Antigua will need to continue to aid his progress.
The issue is that USF loses nine players including their top two scorers, so Antigua will have no choice to rely on younger players to eat minutes. Antigua was a good hire who should be able to recruit athletes, but for this season, USF just doesn’t have enough talent to finish in the league’s top half.
7. Houston Cougars
Last Year’s Record: 17-16 (8-10)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 7-11
Head Coach: Kelvin Sampson
Key Players: Jherrod Stiggers, L.J. Rose, Danrad Knowles
The good news for Houston is that Kelvin Sampson was a great hire for them after James Dickey decided to leave the program after last season. The bad news is that Sampson was unable to convince Danuel House or TaShawn Thomas to return, thus leaving Houston without its two best players from a season ago.
If Thomas and House returned, Houston was a possible NCAA Tournament team, but now they must rebuild. Jherrod Stiggers is one of the top three-point shooters in the AAC and is a good place to start for the next two seasons. L.J. Rose was in the top 30 of the nation last year in assists and gives Sampson a point guard he can rely on. Returners Danrad Knowles, Mikhail McLean, and LeRon Barnes have experience in the rotation, and newcomers Devonta Pollard and Torian Graham are JC transfers that fit the program nicely. The Cougars will once again field a competitive team in the AAC, but until Sampson can bring in his full recruiting class, UH won’t be able to get out of the middle of the pack.
6. Tulane Green Wave
Last Year’s Record: 17-17 (8-8, C-USA)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 9-9
Head Coach: Ed Conroy
Key Players: Louis Dabney, Jonathan Stark, Jay Hook
Had Tulane stuck around Conference USA for one more season, they might be one of the favorites to win that league and go to the NCAA Tournament. Nonetheless, while the AAC will certainly make it more difficult for Ed Conroy and crew, Tulane still has the talent to surprise this season. The Green Wave return over 90 percent of their scoring from a season ago and with another year of experience under their belt, they should be able to improve.
Louis Dabney scored over 15 points per-game last year and is a potential All-AAC player. Jonathan Stark was a great backcourt mate for Dabney, and as a freshman, averaged north of 14 points. Swingman Jay Hook shot nearly 50 percent on three-pointers finishing with a 13.9 ppg average, and big man Tre Drye was the team’s leading rebounder and best interior player.
Those core four along with some good pieces off the bench should lead to good things for Tulane. It’s tough to pick them in the top five only because of the relative strength of their new league, but don’t be shocked if the Green Wave make a serious push this season.
5. Cincinnati Bearcats
Last Year’s Record: 27-7 (15-3)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 11-7
Head Coach: Mick Cronin
Key Players: Shaquille Thomas, Jermaine Sanders, Troy Caupain
Sean Kilpatrick is gone for good at Cincinnati, and they now must figure out how to continue out without their do-it-all best player. Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson depart too, and Mick Cronin now needs his young players to step up to the plate.
Forward Shaquille Thomas showed flashes last year, but he ended up being just a supporting player. Now he will be asked to take over and be the go-to in the post. Point guard Troy Caupin came on strong toward the end of last season and will now have his chance to shine. Jermaine Sanders was an excellent three-point shooter and brings some senior leadership to the starting five.
Beyond that, the Bearcats will rely on freshmen. Mick Cronin brings in three players that are 6-10 and above and over 270 pounds. That’s insane; they should all end up being totally bruisers down low. Still, it’s unrealistic to expect them to be huge contributors right off the bat. Instead, Cincinnati should logically take a step back, but their defensive ability should be able to at least put them in the bubble conversation this season.
4. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
Last Year’s Record: 21-13 (13-3, C-USA)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 11-7
Head Coach: Frank Haith
Key Players: James Woodard, Rashad Smith, D’Andre Wright
It certainly was disappointing, but perhaps not unexpected, that Danny Manning left Tulsa after leading them to a surprise NCAA Tournament birth a season ago. Manning’s departure brings in Frank Haith, a coach with a lot of winning experience at big-time programs. Tulsa should be able to adjust well to the coaching change, as well as the change of leagues, because they return much of their talent from last season.
It all starts with James Woodard, who will likely be on the short-list for AAC Player of the Year candidates. Woodard can score, facilitate, rebound, and defend, and Haith will rely on him to win Tulsa games this season. Shaquille Harrison will join him as a returning starter in the backcourt. Harrison is a great on-ball defender who takes care of the rock on the offensive end.
Rashad Smith is another key returner and the forward is a good rebounder who can play around the rim and play big inside. De’Andre Wright was a starter last year who should take a major step forward and has the talent to be a double-figure scorer, while JC transfer Marquel Curtis is expected to come in right away and make a big impact at the swingman spot. Overall, Haith did well to hold on to as much as he could and inherits a lot of talent. Tulsa maybe isn’t in the class of the big three in the AAC this year, but they could very well lead the pack of the rest of the group.
3. Memphis Tigers
Last Year’s Record: 24-10 (12-6)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 12-6
Head Coach: Josh Pastner
Key Players: Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin, Dominic Magee
No team in the AAC lost more in the offseason than Memphis, but in typical Tigers fashion, Josh Pastner has been able to reload and should keep the Tigers in the upper echelon of the conference. Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford, and Michael Dixon have all left Memphis, so the Tigers will need other young players to move up the ranks.
In the backcourt, there should be some healthy competition between two talented point guards. Dominic Magee may be the slight favorite to get the job. Magee is a big-time recruit that is lightning quick and should be able to pick up the D1 game quickly. Pookie Powell sat out a season ago, but is also plenty talented with great speed and passing ability. Only one will get the starting gig, but don’t be surprised to see them on the floor together plenty as well.
The two guard is a bit of a question mark, but JC transfer Avery Woodson should be able to secure the job. Woodson is an excellent shooter who should give Memphis some much needed floor spacing. Redshirt freshman Markel Crawford should also be able to get some minutes and after being away for two years rehabbing his knee. Crawford is expected to come back healthy.
The frontcourt is where, as usual, Memphis should excel. Shaq Goodwin might be the team’s best returner, and the 6-9 power forward can score rebound and defend. Austin Nichols will get a bigger opportunity this year too, after coming off the bench last season. He still managed 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.
Nick King got minutes at the three and four and will need to try and man the small forward spot this season. He has serious size and athleticism, but will need to gain quickness to play on the perimeter. Sophomore Kuran Iverson should get a bigger role this year.
Memphis had talent waiting in the wings last season and they will get to breakout now. The Tigers will get pushed by other more experienced teams, but they should be able to hold their spot in the AAC’s top three due to their tremendous athleticism on both ends of the floor.
2. Connecticut Huskies
Last Year’s Record: 32-8 (12-6)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 13-5
Head Coach: Kevin Ollie
Key Players: Ryan Boatright, Amida Brimah, Rodney Purvis
Nobody, not even Huskies fans, saw UConn’s tournament run coming last season. Kevin Ollie’s group finished tied for third in the AAC, and got a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament, which they then parlayed into six straight wins and a 4th National Championship. Looking ahead, the road to repeat will be very tough, but the Huskies are once again without a doubt one of the top teams in the American Conference.
Losing Shabazz Napier (and many others) will make this team have a much different feel this season. The good news is that the team’s second best player from a season ago, Ryan Boatright, is back once again after changing his mind last minute about entering the NBA Draft. With Napier departed, this is now firmly Boatright’s team. We know he can defend and shoot, but can Boatright be a go-to scorer? I believe so, and so does Kevin Ollie.
Beyond Boatwright, there are a lot of question marks in Storrs, and Ollie will have to figure out how to best utilize his talent. In the backcourt, NC State transfer Rodney Purvis figures to be one of the top threats on this UConn team. The former McDonald’s All-American comes in with a tremendous reputation for being able to fill up a stat sheet.
Freshman Daniel Hamilton is a top-20 recruit that can score from inside and out. He will immediately prove to be a handful for weaker oppositions in the AAC. Finally, JC transfer Sam Cassell Jr. and sophomore Terrence Samuel are both talented players who will get their chance to compete for minutes. Down low, UConn will need raw but athletic big man Amida Brimah to take the next step. We all saw Brimah’s potential in the NCAA Tournament where he turned into a shot-blocking machine at times, but sometimes he still looks lost on the floor and needs to make improvements in his game with a new starting role placed upon him.
Junior Phil Nolan is an experienced big who should be able to handle his business inside with increased playing time, and should also be able to mentor two talented freshmen, Kentan Facey and Rakim Lubin.
Nobody is picking Connecticut to repeat this season, but then again, no one was picking them to win it all last year either. While another title run does seem unlikely, Connecticut still has the pieces in place to see the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.
1. SMU Mustangs
Last Year’s Record: 27-10 (12-6)
This Year’s Projected AAC Record: 15-3
Head Coach: Larry Brown
Key Players: Nic Moore, Marcus Kennedy, Justin Martin
SMU should have been a tournament team a season ago. For whatever reason, Larry Brown’s newest project was snubbed in favor of NC State, and the Mustangs were forced to accept a bid to the NIT, where they eventually made it to the Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
Then came the big off-season news, followed by the big off-season letdown. Emmanuel Mudiay was one of the top five recruits in the nation and had committed to playing at SMU next season. That is, until he decided he wasn’t all about the college life after all, and took a one-year pro contract overseas (a la Brandon Jennings) instead of spending his one year before the NBA draft in college.
So now SMU has to adjust their expectations, if only slightly. With Muiday, this team was a potential top ten team in the nation. Now? They’re still pretty darn good, but a Final Four bid will be tougher to achieve.
That said, SMU is still far and away the best team in the AAC, and has many of their pieces from last year’s surprise team coming back.
First-Team All AAC guard Nic Moore is back, and the junior had a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. In addition, he scored very well, especially from deep, and was an excellent defender. He will man the point guard spot while Sterling Brown and Keith Frazier, who both got minutes last year, will be in the mix at two guard. Frazier is a former McDonald’s All-American that is an offensive threat, and Brown is known for his defense and toughness.
The fourth guard will be Ryan Manuel, who got his minutes cut in half last season due to the influx of talent, but still is a proven commodity who can bring solid minutes.
In the frontcourt, SMU is loaded. Markus Kennedy was Second-Team all AAC and All-NIT last season and the big man is back in a major way in 2014-15. Kennedy shot nearly 55 percent from the floor, scored nearly 12 and a half points per-game, and rebounded well, grabbing over seven a contest.
Joining him is Justin Martin, an Xavier transfer who is a deep three point threat that will man the small forward role and should be able to make an impact right away. Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert was expected to start at the four, but was recently ruled ineligible which will deal a blow to Brown’s frontcourt rotation.
Fortunately for him, the legendary coach can still turn to other talented players to fill the gap. There is Yanick Moreria, a talented 6-11 big man who went down with a knee injury for much of last season, Ben Moore, who was extremely promising as a rookie a season ago, and Cannen Cunningham, a senior leader who can protect the rim inside.
Even without Muidaye, SMU is deep, experienced, and athletic. They can shoot and play defense, and there shouldn’t be any doubt this season come Selection Sunday this time around, that the Mustangs belong in the tournament.
Ross Bentley (@ImRossBentley) is a contributor for The High Screen. He is a Graduate Sports Journalism student at Quinnipiac University and a graduate of SUNY Oswego.