American Athletic Conference basketball has been an under-the-radar bastion for serious hoop heads the past several seasons. Prominent power programs like Connecticut and Cincinnati have been toiling in relative obscurity in a league that was set up with football in mind and basketball as an afterthought. Venerable mid-majors Temple and Memphis has been using the league as a ladder to climb up to "major program" status. And resurgent squads like SMU and Tulsa, thanks to well-regarded coaches, have been fighting their way to NCAA Tournament bids and national prominence.
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So the AAC has been a very useful stomping grounds for several teams in its brief time in existence. But if you love watching quality college basketball then my advice for you this fall is this: steer clear of the AAC.
Things are going to be ugly in college basketball across the country this year. And the AAC is no exception. The league lost a ton of talent, and at least eight of the 11 teams are entering what has to be considered a rebuilding or transitional season thanks to massive talent defections or new coaching staffs.
It's not going to be pretty.
But there is hope. The AAC is bursting with potential this season and laying the foundation for future success. It starts with the new coaches, including known commodities like Tubby Smith (Memphis), Johnny Dawkins (Central Florida), Tim Jankovich (SMU) and Mike Dunleavy Sr. (Tulane). There is also a massive crop of highly-touted freshmen entering the league this season. And without many seniors and veterans hogging the minutes (and shots) we will get a chance to see most of these first-year players - for good or ill - play a lot this year.
Finally,several intriguing transfers may hold the key to this conference race this winter. Newcomers like Semi Ojeleye (Duke to SMU), Devin Davis (Indiana to Houston), Kyle Washington (N.C. State to Cincinnati), and Christian Kessee (Coppin State to Memphis) could each play major roles in determining who will win the conference championship.
Here are Doc's Sports 2016-17American Athletic Conference college basketball predictions (with odds to win the conference title in parentheses):
The Favorite: Connecticut Huskies (+125)
Perhaps no team in the AAC represents this year's out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new theme than the Huskies. Connecticut lost three of the four top players (including two fifth-year seniors) from the defending league tournament champions. But this year's team welcomes one of the school's most talented and ballyhooed recruiting classes in a decade, signaling a big shift in the Kevin Ollie Era.
Connecticut isn't completely rebuilding. Senior Rodney Purvis has 20-point-per-game potential and Amida Brimah is a three-year stalwart and shot-blocking menace in the post. Sophomore Jalen Adams was the league's rookie of the year and he could take a major step forward. After that Connecticut will be banking on five talented freshmen (including three Top 100 rookies) and a sophomore transfer from VCU (Terry Larrier) to vault this team back into national prominence.
But I don't think that will happen this year. Ollie has been, in my mind, erratic in his rotations and in the way he has handled during his four years in Storrs. I think that he is simply going to throw the freshmen in the deep end and see what happens while also allowing Purvis to run wild as the unchallenged star. That could make for an inconsistent mix. If the freshmen live up to their hype then this group should have enough firepower to get back to the NCAA Tournament. But I have a hard time seeing this team as better than the one that bumbled to sixth place in the regular season last winter.
The Challenger: Cincinnati Bearcats (+200)
A frustrating and disappointing March both echoed and overshadowed an outstanding season for the Bearcats. They lost their AAC Tournament game in quadruple overtime (thanks in part to a miraculous 75-foot buzzer beater) and then bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when their own buzzer-beating dunk was waved off. That heartbreaking bad luck kind of summed things up for the Bearcats. Seven of their 11 losses were by four points or less or in OT and six of their losses on the year were by just two points. They were close to putting together a really special season. But instead the Cats were left to wonder about the what-ifs.
The Bearcats were surprisingly potent on offense last year, averaging 73.3 points per game. However, nearly half of those points, via four key contributors, graduated. They have a star three-year starting point guard in Troy Caupain, one of the top players in the league. Versatile wings Gary Clark (the reigning league defensive POY), Jacob Evans and Kevin Johnson will support Caupain. And transfer Kyle Washington should step in and make up for at least some of the lost production in the post.
Cincinnati is a system team. Mick Cronin plugs in tough, physical players into his system and voila, 20-something wins and a tournament bid. Cincinnati won't be as good as they were last year. But if juniors like Justin Jenifer and Quadri Moore can raise their play and support the core then the Bearcats will again be a force in the small pond of the AAC.
The Dark Horse: Houston Cougars (+500)
Connecticut and Cincinnati may have more potential. But I don't think there is any doubt that Houston is the best team in the league heading into the season. Galen Robinson nearly set a freshman record for assists. Damyean Dotson is one of the top all-around players in the league. And Rob Gray is a big-time scorer that can get real hot, real fast. Houston was the top-scoring team in the AAC and all that perimeter firepower is back. Seniors Kyle Meyer and Chicken Knowles give the Cougars a pair of seasoned bigs. And transfer Devin Davis is a legit X-factor that could help take this team to the next level. Like Dotson and Gray, Davis is a transfer (from Indiana) that is looking for redemption in the lower rung of high-major college hoops. If Davis can match the production of departed forward Devonta Pollard then I think Houston has a great chance of making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. Kelvin Sampson made the NCAA Tournament 14 times in 15 years from 1994-2008. He has missed the dance the past two seasons, but I think he has the goods to get it done here.
The X-Factor: SMU Mustangs (+1000)
Well, you can accuse Larry Brown of many things in his basketball career but false advertising isn't one of them. Brown did everything one would've expected in his brief time at SMU: he took a nothing program and thrust it into national prominence, got it embroiled in controversy, and then bailed on it inexplicably. Brown stepped aside this summer after a conflict about his contract. His departure capped a dramatic 19-month period for the a program whose previous 20 years had been as exciting as lint.
Brown leaves new/old coach Tim Jankovich, previously of Illinois State and the interim coach for the beginning of last season, on solid footing. And Jankovich has a team that can compete in the AAC crown this year. They can't replace star point guard Nic Moore in the short term. But new point guard Shake Milton is a future pro. Sterling Brown and Ben Moore are double-digit scores with three years of starting experience apiece. A pair of Australians, Tom Wilson and Harry Froling, highlighted the recruiting class. But the key newcomer will be Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, whom I expect to break out for the Mustangs. SMU's defense should again be among the best in the country. But until Milton and/or Ojeleye blossom into top-end performers this team's ceiling might be another deep run in the NIT.
The Disappointment: Temple Owls (+800)
Well, I was obviously wrong last fall when I predicted a step back for the Owls. They went on to win the AAC regular season title and went 21-12 overall in what I had pegged as a rebuilding year. Can Fran Dunphy do it again? I'm saying no. They only outscored opponents by 1.1 points per game last year, and three of their top four leading scorers are gone. Also, they could be without projected starting guards Josh Brown and Trey Lowe due to injuries the pair sustained prior to the summer. Obi Enechionyia looks to be the next in a long line of talented Temple wings. But he can't do it all himself. The three seniors on the team combined for just 8.3 total points per game, and the rest of roster is freshmen and sophomores. I think any postseason berth would be an achievement for Dunphy.
Memphis (+650) - Memphis made a run to the league title game last season but their loss halted any hope of making the NCAA Tournament. A second straight tourney missed signaled the end of the Josh Pastner Era. But Memphis failed upwards; luring Tubby Smith away from Texas Tech. Smith is a proven commodity and will have the Tigers dancing again sooner rather than later. But I don't think this is the season to get over that hump. Memphis has one of the best players in the league in Dedric Lawson. The powerful forward is a double-double machine and this will likely be his last year on campus. His brother, K.J. Lawson, is back after a redshirt season to help out in the paint. But the backcourt is a major question mark with Coppin State grad transfer Christian Kessee stepping in to join underwhelming three-year starter Markel Crawford.
Tulsa(+2000) - There are a lot of teams that lost more talent than Tulsa. But there isn't a team in the country that lost more experience than the Golden Hurricanes. Tulsa lost seven seniors that combined for 82 percent of their offense. Coach Frank Haith is facing a complete and total rebuild this year. The lone senior is spot-up shooter Pat Birt. And two transfers, Junior Etou and Corey Henderson, give the team a glimmer of promise. But Haith will likely spend most of the year grooming the eight freshmen and sophomores on the roster. This is going to be a bad team, especially early. And I think finishing above .500 would be an achievement for this group.
Central Florida (+5000) - Johnny Dawkins found a soft landing spot at UCF after finally being ousted after eight severely underwhelming seasons in Stanford. The Golden Knights dumped former head coach Donnie Jones within hours of UCF's season ending last year. And Dawkins at least brings the air of faux success and respectability to a program that doesn't rate on the Sunshine State radar. Dawkins' squad has the chance to be a major surprise next season. B.J. Taylor (sophomore) and A.J. Davis (junior) are a solid inside-out duo and sophomore Tacko Fall is a 7-foot-6 mountain in the middle of the paint. The Knights will also spend this winter waiting on three key transfers that will be eligible next fall. So everything about this year will be about laying the foundation for a potential breakout next season.
South Florida (+8000) - Former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua has yet to prove that he has even the faintest idea what he is doing on the USF sideline. He has gone just 17-48 in his two seasons on the bench - failing to top 10 wins in either season. And this year's roster might be the worst yet. South Florida lost five key players and 80 percent of its scoring and rebounding from last year. Sophomore Jahmal McMurray was the squad's leading scorer and looks like a keeper. But the rest of the roster is a disgrace. Rueben Guerrero has potential. And Penn State transfer Geno Thorpe is at least competent. But it should be another ugly year, and I don't expect Antigua to hang around for more than another season or two.
Tulane (+10000) - Mike Dunleavy Sr. was a surprise hire for the Tulane bench this offseason. Dunleavy got his start coaching the Showtime Lakers and Magic Johnson, and he has coached in nearly 1,400 NBA games (including 71 playoff games) in his career. He inherits a serious challenge in New Orleans as Tulane lacks resources and pedigree in its attempt to claw its way to respectability. The Wave won 12 games last year but should be decidedly worse after losing three of their four best players. Senior Malik Morgan will do what he can, but things will get worse before they get better for Dunleavy.
East Carolina (+10000) - Despite seeing his team's win total drop in four straight seasons, Jeff Lebo continues to soak a paycheck from ECU. Lebo does have one of his better squads this season. And if he could get any of his guys to play defense this team has a chance to at least compete in the AAC this year. Junior guard B.J. Tyson is a three-year starter and all-league caliber player. Senior forward Caleb White is a 1,200-point scorer already. Sophomore swingman Kentrell Barkley made the league all-rookie team and senior Michel Nzege is the glue guy. The effectiveness of 7-foot Wake Forest transfer will go a long way in determining what ECU is all about this year. And Lebo desperately needs to find a point guard (right now the only one on the roster is freshman Jeremy Sheppard). There are a lot of ifs. But don't be surprised to see a much more competitive Pirates group as they try to work their way into a third-tier postseason tournament.
Projected American Athletic Conference Standings:
7. East Carolina
8. Central Florida
10. South Florida
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has an unmatched streak of 10 straight winning nonconference seasons and 10 straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $29,030 in profit with his sides and totals the last three years alone and he has raked in a remarkable $67,750 in the last 10 years with his nonconference picks (November and December) alone. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing season. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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