Ben Emelogu (above) and SMU are the defending American Athletic Conference champions. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Though it will be hard to top a 2014 season which saw UConn win the national title, 2017-18 could be the strongest top-to-bottom year yet for the American Athletic Conference.
The addition of Wichita State will certainly make a compelling case for this to be a banner season for the conference. The Shockers are legitimate national title contenders, and coming off their eighth consecutive season of 25-plus wins, they start their AAC tenure as perhaps the conference’s most accomplished team in recent seasons. They’ll battle it out with several teams that return a number of key players, including Cincinnati, South Florida and Southern Methodist, for the top spot.
Historical prestige, however, resides with some of the veteran programs of this group. UConn has won two national championships over the last seven seasons, but coming off of a below .500 finish, Kevin Ollie and company will be on a redemption campaign.
The Huskies aren’t alone. Temple finished 16-16 last year but has the chance to make a splash in 2017-18, carrying over a slew of talent from last season and returning Josh Brown from injury. The Owls will be one of a number of sides unsure whether they’ll finish in the top or bottom six of the conference, just due to the sheer strength of AAC rosters across the board.
With more than half the conference in the running for a spot in March Madness, it’s going to be a fun year in the American Athletic Conference. Here’s a look at how we see the AAC shaping up in its fifth season of action:
CoBL’s Preseason All-League First Team
Jalen Adams (Jr./UConn)
Gary Clark (Sr./Cincinnati)
Tacko Fall (Jr./UCF)
Rob Gray (Sr./Houston)
*Shake Milton (Jr./Southern Methodist)
Landry Shamet (Sr./Wichita State)
* = Preseason PoTY
1. Wichita State Shockers
Coach: Gregg Marshall, 11th season (261-90, .744)
Last Year: 31-5 (17-1 MVC), won MVC Tournament (Illinois St., 71-51), lost NCAA second round (Kentucky, 65-62)
Key Departures: N/A
Key Returnees: Markis McDuffie (11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Landry Shamet (11.4 ppg, 3.3 apg), Darrall Willis Jr. (9.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Shaq Morris (9.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Asbjorn Midtgaard (Fr./Denmark)
Outlook: The whole league is buzzing about the arrival of Wichita State, as Marshall has built the Shockers into not just one of the best mid-major programs in the country, but one of the best programs, period; they haven’t lost double-digit games since 2009-10. The AAC is a significant step up from the Missouri Valley Conference, but this group shouldn’t miss a beat, returning their top eight scorers from a year ago as they try to make it seven straight trips to the NCAA tournament. Early in the season, they’ll have to deal with the absence of McDuffie, as the versatile 6-8 wing has a broken bone in his foot that’ll cost him most if not all of the non-conference schedule. But if he’s back to full strength by the start of league play, they could very well win it all in their first season as AAC members.
2. Cincinnati Bearcats
Coach: Mick Cronin, 12th season (237-135, .637)
Last Year: 30-6 (16-2 AAC), lost in AAC championship (SMU, 71-56), lost in NCAA second round (UCLA, 79-67)
Key Departures: Troy Caupain (10.5 ppg, 4.4 apg), Kevin Johnson (7.9 ppg)
Key Returnees: Jacob Evans (13.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg), Kyle Washington (12.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Gary Clark (10.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Cane Broome (RS-Jr./Sacred Heart)
Outlook: Despite losing one of the program’s all-time stalwarts in Caupain, who played in 137 games (102 starts) and scored 1,317 points, dished out 515 assists and grabbed 490 rebounds over a standout four-year career, the Bearcats return plenty from a squad that came one win away from tying the program’s all-time record. It starts with the senior frontcourt duo of the 6-9 Washington and 6-8 Clark, plus 6-6 junior Evans and 6-5 sophomore Jarron Cumberland, who averaged 8.3 ppg during his rookie season. Also helping replace Caupain’s offensive output should be Broome, who was the 2015-16 Northeast Conference Player of the Year in 2015-16 after averaging 23.1 points, 4.9 boards and 2.9 assists per game. They’re deep, they’ve got a lot of size (six players 6-8 or taller), and it would be a surprise not to see them dancing for an eighth straight year.
3. Central Florida Golden Knights
Coach: Johnny Dawkins, 2nd season (24-12, .667)
Last Year: 24-12 (11-7 AAC), lost in AAC semifinals (SMU, 70-59), lost in NIT semifinals (TCU, 68-53)
Key Departures: Matt Williams (15.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Tanksley Efianayi (8.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
Key Returnees: B.J. Taylor (17.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Tacko Fall (10.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Aubrey Dawkins (R-Jr./Michigan), Myles Douglas (Fr./Aberdeen, Md.)
Outlook: Dawkins certainly had a successful first in Orlando, taking over a roster that was very similar to the one Donnie Jones won just 12 games with a year prior and doubling the win total in one season. They’ll have to replace the talented 6-5 Williams, now trying to earn a roster spot with the Miami Heat, but there’s plenty left to rely on, including Taylor, a 6-2 guard who missed the 2015-16 season with a lower leg injury but bounced right back to earn all-AAC Second Team honors a year ago as the league’s fourth-leading scorer. Fall, a 7-6 center and reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year, set a UCF single-season record for blocked shots (94), and will make the Knights tough to drive against for the next two seasons. Adding in Dawkins, the coach’s son who’s now eligible after averaging 6.7 ppg in 66 games (22 starts) at Michigan, will only be another potent weapon on a squad with NCAA tournament hopes.
Kevin Ollie (above) and UConn are expected to bounce back in a big way after injuries ruined the 2016-17 season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
4. Connecticut Huskies
Coach: Kevin Ollie, 6th season (113-61, .649)
Last Year: 16-17 (9-9 AAC), lost in AAC semifinals (Cincinnati, 81-71)
Key Departures: Kentan Facey (8.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) Rodney Purvis (13.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg)
Key Returnees: Jalen Adams (14.4 ppg, 6.1 apg), Alterique Gilbert (10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Terry Larrier (13.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg),
Key Newcomers: Antwoine Anderson (Gr./Fordham), Tyler Polley (Fr./Sagemont School, Fla.)
Outlook: Last season couldn’t have started out much worse for UConn, which lost three of its first four out of the gate, but also lost two key players for the season. Gilbert, a 6-3 freshman guard, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury three games into the year, before Larrier, a 6-8 redshirt sophomore and VCU transfer, tore his ACL four games into his first season at UConn. Those two are back to provide a big boost to Adams, a 6-3 guard and the team’s leading scorer from a year ago, as well as sophomore guard Christian Vital, who chipped in 9.1 ppg and hit 36.6 percent of his triples as a rookie. Ollie and his staff also brought in a very good freshman class that includes a couple ultra-versatile wings in the 6-8 Polley and 6-7 Sid Wilson, who will have to sit out this season after briefly enrolling in summer school at St. John’s before coming to UConn. Anderson, a 6-2 guard, averaged 11.1 ppg as a redshirt junior at Fordham last year.
5. Temple Owls
Coach: Fran Dunphy, 12th season (230-136, .628)
Last Year: 16-16 (7-11 AAC), lost in AAC first round (East Carolina, 80-69)
Key Departures: Daniel Dingle (12.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.5 apg), Mark Williams (6.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Key Returnees: Shizz Alston Jr. (13.9 ppg, 4.1 apg), *Josh Brown (8.3 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.8 rpg), Obi Enechionyia (13.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Key Newcomers: De’Vondre “Dre” Perry (Fr./Polytechnic, Md.), Nate Pierre-Louis (Fr./Roselle Catholic)
Outlook: After finishing eighth in the league a year ago, Temple looks primed for a jump up the standings and into NCAA at-large consideration, thanks to a returning group of upperclassmen, a developing group of youngsters who got a lot of playing time a year ago and a promising group of freshmen. The Owls are certainly happy to have Brown back in the mix, after the 6-3 senior guard missed all but five games last year as he tried to come back too quickly from an offseason Achilles injury. Brown, Alston and sophomore Quinton Rose (9.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg) could form one of the best backcourt units in the league, but they’ll need consistent production from the 6-10 Enechionyia and their role players to stay above the cut line in an increasingly difficult conference.
6. Southern Methodist Mustangs
Coach: Tim Jankovich, *3rd season (39-5, .886)
Last Year: 30-5 (17-1 AAC), won AAC tournament (Cincinnati, 71-56), lost in NCAA first round (USC, 66-65)
Key Departures: Semi Ojeleye (19.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Sterling Brown (13.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Ben Moore (11.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
Key Returnees: Shake Milton (13.0 ppg, 4.5 apg), Jarrey Foster (9.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Akoy Agau (Sr./Georgetown), Jahmal McMurray (Jr./South Florida)
Outlook: After former coach Larry Brown stepped down last summer, Jankovich stepped right in and guided a talented squad to its second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons and the first 30-win year in program history; Jankovich also coached nine games two years ago after Brown was suspended. But now his task has become much tougher for a repeat, with the 6-7 do-everything Ojeleye now in the NBA, and two other starters in Brown and Moore gone as well. That represented just about half the rotation for SMU, which only had seven players average double figures -- including freshman big Henry Froling, who transferred midway through the season. A class of five freshmen, as well as two transfers in the 6-8 Agau and 6-0 Murray -- the former AAC All-Rookie selection at USF will be eligible midway through the season -- will bolster the rotation, but these Mustangs have a lot of work to do.
7. Houston Cougars
Coach: Kelvin Sampson, 4th season (56-40, .583)
Last Year: 21-11 (12-6 AAC), lost in AAC quarterfinals (UConn, 74-65), lost in NIT first round (Akron, 78-75)
Key Departures: Damyean Dotson (17.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Danrad Knowles (7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
Key Returnees: Rob Gray Jr. (20.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Devin Davis (8.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Wes VanBeck (7.5 ppg)
Key Newcomers: Fabian White Jr. (Fr./Atascocita, Tex.), Nura Zanna (RS-Sr./LIU-Brooklyn)
Outlook: The Cougars have won 20-plus games in each of the last two seasons, but both years ended in the first round of the NIT following one-game appearances in the AAC tournament as well. This could be the group gets over the hump and into the tournament for the first time since 2010, when the No. 7-seeded Cougars won four games in four days to win the C-USA tournament, making the NCAAs despite a 15-15 regular-season record. Houston has a chance to earn it on merit this year, led by Gray, a 6-2 guard and a preseason All-AAC First Team selection. In just two seasons at Houston since coming in from Howard College (Tex.), he’s already scored 1,055 points; last year, he upped his 3-point percentage from 34 to 38 while also doubling his assists. Get a nice boost up front with the addition of the 6-6 Zanna, who averaged 9.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg during his junior year at LIU-Brooklyn.
8. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Coach: Frank Haith, 4th season (58-40, .592)
Last Year: 15-17 (8-10 AAC), lost in AAC quarterfinals (Cincinnati, 80-61)
Key Departures: Pat Birt (8.8 ppg)
Key Returnees: Junior Etou (12.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Jaleel Wheeler (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Sterling Taplin (9.2 ppg, 3.8 apg)
Key Newcomers: Darien Jackson (Fr./Blue Valley Northwest, Kan.), Curran Scott (RS-Soph./UNC-Charlotte)
Outlook: The Golden Hurricane had to do a nearly complete reset after a 2015-16 season that ended in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four, with a class of seven seniors that made up the majority of Tulsa’s nine-man rotation that year. Only Birt, a 3-point specialist, returned as a starter, while former Rutgers big man Etou and JUCO guards Wheeler and Corey Henderson Jr. (8.7 ppg) all made their Tulsa debuts as juniors. Now they have their top three scorers and five of their top six point producers back, including Henderson and Martins Igbanu, a 6-8 sophomore who averaged 6.3 ppg and 4.0 rpg in his debut season. Last year they were extremely balanced, with five scorers averaging between 8.7 ppg and 12.6 ppg; if they can cut down on turnovers (15/game), they could be the best of the bottom half of the AAC and even knock off one or two of the favorites along the way.
9. Memphis Tigers
Coach: Tubby Smith, 2nd season (19-13, .594)
Last Year: 19-13 (9-9 AAC), lost in AAC quarterfinals (UCF, 84-54)
Key Departures: Dedric Lawson (19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Markel Crawford (12.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg), K.J. Lawson (12.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg)
Key Returnees: Jeremiah Martin (10.3 ppg, 4.4 apg), Jimario Rivers (6.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
Key Newcomers: David Nickelberry (Fr./Windermere Prep, Fla.), Mike Parks Jr. (Jr./Southwest Mississippi CC), Raynere Thornton (Jr./Gordon State)
Outlook: This is a very different Tigers squad that will take the floor this year, following almost a complete roster overhaul from last season. The 6-8 Rivers and 6-3 Martin are back for their senior and junior seasons, respectively, but otherwise Memphis has to replace its top three scorers and eight of its top 10 from a year ago. To help replenish the roster, Smith brought in five JUCO players, giving them some size in the 6-9 Parks and 6-8 Kyvon Davenport plus 6-7 Thornton, and two guards in 6-3 Kareem Brewton Jr. and 6-2 Malik Rhodes; he also added a five-man freshman class. It’s really a wild card in the middle of the conference -- there’s talent in Memphis, but just how much is unknown; plus, with so many new parts, they’ve got a ways to go to figure themselves out.
10. East Carolina Pirates
Coach: Jeff Lebo, 8th season (114-118, .491)
Last Year: 15-18 (6-12 AAC), lost in AAC quarterfinals (SMU, 81-77)
Key Departures: Andre Washington (6.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Caleb White (11.8 ppg)
Key Returnees: Kentrell Barkley (13.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Jeremy Sheppard (9.2 ppg), B.J. Tyson (9.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Isaac Fleming (Jr./Hawaii), Usman Haruna (Jr./Bismarck State), Seth LeDay (Jr./Virginia Tech)
Outlook: ECU went from three consecutive single-digit win seasons in the mid-00s up to a 23-win season in 2012-13 while a member of Conference-USA, but in three seasons in the AAC the Pirates have yet to break through into the upper half of the league. Three of the top four scorers from last year return in the 6-5 junior Barkley, 6-3 senior Tyson and 6-1 sophomore Sheppard, a member of the league’s all-rookie team a year ago. They do need to replace the starting frontcourt of the 7-1 Washington and 6-7 White, as well as 6-8 senior reserve Michel Nazege (3.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg); they also lost 6-11 sophomore Deng Riak to transfer (Akron). Even though they return much of their backcourt, there’s still a lot of work for the Pirates to do with a group that was 300th in Division I or worse in 3-point shooting, 2-point shooting, FT shooting and turnover percentage, according to KenPom.
11. Tulane Green Wave
Coach: Mike Dunleavy Sr., 2nd season (6-25, .194)
Last Year: 6-25 (3-15 AAC), lost in AAC first round (Tulsa, 66-60)
Key Departures: Kain Harris (9.1 ppg), Malik Morgan (10.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.4 apg), Ryan Smith (7.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
Key Returnees: Cameron Reynolds (17.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Melvin Frazier (11.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Bul Ajang (Fr./Patrick School, N.J.), Jordan Cornish (RS-Jr./UNLV), Buay Koka (Fr./Patrick School, N.J.)
Outlook: Dunleavy certainly picked an interesting job as his first in the collegiate world, as the longtime NBA player (1976-1985) and coach (1988-2010) took over a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1995, and has only had one 20-win season since 2000. Last year was a new low, though, as the Green Wave won fewer games than they had in any season since 1963, when they played nine fewer games overall. They graduated two starters in the 6-11 Smith and 6-4 Morgan, while high-scoring sub Harris transferred to Kent State before his junior season; overall, more of the rotation is back than left, and they add a few intriguing pieces. The Patrick School duo of the 6-10 Ajang and 7-0 Koka certainly brings a lot of size to the frontcourt, and Cornish brings experience after playing in 65 games over two years at UNLV, averaging 6.2 ppg and 2.5 rpg as a sophomore in 2015-16.
12. South Florida Bulls
Coach: Brian Gregory, 1st season (0-0, .---)
Last Year: 7-23 (1-17 AAC), lost in AAC first round (UConn, 77-66)
Key Departures: Jahmal McMurray (20.3 ppg), Geno Thorpe (15.2 ppg, 4.6 apg)
Key Returnees: Tulio Da Silva (9.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Troy Holston (9.7 ppg)
Key Newcomers: Payton Banks (Gr./Penn State), Stephan Jiggetts (Gr./Fairleigh Dickinson), Terrence Samuel (Gr./Penn State)
Outlook: Gregory has basically a fresh start at South Florida: aside from Da Silva and Holston, the team’s third and fourth-leading scorers from a year ago, the rest of the Bulls’ 10-man rotation is gone. Gregory, the former Dayton (2003-11) and Georgia Tech (2011-16) head coach, spent last season as a consultant to head coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State. This won’t be Gregory’s first attempt at a rebuild, but it will certainly be his toughest job yet, as the Bulls are coming off three consecutive single-win seasons and have only been to one NCAA Tournament since 1992. He’s got some veterans like Jiggetts, who averaged 13.5 ppg as a junior at Fairleigh Dickinson, and Banks, who averaged 10.4 ppg last year at Penn State, but there’s no proven high-major star on this roster. Going to be a few more years before Gregory gets the Bulls to rise up the conference standings, if he can make it happen at all.