College Basketball Preview - American Athletic Conference

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Updated: 11/05/2013 11:43 am

However, the future for the league really won't begin until next season since the premier squad, the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals, will be competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference a year from now.

For now, the AAC will just have to deal with their short-term guests. In all not a terrible deal. While the league is brand new, it already has title contenders and teams that will be clawing their way towards the NCAA Tournament when March rolls around.

That list of squads begins, but does not end, with Louisville. The Cardinals may not have been the most exciting national champion on paper. After all they weren't the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, but on the floor the excitement was there. With Peyton Siva and Russ Smith running the backcourt, Luke Hancock banging in 3-pointers and Gorgui Dieng controlling the post, the Cardinals were a ton of fun to watch. Rick Pitino's squad is more limited this season (Siva and Dieng moved on) but there is still plenty of firepower left on the roster to make another run at the Final Four and maybe more.

One of the teams that really has gotten a raw deal in all of this conference realignment business is Connecticut. The Huskies have watched as teams like Syracuse and Georgetown and soon to be Louisville, have moved on to different leagues. Well, Connecticut is set up to take control of this league this season now that it's postseason ban is over. Kevin Ollie can finally move the Huskies beyond the Jim Calhoun era with one of the best backcourts in the country. Mixed up in the same turnover dilemma from the old Big East is Cincinnati, who will also be contending, especially if Sean Kilpatrick becomes the Player of the Year candidate he can be.

The team that has been added to the roster that is most intriguing is obviously Memphis. The Conference USA bullies now get a chance to showcase their skill in a more powerful league. Joe Jackson will be an all-conference selection for the Tigers, who also boast a powerful freshman class. That used to be a weakness. Now it is a strength.

The bottom half of the conference is a mix and match of former C-USA squads and Big East leftovers. Temple is the one exception, as the Owls are moving in from the Atlantic-10. Temple has been to six straight NCAA Tournaments and will be in contention once again because Fran Dunphy is one of the best coaches around. TaShawn Thomas gives Houston a real POY contender and a chance at the postseason though it will still be a tall order with Joseph Young jettisoned off. At UCF, Isaiah Sykes will excel, but he will need help especially up front. Rutgers hired former star Eddie Jordan as head coach but if his NBA stops are any indication, immediate success isn't likely. Larry Brown is in his second season at SMU, which should lead to some improvement, but the jump in the level of competition won't help. Finally there is South Florida, which just couldn't score last year. Prospects aren't much brighter this time around.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: LOUISVILLE

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Louisville 2. Memphis 3. Connecticut 4. Cincinnati 5. Temple 6. Houston 7. UCF 8. Rutgers 9. SMU 10. South Florida

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

LOUISVILLE: It has been quite awhile since Louisville lost a game of basketball. The Cardinals rolled off 16 straight wins en route to last year's national championship. The momentum might have mellowed some in the offseason but the Cardinals will be contenders again. That is especially true if Russ Smith can take the next step forward. Smith decided to stay around instead of bolting for the NBA and now he must be a leader in areas other than the stat sheet. Smith averaged a team high 18.7 points per game last season, but still showed a tendency to be careless with the ball. Replacing Siva and Dieng present different challenges for Rick Pitino. Siva was a sparkplug who powered the team on both ends as the Cardinals led the Big East in scoring (74.5 ppg) and points allowed (58.8 ppg). Junior-college transfer Chris Jones, a major piece of Pitino's recruiting class, and Kevin Ware, who is coming back from the ghastly injury he suffered in the NCAA Tournament, will both be given shots to take over for Siva. Dieng leaves a gaping hole in the middle. Pitino will look to Montrezl Harrell (5.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) to take the lead down low while having the luxury of versatile players like Hancock (8.1 ppg), and Wayne Blackshear (7.6 ppg) on the roster. Chane Behanan (9.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg) could help as well if he is allowed to return from an indefinite suspension.

MEMPHIS: Conference USA never really presented too much of a challenge for the Tigers, who went 16-0 in league play a year ago. Now the Tigers will finally be moving up to the big leagues. There are certainly players that Memphis will miss, especially Tarik Black (8.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who transferred to Kansas and Adonis Thomas (11.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who was not taken in the NBA Draft after surprising everyone by declaring. Josh Pastner might be just as happy after the recruiting he did this offseason, bringing in forward Austin Nichols and swingmen Kuran Iverson and Nick King. All three will take on major roles right away, especially Nichols. Shaq Goodwin (7.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is a holdover in the frontcourt that will be looked upon to produce and help mold the younger guys. While promise and potential describe the squad up front, the backcourt could not be more experienced. Seniors Joe Jackson (13.6 ppg, 4.8 apg) and Chris Crawford (10.4 ppg, 3.2 apg) are both strong scorers and willing passers. Jackson is the leader of the squad and his efficient shooting (51.9 FG percentage) will have him competing for all-league honors. Crawford has increased his scoring output each year of his career and has been a consistent shooter from long range. Then there is the addition of another senior guard in Michael Dixon, who averaged 13.5 points per game for Missouri in 2011-12, but was taken off the team for legal issues. He is eligible to play right away.

CONNECTICUT: Something that is generally accepted as fact in college basketball is that a strong backcourt can carry a team very far. The Huskies are banking on that. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were two extremely productive and exciting guards last season and now that the shackles of a postseason ban have been lifted from the Huskies, they can showcase their skill on a national stage. Napier (17.1 ppg, 4.4. rpg, 4.6 apg, 2.0 spg) is an all-around player. He can score, distribute and defend and even at 6-1, is a force on the boards. Boatright (15.4 ppg, 4.4 apg) is a blur on the fast break and also has good defensive instincts. Omar Calhoun (11.1 ppg) doesn't get as much notoriety as Napier and Boatright but he is a valuable contributor on a team that is built around its backcourt. The strategy worked well last year for Ollie, a former guard himself, as the Huskies won 20 games and more than likely would have at least been in consideration for the NCAA Tournament if it were not for sanctions. What will push the Huskies to being a real contender is improvements in the frontcourt. DeAndre Daniels (12.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg) led the team in rebounding last year and was the fourth member of the squad to average in double figures in scoring. Tyler Olander (4.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg) is a big body that will also make an impact.

CINCINNATI: Inefficient shooting and poor point totals doomed the Bearcats last season. However, most teams would take doomed if it meant a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The key has been that Mick Cronin really gets his teams to defend, as the Bearcats held squads to just 59 points per game and 38.7 percent shooting last season. The scoring woes for Cincinnati itself aren't likely to improve though. Sean Kilpatrick and his team-leading 17 points per game are back, but Cashmere Wright (12.7 ppg) and JaQuon Parker (12.7 ppg) are both gone. No other player on the team scored more than six points per game a year ago. Obviously the offensive burden will be on Kilpatrick, which isn't so bad considering his style of play. However, Kilpatrick was not an efficient scorer, shooting less than 40 percent from the floor. He will need to be a more consistent shooter. Kilpatrick can't do it all on his own. Ge'Lawn Guyn (2.4 ppg) didn't get a ton of court time last year but with Wright and Parker gone he will be expected to step into a starting role. Titus Rubles (5.9 ppg,] 5.9 rpg) is the top returning scorer aside from Kilpatrick. He and Justin Jackson (3.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg) will be expected to push teams around down low to make up for the departure of Cheikh Mbodj (5.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.6 bpg).

TEMPLE: Last year was an interesting one for the Owls. Normally Dunphy's squads are predicated on defense, but last year the Owls were scoring 72.2 points per game, while ranking in the bottom half of the Atlantic 10 in scoring defense (67.9 ppg). Dunphy will have to get his team back to the defense-first philosophy, if the Owls hope for a seventh straight NCAA Tournament bid, since A-10 leading scorer Khalif Wyatt is not making the transition to the American Athletic Conference with the Owls. Not only is Wyatt gone, but so is Scootie Randall. The pair accounted for more than 30 points per game combined and were the only double-figure scorers on the team. It is time for Will Cummings to come into his own. Cummings averaged just under six points per game and shot below 40 percent from the field but he is going to get the keys to the offense and run the point. There won't be a ton of starting experience besides that in the backcourt, as Dalton Pepper (2.9 ppg) will see his role increase significantly. Finding a shooter to replace Jake O'Brien's skill from long range will be crucial as well. Quenton DeCosey might be able to fill that void. Since the backcourt is so shaky, Anthony Lee (9.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) may need to be more of a scorer. Lee is not a polished player on offense but rebounds well. The loss of Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson will also be a difficult pill to swallow.

HOUSTON: The Cougars have had 18 or more wins in seven of the last nine years. However that hasn't equated to much past the conference tournament as they have made just a single NCAA Tournament appearance during that time. In fact the trip in 2010 was the only one the team has made since 1992. Taking a step up to the AAC from the shallower depths of C-USA will make ending such a drought an even greater challenge. TaShawn Thomas (16.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) will certainly have something to say about that. Thomas is an impressive forward that hangs up a double-double just about every night. Thomas has been most effective in close. If he can improve on his shooting from the mid-range area he will be even tougher to stop. Thomas is the centerpiece for Houston, which led C-USA in scoring (78.1 ppg) and rebounding (38.7 rpg), especially since leading scorer Joseph Young decided to jet off to Oregon. To make sure teams don't just single in on Thomas now, Danuel House (12.4 ppg., 4.9 rpg) needs to be an even better offensive threat. House fits in just fine as a third-option and with his size (6-7) he can score from just about anywhere. Jherrod Stiggers (8.1 ppg) is another option on the wing that will be a bigger part of the offensive gameplan. The wealth of wing and frontcourt players continues with Danrad Knowles and J.J. Richardson. Tione Womack (2.7 ppg) and Mikhail McLean (2.4 ppg).

UCF: Something has been brewing at UCF over the last few years and now that the team's one-year postseason ban has been lifted the Knights are ready to let the country know. In three straight years the Knights have earned 20-win seasons under Donnie Jones and this team has a very good chance at doing so for a fourth time even with the loss of Keith Clanton (14.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg). Isaiah Sykes (16.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.3 spg) could do no wrong for the Knights a year ago as he led the team in points, assists and steals. At 6-6 Sykes is a real nightmare for opposing squads to defend as he is just as comfortable spotting up for a jump shot as he is driving the lane and getting to the rim. Add in his ability to feed open teammates and his quick hands on defense and it is clear Sykes will excel even in the new league. Flanking Sykes will be point guard Calvin Newell (11.1 ppg, 2.6 apg) and forward Tristan Spurlock (11.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Spurlock is a nice complementary scorer and he is not afraid to take a step outside and knock down shots from beyond the arc. However, he needs to be more of a force on the boards with Clanton gone. Kasey Wilson (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) also needs to be better able to clean the glass while adding some valuable points in close. Guard Brandon Goodwin is just a freshman but he played well enough in high school to assume he won't be hidden on the bench.

RUTGERS: The past offseason was not kind to the Scarlet Knights. First, head coach Mike Rice was fired after a national scandal exploded following the release of video of the former head coach abusing players during practice. Then leading scorer Eli Carter decided to transfer to Florida and Jerome Seagears signed on to transfer to Auburn. All was not lost though. Former Rutgers guard Eddie Jordan was brought in to steady the ship as the head coach and Seagears eventually thought better of leaving and is now back in the fold. Jordan has never coached in the college ranks with his experience exclusively at the professional level, but he was the leader on the 1976 Final Four squad at Rutgers. The guards that Jordan will first attempt to mold into his likeness are Seagears and Myles Mack. Seagears (6.5 ppg) isn't overly impressive on paper but he played the third most minutes per game a year ago and has experience on a team where there isn't a ton to go around. Mack (13.6 ppg) is the more critical returnee as he was the second-best scorer on the squad last year. Mack doesn't have much in terms of size (5-9) but he is an extremely efficient scorer, netting 46.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and 48 percent overall. The frontcourt will be more of a patchwork job. Wally Judge (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) was a full-time starter last season and the best rebounder, while junior college transfers like D'Von Campbell will be tested early.

SMU: Legendary head coach Larry Brown's first go around at the helm for the Mustangs wasn't exactly the thrilling success some had hoped for. SMU went just 15-17 last season with just a two-win improvement from the previous year. However, Brown cleaned house and certainly took control of the roster. Now, even with the move up in competition level, he will try to take the team he built, not the one left to him, back into contention. The most important building block that Brown has brought in is Keith Frazier. Though he is only a freshman, Frazier will be a big part of the Mustangs' gameplan every night. Frazier is a 6-5 wing that is extremely athletic and will likely be the top option on offense. It will fall to the returning players to fit in around Frazier to an extent. Jalen Jones (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) was the leading scorer and rebounder last year. Jones shouldn't take a backseat to Frazier, as he proved he can score effectively, but the two could pair up to form an exciting inside-outside combination. Nick Russell (14.0 ppg, 4.3 apg) was another important contributor last season and his steady ball-handling and shooting from the outside will further complement the nucleus that Brown looks to be building around Frazier. Then there is Shawn Williams (8.,5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) a strong entity who will team with Jones up front.

SOUTH FLORIDA: If the pattern that USF has established under Stan Heath continues than the Bulls are being grossly underestimated. The Bulls won 20 games in 2010, lost 23 in 2011, had 22 victories and a run in the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and then dropped to 12-19 last year. This USF squad won't be continuing the roller coaster. Last year, despite some strong defensive play, the Bulls were one of the worst teams in the Big East with just three wins in league play. The main culprit was a lack of offense. The Bulls scored just 58.8 points per game and shot a miserable 38.9 percent from the field. Lacking any semblance of an offensive punch made it tough for the Bulls to win and tough for fans to watch. Victor Rudd (12.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) was the only player on the roster to score in double figures last season but he wasn't an efficient scorer. Rudd was one of five players to play in at least 30 games and shoot below 40 percent from the field. There is the hope that Rudd will return to the form he had during the team's 2012 NCAA Tournament appearance. Anthony Collins (8.6 ppg, 6.5 apg) being back is an even bigger positive for the squad. Although Collins also suffered from poor shooting, he was second in the Big East in assists. Having a player that can set teammates up for buckets is a necessity, especially for a weak offensive team.

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