The Cincinnati Bearcats had a nice media day. Aside from getting to travel to Philadelphia, the team also earned some recognition from the rest of the league. UC was picked as the preseason favorite to win the AAC and Troy Caupain and Gary Clark were each pegged for preseason accolades. Now that the Bearcats have a bullseye on their backs, its time to look at the conference foes who will be storming the gates of Fifth Third Arena with league title dreams racing through their heads.
Last season, the AAC enjoyed a relatively strong basketball season as a conference. Cincinnati was one of four teams to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament and that number would have been increased by one if it weren’t for SMU’s postseason ban. The league also had six teams win at least 20 games and that doesn’t count the normally competitive Memphis Tigers, who got to 19 victories.
While it may not be the ACC or the Big East of old, the AAC actually has some juice in basketball right now. With competitive opponents surrounding them, the Bearcats need to know who they are going up against.
Things to Know: You’ll probably remember that the Huskies ripped the Bearcats’ hearts out over four overtimes in the AAC tourney last year. Well, the Huskies will probably be the team standing in UC’s way once again this year. This year’s team will be quite young, with five freshmen on the roster. However, due to Kevin Ollie’s recruiting acumen, there is every expectation that the new guys will step in and produce immediately, especially Alterique Gilbert.
Player to Watch: Jalen Adams
Adams numbers may not have been incredible (7.3 PPG, 2.4 APG, .424/.273/.863), but his play picked up toward the end of the year. He also scored in double figures in 11 games and he is the rare player with 70-foot range. Ugh. I felt disgusting just writing that. Rodney Purvis and Amida Brimah may be the senior leaders, but Adams is poised for a breakout.
Threat Level: High
Purvis, Adams and Brimah are a solid core even without the talented recruiting class. The Huskies have won at least 20 games in each of Ollie’s four seasons and last year got back into the NCAA Tournament. Expect similar results this year, which means UConn will be a thorn in UC’s side once again.
Things to Know: Exit Josh Pastner and enter Tubby Smith. The Tigers were disappointing the last two years, winning 18 and 19 games, respectively. Smith has a title winning pedigree and is one of four new head coaches in the conference. He is the one with the best chance at turning things around, since the Tigers aren’t exactly starting from scratch.
Player to Watch: Dedric Lawson
The biggest reason Smith should be able to come in and push Memphis into the AAC title race immediately is the 6’9” forward. Lawson was a monster as a freshman, scoring 15.8 points per game while nearly averaging a double-double each night (9.3 RPG). He was a volume scorer for the Tigers, leading the AAC in field goal attempts (365) and points produced (525).
Threat Level: Nearly high
Lawson is awesome and Smith is a great coach, but he still has to get a team that lost talented players like Shaq Goodwin, Ricky Tarrant Jr. and Avery Woodson to improve on last year’s 19-win effort. Steps forward from K.J. Lawson and Markel Crawford will help in that regard, but it may be another year before these Tigers are clawing the AAC apart.
Things to Know: Its too bad that Larry Brown decided to leave after rebuilding SMU so quickly. Even though the team was banned from the postseason last spring, the Mustangs won at least 25 games for the third-straight year and finished No. 24 in the AP poll. If not for the ban, they would certainly have been in the NCAA Tournament. Tim Jankovich was associate head coach under Brown and leads SMU, a team that no longer has AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore, but won’t be a pushover either.
Player to Watch: Ben Moore
No relation to Nic, the 6’8” forward averaged 11.9 points per game last season and was also a force on the boards (7.4 RPG) and in protecting the rim, blocking nearly a shot and a half a game. SMU led the AAC in rebounding margin last season and was fourth nationally, but now that Jordan Tolbert (8.5 RPG) and Markus Kennedy (6.3 RPG) are gone, Moore will be needed to not only score but to clean the glass with vigor.
Threat Level: Moderately High
With Sterling Brown, who is a lights out 3-point shooter and All-AAC rookie Shake Milton back in the fold, SMU is another team with a nice core. Plus, Jankovich was part of the Brown regime so there will be continuation. Even so, the ceiling for this squad just isn’t as high as it was a year ago.
Things to Know: Props to Kelvin Sampson for the job he has done at Houston. In his first season as head coach, the Cougars went 13-19. In year two, Houston finished 22-10, earned the second seed in the AAC tourney and was on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament discussion. Even minus second leading scorer Devonta Pollard (14.0 PPG), the Cougars have a solid team once again. Is Sampson set to perform some more magic in year three?
Player to Watch: Damyean Dotson
Sure, Robert Gray Jr. led the team in scoring, but the 6’2” guard is a bit one-dimensional. Dotson is the motor that drives this train and is a talented scorer (13.9 PPG) in his own right as well as last year’s leading rebounder (6.8 RPG), even if he is just 6’5”.
Threat Level: Moderate
Sampson pushes the pace and Houston led the AAC in scoring last year (77.4 PPG). Gray and Dotson will allow the team to continue to be high octane, as will sophomore Galen Robinson Jr. (7.9 PPG), who is the future of the program.
Things to Know: The Knights are under new management with former Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins leading things now. Dawkins has his work cut out for him, as UCF has won 13, 12 and 12 games in each of the last three years, respectively. However, Dawkins has some great building blocks in guys like A.J. Davis (12.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG) and Tacko Fall (7.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.3 BPG).
Player to Watch: Tacko Fall
Not a great scorer but an efficient one, the 7’6” Fall led the AAC in field goal percentage (.750) last season. However, his greatest attribute was on defense, as he blocked a conference-best 70 shots as a freshman. His ability to control the paint should help Dawkins squeeze some more defensive success out of a team that ranked 10th in the conference in scoring defense a year ago (71.6 PPG).
Threat Level: Mild
UCF is a team that has a shot at surprising in a league that was filled with strong squads last year, but is filled with a number of rebuilding ones in 2017. If Fall develops his offensive game, Davis continues to play well and B.J. Taylor returns to form after missing last season with a lower leg injury, UCF could sneak up on some folks and in the standings.
Things to Know: Things are up in the air for the Owls, who are hoping to be fully healthy, but the statuses of point guard Josh Brown and Trey Lowe remain unclear, which puts a lot of pressure of Fran Dunphy to make lemonade out of an unproven roster. He’s done it before, as last year’s squad went 21-12 and made it to the NCAA Tournament despite being picked to come in sixth in the AAC’s preseason coaches poll.
Player to Watch: Obi Enechionyia
Even when Brown and Lowe are at full strength, there will still need to be others who step up. Quenton DeCosey, Jaylen Bond and Devin Coleman are all gone and that leaves Enechionyia (11.0 PPG) as the top returning contributor. He will be leaned on heavily as Dunphy figures out the rotation in the early going.
Threat Level: Mildish
Dunphy always seems to find a way to field a competitive squad and Enechionyia is a talented player. Assuming Brown and Lowe can return and veterans Daniel Dingle and Mark Williams fill in the gaps, the Owls will at least keep the pressure on opponents.
Things to Know: This is a whole new team. You’ve probably heard that before but this time its true. James Woodard (15.4 PPG). Gone. Shaquille Harrison (15.1 PPG, 4.1 APG). See ya. And that’s just two of the seven players that departed this past spring. Frank Haith now has to keep Tulsa on the rise with a new rotation. (It has won at least 20 games each of the last three seasons).
Player to Watch: Sterling Taplin
Even though Pat Birt (12.0, 78 3-pointers) is the best returning scorer, its more important that Haith find a player to lead the offense. Taplin got some play as a freshman and could be the starting point guard. That’s a key role on a team that ranked 19th nationally in turnovers with only 343.
Threat Level: OK
Haith can coach and Taplin is a promising player. Plus, JUCO transfer Jaleel Wheeler (22.3 PPG) could be a difference maker in his first year on campus. Even with that said, a lot will have to go right for this newly formed roster to get into the same room as the AAC throne.
Things to Know: The Pirates couldn’t stop teams last year and couldn’t rebound. In Jeff Lebo’s seventh season at the helm, there isn’t much indication that they will be better at that.
Player to Watch: B.J. Tyson
He can score with the best of them (14.6 PPG) and ECU is going to need to do plenty of that since they were terrible at stopping opposing teams last season (71.9 PPG). Teamed with Caleb White (12.5 PPG), Tyson helps give the Pirates a nice one-two scoring punch at the very least.
Threat Level: Meager
Lebo may be the next coach in the conference to get the boot. The Pirates have had diminishing returns in wins over the last four seasons and have been severely outclassed since joining the AAC. Unless Tyson and White turn into Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the Pirates will be near the league’s cellar again.
Things to Know: The Bulls won eight games last season. They won nine the year before that. Nine wins should be rock bottom. But the Bulls found a way to fall lower. That same team lost five players. Buckle in Orlando Antigua, its going to be another tough year on the sidelines.
Player to Watch: Jahmal McMurray
At least fans of the Bulls get to watch McMurray ball out. As a freshman, McMurray netted 15.2 points per game and was a dangerous shooter from long range. He will be at the center of Antigua’s attempts to craft a half decent offense out of last year’s AAC-worst (63.2 PPG).
Threat Level: Nope
McMurray was a star last year and it still only led to eight wins. Maybe the Bulls will win more than that this year, but that still won’t make them a contender for anything.
Things to Know: There is NBA talent on this team. Too bad its not on the court but the sidelines. New head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr., who played in 12 NBA seasons and coached 17 more, was a splashy hire for Tulane, which came in dead last in the AAC last season (3-15).
Player to Watch: Malik Morgan
Now that Louis Dabney (14.4 PPG) is out, Morgan is the unquestioned leader of the team. He averaged 12.2 points per game and also showed an ability to rebound (5.1 RPG) and dish the rock (2.4 APG).
Threat Level: Negligible
Even with the addition of Dunleavy and Morgan’s talent, this is still a mess that will take years to clean up.