American Athletic Conference Offseason CapsulesPosted by Mike Lemaire on October 15th, 2013
We are a little less than a month away from the start of another college basketball season and as teams start to get in to the swing of things, we here at the AAC microsite will be doing the same things. The offseason in college basketball can be a tedious stream of coaching changes, arrests, transfers, recruiting, and injury news. But it is still an important part of the game and since we know you have had better things to do than sit at home and track the minutiae of each AAC team’s offseason, we figured we would do it for you as the perfect way to launch our coverage for this season. Look for a full conference preview in the next week as well as the standard Morning Fives, some other fun coverage, and maybe even a new writer or two, who knows.
When your team is fresh off a National Championship and looking like a legitimate candidate to repeat, the last thing you want as a coach is an offseason full of distractions. Luckily for coach Rick Pitino, the distractions and bad news have been very limited this summer. Tragedy struck as Luke Hancock learned he lost his father to cancer while trying out for USA Basketball in Colorado and there was a late-summer scare over a knee injury suffered by Montrezl Harrell which turned out to be much ado about nothing. But the team also got to visit the White House in July, learned that guard Kevin Ware hadn’t been secretly suspended over the summer and has now been cleared for practice.
In fact, the most controversy surrounding Louisville from the offseason came when a pair of Boston radio hosts hung up on Pitino during a promotional interview after telling him that, “he ruined the Celtics.” Hilarious stuff, really. Pitino also gave a struggling assistant coach a job in the coolest way possible. Put it this way, if you are Pitino and the worst press of the offseason is that you were hung up on early during a promotional interview, you can live with that. The bottom line is that the Cardinals are loaded with talent and could be insanely deep if Ware makes it back to the court quicker than expected.
If it wasn’t for forward Tyler Olander’s DUI idiocy and suspension, it would have been a nice, quiet offseason for coach Kevin Ollie and his Huskies – especially when compared with previous offseasons. But the DUI charges against Olander have since been dropped and the forward has been reinstated, which is a huge boon to team with major frontcourt issues. Also, freshman guard Terrence Samuel cleared up eligibility concerns over the summer, adding more depth to an already loaded backcourt. The only remaining question is whether another key freshman, Kentan Facey, will be cleared to play with the team as he deals with eligibility concerns stemming from his time at a high school in Jamaica. The 6’9″ Facey is a prized recruit and will be an important frontcourt contributor if he is cleared to play. The Huskies look poised to quickly return to the NCAA Tournament this year.
As far as interesting news goes, there is no team in the conference that has had a quieter offseason than the Bearcats. The offseason started with a bang when senior guard Sean Kilpatrick announced he would return for his senior season, but since then, it’s been all crickets. I guess you could count gangly forward Justin Jackson putting on 20 pounds or highly-touted 2014 recruit Qadri Moore’s commitment to the Bearcats big news, but that would be stretching the definition. In some cases the lack of news might not be such a good thing, but coach Mick Cronin still needs to break in a new starting point guard and find anyone who can be a legitimate anchor in the post, so Cronin has probably welcomed an offseason without distractions of either kind. Kilpatrick’s return makes life a bit easier for Cronin and the team has plenty of athleticism, but points will be hard to come by and rebounds may be harder to come by still.
The Tigers hardly needed another piece to add to what is shaping up to be the best backcourt in the country, but Missouri transfer and defensive stalwart Michael Dixon has been cleared to play and the rich have gotten richer. Dixon has the talent to earn an immediate starting role and will be a key veteran leader on one of the conference’s youngest teams. The Tigers have missed out on one or two marquee recruits this summer, but it has been primarily a summer of good news for coach Josh Pastner. Pastner started the offseason by landing highly-touted freshman Dominic Woodson, then he nabbed a big-name assistant coach in former Arizona star Jason Gardner, and he capped off the summer by learning that stud freshman Kuran Iverson is eligible to play this season. It’s going to be a huge year for the Tigers and Pastner as they try to prove they are far more than just a product of the watered-down Conference USA. There is a raft of talent in place to take Memphis on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but there is also a lot of youth and inexperience.
The Mustangs’ recruiting effort was supposedly dealt a big blow when ace recruiter Jerrance Howard left for Kansas. Two months later, when uber-recruit Emmanuel Mudiay committed to the Mustangs over a host of powerful programs including Kentucky, we all learned never to doubt SMU coach Larry Brown. Mudiay’s decision proves SMU is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the Southwest recruiting trail, and oh yeah, the team Brown has this season is going to be pretty good as well. Many have the Mustangs as a sleeper team to watch this season and they have the talent to back it up. Now the onus is on Brown to mold a rotation out of his hodge-podge of returnees, talented recruits, and high-profile transfers.
One would be hard-pressed to find anything interesting that happened in the Temple program this offseason and that’s probably exactly how coach Fran Dunphy likes it. They did welcome local product Jaylen Bond back from Texas with open arms, but he will have to sit out the season, which is a shame, because Dunphy could have used him. Instead Dunphy will be looking at his young players, such as true freshman and St. Anthony’s product Josh Brown, to pick up the slack. Temple lost so much production from last season’s squad, it will be very difficult sledding in a good conference, but we have also learned never to underestimate Dunphy’s ability to get the most out of his less-heralded players.
Don’t look now, but Cougars’ coach James Dickey is quietly stockpiling upper-echelon talent in Houston. Chicken Knowles, Danuel House, TaShawn Thomas, and Jherrod Stiggers form a potent quartet to build around although the team likely lacks the depth and defensive ability to be a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament. They would be an even more exciting roster if they hadn’t lost leading scorer Joseph Young, who transferred when his father learned he would be demoted from the Director of Basketball Operations position, rendering Young permanently ineligible with the Cougars. Dickey did fill the void by landing Baylor transfer L.J. Rose, who has since been cleared to play this season. Although Rose does not possess the scoring ability or experience that Young did, he was a highly-rated recruit coming out of high school and he has the size and athleticism to carve out a role in the team’s backcourt. The good news is that the foundation is there, even if the program is a year or two away.
Aside from the program’s cool new court design, there has been only one story that matters for UCF basketball and that is the one that involves head coach Donnie Jones receiving a five-year contract extension that will keep him in charge of the program until at least 2018. There was some speculation that the combination of a new athletic director and some unsavory recruiting violations might push Jones out the door before he could build a winner, but the contract extension gives the program some stability as it ramps up to compete in a tougher conference. The Golden Knights probably won’t contend for an NCAA Tournament bid yet, but they have the resources in place to build the program into a consistent winner, and now Jones doesn’t have to look over his shoulder while he is doing that.
South Florida was practically silent this offseason, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but doesn’t look good when you think about the buzz this program had captured by making its first NCAA Tournament appearance under coach Stan Heath two seasons ago. The good news is that the Bulls will be moving to a slightly less rigorous conference. The bad news is that the roster is nearly devoid of worthwhile talent and the team is likely headed for a season full of struggles. Some improvement from point guard Anthony Collins might help and forward Victor Rudd is an excellent player in his own right, but the rest of the roster is rather unimpressive and this team is going to be excruciating to watch offensively. Good luck to all of you Bulls’ fans out there, it may be best to just avert your eyes now in preparation.
The program that had the most dramatic offseason is saved for last and Rutgers won this competition in a landslide. That is what happens when you are forced to remove your head coach and athletic director because of a player-abuse scandal and it is subsequently discovered that the new basketball coach you hired never actually graduated from college and the new athletic director has a bit of an unsavory past herself. All of that and we haven’t even mentioned the kerfuffle that broke out after the NCAA initially denied Iowa State transfer Kerwin Okoro’s hardship waiver despite the fact that the New York City native had lost his father and his older brother in a three-month span. The NCAA eventually caved and cleared Okoro for this season and they did the same for Pittsburgh transfer J.J. Moore. The program is still waiting for word on talented freshman Junior Etou’s eligibility. But the influx of transfers and talent of the leftovers (Myles Mack, Wally Judge, Jerome Seagears) leave Rutgers in a pretty good place considering the circus show. New coach Eddie Jordan may not have graduated from college, but he does appear to be the right man to jump-start the program all over again. But you all know the old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in one night, and the Rutgers basketball program takes longer.”