Your Way Too Early 2014-15 AAC PreviewPosted by Mike Lemaire on April 7th, 2014
As we anxiously wait to see whether UConn can deliver a title to the American Athletic Conference in its very first season of existence, it’s important to take some time to wildly speculate about how the conference will shake out next season. We don’t yet have a complete list of who is heading to the NBA Draft and we haven’t watched even one minute of East Carolina or Tulane basketball this season, but that won’t stop us from sticking our necks out with everyone’s predicted finish for next season.
- SMU. Every top team in the conference is losing at least two important pieces except for the Mustangs. Graduating senior Nick Russell was a valuable contributor this season, but SMU has guys like Keith Frazier and Sterling Brown waiting in the wings. Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore will continue to get better and don’t forget about incoming uber-recruit Emmanuel Mudiay who could be in the starting lineup from Day One.
- Connecticut. People thought Kemba Walker was irreplaceable until Shabazz Napier stepped up, but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the Huskies have another superstar guard ready to fill the void. Napier’s departure will leave the biggest hole, but Niels Giffey was an efficient offensive player and Lasan Kromah was dependable as well. The team’s success will likely hinge whether DeAndre Daniels decides to turn pro. If he stays for his senior season and Omar Calhoun turns around a once promising career, those two and Ryan Boatright form a solid nucleus to rebuild around.
- Houston. Don’t look now but the Cougars return more talent than anyone in the conference except SMU and the only reason they aren’t ahead of Connecticut is because they have never been able to do anything with that talent to this point. It’s stupid early but a first five of TaShawn Thomas, Danuel House, L.J. Rose, Jherrod Stiggers, and Chicken Knowles is as good as any in the conference. They will need to build some depth and they will need to play demonstrably better on defense, but they could be a popular sleeper pick next season.
- Cincinnati. The Bearcats lose their two best players in Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson. Kilpatrick accounted for a third of the team’s offense on any given night and Jackson was one of the best and most versatile defenders in the country, and we haven’t even mentioned Titus Rubles. Despite the losses, coach Mick Cronin deserves the benefit of the doubt. The recruiting class won’t receive much acclaim, but the cupboard isn’t bare and the team’s grind-it-out style of play will help them stay in any game.
- Tulsa. Although news broke on Friday that coach Danny Manning is leaving to coach Wake Forest, whoever inherits the stewardship of the Tulsa program will have to thank Manning for leaving behind a stockpile of talent. The team returns six of its top eight scorers including its top three and has a promising two-man recruiting class that includes Mitchell Wilbekin, the younger brother of Florida star Scottie Wilbekin. James Woodard could blossom into one of the conference’s best offensive players and supporting cast is good enough to help the team make it back to the Big Dance.
- Memphis. Next season will be a make-or-break one for Tigers’ coach Josh Pastner. His teams continue to underachieve and now he loses his four best guards and surprisingly doesn’t have a loaded recruiting class to replace them. Pastner’s future in Memphis will be his ability to develop players like Nick King and Kuran Iverson. Those players have the talent to play at the next level, but if they struggle to improve and the team struggles along with it, well, let’s just say that Tigers’ fans don’t have THAT much patience.
- Temple. If star center Anthony Lee hadn’t transferred to Ohio State, the Owls might have been a trendy pick to return to the NCAA Tournament after a forgettable 2013-14 campaign. Even without Lee there is plenty to be optimistic about. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey should benefit from additional seasoning and transfers Jaylen Bond and Devin Coleman will both be eligible at some point during the season and they will help immensely. Coach Fran Dunphy will need to find a viable frontcourt, but there is enough firepower to challenge the upper quarter of the league.
- South Florida. New coach Orlando Antigua won’t turn this moribund program around overnight, but Corey Allen Jr. and a healthy Anthony Collins will help bridge the gap. Also, teams could do much worse than building around promising big men John Egbunu and Chris Perry. The bottom line is there is hope on the horizon and enough talent currently in the stable to keep the Bulls from the conference cellar.
- Central Florida. Isaiah Sykes was the heart and soul of this team and his graduation coupled with the graduation of important contributors Calvin Newell and Tristan Spurlock means the Golden Knights are going to take a step back before they move forward. The program suffered some crippling setbacks on the recruiting trail and Jones will need to start winning soon before he is forced onto the chopping block as well.
- East Carolina and Tulane. Welcome to the AAC where the chase for almighty football dollars drags East Carolina and Tulane’s awful basketball programs into a new conference fighting to maintain its high-major reputation in the sport. The move to a bigger and better conference will mean good things for the two schools’ basketball programs eventually, but next year these teams will be good for inflating other teams’ win totals and dragging down their RPI.