By Kevin Sweeney
Last season, the American was one of the most exciting conferences to watch in college basketball. The league season was filled with storylines, from SMU’s undefeated start to the year (despite a looming postseason ban), to the large number of bubble teams vying for NCAA Tournament berths. The excitement continued into a wild conference tournament, which included upsets, such as Tulane shocking Houston and Memphis’s run to the conference championship game, as well as one of the best games of the season, a wild 4OT thriller between UCONN and Cincinnati that included one of the best buzzer-beaters in recent memory. (video courtesy of AmericanAthleticConf/Youtube)
Now, a new season is upon us, and we can expect another wild AAC campaign in 2016-17.
- East Carolina
Champions: UConn- The Huskies don’t have much frontcourt depth behind Amida Brimah, but they are simply too talented NOT to win the American this season. While the Huskies have underperformed the past few seasons, a strong backcourt plus a good mix of youth and experience should carry UConn in 2016-17. They return leading scorer Rodney Purvis, a gritty competitor who can fill it up from downtown, and point guard Jalen Adams, who excelled at the end of the season as a freshman and should improve significantly. They also bring in guard Terry Larrier, a lengthy wing who good ball-handling skills who can help soften the blow of losing Daniel Hamilton, as well as highly-touted freshman backcourt duo Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert. An added edge is that this season’s conference tournament will be in Hartford, CT, a huge advantage for the Huskies. If they get consistent production from the frontcourt, the Huskies could not only be one of the best teams in the American, but one of the best teams in the country.
Dark Horse: Memphis- Any time you have the best player in the conference, you have a great chance to win. In my opinion, Dedric Lawson of Memphis is that guy in the American. Lawson’s decision to return to Memphis for his sophomore campaign after testing the waters of the NBA Draft was huge for the Tigers and new coach Tubby Smith. Smith, who takes over after doing a remarkable job of rebuilding the Texas Tech program, inherits a team without much depth, but a lot of talent. They will rely heavily on Lawson, a 6-9 do-everything forward, but their hopes of being an NCAA Tournament-level team rest on the shoulders of an inexperienced guard unit. Veteran guard Markel Crawford will have to step up, and graduate transfer guard Christian Kessee, who averaged nearly 15 points per game for Coppin State last year, will be a vital piece for the Tigers.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Dedric Lawson- Memphis
- F: Ben Moore- SMU
- G: Troy Caupain- Cincinnati
- G:Rob Gray Jr.- Houston
- G: Jahmal McMurray- USF
Player of the Year: Dedric Lawson- Lawson should only improve on what was one of the better seasons by anyone in the American last season. He averaged nearly 16 points and over 9 rebounds last season as a freshman, both numbers ranking in the top 5 of the American conference. Look for Lawson to expand his game this season, as he will likely shoot more from the outside and increase his ballhandling load. However, he will need to cut down on turnovers this season, as he averaged more than 3 turnovers per game last season. As one of the leaders of the team this season, he must take care of the basketball and make good decisions. Lawson should be a fun player to watch this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Alterique Gilbert (UConn)- Gilbert, a true freshman, is one of the top recruits in country. The diminutive point guard may only be generously listed at 6 feet tall, but he is a dynamic playmaker at the point guard position who could follow in the footsteps of former UConn stars Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier, and Ryan Boatright. If Gilbert lives up to the hype, he could pair with Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis to form one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball. Here are some of Gilbert’s highlights from the AAU circuit: (Video Courtesy of Ballislife 2.0/Youtube)