By Kevin Sweeney
The addition of Wichita State was the big news in the AAC last season. Coming over from the MVC in search of high-major respect, the Shockers won 25 games and were one of 3 AAC teams that earned top-6 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. However, the league’s depth still left a lot to be desired, with just the 3 NCAA Tournament bids and a glut of NIT-level teams.
This year is a bit of a different story. Cincinnati, Wichita State, and Houston all should be expected to take a bit of a step back, and mild improvement can be expected from the league’s middle tier. Thanks to this parity, it becomes a very difficult league to project. To me, there isn’t a clear top 25 team, but 8-9 teams have a preseason case to be in NCAA Tournament contention.
Perhaps no team in college basketball caught the injury bug worse than the Knights last season. First, star transfer Aubrey Dawkins went down preseason with a shoulder injury. Then, both scoring guard BJ Taylor and towering center Tacko Fall missed significant time with injuries throughout the season. A team already lacking scoring talent, UCF couldn’t afford those losses, leaving them with one of the most putrid offenses in all of college basketball. With all 3 back and healthy, the upside of this club exceeds that of any other AAC squad. Fall’s presence will help keep Johnny Dawkins’ club’s defense one of the nation’s elite, and Dawkins provides a second high-level shot-maker to pair with Taylor. In a league where every team has question marks, I’ll gamble on the Knights at this point.
Kelvin Sampson has quietly done an outstanding job with this Houston program. Inheriting a program that had only made one NCAA Tournament since the days of the Southwest Conference, Sampson finally got the Cougars over the hump in 2017-18. And while scoring sensation Rob Gray graduates, several key cogs are back from a team that was a few seconds away from beating eventual national runner-up Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. The defense should be strong once again, but former UMass guard Dejon Jarreau will have to provide some scoring punch alongside a great shooter in Corey Davis.
Yet another team that should be great on defense but may struggle to score points, the Bearcats lose 3 of their top 4 scorers from last year’s AAC championship club. Junior Jarron Cumberland should be expected to shoulder a majority of the scoring load, a role he’s more than capable of handling. Sophomore Keith Williams and JUCO transfer Rashawn Frederick both showed promise during the Bearcats’ recent trip to Canada, but both will need to be consistent shot-makers. Plus, without Kyle Washington and Gary Clark manning the frontcourt, it seems unlikely that Cincinnati will be able to maul teams on the boards in the same fashion as they did last season. With Mick Cronin at the helm, the Bearcats might be the league’s safest pick to reach the Big Dance. I don’t know that I see top-25 upside though.
#4. Memphis– DARK HORSE
The months-long speculation of a Penny Hardaway takeover at Memphis came to fruition this March, as the former NBA star with a rolodex of high school and AAU connections in the area took over for Tubby Smith. And while most eyes around college basketball are watching intently to see if he can lure local 2019 5-star James Wiseman among other top prospects, Hardaway did an underrated job with a late start of adding talent. He quickly injected talent into the program with 8 newcomers, including a 6-man freshman class that ranked #30 in the 247 composite. Combine that group with 4 seniors including conference POY candidate Jeremiah Martin, and the NCAA Tournament is far from out of the question in year 1. There may be bumps in the road as Hardaway gets accustomed to college coaching, but there’s a lot of upside to be tapped into on this Memphis club.
Pounded with injuries last season, SMU has an interesting group in tow for 2018-19. A returning core of Jahmal McMurray, Jimmy Whitt, Jarrey Foster, and Ethan Chargois has upside, with Foster and Whitt capable of impacting the game in a number of ways while covering the weaknesses in McMurray & Chargois’ shot-happy games. Add in a reliable grad transfer in Chattanooga’s Nat Dixon and talented Duquesne transfer Isiaha Mike, and the Mustangs should be back in NCAA Tournament contention.
The Kevin Ollie era came to an unceremonious ending that’s still being played out in the legal system in March, with Dan Hurley tasked with turning around the proud Husky program. Hurley has the guards in place to play a similar style as he did at Rhode Island, headlined by a POY-caliber PG in Jalen Adams, the steady Christian Vital, and a former McDonald’s All-American in Alterique Gilbert. However, the frontcourt leaves a lot to be desired. Josh Carlton has the upside to be a double-double guy down the road, but the Huskies don’t have much depth behind him. Mamadou Diarra’s health is in question, Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley are both very skinny and will struggle on the glass, Eric Cobb hasn’t shown much in his college career, and St. John’s grad transfer Kassoum Yakwe struggled to find minutes at St. John’s despite the Red Storm having almost nothing in terms of frontcourt options. A smaller lineup with redshirt freshman Sid Wilson at the 4 has the most offensive upside, but might suffer on defense, while going bigger will sacrifice floor spacing. Solving this frontcourt puzzle will be Hurley’s biggest year 1 challenge.
#7. Wichita State
2018-19 always looked to be a reloading campaign for the Shockers, but the early departures of Landry Shamet (NBA) and Austin Reaves (transfer) left the roster in an even greater state of flux. Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones are the only rotation players returning, and they’ll be be complimented by a 7-man freshman class, 2 solid JUCO products, and potentially WVU transfer Teddy Allen, as he awaits a potential waiver for immediate eligibility from the NCAA. McDuffie has always been supremely talented, but has yet to put it all together. As the leader of this club, he’ll need to live up to the hype and be much more consistent than in years past if the Shockers are going to find their way to the NCAA Tournament for an 8th straight year.
The Owls might have the league’s best player in Quinton Rose, an uber-athletic wing who can score at all 3 levels. Beyond him and senior point guard Shizz Alston, there’s not a ton to be excited about with this club in the final season of the Fran Dunphy era. Wings JP Moorman and De’Vondre Perry showed promise as freshmen, but will need to take big steps forward if the Owls want to climb the AAC standings.
I’m intrigued by this Tulsa club. The loss of Junior Etou looms large, but the Golden Hurricanes have a solid point guard in Sterling Taplin, a pair of intriguing wings in Nebraska transfer Jeriah Horne and breakout candidate DaQuan Jeffries, and a good big man in Martins Igbanu. They may not have the top-end talent to contend with the big boys in the AAC, but they have enough solid pieces to be a tough out, especially at home.
The Green Wave took a nice step forward in year 2 under Mike Dunleavy, but much of that positive momentum died out with a tough ending to AAC play and the early departure of Melvin Frazier to the NBA. Still, 3 key rotation players in Jordan Cornish, Ray Ona Embo, and Samir Sehic return, and Dunleavy brings in one of the nation’s most underrated recruiting classes. They might be a year away from a bigger leap into the top half of the conference, but I like the direction this program is headed.
#11. East Carolina
Joe Dooley is back as head coach at ECU following a successful stint at Florida Gulf Coast, and with him comes an outstanding coaching staff headlined by high-level recruiters Raphael Chillious and Steve Roccaforte. The future looks bright, but it remains to be seen what the Pirates can do in year one. Guards Shawn Williams and Isaac Fleming will need to shoulder the load, while a 6-man freshman class headlined by former Georgetown commit Tyler Foster has some promise. It may be a struggle early on, but once Dooley can get his guys in, I expect them to have more success.
#12. South Florida
I wasn’t a huge fan of the Brian Gregory hire at the time, and he hasn’t done much to prove my skepticism wrong at this point. Rising sophomore David Collins is on an all-league trajectory, but glut of departures by way of graduation and transfer doesn’t leave much in terms of returning talent. Gardner-Webb transfer LaQuincy Rideau should be the answer at point guard, but the frontcourt may a be a disaster. Gregory’s future likely depends on landing more hits than misses in the 2018, 2019, and 2020 recruiting classes.
All-Conference First Team:
- G: Jalen Adams– UConn (18.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.7 apg, .430/.324/.796)
- G: Quinton Rose– Temple (14.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, .434/.345/.653)
- G: Jeremiah Martin– Memphis (18.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, .444/.327/.784)
- G: Jarrey Foster– SMU (13.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, .466/.323/.698)
- G: Jarron Cumberland– Cincinnati (11.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.9 apg, .409/.339/.678)
Player of the Year: Jalen Adams (UConn)
I was torn here, but decided to go with Adams, who will play his final season of college basketball in Dan Hurley’s guard-friendly system. He can be that prototypical lead guard relied upon to score and create offense for others, though he’ll have to do a better job of keeping the ball moving than he did last year, when he became a bit of a ballstopper (though that can be at least partially attributed to Kevin Ollie’s offensive system.)
Breakout Player: Keith Williams (Cincinnati)
A former 4-star, top-150 recruit, Williams’ minutes fluctuated last season. With Jacob Evans graduating, the Brooklyn native will be looked to for a much bigger role, and I believe he’s ready for the challenge. Williams has good size and is excellent at getting to the rim, but he’ll have to improve as a 3-point shooter from his 15% mark last season.
Newcomer of the Year: Aubrey Dawkins (UCF)
Dawkins was the trendy pick for this award last season, but a shoulder injury derailed his season before it began. After 2 years at Michigan where he was a solid rotation player, Dawkins followed his father to UCF to play out the remainder of his career. I expect a huge year from him– Dawkins is an elite shooter who has improved his overall game throughout his sit-out seasons. He’ll pair nicely with BJ Taylor to form perhaps the league’s best backcourt.