By Kevin Sweeney
It has been a wild ride of an offseason for the AAC– with a coaching change at Cincinnati, Houston holding onto Kelvin Sampson, Memphis landing more elite recruits, and UConn announcing its impending departure back to the Big East, there has been a ton of noteworthy storylines throughout the league since the season came to a close. Despite the loss of UConn, the league appears to be on an upward trajectory, thanks to the bottom slowly getting stronger with strong coaching hires at Tulane and ECU as well as elite recruiting at the top by Memphis, Cincinnati, and Houston. Adding more top-end talent and strengthening the worst teams are both good ways to continue to give the league chances for at-large bids.
#1. Memphis– The talent certainly won’t be the question for the Tigers, a testament to the job Penny Hardaway has done in a short amount of time at Memphis. Hardaway hauled in the nation’s #1 recruiting class in 2019, the first time a team not named Duke or Kentucky has led 247’s class rankings since 2007. The frontcourt possibilities are endless with DJ Jeffries, Precious Achiuwa, and James Wiseman all physical freaks with high skill level for their size. It’s guard play where the questions lie, specifically at point guard. Freshmen Boogie Ellis and Damion Baugh are the candidates, with Ellis wired more to score and Baugh a Rajon Rondo-like physical guard who can pass and defend. This team will be incredibly young, but the potential is sky-high.
#2. Cincinnati– The Bearcats landed on their feet after Mick Cronin departed for Westwood, hiring the well-regarded John Brannen away from neighboring Northern Kentucky to lead the program. Brannen has cobbled together a roster that fits nicely around star guard Jarron Cumberland, including Cumberland’s cousin Jaevin Cumberland (Oakland). Like at Memphis, point guard questions abound– can Jarron Cumberland be successfully converted into a lead guard, or will some combo of the well-traveled Chris McNeal or freshman Mika Adams-Woods have to patch together competent play at the point?
#3. Houston– The early loss of Armoni Brooks to the pro ranks is a major blow, especially given Corey Davis and Galen Robinson were already set to depart. Without a waiver for Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes, the Cougars will lean even more heavily on Dejon Jarreau for backcourt scoring punch this season. Jarreau’s transition from high-usage super-sub to ball-dominant scorer will be interesting to watch, as will the growth of glue guy extraordinaire Nate Hinton. The defense under Kelvin Sampson should be as steady as ever, but scoring consistently could be a question mark.
#4. South Florida– The CBI isn’t the right fit for every team, but it was a perfect way for Brian Gregory to get more practices and more game reps for a young team that had shown real promise in 2018-19. Winning the tournament has only furthered the buzz surrounding the Bulls this season, given the fact that Gregory’s bunch returns over 90% of its minutes from last season. The Bulls have all the makings of a tournament team– steady veteran point guard, good wing scorer, physical inside-out big, and a strong defense. Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson could be the piece that pushes USF over the top, and Gregory raved about Dawson after the team’s international trip:
#5. Wichita State– The Shocker roster is somewhat oddly constructed, heavy on point guards and non-shooting bigs and light on the wing. Still, the talent is there for Gregg Marshall, and the Shockers should be able to create some mismatches with their ability to play three ballhandlers at once. I’m also excited to track the progress of sophomore wing Dexter Dennis, an athletic wing slasher who can hit outside shots and defend multiple positions. He presents an intriguing option as a small-ball four should WSU elect to play smaller lineups and get freshmen guards Grant Sherfield, Noah Fernandes, and Ty Etienne more court time.
#6. UConn– It’s clear that Dan Hurley is building something at UConn, as he continues to make headway on the recruiting trail into the 2020 class after a strong 2019 group of multi-year contributors. The additions of Akok Akok, James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, and Richie Springs adds massive long-term upside for the Huskies, and should provide an immediate boost to a roster in transition. Getting better on the defensive end of the floor will be critical if Hurley wants to get to the NCAA Tournament this season.
#7. Temple– Aaron McKie’s first year as the head man at Temple will be a fascinating one, with a loaded wing unit featuring Quentin Rose, Nate Pierre-Louis, and Kennesaw State transfer James Scott all capable of taking over a game with their scoring ability. Rebounding is a big concern given the graduation of Ernest Aflakpui, especially given the Owls struggled on the boards to begin with last season. McKie will also have to find someone to run the show with the graduation of Shizz Alston.
#8. UCF– Johnny Dawkins secured his long-term future in the Orlando area with an NCAA Tournament berth (and what really should have been a Sweet 16 bid), but has a big rebuilding project on his hands now with the departures of six of his top seven scorers from last season. Grad transfers Dazon Ingram (Alabama) and Matt Milon (William & Mary) along with a pair of transfers becoming eligible in Ibrahim Doumbia (South Carolina) and Yuat Alok (TCU– eligible in December) should be enough to keep the Knights afloat.
#9. SMU– It’s a critical year for Tim Jankovich after feeling significant heat from the SMU fanbase during an underwhelming 15-17 season. A third consecutive 6-12 conference record would likely spell the end for a tenure that began so promisingly in the shadows of Larry Brown. Losing do-it-all point guard Jimmy Whitt is a blow, making a waiver for either Darius McNeill (Cal) or Kendric Davis (TCU) that much more important to solidify the point guard spot.
#10. Tulsa– Frank Haith hasn’t recruited at a high enough level to consistently compete for NCAA Tournament berths at Tulsa, but has been able to find his share of under-the-radar guys to keep his clubs relevant on a year-in, year-out basis. A frontcourt trio of returners Martins Igbanu and Jeriah Horne along with former LSU combo forward Brandon Rachal should be steady for the Golden Hurricanes. I’m just not sure they have enough in the backcourt to consistently win games, with major questions at point guard and a lack of overall backcourt depth.
#11. Tulane– Tulane desperately needed someone to inject excitement and energy into the program after the doldrums of the Mike Dunleavy Sr era, and who better for the job than one of the great characters in college basketball: Ron Hunter. Hunter made a splash on the transfer market right away, landing a trio of grad transfers in KJ Lawson (Kansas), Christion Thompson (Rhode Island), and Nic Thomas (Norfolk State) along with a pair of sit-out guys in Teshaun Hightower (Georgia) and Ibby Ali (Arkansas). Lawson should be a star in the American, and the backcourt should be improved with the additions of Jordan Walker (Seton Hall), Thompson, and Thomas along the getting Ray Ona Embo back healthy.
#12. East Carolina– Six JUCO transfers join Joe Dooley at ECU as Dooley looks to build around a building block piece in Jayden Gardner. Point guards Tyrie Jackson and Tremont Robinson appear the cream of the crop, needing to solidify the team’s ballhandling unit.
- LaQuincy Rideau (South Florida)
- Jarron Cumberland (Cincinnati)
- Quentin Rose (Temple)
- DJ Jeffries (Memphis)
- James Wiseman (Memphis)
Player of the Year: Jarron Cumberland (Cincinnati)
Cumberland is a professional scorer playing college basketball– an incredibly polished and physical guard who can score at three levels and get a bucket any time he wants. He’ll likely be looked to as more of a well-rounded creator for others this season given the shaky nature of the team’s point guard situation. How well he takes to the new role will determine just how good this Cincinnati team can be.
Breakout player: Nate Hinton (Houston)
I love everything about Hinton’s game– his poise, defense, and shooting made him a critical part of the Houston rotation as a freshman. He should see a bigger role in the offense in year two, and reports indicate he has expanded his game this offseason. He may never be an elite scorer, but Hinton makes a huge impact when he’s on the floor and I can’t wait to see how he develops.
Newcomer of the Year: James Wiseman (Memphis)
Insert Memphis freshman here. It would be stunning if anyone other than one of the Tigers’ seven-man freshman class wasn’t the best newcomer in the league, though it’s somewhat difficult to project which one it will be. Wiseman is the safe choice here given his incredible size and skill level, but Jeffries, Achiuwa, Ellis, Lester Quinones, and even Baugh could have a say.