2020-21 32×32: American Conference Preview

It’s day two! After bringing you our America East predictions yesterday, we keep it moving today with the American. The departure of UConn just as it appears Dan Hurley is about to turn things around does weaken this league a bit, but there’s still plenty of talent at the top and 3-4 teams who should compete for NCAA Tournament berths. Let’s get into it:

  1. Houston – At one point this offseason, Houston seemed likely to enter the season as a top 10 team nationally. Swiss army knife Nate Hinton’s early pro exit and versatile frontcourt piece Fabian White’s ACL tear wipes out some of that optimism, but the Cougars remain my AAC favorite despite those losses. The backcourt is incredibly deep – few teams have four high-level returning guards like Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, Caleb Mills, and Marcus Sasser, and that’s without even mentioning sharpshooting Idaho transfer Cameron Tyson or highly-touted freshman wing Tramon Mark. Where losing Hinton hurts most is the ability to play small while remaining a rebounding edge, and unless either Justin Gorham or RS freshman J’Wan Roberts really steps up Kelvin Sampson will have to play some very small lineups around either Brison Gresham or Arkansas transfer Reggie Chaney at the 5. This team still has Sampson’s competitive defensive psyche along with plenty of offensive firepower, and that’s enough for me to pencil them in at the top. But that won’t stop me from thinking of what could have been with Hinton and White suiting up this season.
  2. Memphis – While the Tigers certainly didn’t live up to the considerable hype they entered 2019-20 with, criticism of Penny Hardaway for the performance feels misguided. The bottom line: last year’s Memphis team was never the Memphis team he built – even ignoring the James Wiseman fiasco, losing Lester Quinones early in the year and DJ Jeffries late never gave the Tigers a chance to become a cohesive unit. With several key returners and an elite transfer class incoming, one could argue that the upside for this group is higher than last year’s, especially if they can stay healthy. Jeffries and Quinones have sophomore jump written all over them, 5-star freshman Moussa Cisse should provide elite rim protection, and Virginia Tech transfer Landers Nolley is a proven scorer who could thrive without being asked to do so much on the offensive end at his new home. The main question is the point guard spot: does former 5-star Boogie Ellis learn to run offense? Could Damion Baugh break out and be a true distributor? Or does Alex Lomax keep the keys even though he lacks the upside of the other two options? How Hardaway’s PGs fare will determine whether this team has second weekend potential or if they are sweating on Selection Sunday. 
  3. SMU – The Mustangs are a tough club to peg, virtually running it back from a team that won 19 games and probably should have won more in 2019-20. Why should they have won more? Per KenPom, SMU lost a whopping five games during which they at one point had a 93% win probability or better, a mark that at some point makes you question whether Tim Jankovich is capable of bringing this group to the promised land. Despite those concerns, it’s not hard to fall in love with the talent here. The Mustangs replace skilled big Isiaha Mike with a more traditional center in Yor Anei (Oklahoma State – waiver dependent), who should provide a massive lift to a defense that was 202nd in KenPom in 2019-20. They also add more firepower in Cal transfer Darius McNeill, who averaged 11 ppg in the Pac-12 two seasons ago. Add two impact transfers like that to a trio of terrific returners in Tyson Jolly, Kendric Davis, and Feron Hunt, and this group has NCAA Tournament and potentially even top 25 upside. Can Jankovich guide the ship in the right direction in Dallas?
  4. Cincinnati – Year one of the John Brannen era was bumpier than expected, as a shaky relationship with your best player in Jarron Cumberland rarely makes things simple. Now the roster is almost all Brannen’s making – just Keith Williams and Mamoudou Diarra are holdovers from the Mick Cronin era. The biggest issue for Brannen to address this offseason was replacing Cumberland’s scoring and ballhandling, and Michigan transfer David DeJulius seems primed for a big role after serving as a steady 6th man for Juwan Howard in 2019-20. Keith Williams and Chris Vogt will likely also be asked to do more offensively, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Brannen run more offense through the post after doing so frequently at NKU through Drew McDonald. This group isn’t exactly loaded with offensive firepower, but they have plenty of proven vets to fill out a rotation and get back to the NCAA Tournament.
  5. Wichita State – This preview comes at a dark time for the Wichita State program given the allegations of player mistreatment that have came down in recent days.Early departures from Erik Stevenson, Jamarius Burton, and Grant Sherfield among others raised questions about program culture, but it was hard to envision something of this magnitude happening behind the scenes. If Marshall did these things, it’s hard to support him ever coaching college basketball again. But as we await the results of WSU’s investigation (and acknowledge that Marshall is one of the more bulletproof coaches in America), let’s look at this year’s team. Marshall and staff did well this spring to add newcomers to a roster still equipped to be competitive in the AAC and potentially even fight for a bid. Returners Tyson Etienne and Dexter Dennis are wired to score and seem poised for big seasons (particularly Etienne, who I’m bullish on) while the return of Morris Udeze after testing the transfer waters solidifies a frontcourt that would have been very thin. Former top-50 PG recruit Alterique Gilbert’s time at UConn was generally disappointing, but a fresh start under Marshall could spell a bounceback – particularly following his first fully healthy season of his career. I’m also tracking Josephat Bilau, a monstrous big man coming off a redshirt year who could make an impact in 2020-21 for the Shockers. Gilbert and how much playable depth a slew of incoming JUCO recruits can provide will determine whether this is a middling AAC club or one that is a threat near the top of the conference.
  6. UCF – The Knights simply didn’t have enough firepower in 2019-20 to follow up the program’s best season in program history, but a pair of highly-touted transfers look to bring Johnny Dawkins’ club back to relevance. A starter at Louisville mostly for his ability to stretch the floor, Darius Perry will take over lead guard responsibilities in Orlando and while he may be undersized, I have big expectations for him in his senior campaign. He’ll be joined by a former top-50 recruit in CJ Walker (assuming he receives a waiver), an athletic combo forward who should be a matchup problem all over the floor for the Knights. Pair that duo with returning double-digit scorers in big man Collin Smith and scoring guard Darin Green, and you have a nucleus that should clearly outperform the Knights’ woeful offense of 2019-20. There isn’t a ton of depth here, but Dawkins will have this group ready to defend and a postseason bid seems within reach with Perry and Walker leading the way.
  7. Tulsa – Few teams are better at winning ugly than Frank Haith’s Golden Hurricanes, who surprised many by starting 7-1 in AAC play and finishing tied at the top of the conference in a year they entered with relatively modest expectations. In recent years, Haith has loaded up on bulky combo forwards who bring toughness on the defensive end and physicality on offense, with last year’s trio of Martins Igbanu, Jeriah Horne, and Brandon Rachal providing plenty of that. Igbanu (graduation) and Horne (grad transfer to Colorado) have departed, and we’ll see if Haith can replicate the magic of 2019 without two of the guys who really set the tone for them on both ends. While the frontcourt may be weaker, a pair of transfers could provide a big lift at guard: former Georgia Tech rotation player Curtis Haywood is a steady two-way guard who competes at both ends, and former 4-star Keyshawn Embery-Simpson comes from Arkansas with a reputation for being unafraid to fire away. They may not play the most aesthetically pleasing style of ball, but for a program like Tulsa Haith’s methods have been successful. It wouldn’t be smart to count them out.
  8. USF – What should have been a breakout season coming off a 20-win campaign and a CBI title quickly went down the toilet thanks to a season-ending injury to rising star forward Alexis Yetna. However, the Bulls’ problems went far beyond the loss of their most talented player – an offense ranked 214th in KenPom won’t win you many games any year, and head coach Brian Gregory has had just one top-100 KP offense since 2010. Graduating star point guard Laquincy Rideau likely doesn’t help on this front: while he had his struggles as a shooter, Rideau was a tough-minded floor general who made plays when no one else would. Top-100 SG Caleb Murphy could give this offense a lift, as could Yetna, who flashed significant promise as an athletic modern 4-man. There are some pieces here, but it seems likely Gregory’s club will need to win a lot of rockfights to be relevant in the conference in 2020-21.
  9. East Carolina – Joe Dooley is attempting to bring ECU up the AAC ladder one piece at a time. In his second stint with the Pirates, he has landed a building block in each of his first two recruiting classes: a legit star in the frontcourt in Jayden Gardner in year one and big ballhandler Tristen Newton in year two. Is Noah Farrakhan next? Once seen as an elite recruit, Farrakhan fell off the recruiting map late in his high school career, but still brings athleticism and playmaking prowess and is more than a worthy gamble for a program of ECU’s caliber. Where the Pirates really are lacking is shooting – they shot just 28% from 3 last season, 346th nationally. It’s a long, long road from being 217th in KenPom to a competitor in a fringe high-major league like the American, but adding one piece at a time is all you can do.
  10. Temple – Aaron McKie’s first year at the helm in Philadelphia was rough, and things likely will get worse before they get better as the program looks to reset following the Fran Dunphy era. Quinton Rose was already set to graduate, but the versatile Nate Pierre-Louis finished his degree early and headed to the pro ranks as well, leaving very little as far as returning pieces go for McKie’s group. Wisconsin transfer Tai Strickland will run the show, and a waiver for Butler product Khalief Battle would go a long way towards this group being competitive. But even a Strickland/Battle/Jake Forrester core is one of the worst in the conference on paper, and there isn’t much talent behind them either.
  11. Tulane – It’s hard to exceed expectations while coming in last, but winning eight more games than in Mike Dunleavy’s final year was essentially a success for Ron Hunter’s first year in NOLA. Unfortunately for the Green Wave, year two requires another year essentially starting from scratch, as five of Tulane’s top six scorers depart from 2019-20. The biggest loss is that of Teshaun Hightower, who was pretty clearly the Green Wave’s best player and a legitimate piece to build around before being charged in connection with a murder and being dismissed from the team. As a result, this will be a team HEAVILY reliant on incoming transfers for production. Gabe Watson put up strong numbers at Southern Miss and should share ballhandling duties with Jordan Walker, while Alabama transfer Jaylen Forbes was known for scoring in bunches as a recruit and should get plenty of shots. Nebraska transfer Kevin Cross also should be a factor. It’s hard not to love Hunter, and I think he’ll get this program out of the basement in due time. I’m just not sure that time is this year.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Caleb Mills, Houston
  • Landers Nolley, Memphis
  • DJ Jeffries, Memphis
  • Jayden Gardner, ECU
  • Chris Vogt, Cincinnati

Player of the Year: Caleb Mills, Houston – Mills may not fit the traditional mold of a preseason POY, but he can flat out score. As a freshman in 2019-20, Mills averaged nearly 24 points per 40 minutes in conference play and has already proven himself ready to take and make big shots in crunch time. With Nate Hinton gone, Mills will play an even bigger role in the offense. He needs to improve his finishing around the basket, but it feels as though he still is just scratching the surface and has already been so productive at this level. Watch out for the man who could be the next great guard for Kelvin Sampson at UH.

Breakout Player: Tyson Etienne, Wichita State – The Putnam Science Academy product seems ready to explode after a productive first season for Gregg Marshall. I love Etienne’s competitiveness and shot-making ability, and the departures of Stevenson, Burton and Sherfield clears out what had been something of a backlog in the Shocker guard rotation. I expect Etienne to lead the Shockers in scoring to catapult what should be a great career.

Newcomer of the Year: Landers Nolley, Memphis – Nolley, Deandre Williams (if eligible) and Moussa Cisse should all have a shot at this award, but Nolley feels like the right choice. I’ve voiced my concerns about how Nolley finished the season at Virginia Tech: in his final 10 games for the Hokies, he shot just 29% from the field, 19% from 3, and averaged just 11 points per game. However, some of those struggles were tied to Nolley being forced to shoulder a heavy load without much offensive talent around him. That certainly won’t be the case with Memphis in 2020-21.

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