American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Season Preview

Written by: Sam Cohn

Division 1 Men’s basketball tips off Tuesday, November 5th. The AAC released their annual preseason coaches’ poll, ranking all 12 teams projecting where they’ll finish by the end of the season. 

Below are season previews of each AAC team in order of their projected finish in the coaches’ poll. 

After hearing the perspectives of coaches and players across the conference at AAC media day, Sam Cohn put together a season preview of the conference in all its glory. 

Among the 12 teams across the conference, three head coaches are former NBA players and the talent pool is only growing in the AAC. 

College basketball is finally here. 

(T-1) Houston Cougars

The Cougars won their first 16 games last season before suffering a loss at the hands of Temple in early January. After that, they finished the season on a 17-4 run, earning a bid in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 – where they lost to Kentucky by four points. 

Head Coach Kelvin Sampson and company are coming off a stellar 2018-2019 season, winning the regular-season conference title with an overall record of 33-4 (16-2, AAC) and making it the furthest of any AAC team in the NCAA tournament. 

However, this year’s team isn’t quite last year’s team.

Houston is losing four starting seniors, and naturally the first question is, will they be able to sustain that success into this season? 

“We lost a lot obviously with Armoni [Brooks], Galen [Robinson Jr.], Corey [Davis Jr.], and Breaon [Brady]. You lost four starters, you lose four starters,” Sampson said. “It was a little confusing how we were picked to finish first and we lost four starters, I’m trying to figure out where the logic is.”

The mindset within this program is the next man has to step up. Whether its players like transfer Forward Justin Gorham or freshman guards Marcus Sasser and Caleb Mills, Houston is looking for someone to take the lead.

Although Sampson feels like his team took a big blow losing four big name starters, he made it clear their practices are still competitive. 

“It definitely just puts pressure on the guys returning,” said redshirt junior Dejon Jarreau. “Leadership is what pushes our culture and our program forward and I’m ready to go to war with any of the guys we have now.”

Houston is  a strong program in this conference making the tournament the last two years but the tone in Sampson’s voice hinted at a bit of hesitation towards a strong year from his guys solely based on inexperience and youth. 

As a team, the Cougars shot the ball 45% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc last season. A major portion of that tally came from senior Corey Davis Jr., who averaged a team-leading 17 points per game and took an average of eight 3’s per game.

It’ll be interesting to see how Sampson is able to find guys to replace leadership positions and guys who can fill the stat sheet. 

(T-1) Memphis Tigers

With the best recruiting class in the nation, it’s no surprise that the Tigers are tied for first in the coaches’ preseason poll. 

The Tigers are coming off a fifth-place finish in the AAC with a record of 22-14 (11-7, AAC) but came up just shy of an NCAA Tournament bid.

In his second year coaching for his alma-mater, former NBA star Penny Hardaway has assembled a dangerous roster with the potential to make serious noise in the NCAA Tournament. 

Headlining his recruiting class is 5-star recruit James Wiseman from East High School in Memphis, Tennessee. Wiseman is tall — very tall. He’s a 7-footer with excellent mobility and an ability to turn and face up to the basket at all three levels.

Maybe an undervalued piece of this team is having a former NBA sharpshooter Mike Miller on the coaching staff who shot just over 40% from deep in his 18-year professional career.

“I work out with him everyday so my shooting has gotten a lot better. I’m just trying to learn as much as possible everyday and it’s a key aspect to this team’s concept,” said Wiseman. “We have an ABC method to what we do every day just focusing on shooting mechanics and trying to perfect it.”

The other big name freshman that represented the Tigers at AAC hoops media day was 6-foot-9 forward Precious Achiuwa. The McDonald’s All-American is an explosive finisher that can be great in transition and his size makes him an effective rebounder. 

Possibly the only preseason concern is experience at the college level. The Tigers have nine freshmen on their roster – to contrast their one senior, Isaiah Maurice–, seven of which are true freshman. They also have four players who all played at East High School, which just so happens to be where Hardaway coached prior to Memphis. This much chemistry from the get-go is scary. 

“We’re young but we’re athletic and they’re actually pretty good. I really want [our identity] to be about toughness and being the fastest team in our league,” said Hardaway.

Expect this team to be fast-paced, explosive, and play with high energy. If these freshmen live up to the hype, they’re going to be a problem in the AAC and should be the conference favorites. Believe the hype. 

(3) Cincinnati Bearcats

The reigning AAC Tournament champs are set to defend their title with some challenges on the road ahead.

Finishing 28-7 (14-4, AAC) and earning a second-place finish in the conference’s regular-season standings last year, Cincinnati is poised for another strong outing.

Bearcats senior guard Jarron Cumberland is the early favorite for AAC Player of the Year. It just so happens he’s the reigning conference MVP averaging 18.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 32.5 minutes last season. 

“He’s one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever been around,” said first-year Head Coach John Brannen. “He can score the ball but does it efficiently, he’s got a tremendous IQ and feel for the game and really understands how to play with other people.”

However, Cincinnati can’t put five Jarron Cumberlands on the floor at once, so the rest of the team has to buy into the culture and winning mentality. 

“Toughness. That’s one thing that we’ve always had,” said Cumberland. “It starts on defense and when Coach Brannen came in here, that’s one thing he’s really been on us about.”

The 2019-2020 season will be Brannen’s first with the Bearcats. Brannen spent the previous four seasons as head coach at Northern Kentucky University and was an assistant coach at Alabama before that. 

Junior guard Keith Williams is another player from Brannen’s crew that is expected to step into a leadership role. Williams started 32 games last season averaging 9.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and finishing 11th in the AAC in blocks per game.

Redshirt freshman forward Prince Toyambi recently underwent successful surgery to correct a cardiac issue, but the timetable for his return is unclear. Losing a big piece at forward doesn’t bode well for the Bearcats and could leave their front court as a liability on the glass. 

Cincinnati has made nine straight trips to the NCAA tournament under former Head Coach Mick Cronin. Brannen is leading a team with eight newcomers and eight returners, so the biggest question surrounding this program is how smooth the transition period goes. 

It’s a reasonable expectation for this crew to be towards the top of the conference but it’s unlikely they’ll be fighting for the No. 1 spot and the conference title again.

(4) Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State suffered the loss of two key pieces in graduating seniors, Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones, so filling leadership positions is the first big question surrounding this squad. 

The Shockers finished sixth last season in the AAC with a record of 21-15 (10-8, AAC), with big wins against UConn, UCF, and Temple late in the season. 

“[Trey Wade] is going to be a core guy for us, if not a starter. He’s really going to help us,” said Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall. “He’s a good basketball player, he does everything well. He’s not spectacular in any phase but he does everything well and he has very few weaknesses.”

Wichita State was among the youngest teams in the country last year. A strong finish down the stretch last season helped propel this team into a top-five spot in the coaches’ poll this year.

“The difference from last year early, when we couldn’t make a basket and win a game to going on the road and beating some really good teams in the NIT,” said Marshall. “Now I think our guys understand what it feels like to win.”

One weirdly notable thing before the season kicks off is Wichita State hosting a Big Ten team for a private scrimmage. The Nebraska Cornhuskers travelled to Koch Arena on October 26th under the new regime of Head Coach Fred Hoiberg. 

Scrimmages are often a good test for guys to play against other talent in live-game situations and running drills with fresh faces. Marshall’s decision to have the closed practice will be good for his younger guys to get a taste of playing against a high-major Division 1 program. 

“I want to play the best. I want these guys to be hardened when it gets to the conference season,” said Coach Marshall. “This year should have exciting pre-conference games and matchups.”

Marshall led the Shockers to eight straight NCAA tournament trips before settling for an NIT bid last year.

If the Shockers can get out to a strong start and their returning players make the jump, they may be primed for a big year with the third best recruiting class in the nation. Not to mention they are the number one team on Andy Katz’ list of college basketball teams we’re not talking about enough. 

(5) USF Bulls

USF is returning all five starters, nine of their top ten scorers, and they have much higher expectations for the season to come considering last year was their best finish in school history.

Coming off a fourth-place finish with a 24-9 (13-5, AAC) record, the Bulls returning players just might be in for a big year. 

The chemistry, above all else, is a major highlight for this team which can often be an overlooked factor to success in college basketball.

“Our guys have done a great job of everyday just focusing on getting better and if we continue to do that, we have good enough players and a deep enough team that I think we’ll take another step this season,” said Head Coach Brian Gregory.

Gregory believes his team played their best basketball finishing out last season, and it will translate to this season. 

Consistency will be at the top of the list of worries for this year. A more consistent offense to complement a strong defense will translate into wins for the Bulls.

Junior guard David Collins and redshirt senior Laquincy Rideau are the heart and sole of this team. Collins averaged 15.9 points per game and added 3.8 rebounds. Rideau went for 13.4 points per game to go along with 5.4 assists. 

USF sophomore Alexis Yetna was named to the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award Watch List recognizing the top Power Forward in Division 1 basketball by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

The four previous winners of the award were Zion Williamson, Duke (2019), DeAndre Ayton, Arizona (2018), Jonathan Motley, Baylor (2017), and Georges Niang, Iowa State (2016).

Yetna rebounds the ball extremely well and has a high motor at both ends of the floor.

USF’s potential is through the roof. On paper, they’re a top team in the conference but it’s not outlandish to say they’re closer to a middle of the pack, NIT tournament team. 

(6) UConn Huskies

Remember in The Office when Michael gets on stage and sings “Goodbye Toby” at Toby’s going away party? Well, that’s what this season will be for the UConn Huskies. Every team in the AAC will get on stage and UConn will awkwardly watch before they leave next season. 

The Huskies are trading in their AAC badge for the Big East after this season and they’ll try their hardest to make a splash in the conference for their farewell tour.

“I think that if we have the year that we’re capable of and take care of the things that we need to take care of — I think that we should end a lot higher than six but we’ll take it a day at a time,” said senior guard Christian Vital.

Vital is one of just two seniors for the Huskies, the other being Temi Aiyegbusi, and a clear leader on this team.

The most exciting part of this team may be Head Coach Dan Hurley, the brother of former NBA player and Duke University star Bobby Hurley. 

UConn likely won’t be anything too exciting considering their lack of returners but it definitely isn’t fair to knock Dan Hurley as a coach and his ability to help string together enough wins to remain relevant. 

(7) Temple Owls

Welcome to the Aaron McKie era on North Broad Street.

The Owls finished last season with an exit in the first four of the NCAA tournament against Belmont. But the Owls earned a bid with a third-place conference spot and a regular season record of 23-10 (13-5, AAC).

McKie has taken the reins from college basketball legend Fran Dunphy and it seems the Owls are in for a whole new brand of basketball – high energy space and pace.

“[High energy and intensity] is how the game is evolving. It’s being played a lot different right now,” said McKie. “We want to give [the team] a system to be able to play out of so if we’re going to play fast we’re going to practice like that.”

The Owls lost their leading scorer from last season in Shizz Alston Jr (19.7 ppg) but anticipate the older players will fill into bigger roles.

One of those players is senior captain Quinton Rose who has high hopes of playing at the next level. He’s proved himself as a guy who can get to the basket and find open teammates but will look to show growth using his left hand more and finding a consistent jump shot. 

“I’ve been working on catch and shoot and getting the ball out of my hands faster but it comes down to repetition,” said Rose. “I have to get comfortable shooting until it becomes second nature.”

Rose played through the end of last season dealing with a stress fracture in his foot. He’s reiterated that injury is fully healed and shouldn’t be an issue moving forward.

Fellow captain, Nate Pierre-Louis, is entering his junior year and is the heart and soul of the Owls’ defense. 

Pierre-Louis has made it clear his emphasis is on defense and rebounding – whatever it takes to help put the team in a better position to win. He’s the kind of teammate that pushes the guys around him to work harder. 

One highly anticipated addition to the crew on North Broad Street is Nate’s younger brother Josh Pierre-Louis. Josh is athletically gifted and is a serious threat on offense. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him earn serious minutes as the season gets into full swing.

“He’s going to do something astronomical that may even make ESPN Top-10 [plays]. I am so serious,” Nate said of his younger brother. 

Even with concerns about how their big men will elevate their game rebounding and stretching the floor from last year, this Owls team may have been ranked much lower than they deserve. With a bright future, a low seeding only fuels the fire. 

(8) SMU Mustangs

Maybe the most exciting part about SMU’s season is the fact that they have 16 players on its roster.

“One of many things that was so frustrating and debilitating other than the scholarships being taken away is that it took away our ability to get transfers because we could not afford to have people redshirting while you’re already short on numbers,” said head coach Tim Jankovich.

The Mustangs had a 15-17 (3-15, AAC) record last season and project to put up similar numbers this year.

There’s plenty of new faces on the roster for SMU – eight newcomers to be specific.

One returning player that may get fans excited is 6-foot-8 forward Isiaha Mike who averaged 11.7 points and 5.4 rebounds last season. Mike started every game last year and has been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, he said. 

“I’ve still been in the gym shooting a whole bunch of shots trying to work on my consistency,” said Mike, who shot 36.8% from behind the arc last year.

He also mentioned a stronger left hand and better ball handling are things he’s added to his arsenal. 

The other returning standout player for SMU is Ethan Chargois – a forward with size and athleticism setting lofty goals of getting this team a bid to the tournament.

Chargois and Mike can be a lethal front court and it’ll be exciting to see how SMU’s new pieces fit into this offense under Jankovich. 

Each player on the Mustangs’ roster has at least one more year of eligibility after this season. With a bleak outlook this season, it’s fair to say it’s a rebuilding year in Dallas. 

(9) UCF Knights

UCF doesn’t have Aubrey Dawkins or Tacko Fall to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. 

The Knights finished the 2018-19 season fourth in the AAC with a record of 24-9 (13-5 AAC), granting them a nine-seed in the NCAA tournament, where they would go one to lose a close battle to Duke. 

“It’s about establishing a culture of winning and we want to sustain excellence,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “These guys that are coming in, they understand they’re coming here to continue to build onto what was already accomplished. We’re not trying to take any steps back.”

It’s not easy to replace a player like 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, who can protect the rim and score over anyone if he gets the ball in the post. One 7-footer out, another 7-footer in. 

Moses Bol will try to fill that gap as a 7-foot-1 junior from Sudan who previously played at Colby Community College in Kansas. 

As a sophomore at CCC, he played in 25 games, starting in 24 and averaging 18.3 minutes per game. He scored 5.2 points per game and hauled in 5.7 rebounds. He’ll have to show major improvement this season to replace Tacko Fall.

Losing Fall, BJ Taylor, and Aubrey Dawkins is a major reason UCF fell to ninth in the preseason polls. 

However, Dawkins was able to bring in two graduate transfers to add depth to UCF’s roster. Dazon Ingram from Alabama and Matt Milon from William and Mary are both multi-tooled scoring guards. 

The Knights are happy to move into the future of basketball playing a fast-paced style.

“Push the pace. It all starts on defense. We want to set a lot of screens, flares, pin-downs — things like that,” said Milon. “A lot of 5-out, motion, and playing on the perimeter to be spread out.”

Expect a high volume of shooting from these guys. Playing 5-out feeds right into the strengths of UCF’s shooters and if they can make that work at both ends of the floor they could surprise some people as the projected 9-seed. 

(10) Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Each year since entering the American Athletic Conference in 2014, Tulsa has out-performed their preseason expectations. Entering this season ranked at number 10, it may not be an insurmountable task but nonetheless a worthy statistic.

The Tulsa Golden Hurricane are coming off a seventh-place conference finish with a record of 18-14 (8-10 AAC).

“We’ve created a culture where we all we got, we always say that when we leave the huddle,” said senior forward Martins Igbanu. “It doesn’t matter what someone else says, those are experts and they do what they’re paid to do and we do what we’re meant to do.”

Tulsa has six returning players and are welcoming six newcomers. More importantly, three of their top six scorers, including two starters, are back for the Golden Hurricane. 

Igbanu will be their go-to guy this time out. He started all 32 games last season posting a career best 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. More notably, he ranked second in the American Conference with a 61.6% shooting clip from the field. 

“I do think that you got to prepare all your guys,” said sixth year head coach Frank Haith. “Have the mentality that we believe we can win regardless and continue to get your guys to play.”

Come early March, Tulsa might be hoping for at least a bronze hurricane. *Ba dum tss*

(11) ECU Pirates

The Hoop Scoop ranked ECU’s recruiting class as the 10th best in the nation. The Pirates brought in 11 new players including 7 transfers and four freshmen.

“We feel like we’ve gotten bigger and more talented, so we think there are more pieces in place to achieve our goal,” said second-year head coach Joe Dooley.

“Most of the guys have never been through the stuff that college athletes go through and it’s a grind,” added sophomore forward Jayden Gardner. “They’re just getting used to it getting mentally prepared but it’s for the better.”

Gardner, one of just two returners to the roster, led the Pirates in scoring last season with 16.3 points per game. He also led all Division 1 freshmen with 171 free-throw makes. 

As a group, ECU is taller and more versatile than last year, but their unequivocal leader is a sophomore.

The other returner, Seth LeDay, is still recovering from a knee injury he suffered at the end of last season. LeDay was the Pirates’ second leading scorer (11.0 ppg) last season. 

There’s a lot of new faces at ECU – a trend across the conference– but the Pirates’ ability to play both big or small ball lineups could prove successful for them in conference play. 

ECU isn’t projected to win half of its game at the 11th seed in the preseason coaches’ poll, but the culture of the program is moving in the right direction under Dooley. 

(12) Tulane Green Wave

“Outside of the oysters and all the great food in New Orleans it’s been great. We’ve kind of revamped our team,” said first-year head coach Ron Hunter. “We got a lot of transfers, and a lot of guys where it’s kind of like Last Chance U at Tulane right now, including for the coaches, but we’re really excited.”

It’s tough to have high expectations this season when the head coach views his program like an episode of the Netflix original series Last Chance U.

Tulane didn’t make much noise in the conference last season going 4-27 (0-18 AAC). Tulane probably won’t make much noise in the conference this season either.

“There’s not a lot of places you can start new and have fun doing it but we’re definitely doing that in New Orleans,” said Hunter.

He previously coached at Georgia State University leading the Panthers to seven winning seasons. Hunter is responsible for six of the seven most successful seasons in Georgia State’s history. 

Hunter and his staff bring a positive attitude to this rebuild which is the most important thing for this team right now. 

Three returners – Ray Ona Embo, Buay Koka and Kevin Zhang – and ten newcomers won’t give fans a ton of hope. But, Tulane is a  young team with plenty of areas to improve under a coach who has made three trips to the NCAA tournament in the last five seasons.

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