AAC Preview: Expect More Contenders, More Surprises After an Offseason of Change

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As part of SI.com’s preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we’re breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. First up for our conference previews is the AAC.

The Big Picture

After the AAC sent three programs dancing a season ago, the conference appears poised for another strong season. Cincinnati ran the league from wire-to-wire in 2017–18, and despite graduating some top talent and losing Jacob Evans to the NBA, Mick Cronin’s program remains a front-runner for the conference crown. UCF and colossal center Tacko Fall will rival Cincy’s defensive prowess, but the Knights also boast some offensive firepower on the perimeter—and everyone’s finally healthy. Houston paces the league in terms of scoring, and despite the graduation of offensive centerpiece Rob Gray, the Cougars and head coach Kelvin Sampson boast the talent to once again reach the Big Dance.

Outside of the league’s top three lurk formidable challengers as well. New UConn head coach Dan Hurley has an experienced, guard-heavy program that could do some damage, and not only within the conference. In longtime coach Fran Dunphy’s swan song, Temple also harbors a talented, do-it-all backcourt. And as always, Gregg Marshall and Wichita State, despite losing almost their entire lineup from last year’s preseason top-10 team, have the best home court advantage in the league and a key returning senior to contend as well.

Conference Player of the Year: Jalen Adams, UConn

Clearly the AAC’s best NBA prospect, Adams could take another big leap this season sliding into more of an off-ball attacking role. In Hurley, he has an aggressive coach who should encourage his relentless pressure on the rim.

Newcomer of the Year: DeJon Jarreau, Houston

For the Cougars to make noise in the NCAA tournament, they’ll need their former top-100 transfer from UMass to thrive in Kelvin Sampson’s system. Should they spark a harmonious marriage of style and talent, Jarreau may not only serve as the premier newcomer in this conference but the engine behind a deep Houston run.

Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: UConn

Hurley’s Rhode Island teams have won big, and there’s a deep, talented and experienced roster already waiting for him in Storrs. UConn hasn’t performed to its rosters capabilities over the last few seasons under Kevin Ollie. Should Hurley be able to flip the script, Adams and Co. could very feasibly claim this conference championship.

Predicted Order of Finish

What you need to know about each team in the AAC, plus a brief scouting report from an anonymous opposing coach.

1. Cincinnati

The Skinny: After a disappointing NCAA tournament loss to Nevada, the Bearcats lost first-round pick Jacob Evans, and their starting front court of Kyle Washington and Gary Clark. Junior guard Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati’s lone-remaining double-digit scorer, and senior point guard Justin Jenifer have shown they’re capable of shouldering a larger scoring load with greater opportunity. But can Mick Cronin’s team come close to matching its nationally No. 2 defense from a season ago?

Scout’s Take: Losing your core, you’re losing your two best players and then obviously [Kyle] Washington was another big piece. But they have [Jarron] Cumberland, he’s a load. He can really score the ball. He’s gonna be looked at to do a lot of that now.

Cane Broome, he’s a lefty guard from Sacred Heart. He’s a scorer. He’ll pick up some more slack. He wasn’t asked to do that last year. I think they’ll play a little bit of a different style. I think they’ll play a lot faster and a little bit smaller and I think they’ll probably press a lot and look for their defense to be their offense.

Tre Scott was another big for them that played well. Played some minutes last year. It’ll be interesting to see how they score, but Mick Cronin has gotten to the NCAA tournament for the last eight years. Don’t ever second-guess him. I think he kind of lives for that. You’re gonna have to knock them off, they’re still the champs.

2. UCF

Head coach Johnny Dawkins’s third season at the helm of the Knights may lead to a conference title. The Knights boast a stout defense anchored by 7′ 6″ senior center Tacko Fall that also features Chad Brown and Chance McSpadden on the wing. If senior guard B.J. Taylor can make another leap offensively, the Knights may boast the conference player of the year en route to competing for the league crown.

Scout’s Take: UCF is loaded. They just had so many injuries. I think they were picked last year to finish top-three, but B.J. Taylor was out for half the season, Tacko Fall was out. [Aubrey] Dawkins, a really good wing guy, he was out. So now all are healthy, they have a really seasoned team.

Tacko Fall, if he’s on the floor, he’s making an immediate impact whether it’s offensive or defensive rebounding, blocking shots, or when you get to the lane, him just being there messes up what you’re doing. And it allows their guards to gamble for more steals because they have him behind them. I think on paper they’re probably the favorite.

3. Houston

Despite losing star scorer Rob Gray, the Cougars return enough firepower to properly fill their new $25 million practice facility and $60 million arena. Junior guard Corey Davis Jr. and reigning AAC Sixth Man of the Year Armoni Brooks will lead Houston’s effort to reach back-to-back NCAA tournaments since 1984–85. Redshirt sophomore point guard DeJon Jarreau has a chance to make a sizable impact, especially as Galen Robinson Jr. returns from offseason foot surgery.  

Scout’s Take: They love to spread you out and play in space. If you sag off one of their shooters, they’ll knock down at a high rate. They still return their best two shooters in Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks.

Galen Robinson struggles offensively, but DeJon Jarreau is the real deal, a former top-100 recruit. He’s going to be their player to go create something. He can be at the top of the key, at the end of the shot clock, in that Rob Gray role. He’s put on 15 pounds or so in muscle. He took off last year, so nobody really remembers him. He’ll definitely have an impact.

4. Temple

The Owls hope to contend for the AAC crown in legendary head coach Fran Dunphy’s final season. Junior guard Quinton Rose has drawn the eyes of NBA scouts, and, along with senior point guard Shizz Alston, will spearhead Temple’s attack. The Owls’ success may ultimately come down to how they replace center Obi Enechionyia, who manned the paint on both sides of the floor.

Scout’s Take: “[Quinton] Rose is extremely, extremely talented. He’s probably in the one or two best NBA prospects in the conference. His length, his ability to score, his athleticism, he’s just able to create shots and mismatches with whoever’s guarding him. Shizz Alston, they’re going to rely on him to get buckets, he’s the key. He’s a senior. He’s a vet. He’s been there for a while, he’ll run the show for them. I’ll also like to see how Pierre Louise [does]. I think he’s underrated. He was aggressive, a great defender, a strong guy. With those three on the perimeter, we’ll see how far they go. In college basketball, as long as your bigs are serviceable guards, it can take you a long way.”

5. UConn

After two straight losing seasons, the Huskies relieved head coach Kevin Ollie of his coaching duties in favor of Dan Hurley. Returning all but two players from a year ago, UConn is perhaps the most experienced team in the AAC. If redshirt sophomore Alterique Gilbert can resume point guard responsibilities, senior Jalen Adams will slide back into his more natural scoring role (18.1 ppg in 2017–18), perhaps leading to a player of the year campaign.

Scout’s Take: UConn is so damn talented. They continue to bring in guy after guy that’s just killing it. Adams is such a tough matchup. He kills us every year. He’s just so good, so talented. I don’t know how their offense is going to run now, but under Ollie, he was so good at creating for himself and his teammates out of high ball screens. Without [Alterique] Gilbert back this year, with Coach Hurley, that’s a tough, hard-nosed team. They don’t back down from s—. They’re ready to brawl. I’m interested to see if that can be infused into this team. Their guards rebound well, and if he gets their bigs to come to play, that’s going to be really tough.

6. Wichita State

If Gregg Marshall hopes to compete in 2018–19, he’ll need senior forward Markis McDuffie to recapture his offensive prowess of ’16–17, when he led the Shockers in scoring. Juco All-American Ricky Torres, who averaged 17.2 points and 8.1 assists per night at Missouri State-West Plains, will be a key to replacing Landry Shamet in the backcourt.

Scout’s Take: Gregg Marshall has proven that he can win. They have the best home court advantage in our conference. We played there last year and their roof was going to f—— explode. I haven’t seen a crowd in our league like that. Released their highly recruited point guard so he can go to Memphis. I wish I can sit in on one of their practices so I can see how they look. They do things that win you games. They want to sit down and play defense and control the glass. That can win you a game. They’ll definitely finish in the top half of the league. McDuffie’s now going to be featured. Shooting the ball, he didn’t put up many threes. He’s obviously a bigger guy that likes to slash. If he can stretch his range and have people respect his jump shot, everything else offensively will open up for him.

7. Memphis

There may not be a more intriguing team in the country this season than first-year head coach Penny Hardaway’s Tigers. Senior guard Jeremiah Martin will continue to pace Memphis, one year after leading the team in points (18.9) and assists (3.8), despite a hernia surgery sidelining him throughout the summer. The Tigers will feature a swath of young players, likely none more important than point guards Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, who may compete for the starting job.

Scout’s Take: They’re going to run a lot of pro sets. I think that’s why they brought in Sam Mitchell and Mike Miller. Their best player is still Jeremiah Martin. He was the second-leading scorer in the conference last year. He got so many steals. He’s able to get so many buckets in so many ways. Everybody else is going to be so young. They’ll have a mix of old and new, which will be really great for their young guys’ future. They can learn from Jeremiah. Their bigs can learn from [Kyvon] Davenport.

8. SMU

Despite losing do-it-all guard Shake Milton, SMU returns a veteran roster, with remaining pieces from the 30–5 Mustangs of two seasons ago. Guards Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray and sophomore big man Ethan Chargois will complement senior Jarrey Foster, a true first-round NBA talent bouncing back from a torn ACL. Versatile Duquesne transfer forward Isiaha Mike, Chattanooga transfer Nat Dixon and freshman Feron Hunt should all provide valuable bench contributions as well.

Scout’s Takes: “The thing for them, Shake [Milton] was already out a lot of last season. That worked in their favor this year, because they had to rely on Jimmy Whitt, who’s going to have to score more. [Jarrey] Foster would have left for the NBA last year if he wasn’t hurt too. If he’s healthy, he’s going to kill it. Jahmal [McMurray] has torched us. He has such a knack for scoring. He likes to talk noise, likes to get himself going. Will look at the other bench. He’s definitely a gamer.”

9. Tulsa

With the departure of leading scorer Junior Etou, head coach Frank Haith will turn to senior guard Sterling Taplin and junior forward Martins Igbanu to shoulder the Hurricanes’ scoring load. Senior swingman DaQuan Jeffries may also benefit from a larger role while St. Louis transfer Zeke Moore will provide a complementary shooting stroke after draining 39.1% of his triples for the Billikens. Tulsa also boasts junior college transfer bigs Peter Hewitt and Simon Falokun, in addition to Nebraska transfer Jeriah Horne.

Scout’s Takes: “I don’t think anybody expected them to do anything last year. [Sterling] Taplin is a three-point threat, a big guard. They have a really good home court. You can’t take them lightly. They’ve got good guards, I just want to know how their bigs are gonna play and supplement losing their best scorer and rebounder all in one.”

10. Tulane

Sharpshooter Melvin Frazier and guard Cameron Reynolds have left the Green Wave for the NBA, leaving a gaping hole in Mike Dunleavy Sr.’s rotation. Without its top-two scorers from last season, Tulane will rely on guards Ray Ona Emba and Jordan Cornish to run things offensively. Junior forward Samir Sehic (10.5 ppg) returns as Tulane’s top remaining scorer, but for the Green Wave to compete, they’ll need to improve drastically on the defensive end, having yielded 74.1 points per game a season ago.  

Scout’s Take: “When you lose two guys to the league, who were their bread and butter offensively and defensively, that’s really tough. Samir Sehic will have to step up. I like [Jordan] Cornish. He’s an athletic, strong guard. I like [Ray Ona] Emba. If they can’t get any more outside of those two, it’ll be tough. They need to play more defense. If those guys can lock in defensively, I think that’ll be the key for them. Their sets that Coach Dunleavy runs allows them to always get a basket, but then they can’t get a stop on defense.”

11. East Carolina

Having previously led the Pirates from 1995 to ’99, head coach Joe Dooley returns to East Carolina this season. He’ll be without last year’s leading scorer B.J. Tyson, who has since graduated, and star forward Kentrell Barkley, who left the program following a 10–20 campaign. Their departures will lead to more opportunities for senior guard Isaac Fleming and sophomore guard Shawn Williams. Dooley also adds a recruiting class of DeShawn Wade, Jayden Gardner and Rico Quinton.

Scout’s Take: “It’s tough to lose your two best players. They’ll probably look to key on Shawn Williams and Isaac Fleming. Williams was a scorer. He was hard to stay in front of and you had to respect his shot, and he was really good at attacking closeouts, getting to the paint and finishing. He has some tools in his bag. Fleming helped on the boards as well. He’s a bigger guard, really good kid. Doesn’t really shoot it as much from the outside but found a way to put the ball in the basket. He’ll look to go out with a bang in his last year.”

12. South Florida

The Bulls have failed to emerge from the American’s basement since the league’s inception. In Brian Gregory’s second season, South Florida’s youthful rebuild continues following leading scorers Stephan Jiggetts and Payton Banks’s departures. Transfer guards LaQuincy Rideau (Gardner-Webb) and TJ Lang (Auburn) should emerge as replacements as South Florida hopes to progress past last year’s three-win conference campaign.  

Scout’s Take: “They might have an entirely new starting five. It’s tough when you had a lot of people leave to have high expectations and win right away. They competed last year. They played hard. When we went to their place, they never took a play off. Their bigs were crashing the boards and running the floor, regardless of the school. [Brian] Gregory had them in tune and listening. That’s the first thing you can ask for as a coach. They gave all their effort.”

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