AAC Season Preview: Power rankings, preseason awards, and is Memphis the best team in the league?

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

Beginning in October and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American.

The American is in an interesting spot this season.

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On the one hand, there may not have been a more hyped or visible program this offseason than Memphis. On the other hand, it feels like every good team in the league is in something of a rebuilding year while this will be the last season that UConn is a member of the conference.

The basketball gods don’t give with both hands, I guess.

Here is your American Athletic Conference season preview.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. PENNY HAS THAT THING ROLLING IN MEMPHIS

For my money, Memphis is the most interesting story in college basketball this season.

Penny Hardaway, who would have gone down as one of the sport’s all-time greats had he stayed healthy, returns home to the city he grew up in and the school he played for to bring in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and turn the Tigers into a recruiting destination on par with Duke, Kentucky and Kansas. Now, with a potential No. 1 pick in James Wiseman starting at center, he will be coaching a team that is the southern version of the Fab Five. He’s reinvigorated a maniacal fanbase that was left dormant thanks to the stewardship of Josh Pastner and Tubby Smith and, in the process, proclaimed that Memphis will win a national title while picking fights with in-state rival Rick Barnes.

The Tigers are a circus is the best kind of way, and I cannot wait to see the fireworks that come this season.

In terms of the actual product on the court, I’m a little bit more worried than most.

Starting five freshmen is never easy, and while the Tigers do have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, it’s different than the typical No. 1 recruiting class. Memphis landed Wiseman and fellow five-star Precious Achiuwa, but the other five guys in the class project more as two or three year players in college. This isn’t like they are bringing in four top 15 prospects, like Duke has done each of the last two years. And while Memphis does have three players returning from last season, one of those three plays essentially the same position as Wiseman and the other two are 5-foot-9 point guards that are going to be fighting for the minutes that Damian Baugh and Boogie Ellis don’t play.

Put another way, the talent and potential is there for Memphis to be a top five team that makes a deep run in March.

But as we have seen with teams that are as young as this Memphis team, trusting 18 and 19-year olds in their first season of college hoops is never a sure thing.

2. CINCINNATI ENTERS A NEW ERA UNDER JOHN BRANNEN

There are six teams in college basketball that have been to the last nine NCAA tournaments – Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State …

And Cincinnati.

That’s what John Brannen is walking into. That’s what Mick Cronin built at Cincinnati, and remember, when he took over, it wasn’t a smooth transition from Bobby Huggins. He got the job after Huggins had his falling out, and when Cronin took the job, there was one player there. He had to recruit football players just to field a team.

I have respect for what Brannen has been able to do as a coach. He went to two NCAA tournaments in four years with a program that has been Division I for seven seasons. That’s amazing. But replacing Cronin at Cincinnati is not going to be easy, especially when Cronin had built a culture within the program that Brannen may or may not be able to replicate. Cincinnati ran itself, in a sense, under Cronin, and with just five players coming back after a series of transfers in the offseason, it’s not going to be easy.

The good news is that a (hopefully healthy) Jarron Cumberland returns to lead the way, and he is the best player in the conference. Throw in his cousin, Jaevin, and guys like Keith Williams and Tre Scott, and there are pieces for Brannen to work with.

It’s a new era, but it should once again be a successful era for Bearcat basketball.

3. WICHITA STATE AND HOUSTON HAVE NOT ENTERED NEW ERAS, AND THAT IS A GOOD THING

At this point, I’ll bet on Wichita State and Houston because Gregg Marshall and Kelvin Sampson have never given me a reason to do anything else.

We thought the Shockers were going to be dreadful last season. After a slow start with a young team, they won nine of their last 11 and 14 of their last 18 games, including road trips to Furman, Clemson and Indiana in the NIT. Houston lost Rob Gray and then went out and fielded a top 12 team in college basketball. Both lose some incredibly important pieces this offseason, but what matters more than anything is that they kept the guys in charge. Marshall still hasn’t gotten a job offer he’s willing to leave for, and Sampson was given a massive deal by the Cougars to keep him from heading to Arkansas.

Yes, there are players I think are in line for big seasons at both schools. Dexter Dennis, Erik Stevenson and Jaime Echenique are going to make a lot of noise, while DeJon Jarreau is going to be this year’s breakout star in the league.

But none of that would be relevant if the guys calling the plays had left.

4. USF IS GOING TO BE REALLY GOOD, AND THAT IS NOT A JOKE

I am in on the Bulls this season.

After winning 24 games last season, they return eight of their top nine players. There’s an argument to be made that USF has the best backcourt in the conference with LaQuincy Rideau and David Collins. There’s an argument to be made that Alexis Yetna will have a breakout sophomore season. Hell, I can make a pretty strong argument that USF can will the AAC this season.

I don’t think they are going to be quite that good, but I do think they have a very real chance to finish top four, especially if Cincinnati can’t get healthy.

5. THIS IS UCONN’S SWAN SONG IN THE AMERICAN

The Huskies are headed back to the Big East.

Starting with the 2020-21 season, UConn will be back in the conference that it helped launch. That is a good thing for the UConn program – playing Villanova, Georgetown and Providence every year is certainly going to be more appealing to the Husky fan base than playing Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina – but it is not necessarily a good thing for the AAC.

Say what you will about what UConn has become since Jim Calhoun retired, but this is still a basketball program that has national appeal, a coach that has proven he can have success coaching in the Northeast and two national titles to their name in the last eight seasons. That’s a big loss for a league that seems to constantly be fighting for relevance in the national landscape of the sport.

PRESEASON AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati

This pick had something of a wrench thrown in it when Cincinnati head coach John Brannen came out last week and told reporters that Cumberland has yet to practice this season as he is dealing with a foot injury. He gave no timetable for a return and did not provide any specifics as to what the injury is.

If Cumberland is healthy, he will be the best player in the conference. His ability to score and create on a roster that is going to have a number of new faces this season is going to be incredibly valuable. He will be the rock that Brannen uses to anchor everything that he wants to run offensively.

If he’s healthy.

Here’s to hoping that he’ll be back on the court sooner rather than later.

THE REST OF THE ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM

  • LAQUINCY RIDEAU, USF: Rideau was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year a season ago, and he’ll be back as the anchor of a Bulls team that is a sneaky bet to finish the year in the top 25.

  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple: With Shizz Alston gone, Rose is going to step into a much larger role for the Owls in their first season under new head coach Aaron McKie.

  • DEJON JARREAU, Houston: Jarreau is going to be this year’s breakout star in the AAC. More on him in a minute.

  • JAMES WISEMAN, Memphis: Wiseman is the No. 1 recruit in the country and the kind of talent that should thrive while playing in Penny Hardaway’s uptempo offense.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • ALTERIQUE GILBERT, UConn

  • DAVID COLLINS, USF

  • NATE PIERRE-LOUIS, Temple

  • PRECIOUS ACHIUWA, Memphis

  • JAIME ECHENIQUE, Wichita State

DeJon Jarreau (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
DeJon Jarreau (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: DeJon Jarreau, Houston

Jarreau is going to be a name that a lot of people know by come February. One time a top 75 prospect, Jarreau originally enrolled at UMass before transferring to Houston. Last season was his first year as a member of the Cougars, and while he only managed 18 minutes a game while playing in Houston’s loaded backcourt, he was really productive in those limited minutes. Jarreau finished second on the team at 19.3 points-per-40 minutes and led the Cougars with 7.4 assists-per-40 minutes.

This year, he’s going to be stepping into a much bigger role. Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson all graduate. Those are the three guards that were above him in the program’s pecking order. He has the talent, he’s shown he can produce and now he will get the opportunity to have things run through him. Even with Quentin Grimes eligible, I think Jarreau will be the guy that we are all talking about with this team.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tim Jankovich, SMU

When Jankovich got the SMU job, they were coming off of three straight seasons where the program had won more than 25 games under Larry Brown. In his first season as the head coach, the Mustangs went 30-5 with three NBA players on the roster and won the AAC regular season and tournament titles.

This year, SMU is projected to finish 10th in the league. They lost their two best players from a team that went 14-16 overall and lost nine of their last ten in AAC play. It’s doesn’t seem that long ago that SMU was the trendy team in Texas. Now, they aren’t even the trendy team in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

We should have listened to Rob when he said Memphis was going to be a No. 6 seed in the tournament.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing how Kelvin Sampson can work his magic and make Houston the best team in the American.

Again.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/6, Cincinnati at No. 25 Ohio State

  • 11/12, No. 21 Memphis at No. 12 Oregon

  • 11/28, No. 21 Memphis vs. N.C. State

  • 12/7, Cincinnati at No. 18 Xavier

  • 12/14, No. 21 Memphis at No. 23 Tennessee

PREDICTED FINISH

1. HOUSTON: The Cougars lose their three best perimeter players this offseason, but I’m still in on Kelvin Sampson’s group as the favorite to win the conference. Remember, we had these same questions about the Cougars after they lost Rob Gray, and all that happened was that Sampson put together a top 15 team this past season. The key, other than getting Quentin Grimes eligible, will be how much DeJon Jarreau improves. I’m expecting a big season out of him, so I have Houston winning the conference.

2. MEMPHIS: As I wrote earlier, Memphis has the upside to be a top five team this year. They also have the floor of a team that finishes the year as a No. 6 or 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. Freshmen are freshmen.

3. WICHITA STATE: The Shockers lost their top two scorers to graduation, and the guy that we thought was going to be their top scorer this season – Teddy Allen – was given the boot. I still think that the Shockers are going to be a tournament team this year. I am expecting an impressive year out of backcourt Dexter Dennis and Erik Stevenson, and I think Jaime Echenique is in line for a big senior year after an efficient junior campaign playing somewhat limited minutes.

4. USF: The Bulls are going to be this year’s version of UCF. They bring back everyone from a team that won 24 games and took down the CBI title, and while I know it’s silly to celebrate something like the CBI, I do think that it matters that this group got that many more practices in together. I love their backcourt – LaQuincy Rideau and David Collins are going to be trouble – and Alexis Yetna is the kind of player that will have a big sophomore season. I’m in on the Bulls as a tournament team this year, which is not something that I ever thought I’d say.

5. CINCINNATI: I had the Bearcats sitting at third in these rankings up until the moment that John Brannen told us that roughly everyone in the Bearcat program is dealing with some kind of injury. Cumberland is the big blow, but Trevor Moore – one of just five players coming back from last season – missing time will hurt as well. Assuming all of these health issues get cleared up by the time the season kicks off, Cincinnati is a top three team in the league. But when the best player in the conference and 40 percent of the returning players on a team with a new head coach are injured four weeks before the first game, it’s a concern.

6. TEMPLE: Outside of USF, Temple brings back more than anyone else in the league. Losing Shizz Alston will hurt, but Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis can pick up the slack. It will be very interesting to see how the Owls respond to a change in leadership, as Aaron McKie takes over for Fran Dunphy.

7. UCONN: The Huskies are, at the very least, interesting this season. They lose Jalen Adams, but Christian Vital is back, Akok Akok is eligible and they bring in a pair of talented freshmen in Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight. With some veterans back in the frontcourt, namely Josh Carlton, there are some things to like about this group. The key, however, is going to be Alterique Gilbert. The former McDonald’s All-American point guard has shown quite a bit of promise during his three seasons at UConn, but a series of shoulder injuries has limited his playing time. If he stays healthy, he’s a difference-maker.

8. UCF: The Knights lose more than anyone else in the conference lost, and when you have to replace the amount of production that Aubrey Dawkins, B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall provided, it’s never going to be easy. That said, there are some talented transfers getting eligible in Orlando, most notably grad transfers Dazon Ingram (Alabama) and Matt Milon (William & Mary). Throw in Collin Smith and his surefire breakout junior season, and you have a team that is going to be competitive.

9. TULSA: Frank Haith had a tough year in 2019, and that was with Sterling Taplin, Curran Scott and second round NBA draft pick DaQuan Jeffries on the roster. I’m not sure how that production gets replaced this season.

10. SMU: Three years ago, when Tim Jankovich took over for Larry Brown, he went 30-5 and won dual-AAC titles with a roster than had a number of future pros on it – Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown, Jarrey Foster, Shake Milton. They’ve won just six conference games in each of the last two seasons, and I have a hard time seeing where they are going to improve this year.

11. TULANE: At the very least, Tulane is going to be more fun this season. That’s because Ron Hunter is as entertaining as any coach in the college basketball ranks. He’s also had quite a bit of success at Georgia State, and while I think he will eventually make Tulane relevant in the AAC, I don’t think it’s happening this year. I will note, however, that the 2017-18 Tulane Green Wave had two NBA players on the roster and a third potential pro transfer to Villanova this offseason. Talent can be had in New Orleans.

12. EAST CAROLINA: The Pirates won three AAC games last season. Two of them came against Tulane, who won zero AAC games last season. Joe Dooley does return two of his top three scorers, but eight players transferred out of the program since the start of the 2018-19 season. There are 11 newcomers on the roster.

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