Improved AAC ready for action after eventful off-season
SMU’s NCAA penalties were far from the only big off-season news in the American Athletic Conference.
Memphis and star forward Austin Nichols had an ugly falling out that led to Nichols’ July transfer to University of Virginia. Three other Memphis players also transferred after the season.
University of Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin was cleared to resume normal coaching activities after suffering a brain aneurysm right before the Bearcats’ Dec. 20, 2014 game vs. Virginia Commonwealth University.
University of Central Florida’s star freshman center, 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, is still awaiting NCAA clearance. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported Tuesday that he could sue the NCAA.
Finally, Connecticut recently added two impact transfers that could help push the team to the top of the conference.
Here’s a 50-words-or-less look at each team in the AAC, in projected order of finish.
1. Connecticut: Transfers Sterling Gibbs (Seton Hall) and Shonn Miller (Cornell), along with five-star freshman Jalen Adams join talented pieces Rodney Purvis, Daniel Hamilton and Amida Brimah to revive an offense that regressed last season. If they start scoring, the Huskies can go deep into March this season.
2. SMU: The postseason ban won’t deter the Mustangs, who return the reigning conference player of the year, the best big man and the most proven coach in the league. SMU has as good a chance as anyone to win the regular-season conference title.
3. Cincinnati: The Bearcats may be the toughest in the conference. They wear down teams with their aggressive defense, and if the offense can be a little more efficient…watch out. Octavius Ellis and Gary Clark are tough, gritty men perfect for Coach Cronin’s style.
4. Tulsa: A senior-laden team returns all eight of its main rotation players, but the offense needs to improve in order to challenge other teams for the conference title. James Woodard and Shaquille Harrison are a great one-two backcourt pair.
5. Temple: The Owls lost their top two scorers from a team that struggled to score, but Josh Brown, Daniel Dingle and Obi Enechionyia have a great chance to break out as starters and elevate the offense.
6. Houston: Kelvin Sampson is a proven winner, and he has added a lot of talent. Most of Houston’s starters from last season will be reserves this season. Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson, Oregon transfer Damyean Dotson and JUCO transfer Rob Gray will add some scoring that wasn’t present a season ago.
7. Memphis: An eight-man freshmen class will have to grow up quickly for the Tigers to contend in the AAC. McDonald’s All-American Dedric Lawson is the best of the bunch, and Alabama graduate transfer Ricky Tarrant will stabilize the backcourt. But losing Nichols is awfully hard to overcome.
8. Central Florida: Tacko Fall joins talented three-star recruits Chad Brown and Chance McSpadden in a great freshmen class. The Knights found two young scorers in B.J. Taylor and Adonys Henriquez last season, but fixing a league-worst defense will be harder if Fall can’t play.
9. East Carolina: The backcourt of JUCO transfer Charles Foster, B.J. Tyson (unanimous all-AAC rookie team selection) and Caleb White should provide ample points, but the Pirates desperately need an interior presence on both ends of the floor.
10. Tulane: Louis Dabney will be one of the AAC’s top scorers, but the Green Wave isn’t likely to leave the bottom four until a second scoring option emerges and a talented freshmen class matures.
11. South Florida: Maryland transfer and former top-50 recruit Roddy Peters should become the Bulls’ best player. He and center Chris Perry are a solid inside-out duo, but USF is still looking at another rebuilding season.
Projected NCAA tournament teams: Connecticut, Cincinnati, Tulsa
Just missed: Temple
Other postseason teams: Houston, Memphis