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American Athletic Conference Preview: Cincinnati, UConn and SMU battle for the crown

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.

The American is going to look quite different this season as the league lost a few familiar coaches and some very talented players. Most of the teams we’ve grown familiar with atop the standings are back in the title picture for 2016-17 as teams like Cincinnati, UConn, SMU and Houston have NCAA tournament aspirations, while many others are in rebuilding mode or trying to be more stable.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. The league has four new coaches: After helping SMU become a legitimate program, Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown abruptly resigned in the middle of the July live evaluation period this summer, handing things over to former Illinois State coach and SMU associate head coach Tim Jankovich. While Jankovich was left with enough talent to make another run, Tubby Smith at Memphis, Johnny Dawkins at UCF and Mike Dunleavy at Tulane face rebuilding efforts. Smith has a habit of turning things around and should be able to help Memphis become nationally relevant again while Dawkins and first-time college coach Dunleavy have more to prove.

2. Cincinnati remains consistent: With six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, expectations are that Cincinnati makes it back this season. With senior Troy Caupain, junior Gary Clark and transfer Kyle Washington, the Bearcats have plenty of upperclass talent with experience. The question will be whether the Bearcats can make the second weekend of the tournament (or beyond) for the first time since 2012.

3. UConn is loaded with talent: Head coach Kevin Ollie lost quite a bit of firepower from last season, but he has plenty to be excited about. Senior guard Rodney Purvis has talented sophomore Jalen Adams and McDonald’s All-American Alterique Gilbert with him in the backcourt while Amida Brimah is back at center. The key for UConn’s season could be production at forward from players like VCU transfer Terry Larrier and freshman Vance Jackson.

4. Larry Brown didn’t lead the cupboard bare at SMU: Brown might have handed the keys to Tim Jankovich, but the Mustangs still have plenty of firepower. Double-figure scorers like Ben Moore, Shake Milton and Sterling Moore are all back while Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye and freshman center Harry Froling add more punch in the front court. The Mustangs have the talent to reach the tournament again and remain a consistent program for the future.

5. Houston has a chance to break through: While the league’s top three is Cincinnati, UConn and SMU, the Cougars also have a chance to make a NCAA tournament run if some newcomers can help. Junior guard Rob Gray and senior wing Damyean Dotson both return and sophomore guard Galen Robinson Jr. emerged as a starter last season. Junior college transfer and former Indiana forward Devin Davis might be the key to where the Cougars play after the season.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (1) goes up for a shot between Connecticut forward Shonn Miller (32) and guard Daniel Hamilton, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the American Athletic Conference men's tournament in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, March 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dedric Lawson, Memphis

After a monster freshman season in which he averaged 15.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, Lawson entered the 2016 NBA Draft. The combine in May was an eye-opening experience for Lawson as it showed he needed a lot of work to be a pro. As a sophomore, Lawson has even less help than last season and he should be regularly putting up double-doubles.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM:

  • Troy Caupain, Cincinnati: One of the best senior floor leaders in the country, Caupain comes to play in big games.
  • Rodney Purvis, UConn: Purvis is coming off of his most consistent year shooting last season (38 percent 3PT) and played really well in the NCAA tournament.
  • Damyean Dotson, Houston: Dotson shot 36 percent from three-point range and averaged 6.8 rebounds per game as one of the conference’s most versatile wings last season.
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati: The reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year will be a strong contender for Player of the Year if he improves his offensive production.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Jalen Adams, UConn
  • Shake Milton, SMU
  • Rob Gray, Houston
  • Jahmal McMurray, South Florida
  • Ben Moore, SMU

BREAKOUT STAR: UConn has a lot of options to choose from in its backcourt, but the Huskies are hoping for a big season from sophomore Jalen Adams. The 6-foot-3 guard has the makings of a high-level scoring guard who could be a nightmare to contain off the dribble. If Adams improves his perimeter jumper he might be a major weapon this season.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Orlando Antigua hasn’t had the turnaround he expected at South Florida as he’s 17-48 in two seasons with only seven conference wins. The Bulls also lost four starters from last year’s team and top recruit Troy Baxter opted to decommit on the eve of the school year.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The American might not have a lot of NCAA tournament-caliber teams this season, but the ones in the field are the type of teams that nobody wants to face.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching the UConn backcourt and the different combinations Kevin Ollie can use with all the talent he has. A perimeter duo of Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert would be a lot of fun to watch.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 17, Pittsburgh at SMU
  • Nov. 19, Cincinnati vs. Rhode Island
  • Dec. 1, Cincinnati at Iowa State
  • Dec. 5, UConn at Syracuse
  • Dec. 6, Houston at Arkansas

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @American_MBB

Connecticut guard Jalen Adams (2) celebrates a 3-pointer from half court at the end of the triple overtime to tie the NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference men's tournament Friday, MArch 11, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. UConn won104-97 in quadruple overtime. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Connecticut guard Jalen Adams (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant via AP)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have the league’s best returning duo in senior guard Troy Caupain and forward Gary Clark and N.C. State transfer Kyle Washington should help on the interior on both ends. Play from senior guard Kevin Johnson and sophomore Jacob Evans III could dictate whether this team can make the second weekend of the tournament.
2. UConn: This team is a bit of an unknown since so many new pieces will have to step up and contribute. If Jalen Adams or Alterique Gilbert play well and Terry Larrier adds frontcourt production, the Huskies will compete for the league crown.
3. SMU: Plenty of talent remains at SMU as this team has the wing talent to score and defend with the league’s best. If the frontcourt additions of Semi Ojeyele and Harry Froling come through, this team could be very tough.
4. Houston: Coming off of 22 wins and an NIT appearance, the Cougars have to replace guard Ronnie Johnson and productive forward Devonta Pollard. If Devin Davis and the other newcomers can help defend, Houston could be a surprise team.
5. Memphis: Dedric Lawson could be in for a big season and brother K.J. Lawson might see a jump in production as well. The Tigers need Coppin State grad transfer Christian Kessee needs to produce for an unproven backcourt.
6. Temple: The status of senior guard Josh Brown and his surgically-repaired Achilles could be the key for the Owls as they have some intriguing young talent. Freshmen Alani Moore, Quinton Rose and Damion Moore are talented.
7. UCF: Johnny Dawkins has a strong front court in A.J. Davis and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall and the Knights get former all-rookie selection B.J. Taylor back from injury.
8. East Carolina: The trio of B.J. Tyson, Caleb White and Kentrell Barkley are talented enough to make this team rise up the standings. The key for the Pirates is consistency in conference play.
9. Tulsa: Coming off the NCAA tournament and 20 wins, Frank Haith has 10 new players on his roster. Rutgers transfer Junior Etou will be expected to help starting wing Pat Birt.
10. South Florida: The loss of four-star freshman Troy Baxter will hurt but sophomore Jahmal McMurray is an all-league candidate who can really score. Transfer Geno Thorpe (Penn State) and Troy Holston Jr. should help.
11. Tulane: New coach Mike Dunleavy has some talent in the form of Malik Morgan and Melvin Frazier but this team needs a lot more talent to compete with the league’s best.

American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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There may not be another conference in America with as much on the line from a bubble standpoint this week as the American Athletic Conference. With SMU on the sidelines as a result of NCAA penalties, the other ten members convene in Orlando with the top dogs all looking to sew up a bid to the NCAA tournament. Winning the automatic bid is the best way to do that, but with four teams harboring realistic hopes of earning an at-large bid some will likely have to sweat out Selection Sunday.

Temple managed to win the regular season title outright, but there’s still some work for Fran Dunphy’s team to do. The two-seed is Houston, whose non-conference slate likely puts them in a position where they need to win out in Orlando, and seeds three through five (Tulsa, Cincinnati and Connecticut) all find themselves on the bubble. That should make for an intense four days in Orlando, and only the winner will be able to breathe easy in the wait for the announcement of the NCAA tournament field.

The Bracket

american

When: March 10-13

Where: Amway Center, Orlando

Final: March 13, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Temple

The Owls managed to win their first outright regular season conference title since 2012, when they were still in the Atlantic 10. This year’s group has done it with defense, as in conference games they ranked third in field goal percentage defense and first in three-point percentage defense. Offensively senior guard Quenton DeCosey’s led the way, with forward Obi Enechionyia being a tough matchup due to his ability to step outside at 6-foot-9 and emerging as one of the American’s most improved players. Add in contributors such as forward Jaylen Bond and point guard Josh Brown, and Temple has enough to win the tournament. Close games shouldn’t cause much concern either, as in conference games decided by five points or less they’re 7-2.

And if they lose?: Houston

The Cougars arrive in Orlando as one of the hottest teams in the American, as they’ve won nine of their last 11 games (6-1 in their last seven). Forwards Damyean Dotson and Devonta Pollard combined to average 28.3 points per game in American play, and on the perimeter Rob Gray Jr. is the team’s leading scorer (16.3 ppg overall) and the point guard tandem of Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson and freshman Galen Robinson Jr. has been a positive as well. Kelvin Sampson’s rebuilding job has gone well to this point, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they landed the automatic bid.

Other Contenders:

  • Tulsa: Tulsa’s backcourt is very good, with James Woodard, Shaq Harrison and Pat Birt Jr. being the leaders. A key for Tulsa will be finishing defensive possessions with a rebound, as they ranked ninth in the American in defensive rebounding percentage (67.7) in conference games.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats are tough, and only UConn was better in league play when it comes to field goal percentage defense. With Troy Caupain running the point and Gary Clark in the front court, Mick Cronin has the pieces needed to make a run.
  • Connecticut: Kevin Ollie’s team led the American in field goal percentage defense, limiting teams to 38.4 percent shooting in conference games. But the offense has sputtered at times. If Daniel Hamilton looks to take over consistently, making plays for himself and others, this can be a dangerous team in Orlando.

Sleeper: Memphis

Josh Pastner’s Tigers have the league’s top scoring duo in forwards Dedric Lawson and Shaq Goodwin, and there’s talent on the perimeter as well. But can they put it all together over the course of three days? That remains to be seen.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Temple: Opening with either East Carolina or USF won’t do much to bolster Temple’s argument for inclusion. But a loss to either would be damaging. Take care of business there and the Owls should be OK.
  • Houston: The Cougars likely need to win the automatic bid, thanks to the weakness of their non-conference schedule. They have wins over SMU and Temple on their résumé, but that may not be enough.
  • Tulsa: They face Memphis in the quarterfinals, and that’s a win Frank Haith’s team will need to get. They did pick up wins over SMU (in Dallas), Cincinnati and Temple last month, and there’s also the early season win over fellow bubble team Wichita State.
  • Cincinnati: Beat UConn in the quarterfinals Friday, which would be their third win over the Huskies this season. The Bearcats have wins over bubble teams George Washington and VCU to their credit, but there would be a lot less stress if they’d been able to close out Iowa State (81-79 loss) back on December 22.
  • Connecticut: Beat Cincinnati in the quarterfinals and that should sew things up for the Huskies. At the very least a win should get them another shot at a Temple team that swept the regular season series.

American Player of the Year: Nic Moore, SMU

Moore won the award last season and he’d be a good choice for the 2016 edition of the award as well. The senior point guard led the way for a team that was ranked for most of the season despite being ineligible for postseason play, averaging 15.9 points and 4.9 assists per game. A good case can be made for Temple’s Quenton DeCosey as well.

American Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy, Temple

Sure, this can be seen as giving the award to the man whose team was picked to finish sixth in the preseason coaches poll. But Dunphy deserves this honor just as much for the way the Owls played once out of non-conference play. Temple began play in the American with an overall record of 5-5, only to take a considerable leap forward in conference play. Led by Dunphy and seniors DeCosey and Jaylen Bond, Temple won the American outright with a conference record of 14-4.

First-Team All-AAC:

  • Nic Moore, SMU (POY)
  • Quenton DeCosey, Temple: If Moore isn’t the choice for league POY then it’s probably DeCosey, who was the leading option on the American’s best team.
  • Troy Caupain, Cincinnati: Caupain averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 assists per game in conference play. He was also fourth in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.2).
  • James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard led the Golden Hurricane with an average of 15.6 points per game, ranking sixth in the conference in scoring.
  • Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The conference’s best freshman, Lawson paired up with Shaq Goodwin to form the highest scoring tandem in the American. And to think, he was originally supposed to be in the 2016 freshman class.

Second Team All-AAC:

  • Devonta Pollard, Houston
  • Shaq Harrison, Tulsa
  • Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati
  • Shaq Goodwin, Memphis

Defining moment of the season: Temple hands SMU its first loss of the season

CBT Prediction: Houston continues its recent run of solid play, winning three straight to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament.

No. 10 SMU survives poor shooting, downs Tulane 60-45

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Markus Kennedy scored 13 points and No. 10 SMU overcame uncharacteristically poor shooting, pulling away late to remain the nation’s only unbeaten Division I team with a 60-45 victory over Tulane on Sunday.

Jordan Tolbert and Nic Moore scored 12 points each for the Mustangs (17-0, 6-0 American Athletic Conference), who shot a season-worst 40.4 percent (21 of 52) and did not take the lead for good until Ben Moore’s running floater as he was fouled made it 33-30 with 12:41 to go.

Melvin Frazier scored 11 points and Malik Morgan had 10 for Tulane (8-11, 1-5), which has lost five of its last six games.

Ben Moore finished with 11 points for SMU, which went 1 of 10 from 3-point range, but made up for it by outscoring Tulane 32-16 in the paint.

SMU committed 15 turnovers, but also was able to convert Tulane’s 20 turnovers into 21 points.

Dabney’s 3-pointer gave Tulane a 28-27 lead early in the second half, and the Wave briefly widened the lead to 30-27 soon after, when Frazier stole the ball from Brown and converted a breakaway layup.

That’s when SMU appeared to turn up its intensity and sharpen its focus.

The Mustangs scored the next eight points, highlighted by Ben Moore’s three-point play.

While SMU never trailed again, Tulane remained within single digits for most of the second half and trailed only 48-41 after Frazier’s dunk on an alley-oop pass.

The Mustangs made their first five shots to take an early 11-5 lead before missing their next 10 from the field and two free throws over the next 9:06, allowing Tulane to tie the game at 11. Having shooting struggles of its own, Tulane only managed to tie the game at 11 during that span.

Shake Milton’s short jumper finally ended the drought, but SMU continued to struggle with its shooting, never leading by more than five points while making just 11 of 27 shots and never making a free throw.

Tulane was as close as 21-19 after Frazier’s free throws. Ben Moore responded with a short jumper to make it 23-19, a score which stood until halftime.

TIP-INS

SMU: Going back to last season, SMU had won 12 of its last 13 road games coming in, including all four this season. … SMU entered shooting 52 percent from the field, the fourth-highest percentage in the nation. … Sterling Brown, who came in shooting 73 percent for the season, went 2 of 7.

Tulane: The Green Wave had not hosted a team ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll since Feb. 20, 2008, when then-No. 1 Memphis, coached by John Calipari and led on the court by guard Derrick Rose, easily dispatched Tulane 97-71. … Reserve center Blake Paul missed two dunks and finished with no points on 0-of-4 shooting. … Tulane missed 6 of 18 free throws.

UP NEXT

SMU: Hosts Houston on Tuesday night.

Tulane: Visits Connecticut on Tuesday night.

AMERICAN CONFERENCE RESET: What happens when your best team is banned from tourney?

(AP Photo/David Becker)
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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the AAC.

AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nic Moore, SMU

Playing another steady season, the senior has no postseason to play for but is still the catalyst of one of the nation’s only unbeaten teams. Moore is among the conference’s leaders in points (15.5 ppg), assists (5.3 apg) and 3-point percentage (43 percent).

ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM

  • Nic Moore, SMU
  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn
  • Jordan Tolbert, SMU
  • Dedric Lawson, Memphis
  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. The AAC is a gigantic question mark against legitimate teams: The American has some teams with gaudy records atop the conference standings, but they haven’t been so good against strong competition. The league is a combined 1-11 against top-25 opponents on the season and UConn and Memphis have yet to play a true road game.
  2. UConn’s deep stable of wings can play together: One of the major question marks for the American this season is how UConn would look with so many talented perimeter-oriented players on the roster? So far, the group has played very well together as Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis and Sterling Gibbs are all enjoying strong seasons while Jalen Adams and Omar Calhoun provide some additional pop. The Huskies are shooting at 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range, so the offense has really clicked so far.
  3. Cincinnati is still a force to be reckoned with: Mick Cronin is back on the sidelines and Cincinnati is once again looking like a team that nobody wants to play. Despite not having a true star player, the rugged and balanced Bearcats have proven that they can hang with the nation’s elite teams. Cincinnati lost to Butler and Iowa State by two points each and were able to play with two of the nation’s better offensive teams.

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Who emerges to win the autobid with SMU being tournament ineligible?: The logical choice here would be Cincinnati since they’re off to a good start and have shown well in losses to elite teams, but UConn might have more talent when they’re expected to be healthy by February. Without SMU in the tournament, the league is in danger of getting only one or two teams into the field of 68 if nobody in the second tier has a great conference season.
  2. How will UConn adjust to the loss of Amida Brimah?: The Huskies are preparing to play the next six to eight weeks without the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year and this will be a huge stretch for UConn. Their interior defense has looked very mediocre at times without Brimah and they don’t have many big men behind him who are productive.
  3. Can Tulsa make a push towards a NCAA tournament bid?: Last season, Tulsa finished 14-4 in the American but still missed the NCAA tournament despite a very solid 22-10 record on Selection Sunday. Now armed with some better non-conference wins entering conference season, can the senior backcourt of Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard repeat a similar conference mark to help get Tulsa in the field?
Connecticut's Daniel Hamilton (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Connecticut’s Daniel Hamilton (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Tulsa stands at 8-4 and has played one of the tougher schedules in the conference. They beat Wichita State and Oklahoma State and have arguably the best back court in the conference.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Kelvin Sampson has put together a talented Houston roster filled with transfers, but LSU — without Craig Victor — is their only notable win this season and they lost to Grand Canyon. There’s reason to be hopeful about this group but until they do something of note in league play it’s tough to totally buy-in.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: UCF is off to a 6-4 start on the season, but Donnie Jones has never won more than five games in AAC league play. UCF likely needs a strong conference mark for Jones to keep his job.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. SMU (11-0): The Mustangs obviously can’t play in the NCAA tournament, but they’re still the class of the league and likely a legit top-25 team. It’s a shame Nic Moore and the other seniors can’t get one more crack at the Big Dance.
  • 2. Cincinnati (10-3): Don’t be fooled by Cincinnati’s three losses this season. All three were tight games and they came against Butler, Xavier and Iowa State. Mick Cronin’s team is balanced and very tough defensively.
  • 3. UConn (8-3): The Huskies absolutely have the talent of a NCAA tournament team, but their best wins have come against Michigan and Ohio State. This next stretch without Amida Brimah will be huge for them.
  • 4. Tulsa (8-4): The Golden Hurricane have an experienced backcourt in Harrison and Woodard and those two alone should win Tulsa a lot of games. After a 14-4 conference mark and NIT appearance last season, Tulsa is motivated to take the next step.

NIT teams

  • 5. Houston (9-2): There’s certainly enough talent for the Cougars to make the NCAA tournament but it remains to be seen if they can beat good teams, especially on the road. Rob Gray Jr. has been a consistent scoring force so far this season.
  • 6. Memphis (8-3): It’s been a decent start for the Tigers, and Dedric Lawson looks like a potential star, but it’s tough to see them in the NCAA tournament with their questionable guard play.

Autobid or bust

  • 7. East Carolina (8-5)
  • 8. UCF (6-4)
  • 9. Temple (5-5)
  • 10. Tulane (7-6)
  • 11. South Florida (3-10)

AAC Preview: Can SMU win the league without a postseason?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.

The AAC is in for an awkward season as the league’s best team — SMU — will likely be spending the majority of the season trying to win a yet-to-be-filed appeal with the NCAA that will allow them to participate in the NCAA tournament this season.

Then again, the AAC is one of those leagues whose existence still feels a bit awkward. The football-playing leftovers of the Old Big East, the AAC pairs some of the nation’s top basketball programs — UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati, Temple — with some programs that make you wonder if you need to redefine if the AAC is truly a high-major conference — East Carolina, Tulane, UCF.

In recent years, there’s been a clear-cut difference between the top of the conference and the bottom of the league. This year, with Houston and South Florida improving, that line may get a bit blurrier, but there is still a decided difference between the three or four real contenders — SMU, Tulsa, UConn and Cincinnati — and everyone else.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. SMU could win the league but may not be postseason eligible: If you read this site than you’re probably already aware of how I feel about the postseason ban the NCAA handed SMU. I hate it. I think it’s morally wrong simply because the people that pay the ultimate price — seniors Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert — are the ones that are actually hurt here. Because this SMU roster, which also includes Keith Frazier (who earned them that ban), Ben Moore and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, is good enough to not only win the AAC regular season title, but they have the pieces — and the head coach — to make a Final Four run.

Here’s to hoping that the appeal process takes six months. I want to see this team have a chance to play in March.

(UPDATE: Since this preview was published, SMU has announced that they will not appeal their postseason ban.)

2. This is the year for Tulsa to make their run: Frank Haith will never have a better chance than this to win the AAC. Looking beyond the fact that his backcourt of Shaq Harrison and James Woodard is as good as any in the league and that they are coming off of a season where they won 14 league games, the Golden Hurricane are about as old as you can get at the college level. They return their top seven scorers from last season — their first in the American and their first under Haith — and all seven of them are seniors. Tulsa’s roster is stacked with enough talent to win the league, but it will also lose enough talent to ensure that Haith will have a significant rebuild on his hands beginning in 2016-17.

3. UConn’s fifth-year seniors make the difference: Kevin Ollie has talent. There’s no question about that. Daniel Hamilton has a shot at being the AAC Player of the Year. Rodney Purvis was a top 15 recruit. Amida Brimah is one of the nation’s best shot-blockers. Jalen Adams is a stud. But the keys to this Husky team are going to be the fifth-year additions, Seton Hall transfer Sterling Gibbs and Cornell transfer Shonn Miller. Gibbs is exactly the kind of lead guard that has carried UConn in recent years, while Miller is exactly the kind of do-it-all four-man that the Huskies were missing last year.

AP Photo
AP Photo

4. Memphis lost their best player: Josh Pastner really cannot catch a break. In July of this year, the Tiger head coach found out that Austin Nichols, who would have had a decent argument for being the Preseason Player of the Year, was leaving the program. The Tigers do add Dedric and K.J. Lawson, and Ricky Tarrant should theoretically help stabilize things at the point guard spot, but unless Kedren Johnson has magically turned into the guy he was three years ago at Vanderbilt or Shaq Goodwin has taken a giant step forward, the Tigers are probably the fifth-best team in the AAC, and that’s being optimistic. Another year without a trip to the NCAA tournament could mean that Pastner’s tenure in Memphis is over.

5. Don’t forget about Cincinnati with Mick Cronin back: Cincinnati’s fiery head coach Mick Cronin missed the majority of last season as he dealt with an unruptured aneurysm in his brain. He’s back now, and he should have the pieces to make an NCAA tournament run. Troy Caupain is back to captain the squad, while the likes of Octavious Ellis and Gary Clark return inside. In fact, Cincinnati essentially returns everyone that matters from last year, but the x-factor this season could end up being the addition of Justin Jenifer, a pint-sized point guard that could fill a role Cincy was missing a year ago.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “SMU. They are as good as anyone in the country, even with the ban. Nic Moore, the Player of the Year, is coming back, and they still have a guy like Markus Kennedy, who crushed us. When we played them we had control of the game until he went totally bonkers. We couldn’t handle him.”
  • Sleeper: “Houston. I think they will make a jump in what they were last year to this year. Kelvin Sampson is a really good coach and they add some kids (Ronnie Johnson, Damyean Dotson). They already had some players, too.”
  • Best player: “This may be surprising, but I think Daniel Hamilton at UConn is a terrific, terrific player. He’s one of the better players in the country and I think he’s going to be in line to have a breakout year.”
  • Most underrated player: “James Woodard at Tulsa. I’m sure people in the league realize he’s a good player, but I think that he’s one of the premier guards in the league. And I know how good some of the guards in the league are.”

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nic Moore, SMU

Moore, the reigning AAC Player of the Year, has been sensational in his first two seasons with the Mustangs after transferring into the program from Illinois State. As a junior, he averaged 14.5 points, 5.1 assists and 2.3 boards while shooting 41.6 percent from three. He’s the best guard in a league that’s stocked with talented perimeter players, and it’s a shame that his career looks like it’s going to be remembered by a postseason ban and a game-losing goaltend.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM:

  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn: Hamilton averaged 10.9 points as a freshman despite, at times, showing questionable shot selection and decision-making. Entering school with the rep of being a pure scorer, he also produced 7.2 boards and 3.7 assists a night.
  • Sterling Gibbs, UConn: Gibbs is a perfect piece for Kevin Ollie. A talented, veteran lead guard capable of taking over games and with the intestinal fortitude to take and make big shots. Hopefully, UConn fans forgive him for being related to Ashton.
  • James Woodard, Tulsa: Woodard’s reputation is that of being a spot-up shooter, but he could very well end up being the best player on a team that will once again challenge for the regular season title.
  • Markus Kennedy, SMU: Kennedy’s numbers as a junior were impacted after he was ineligible for the first semester last season. He’s the best low-post player in the conference and a piece that can take over a game when he needs to.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa
  • Amida Brimah, UConn
  • Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
  • Louis Dabney, Tulane
  • Quentin DeCosey, Temple

BREAKOUT STAR: Gary Clark, Cincinnati

Clark is a prototype Cincinnati front court player: long and athletic with a motor that doesn’t stop running, and on a team that’s built around toughness, defense and outworking their opponents, Clark is a perfect fit. The 6-foot-8 sophomore isn’t going to put up huge numbers — he averaged 7.8 points, 7.2 boards and 1.3 blocks on a team that didn’t have a double-figure scorer last season — but he’s going to be an integral piece if the Bearcats make a run at a league title.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Josh Pastner, Memphis

This one is obvious. It feels like Pastner’s job has been on the line since he took over for John Calipari. While the success he’s had with the Tigers has been in line with just about every coach in the program’s history, he had the misfortune of following in Cal’s footsteps. The standards he has to live up to are overwhelming, and, needless to say, Pastner has not lived up to them. With Austin Nichols, arguably the best big man in the league last season, transferring out of the program this summer, Pastner is staring down the barrel of another season without an NCAA tournament trip. He better hope those Lawsons are the real deal.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : SMU should not be sitting out of the NCAA tournament. They could have made the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The perimeter battles at the top of the league. Nic Moore and Keith Frazier vs. Sterling Gibbs and Daniel Hamilton vs. Jordan Woodard and Shaq Harrison.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Feb. 13, Gonzaga at SMU
  • Nov. 25, UConn vs. Michigan
  • Dec. 8, UConn vs. Maryland
  • Nov. 17, Wichita State at Tulsa
  • Dec. 12, Cincinnati vs. Xavier

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @NoEscalators

PREDICTED FINISH

1. SMU: The best coach, the best point guard and the best big man. Whether or not they are eligible for the postseason, the Mustangs are the best team in the conference.
2.UConn: Landing Gibbs, Miller and Adams was key, but it will be the development of Hamilton, Purvis and Brimah that determines just how good the Huskies are this season.
3. Tulsa: A senior-laden squad, a talented backcourt and a year under their belt in a new league with a new coach. This is the season for the Golden Hurricane to make their run.
4. Cincinnati: It feels weird calling Cincinnati a sleeper, but that’s what the Bearcats are this year. Nothing they do is going to be glamorous, but there are few coaches that thrive are better blue collar coaches than the now-healthy Mick Cronin.
5. Houston: The Cougars are the most intriguing team in the AAC this year. They have a roster stocked with big names and a coach in Kelvin Sampson that has already proven how good he is. But they also had quite a bit of talent on the roster last season and they finished 4-14 in the league. Ronnie Johnson, L.J. Rose, Damyean Dotson, Devonta Pollard and Chicken Knowles. That roster should be relevant.
6. Temple: Losing Will Cummings will hurt, Jaylen Bond and Quentin DeCosey should be able to anchor a roster that returns some promising young talent.
7. Memphis: Losing Austin Nichols was a brutal blow, but if either Johnson or Tarrant solidifies the point guard spot, the Tigers should have enough on their roster to make an NCAA tournament push.
8. South Florida: Corey Perry Jr. graduated, but Roddy Peters, a former top 25 recruit, should be able to replace that production.
9. Tulane: The Green Wave return Louis Dabney and add Washington transfer Jernard Jerreau to help bolster their front court.
10. East Carolina: B.J. Tyson has a chance to put up some impressive numbers this season. ‘Wins’ may not be one of those numbers.
11. UCF: Am I the only one hoping that Donnie Jones pairs 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall and 6-foot-9, 330 pound Justin McBride in his front court?