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2019 NCAA Tournament: The guards you need to know

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The saying goes, it’s guards that win games in the NCAA tournament, and the history is there to back it up. Whether it’s a point guard making his teammates better (Tyus Jones, Duke) or dominating play (Kemba Walker, UConn). There will be a whole host of guards, some we know and some we don’t, that’ll make a huge difference over the next month.

Here we’ll take a look at a group that maybe aren’t quite as well known as the country’s absolute top-tier. So you won’t find R.J. Barrett or Cassius Winston or Carsen Edwards or Ja Morant here. You will, however, find a group that can make or break a bracket.

Markus Howard, Marquette

It’s a bit surprising that Howard hasn’t broken through as a major star in college basketball given he’s a 5-foot-11, sweet-shooting guard who absolutely fills it up. He’s a high-volume guy with one of the highest usage rates in the country while still shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range en route to averaging 25 points per game. Howard is certainly no secret to those who follow college basketball closely, but given how celebrated 3-point shooters are in this day and age, Howard, truly one of the country’s elite in that department, seems broadly under-appreciated. His shooting is potent enough to put the Golden Eagles on a run, even if they’re entering the tournament on a downward trajectory.

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga

There have been plenty of questions about Perkins on these pages but he’s largely answered the bell this season for the Zags. He’s averaged 11 points with an assist-to-turnover ratio great than 3:1. He’s shooting 36.8 percent from 3-point range. He’s run the point for one of the best and most successful teams in the country. But…there are still a couple of red flags. Perkins had four turnovers and was 4 of 14 (0-3 from 3) in the Zags’ loss in the WCC title game to St. Mary’s, and in Gonzaga’s last loss before that, all the way back in December, he had six turnovers against North Carolina. He had nine assists in a loss to Tennessee, but was also 0-6 from the field. There might be some that say Killian Tillie is Gonzaga’s x-factor, but with how good they are already in the frontcourt, I still think Perkins remains the guy that can swing the pendulum the most in either direction for the West’s No. 1 seed.

Sam Merrill, Utah State

Merrill has been the best player you haven’t heard of this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 boards for a Utah State team that won the Mountain West tournament. He’s averaging 27.2 points over the last five games, in which the Aggies beat Nevada to lock up an at-large bid and then rolled through the field to win their league’s automatic bid. He’s terrific.

Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State

An foot injury sidelined Wigginton for most of November and December, and the former five-star prospect has been coming off the bench for an up-and-down Iowa State team since returning. A year after being the Cyclones’ best and perhaps only scoring option, Wigginton now finds himself a part of a more balanced attack that actually features another player – Virginia transfer Marial Shayok – more than him. Still, he’s a 38 percent 3-point shooter with high-level athleticism, and his ability to score in bunches could be the catalyst that keeps the Cyclones hot after their Big 12 tournament championship.

Fletcher Magee, Wofford

The Terrier senior has a chance to become a Big Dance darling thanks to his 41.3 percent shooting from 3-point range and his prowess for big-scoring games ( he’s averaged 20-plus for two years). Wofford became something of a national novelty as they cracked the Top 25 for the first time in school history, but here’s guessing Magee shows why the Terriers weren’t just a collecting wins in the Southern Conference – they’re actually a serious threat over the next few weeks.

Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s

If St. John’s is going to storm out of the First Four and make a dent in coach Chris Mullin’s first NCAA tournament with his alma mater, Ponds is going to be what’s powering it. The 6-foot-1 Brooklyn native is averaging just under 20 ppg with 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals per game as well. Ponds is a threat to go for 30-plus every time he steps on the floor.

C.J. Massinburg, Buffalo

It’s hard to live up to the hype when you drop 43 in an overtime win at West Virginia in the season’s first week, but the Bulls’ senior has been really good all season. Massinburg is a statsheet stuffer with 18.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3 assists per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3 and 46.4 percent overall. It’s not going to be surprising at all to see Buffalo outperform its six seed with its senior guard leading the way.

BJ Taylor, UCF

The Orlando native has starred for the hometown Knights as they’ve secured their first NCAA tournament berth since 2005.  The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 16 points and 3.3 assists per game. He converts at a 36.8 percent clip from 3-point range.

Thursday’s Things To Know: Fall family reunion, Clemons passes McBuckets and ASun title game set

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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There wasn’t a ton of action across the country of major significance Thursday – that’s what happens when the Pac-12 becomes an afterthought – but there was some notable moments that you need to know. Get caught up: 

TACKO FALL’S MOTHER SEES HER SON PLAY FOR THE FIRST TIME

A lot of good things happened Thursday for UCF. The Knights took a big step forward in solidifying their NCAA tournament resume as they earned a second top-25 win of the season – a program first – by beating No. 19 Cincinnati, 58-55, on senior night.

The best thing, though, was the reunion between UCF senior star Tacko Fall and his mother after the pair had been separated for seven years.

She never saw me play before,” Tacko told reporters. “We haven’t been together in so long.

“It felt like a dream.”

Tacko hadn’t seen his mother, Marianne, since he left his native Senegal to pursue basketball.

“I left my home in Senegal seven years ago to learn to play basketball, to get an education and to make a better life for me, my mom and my family,” Tacko said, per the Orlando Sentinel. “I’m just so glad she’s able to see me play at UCF, so she will know now that it’s all been worth it.”

On the heals of last week’s win over No. 8 Houston, it’s hard to imagine a better few days for UCF and its 7-foot-6 senior, who came to the United States to escape poverty.

“There were times when I went to school hungry and other times when the electricity got cut off,” he said, “but my mom worked all different jobs to keep us going. I owe her so much for all the sacrifices she made for us. The final sacrifice was letting me come to America.”

Now Fall will likely finish his career with an NCAA tournament appearance, with his mother having seen him live out his dream after a seven-year separation.

“It was like the day he was born when I held him in my arms,” Marianne said. “I can’t describe the joy of seeing my son play for the first time.”

(AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.)

CHRIS CLEMONS PASSES DOUG MCDERMOTT ON SCORING LIST

Playing at Campbell doesn’t provide a major platform or spot light from Chris Clemons, so his numbers will have to do the talking.

The senior star moved up to fourth place on the NCAA’s all-time scoring list after scoring 34 points in a win over Hampton, edging past Doug McDermott and Alphonso Ford with 3,170 points.

He’s now just behind Lionel Simmons (3,217), Freeman Williams (3,249) and Pete Maravich (3,667).

Not bad for a guy who shoots free throws like this.

FIRST CONFERENCE TITLE MATCHUP SET

We’re a few days away from conference tournament ramping up to high gear, but we’ve already got our first championship matchup set.

Liberty and Lipscomb will meet Sunday to determine the ASun title after Liberty topped North Florida (63-71) and Lipscomb throttled NJIT (78-55) in the semis Thursday.

The ASun has the first title matchup, but won’t be the first conference to get a team an autobid as the OVC finals will be played Saturday night.

No. 25 UCF beats No. 19 Cincinnati 58-55

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — B.J. Taylor scored 22 points and No. 25 UCF held off No. 19 Cincinnati 58-55 on Thursday night.

Tacko Fall added 10 points and six rebounds for the Knights (23-6, 13-4 American Athletic). They held Cincinnati to 37.1 percent shooting and had a 39-33 rebounding edge.

Trevon Scott had 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting and added nine rebounds for the Bearcats (25-5, 14-3). Jarron Cumberland added 10 points and five assists.

Taylor broke a tie with two free throws with 1:16 left and made it 57-53 with a layup with 17 seconds to go. Cumberland cut it to two with a layup with 10 seconds left, and Chad Brown completed the scoring for UCF with a free throw with 9 seconds to go.

Cumberland and Can Broome missed 3-point attempts for the Bearcats in the final seconds.

CUMBERLAND STRUGGLES

Cumberland didn’t score his first basket until 7:28 left in the first half. The Bearcats’ leading scorer at 18.6 points per game, he was 5 for-18 from the field.

BIG PICTURE

Cincinnati: The Bearcats couldn’t overcome their shooting problems. They were 6 of 18 from 3 -point range.

UCF: The victory gave the Knights two victories over Top 25 teams in a season for the first time.

UP NEXT

Cincinnati: Hosts No. 12 Houston on Sunday

UCF: At Temple on Saturday.

AAC Reset: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF established as frontrunners

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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 recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American Athletic Conference.

MIDSEASON AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: B.J. Taylor, UCF

The 6-foot-2 guard has bounced back from injury brilliantly, averaging 17.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 40.9 percent from the floor, 39.3 percent from 3 and 81.3 percent from the free-throw line. He needs to be more consistent (that 2-for-10 against Alabama stands out), but he’s an electric scorer that will make the Knights go.

THE ALL AAC FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, WICHITA STATE: The senior has rediscovered his all-conference form after a disastrous sophomore season, even if the Shockers aren’t winning at that level. He’s averaging 18.8 points while shooting 42.3 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3. He’s also grabbing 5.1 rebounds per game.
  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, CINCINNATI: The best player on the league’s best team, Cumberland is putting up a career-best 16.2 points while shooting a scintillating 47.1 percent from distance.
  • SHIZZ ALSTON, TEMPLE: The conference’s top scorer at 19.3 per game, Alston has helped Temple to a surprise 10-2 record in Fran Dunphy’s final season at the helm.
  • COREY DAVIS, HOUSTON: The 6-foot-1 senior is averaging 15.3 points in efficient manner, shooting 34.7 percent from 3 and 94.3 percent from the line. He’s also putting up 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF
  • NIT: UConn, SMU, Temple
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Memphis, Wichita State, Tulsa, ECU, South Florida, Tulane
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. THREE AT THE TOP

This isn’t so much something we’ve learned as has been confirmed through the season’s first two months. It seems pretty apparent that Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are the class of the conference, sporting a combined record 34-4. All three teams are in the KenPom top-40 while the rest of the league is outside the top-70.

Among those three, you could argue that Houston and Cincinnati may be a smidge ahead of the Knights as the Cougars and Bearcats both have good wins and no bad losses, something UCF can’t say with a loss to FAU on the resume and a home win against a so-so Alabama team leading the win docket. Still, the Knights belong in this trio given the strength of the roster and only one hiccup.

It’s almost assured that the league champion will emerge from this group of three, and it’s probably likely that the trio will comprise the entirety of the conference’s NCAA tournament bids.

2. PENNY HARDAWAY MAKES THINGS INTERESTING

Memphis hasn’t been particularly successful on the floor in the first year of the Penny era, with South Dakota State its best win and with losses to Charleston and Oklahoma State, but there have been more than a few moments that make the Tigers’ hire of their star alum already an absolute winner.

First off, Hardaway landed five-star recruit James Wiseman in the 2019 class, giving the Tigers not only a monster recruit, but one who hails from Memphis as well. Succeeding with kids from the city – five-star kids or otherwise – is a huge part of the Memphis job, and one Hardaway looked ready to immediately excel in and he has. Not just with Wiseman, but with Tyler Harris, who is having a splendid freshman season. Then there’s the feud with Rick Barnes, who I don’t think has ever been in a feud of any type in his life, but found Hardaway cursing him out after Barnes’ Tennessee team beat the Tigers in a rivalry game. Bringing a little juice to that matchup is a heck of a lot of fun.

Maybe most importantly, though, Memphis fans are flocking back to games. The Tigers are averaging nearly 15,000 fans per home game after averaging just over 6,000 per game in Tubby Smith’s last season. Memphis basketball – despite not yet winning a bunch of games – matters. That was half the battle, one Penny is winning in a major way.

3. WICHITA STATE IS WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY’D BE

You could have talked yourself into Wichita State this past offseason, banking on a Markis McDuffie return to form and Gregg Marshall just bending reality to his whim to keep the Shockers near the top of the AAC and in the NCAA tournament. It looks like you would have been kidding yourself, though.

The Shockers appear to be taking the step back that looked all but inevitable after losing the likes of Landry Shamet, Connor Frankamp and Shaw Morris off last year’s team. Now, the Shockers haven’t hit rock bottom – they’ve got wins against Providence and Baylor – but losses to Louisiana Tech, Davidson, Alabama and VCU makes it seem all the more likely that this isn’t going to be a caliber of team Wichita State has become accustomed to fielding during its seven-year NCAA tournament streak, which appears destined to end this spring.

(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW LONG CAN HOUSTON STAY PERFECT?

Kelvin Sampson’s team hasn’t exactly had a murderer’s row schedule, but the Cougars are 13-0 heading into AAC play. That’s undefeated, for those of you keeping score at home. Their next toughest tests come at Temple (KenPom 74) on Jan. 9 and at SMU (89) on Jan. 16. If they make it through those two games, they very well could be blemish-free heading into an interesting three-game stretch to begin February at UCF, vs. Cincinnati and at UConn.

No one is expecting Houston to run the table, but given the meh-ness of their non-conference schedule and the blah-ness of the AAC at large, they’re going to need to rely heavily on simple win accumulation to boost their NCAA tournament resume and seed line. Getting to February undefeated would help that, for those keeping score at home.

2. THE HURLEY REBUILD AT UCONN

Spirits seem to be high in Storrs, where the hometown Huskies sit 8-4 in the first two months of the Dan Hurley era. UConn is playing respectable basketball and hope seems to be in the air, a welcome change after what looked to be a miserable finish to Kevin Ollie’s tenure, which still has an ugly cloud over the university. So, that’s an improvement.

UConn probably isn’t all that good, though. At least not right now. The Huskies’ did beat Syracuse on a neutral, but beyond that, they’ve lost every game of consequence on their schedule. Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert are playing well, and that might be enough to score a few AAC victories to keep everyone happy while Hurle continues the rebuild.

3. CAN A FOURTH TEAM SNEAK INTO THE DANCE?

For a team other than Houston, Cincinnati or UCF to make the NCAA tournament, it’s probably going to take a magical run through the conference tournament, which is hosted by Memphis at the FedEx forum this year, if you’re looking for a real juicy storyline.

Other than that, though, there doesn’t really seem to be a path. No one has done enough in the non-conference to really put themselves in a strong position, and the conference just doesn’t appear to have enough opportunities to win games that move the needle. If it’s going to happen, though, it’ll likely need to be UConn, SMU or Temple really surprising and notching a whole host of victories – including a few against that top trio.

(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. CINCY TAKES THE TITLE

Houston may be undefeated, but Mick Cronin’s team looks to be the best the AAC has to offer. The Bearcats’ two losses both came to Power 5 teams, the first a season-opening home loss to Ohio State and the second in Starkville to Mississippi State. Neither of those give any indication other than the Bearcats aren’t quite a top-25 team.

Cincinnati looks to have another borderline-elite defense, which is constructed from the inside out, with opponents struggling to score around the basket while the Bearcats are also generating a host of turnovers. The offense isn’t quite as strong, but Jarron Cumberland can help cover up some deficiencies.

2. THE NATION REMEMBERS TACKO FALL

The UCF big man became of national interest early in his career simply by the fact that he stands 7-foot-6 and has a great name, but injuries – and playing in the AAC – had him fade into the background some.

Expect that to change, with UCF having legit talent that will make the Knights an AAC contender and an interesting team to watch – if you can stomach their slow pace. The big man is sporting a 14.6 block percentage at the moment. There are few players that can impact a game defensively like he can – and nearly none are as interesting to watch given his height.

3. PENNY WILL GENERATE MORE HEADLINES

Maybe he won’t tell another coach to get the “@*&! out of here” but here’s guessing the Memphis coach will continue to make things interesting, even if wins aren’t expected to come in bunches next year. It’s clear after having an All-Star NBA career and then being a big fish in high school basketball, he’s not too concerned about the decorum that keeps so many head coaches from being truly interesting characters. Bless him for it.

2018-19 American Preview: Year of the AAC rebuild

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.


The AAC wasn’t as deep last year as the league would have hoped, but it was strong at the top with Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State all proving themselves among the country’s best – even if all three had disappointing ends to their seasons in the NCAA tournament.

This season will be one of transition for the conference as those three tournament teams from last year all having major roster turnover while two of the league’s traditional power programs – Memphis and UConn – made splashy head coaching moves after both had fallen into mediocrity in recent years.

That means the league is there for the taking this season.

Cincy, Houston and Wichita State could all be back at the top while talented UCF could shrug off last season’s injury woes to take the crown or one of the league’s middle tier could jump up and surprise.

The AAC probably won’t have those high-end, national contenders this season, but it figures to be an intriguing year, especially with the changes in Memphis and Storrs.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Penny’s back

There is just something overwhelmingly cool about Penny Hardaway. His game – full of both power and grace – as a 6-foot-7 point guard just screamed style. As did the jersey he wore while he came to prominence. Those 1990s Magic uniforms – especially the black pinstripes – was the thing of Starter jacket dreams. And those teams. Oh, those teams. Penny and Shaq in Orlando was more entertaining than anything their Disney neighbors could have dreamed up. I haven’t even mentioned the Chris Rock-voiced Lil’ Penny. Even the name ‘Penny’ is great.

My goodness, was Penny Hardaway cool. Now he’s trying to bring cool – and winning – back to his alma mater, Memphis.

An alum and city native, the former NBA All Star brings his starpower and puts his legacy on the line in trying to get the Tigers back in line after a slump in production and a slide into apathy under Tubby Smith. Hardaway brings instant credibility thanks to his NBA career and his work winning state titles at Memphis East and navigating the EYBL with Team Penny. Whether he can coach at an elite collegiate level remains to be seen, but he’s already attracting talent – including the ever-important homegrown Memphis talent – to the Tigers program.

His return to helm Memphis is also one of college basketball’s top storylines. Memphis basketball is cool again, simply by association. Whether it’ll be a winner remains to be seen.

Dan Hurley, AP

2. UConn rebuild begins under Hurley

Given his last name and success at Wagner and, more recently, Rhode Island, Dan Hurley had multiple chances to move on to a bigger program. It took a shot at rebuilding one of college basketball’s biggest brands to get him to move. Hurley, the son of legendary high school coach Bob and brother Arizona State coach and Duke legend Bobby, is tasked with taking a program that went from national championship to downtrodden in the span of just four years back to the heights it so long enjoyed for years under Jim Calhoun and then briefly under Kevin Ollie.

Bringing UConn back to national prominence is an interesting challenge for Hurley as while the Huskies were in the AAC when they won the 2014 national title, they were just a year removed from playing in the Big East. The challenges of recruiting to the AAC are certainly different, even with a brand as strong as UConn. Still, it’s a brand that carries weight, just like the Hurley name. And both are extremely strong in the northeast. After back-to-back losing seasons under Ollie, UConn should be better in Hurley’s first year due largely to the return of Jalen Adams and Christian Vital, but getting back to the NCAA tournament – and winning a few games there – is a more likely outcome later in Hurley’s Storrs tenure. That fate, however, would seem to be a foregone conclusion.

3. Wichita State, Houston and Cincy suffer heavy losses…but remain contenders

Even with Memphis and UConn down and UCF hit hard by injuries, it was a strong season for the AAC in 2017-18 thanks to the strength of Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, the league’s three NCAA tournament teams that were all seeded sixth or higher. The trio of teams carried the AAC banner admirably, even if the tournament results – Cincy’s blown lead against Nevada and Houston’s last-second loss to Michigan costing them Sweet 16 berths, and Wichita’s first-round loss to Marshall – left something to be desired. There was no doubting those three teams’ strengths, and that they play some real ball in the AAC.

This year, though, all three are slated to take steps back, though the degree to which remains to be seen.

The Bearcats arguably have the most to replace, but are the best equipped to do it after the losses of Jacob Evans (first-round pick), Gary Clark (AAC player of the year) and Kyle Washington (two-year starter) from last year’s team but the return of potential AAC player of the year Jarron Cumberland. Mick Cronin also remains on the bench, and Cincy continues to be a safe bet for the NCAA tournament, even with the roster turnover.

Houston’s losses were fewer, but no less significant as the Cougars will be without the AAC’s leading scorer Rob Gray, Jr. and their top rebounder, Devin Davis. Things look to remain on track with the Cougars, who will open a new $60 million home this season, with Kelvin Sampson staying put after the Orlando Magic made some inquiries this offseason. Corey Davis, Jr. will also be a big reason why after shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range and averaging 13.1 points last year. He’ll be tasked with keeping the ever-potent Cougar offense (which has ranked in the top-40 in efficiency the last three years) humming.

If you believe in Wichita State this year, it’s because you believe in Gregg Marshall. The Shockers lost all five starters from last year’s team, which was successful but had at times difficulty navigating the new waters of the AAC after dominating the Missouri Valley Conference for so long. Marshall also already suffered his first loss to Penny Hardaway and Memphis when four-star commit Alex Lomax flipped to the Tigers after Hardaway, his high school coach, was hired at Memphis. If the Shockers are going to compete at the top of the AAC and get back to the NCAA tournament, it’ll likely have to be on the strength of a bounceback season from Markis McDuffie. The former MVC freshman of the year and first-team all-conference performer never seemed to find a rhythm last season after a stress fracture in his foot cost him the year’s first weeks. The Shockers will need him to return to star status this year.

Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

4. UCF’s talented – but unlucky – trio

The Knights are hoping they didn’t miss their window. Or, rather, they’re hoping beyond hope injuries didn’t slam that window shut. There were high expectations for UCF in Johnny Dawkins’ second year with not just talent, but unique talent, across the roster. Instead of fielding one of the AAC’s most talented groups, however, the Knights had one of its most frustrating.

Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son and a transfer from Michigan, was lost before the season started with a torn labrum, B.J Taylor missed the first two months with a broken foot and Tacko Fall, he of 7-foot-6 fame, shut things down due to a shoulder injury. Instead of a fearsome threesome, the Knights had a rag-tag group that still scratched its way to a 19-13 record. With its trio back – and presumably healthy – the Knights could be the most talented team in a league that saw much of its top talent depart. If those three can stay on the court, UCF might be the last team standing in the AAC.

5. Dunphy’s last dance

Fran Dunphy began his Philadelphia Big 5 career in 1967 as a player at La Salle then had assistant gigs at his alma mater and Penn before taking the first chair for the Quakers in 1989 and then moving across town to replace John Chaney at Temple in 2006. And now after more than 50 years, his career will come to a close. The winningest coach in Big 5 history will step down after one final ride with the Owls, handing over the reins to former Temple star, NBA veteran and current Owls associate head coach Aaron McKie.

Dunphy is one of just five coaches to win at least 200 hundred games while going to at least six NCAA tournaments at two schools with Lou Henson, Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton and Roy Williams the others to accomplish the feat. Following Chaney was no easy task, but Dunphy has taken the Owls to seven NCAA tournaments. He’s not largely mentioned as one of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball, but as he enters his 30th and final season, he certainly is exactly that.

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati

Cumberland has spent his first two seasons in the Queen City in a supporting role for a team that won a combined 61 games while setting the standard in the AAC. This year, he’ll step into a starring role for a team looking to maintain that caliber of excellence. The 6-foot-5 guard studied under Jacob Evans and Troy Caupain and looks more than capable of taking the mantle of a Mick Cronin team.

Cumberland embodies the toughness and grit that has come to define Cronin’s Bearcat teams, but he’s plenty skilled as well. The Wilmington, Ohio native posted offensive efficiency ratings of 118.6 and 109.7 in his first two seasons as the team’s third or fourth offensive option. This year he’ll doubtless be the go-to guy, something he looked ready to assume with big NCAA tournament performances. The key to taking the step from role to star player, however, will be consistency. Cumberland’s production too often ebbed and flowed last season. This year’s team will need him to be good every night out. With the team unquestionably his, Cumberland will get his shot to be the next great Bearcat.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF: Injuries cost Taylor his sophomore season and half of his junior campaign, but the 6-foot-2 guard is a prolific scorer who will help the Knights compete for an AAC championship.
  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn: After averaging 18 points and seeing his coach get fired, Adams nearly went pro this summer, but instead returns to Storrs to give Dan Hurley a talented guard in his first season at the helm.
  • JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis: The 6-foot-3 guard has steadily and impressively improved his numbers every season and now he’ll get the chance to do so under Penny Hardaway.
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU: Foster was on track for a big junior campaign before a torn ACL cut his season short, but his return will give him the chance to be the Mustangs’ featured player with Shake Milton gone to the pros.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • TACKO FALL, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, Wichita State
  • QUINTON ROSE, Temple
  • COREY DAVIS JR, Houston
  • AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF
Jarron Cumberland (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Maybe it’s been done before, but UConn’s Alterique Gilbert being named the AAC preseason rookie of the year twice is certainly a unique accomplishment. The possibility he may win it a third time is a little bit heartbreaking. The former top-50 recruit has played just nine games in two years for the Huskies after shoulder injuries twice ended what should have been his debut seasons before they could really get underway. Two lost seasons and three shoulder surgeries later, the point guard hopes to be healthy enough to play this season. If he’s able to play this season and can return to the form that made him a McDonald’s All-American in 2016, both he and the Huskies could be the surprise of the season in the AAC.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

There really isn’t a coach that enters this season in risk of losing his job as each program either has a new head man, stability or an expected rebuild ahead of it. That means this distinction belongs not to a man coaching for his job, but one coaching for his legacy.

Penny Hardaway’s return to Memphis has been heralded as one of the biggest stories in college basketball – and rightfully so. He’s got the star power and cache that really only a few people can bring to the job, and probably no one else could have duplicated at Memphis, his alma mater and hometown. But the hype and hope come with a dark side. If Hardaway can’t pull this off, it’ll be a blow to his to his rock-solid reputation in Memphis. Fred Hoiberg pulled off this feat with his alma mater at Iowa State, but Chris Mullen is finding it difficult to replicate at St. John’s. Memphis has one of the most interesting situations in the sport, but feel-good stories eventually have to translate to wins to keep the good vibes.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

That the AAC isn’t as strong this season as last, but that it remained respectable with at least three bids.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Did I mention FREAKING PENNY HARDAWAY IS THE COACH AT MEMPHIS?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Memphis vs. Tennessee
  • Nov. 7, Cincinnati vs. Ohio State
  • Dec. 1, Houston vs. Oregon
  • Dec. 2, UCF vs. Missouri
  • Dec. 5, SMU vs. TCU
Kelvin Sampson, AP

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UCF: Winning the league will require quite a few things to go right for Johnny Dawkins’ team, but the Knights have the talent to do it, especially with the conference’s traditional powers not looking as powerful. It’ll largely come down to health. Can B.J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall all stay healthy all year long? If they share the floor all winter long, it’s not hard to see UCF atop the standings.

2. CINCINNATI: Despite heavy losses from last year’s 31-win team, Cincinnati should be strong enough once again to compete for a conference title. Jarron Cumberland will fill the offensive void, but it’s hard to envision a world where Mick Cronin’s team doesn’t defend well enough to win a ton of games in the AAC.

3. HOUSTON: Kelvin Sampson probably hasn’t been given the credit he deserves for the turnaround he’s engineered at Houston thanks in no small part to his scandal-forced exit at Indiana that kept him out of a head coaching chair for six years. The Cougars have developed into an AAC power, however, and look to stay there with an athletic department flush with cash in a new arena in one of the country’s booming cities. Houston is back on the basketball map, and even significant losses from last year won’t keep them off it.

4. SMU: The Mustangs are still under the purview of scholarship reductions from the Larry Brown era, but with a healthy Jarrey Foster and Mahmal McMurray, they should be competitive after injuries contributed to a second-half slide last season. Shake Milton is gone to the NBA and there are questions regarding the roster, but the Foster-McMurray one-two punch could be enough to elevate the Mustangs.

5. WICHITA STATE: This is a bet on the continuity of excellence. The Shockers will have to regroup after losing all five starters, including first-round pick Landry Shamet, but Gregg Marshall has been good enough long enough to warrant faith in a quick reload. Markis McDuffie is a talented piece to build around, especially if you give him the benefit of the doubt that last year’s struggles were the result of injury and not regression. All Marshall has done in Wichita has win, so it’s hard to believe we’ll see anything different this season, even if the faces on the floor are changed.

6. UCONN: While UConn engages in an ugly battle off the court with former coach Kevin Ollie, the Huskies should be in line to play, if not beautiful, at least passing ball under first-year coach Dan Hurley. Jalen Adams could be the best player in the league, and Christian Vital is a proven commodity. If Alterique Gilbert is healthy and productive and Mamadou Diarra can return from injury, the Huskies could be frisky in the AAC race.

Fran Dunphy, AP

7. TEMPLE: Fran Dunphy’s swan song to Big 5 basketball isn’t likely going to be a sweet one. The Owls have struggled to find footing in the AAC as they’ve made the NCAA tournament just once in their five seasons in the league after six-straight appearances to end their stint in the Atlantic 10. There’s talent on the roster, especially in Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston, but it may not be enough for an upper-half finish in the conference.

8. MEMPHIS: The Tigers are the most talked about team in the league thanks to Penny Hardaway’s homecoming, but this season could be a struggle. Jeremiah Martin is one of the league’s best players and Kyvon Davenport is a proven contributor, but the rest of the roster is less impressive. Hardaway has already brought in a strong first recruiting class, but it’s not a group that will be able to be counted on to help win a lot of games right off the jump. Expectations are up and hope has returned to Memphis, but a Hardaway’s work is far from over.

9. TULSA: This is probably too low for the Golden Hurricane. Not because they’re wildly talented, but because Frank Haith consistently has gotten his teams to beat expectations in Tulsa. Sterling Taplin is as experienced as they get and is a potential all-conference guard while Martins Igbanu is also a solid contributor. If the Golden Hurricane can rebound and get to the line like they did last year, they could replicate that level of success in the standings.

10. TULANE: Mike Dunleavy’s hiring in New Orleans felt like a strange in 2016, but he’s took the Green Wave to six wins his first year to 14 last season while turning Melvin Frazier into an NBA draft pick. It’s hard, though, to see Tulane sustain that growth this season with Frazier with the Orlando Magic and Cameron Reynolds graduated. Dunleavy has shown he can get the Green Wave moving in the right direction, but it might not be a straight-line trajectory.

11. EAST CAROLINA: Joe Dooley is back in Greenville, y’all. Nearly 20 years after his first stint with the Pirates, Dooley returns to take the helm of the program he led from 1995-99 after winning big in Dunk City the last five years. He took Florida Gulf Coast over from Andy Enfield and won five-straight conference titles and got to two NCAA tournaments. Dooley will have his work cut out for him at his new job in his old home as the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 2013.

12. SOUTH FLORIDA: A return to a head coaching spot wasn’t a rampant success for Brian Gregory as his Bulls went just 10-22 overall and 3-15 in AAC play last season. There isn’t a lot of hope that the turnaround will begin in earnest this season with just five upperclassmen on the roster

2014 SG Adonys Henriquez commits to Central Florida

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Donnie Jones is at it again. Less than two weeks after earning a commitment from Alex Owens, a top player in the class of 2015 from from Orlando, FL, Jones received good news on Sunday morning when Adonys Henriquez verbally committed to play at Central Florida.

Henriquez, like Jones, is from Orlando and is ranked as a Top 100 recruit in ESPN’s class of 2014 rankings.

ESPN’s Reggie Rankin broke the news:

Henriquez formerly committed to Miami (FL), but backed out of that commitment in late August. Back out of Miami to commit to Central Florida — that’s really saying something as to what Henriquez thinks of the program Donnie Jones is building at UCF. The fact that two of the top players in Florida are heading to UCF rather than the big three schools — Florida, Florida State, or Miami — is pretty darn impressive.

Having been an assistant at Florida for Billy Donovan from 1996-2007, prior to being the head coach at Marshall from 2007-10, it’s clear Jones knows what it takes to recruit in the Sunshine state.

Along with UCF, Butler was courting Henriquez very hard; just last weekend, Henriquez was on an official visit to Butler.