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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

Canadian powerhouse Carleton is destroying American college teams again

Carleton Athletics
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August is a very slow time in college basketball. Future recruits have finished playing after the July live evaluation period. Football is becoming America’s main focus.

But if you are a diehard college hoops fan, you’ve probably heard of Canadian college basketball powerhouse Carleton University. The Ravens have won 13 national titles over the last 16 years in Canada as they feature a number of former Division I transfers.

More importantly, the Ravens continue to destroy talented American college teams during summer exhibition tours. It’s becoming an annual tradition at this point.

So far this month, Carleton has scored impressive double-digit wins over Cincinnati, Ole Miss and South Dakota State as the Ravens made easy work out of two NCAA tournament teams from last season. Not many teams can slow down an All-American candidate like Mike Daum. The Ravens held the Jackrabbits star big man to eight points on 3-for-10 shooting.

Beating American college teams has become somewhat of a norm for Carleton. Last summer, the Ravens picked off five of six Division I opponents who visited them — including Alabama, Providence and Vanderbilt. Carleton also knocked off Wisconsin during a season in which the Badgers eventually made it to the Final Four.

For these summer exhibition games, Carleton obviously has the homecourt advantage. They play a pressing style that can be tough on a team just starting out its season. Carleton also has the edge of playing more games than its American counterparts — the Ravens played 17 exhibition games before going 23-0 in the regular season last year.

Regardless of circumstances, it is always jarring to see NCAA tournament-caliber teams getting blown out, regularly, by a team from Canada.

At what point do we start talking about adding Carleton into the NCAA equation to make things a bit more interesting? It’ll never happen. But it’s fun to think about.

AAC Conference Reset: Get caught up on all of the league’s offseason action

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the AAC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

PENNY HARDAWAY RETURNS TO SAVE MEMPHIS BASKETBALL: Now that Penny Hardaway has triumphantly made his return to the University of Memphis, the Tigers are going to be one of the country’s most fascinating teams to watch this season.

We know who Penny is. His legacy as a player speaks for itself.

But this Memphis job is perfect for Hardaway because he’s a massive presence in the Memphis basketball community. Having coached many of the city’s elite high school players either through his Team Penny EYBL program, or at Memphis East High School, Hardaway re-established the Tigers’ local recruiting pipeline only days after taking the job. The major question will be how a first-time college coach handles a very young roster.

UCONN TURNS TO DAN HURLEY: Memphis isn’t the only program in the American looking for a revival.

The Huskies are desperate for a return to national relevance after some miserable recent seasons under Kevin Ollie. Now with former Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley at the helm, UConn is hoping that his family’s history of winning comes with him to Storrs.

At least Hurley has senior guard Jalen Adams returning. The rest of the UConn roster has some major questions marks entering 2018-19.

CINCINNATI AND WICHITA STATE HAVE NEW-LOOK ROSTERS: Last season in the American saw a new (and really fun) rivalry develop between Cincinnati and Wichita State. The top two teams in the American played two memorable regular-season contests in which the road team won each time. They were both top-four seeds in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

Now both teams will look very different from last season.

With the loss of Jacob Evans to the NBA draft, the Bearcats have to replace three of their top four scorers as Mick Cronin’s ballclub will have to go back to grinding out wins. The same can be said for Gregg Marshall’s group at Wichita State. That team lost five seniors, Landry Shamet is headed for the NBA draft and Austin Reaves is transferring out of of the program.

Cincinnati and Wichita State won’t have quite the scoring pop that they did last season. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see both teams overachieve with rosters of new players.

FRAN DUNPHY’S SWAN SONG AT TEMPLE: This will be veteran head coach Fran Dunphy’s final season at Temple as he announced in April that Aaron McKie will take the reigns beginning in 2019-20.

Dunphy’s final season with the Owls could either motivate the team to play hard in his honor, or things could quickly fall apart if the team faces early adversity and decides to give up the fight.

Temple typically plays a rigorous non-conference schedule, so we might get some answers to this question early in the season.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

WHO’S GONE?

  • LANDRY SHAMET and AUSTIN REAVES, Wichita State: This offseason was going to be tough enough for the Shockers with the loss of five seniors. Now, with Shamet leaving for the NBA, and Reaves becoming a coveted transfer, this Wichita State roster will look completely different next season.
  • SHAKE MILTON, SMU: Brilliant during his junior campaign before a season-ending injury, Milton is heading to The League as well. The Mustangs will surely miss their go-to scorer, as well as Milton’s perimeter-shooting prowess.
  • JACOB EVANS, Cincinnati: A potential first-round pick, Evans departing for the pros means the Bearcats lose three of their top four scorers from last season’s conference title team. Had Evans returned, he could have been the league’s Preseason Player of the Year. Cincinnati will sorely miss his two-way presence on the wing.
  • TERRY LARRIER, UConn: Impressive at times during his first full season in three years, the 6-foot-8 junior forward parlayed his long-awaited health into a shot at the next level. The Huskies could have desperately used some veteran front court help. But you can’t fault Larrier for turning pro after all of his injury issues during college.
  • MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane: Frazier doesn’t get the national recognition of his AAC peers, but he’s coming off of a strong junior season as Tulane’s best player. Opting for the NBA draft, Frazier is a sleeper who could rise up draft boards over the next several weeks.
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • JALEN ADAMS, UConn: Receiving a fresh start under Dan Hurley, Adams is a proven scorer who will try to become a more efficient and well-rounded leader during his senior season. Averaging over 38 minutes per game last season, Adams is a warrior who could be poised for a breakout final season.
  • JARREY FOSTER, SMU: While the Mustangs lost Shake Milton, they did receive some positive news with the return of the 6-foot-6 Foster. Coming off of a torn ACL that ended his season in January, Foster tested the NBA draft waters before deciding to come back to Dallas. If rehab goes well, Foster could emerge as SMU’s new leader with the departure of Milton.
  • JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis: A bright spot during a tough year for the Tigers, the junior guard is a noted scorer who can also distribute. This season will be interesting for Martin, as he has significantly more talent around him. If Martin can provide leadership and steady production then Memphis could be dangerous.
  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati: With the Bearcats losing so many veteran pieces from last season’s 31-win team, it will be Cumberland’s chance to shine. A streaky scorer who can be inefficient at times, Cumberland will be counted on to score for a team that will really need it next season.
  • TACKO FALL and B.J. TAYLOR, UCF: Arguably the league’s best one-two punch next season, Fall and Taylor are both back for the Knights after an injury-riddled 2017-18 campaigns. The 7-foot-6 Fall is the most unique defensive presence in the country while the 6-foot-2 Taylor is a proven double-figure scorer.

WHO’S COMING?

  • ALEX LOMAX, TYLER HARRIS and ANTWANN JONES, Memphis: We won’t know until November if Penny Hardaway is any good as an on-court tactician. But he’s already shown his worth on the recruiting trail by landing these three top-150 seniors just weeks after taking the job. Lomax is tough as nails, Harris provides a ball-handling presence and Jones is capable of putting up points in a hurry.
  • DEJON JARREAU and BRISON GRISHAM, Houston: Former top-150 prospects who committed to UMass together out of high school, this duo also transferred together to Houston. The rare “package deal” that actually materializes, Jarreau and Grisham should help the Cougars after sitting out last season. The 6-foot-5 Jarreau, in particular, could see the ball in his hands with the departure of Rob Gray.
  • RASHAWN FREDERICKS, Cincinnati: One of the top JUCO players in the country the past two seasons, the 6-foot-6 Fredericks will be asked to produce right away. Averaging a double-double in each of his first two seasons of college, Fredericks is a monster on the offensive glass despite being slightly undersized. Cincinnati is hoping the JUCO All-American helps offset the loss of Gary Clark and Kyle Washington.
  • TARIN SMITH and KASSOUM YAKWE, UConn: The Huskies are hoping this graduate transfer duo can help make them respectable for next season. The 6-foot-2 Smith is the reigning Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year after a solid season at Duquesne. Although injuries have slowed down a once-promising start to his college career, the springy 6-foot-7 Yakwe is a noted rim-protector.
  • AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF: After missing the past two seasons (one due to NCAA transfer rules, another due to a season-ending shoulder injury) the 6-foot-6 wing should give the Knights another credible perimeter threat. The son of head coach Johnny Dawkins, Aubrey spent his first two seasons at Michigan as a rotation wing.

COACHING CHANGES

  • PENNY HARDAWAY, Memphis: Hardaway is going to have some good, young talent to work with during his first season with the Tigers. He’s also a first-time college coach in a league filled with veteran coaches and quality programs. It honestly doesn’t feel out of the realm of possibility that Memphis could either be very good or very bad this season. There are just so many unknowns between Penny’s coaching, a young roster and surging local expectations.
  • DAN HURLEY, UConn: Rhode Island hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 18 years before Hurley led them to back-to-back appearances in the Round of 32. The major question is whether Hurley is a national-championship level coach. Because that’s the expectation at UConn. And the fans will get restless, quickly, if the Huskies don’t start making immediate NCAA tournament appearances.
  • JOE DOOLEY, East Carolina: Heading back to East Carolina for a second stint is Dooley. The first time around, Dooley was the youngest head coach in the country when he took over in 1995 (he was only 29!). Since his first four-year stint with the Pirates, Dooley has seasoned as an assistant under a Hall of Famer (Bill Self at Kansas) while also showing steady progress as a head coach at one of the country’s better mid-major programs (Florida Gulf Coast). The key for Dooley is getting quality talent in the door at a tough place to recruit.
Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-AAC TEAM

JALEN ADAMS, UConn (POY)
JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati
JEREMIAH MARTIN, Memphis
BJ TAYLOR, UCF
TACKO FALL, UCF

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. UCF: Injuries crushed a promising season for UCF last year as B.J. Taylor, Tacko Fall and Aubrey Dawkins all missed significant time. But the Knights still managed to win 19 games. This team defends at a high level, they have scoring pop and the fanbase is dying for a winner following the undefeated football season.

2. CINCINNATI: Although Cincinnati loses its senior frontcourt and Jacob Evans, they had one of the deepest benches in college basketball last season. Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks should emerge as an intriguing new frontline for the Bearcats. If Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome can make a leap, while becoming more efficient, Cincinnati should be back in the Big Dance.

3. MEMPHIS: Memphis has a reliable go-to scorer in Jeremiah Martin, returning firepower in Kyvon Davenport and Mike Parks, and some enticing freshmen. They’re also playing under a new head coach facing immense local pressure to return the Tigers to national glory. That journey won’t happen overnight — no matter how many stud freshmen Penny brings in this spring. But Memphis could be very dangerous.

4. HOUSTON: Replacing Rob Gray and Devin Davis will be a major chore, but Kelvin Sampson has plenty of talent at his disposal. Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks should give the Cougars plenty of points while Galen Robinson can handle lead-guard responsibilities. The transfer duo of Jarreau and Grisham will also help, and freshman Nate Hinton is a top-150 prospect and one of the league’s more touted recruits.

5. SMU: Perhaps the league’s biggest question mark (among many), SMU also has to stay healthy following an injury-plagued season. Jarrey Foster pulled his name out of the NBA draft process, so that gives the Mustangs a potential go-to scorer. Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray are both capable weapons. The frontcourt of sophomore Ethan Chargois and Duquesne transfer Isiaha Mike could be the difference between an NCAA tournament bid and the NIT.

6. WICHITA STATE:This roster won’t be familiar at all. But the Shockers are getting a nice boost from a very big, tough and athletic six-man recruiting class. Wichita State’s defensive intensity should be markedly better. If Markis McDuffie comes back from the NBA draft process, then Wichita State will have a reliable leader to guide this young group.

7. UCONN: Another fascinating team to watch this season, the Huskies could place much higher than this if they’re fully healthy and rolling. Senior guard Jalen Adams might be the league’s best returning player and he gets more help this season in the form of grad transfers (Smith and Yakwe) and healthy teammates (Alterique Gilbert). If Christian Vital returns from the NBA draft process, then the Huskies have a potentially lethal backcourt.

8. TULSA: The Golden Hurricane surprisingly finished fourth in the league last season, as they lose Junior Etou and Corey Henderson. Even with those departures, Tulsa could be a sleeper NCAA tournament team as three starters return, including talented guard Sterling Taplin. And keep an eye on a recruiting class that has some talented players and immediate impact JUCO guys.

9. TEMPLE: Between Fran Dunphy’s final season, and coming off of a disappointing 2017-18, it’s hard to be optimistic about the Owls. If Quinton Rose returns from the NBA draft process, Temple will have one of the best backcourts in the league as he’d join returning senior guard Shizz Alston and sophomore Nate Pierre-Louis.

10. EAST CAROLINA: There are some intriguing pieces to work with for East Carolina this season, including double-figure scorers like Isaac Fleming and Shawn Williams. The Pirates will have to improve their dreadful 30 percent three-point shooting.

11. TULANE: The Green Wave were already a bottom-feeder in the American. Now that Tulane lost Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds, the top two players from last season, they could be in for a long season.

12. USF: Head coach Brian Gregory loses four of his top five players, but David Collins is promising sophomore guard to build around. The Bulls also brought in a recruiting class that has a chance to make an immediate impact.

Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans signs agent, will stay in 2018 NBA Draft

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Cincinnati junior Jacob Evans will keep his name in the 2018 NBA Draft by signing with an agent.

The 6-foot-6 Evans told Yahoo’s Shams Charania on Saturday that he’ll be turning professional on the eve of an important week at the NBA’s draft combine in Chicago. Evans is one of the players scheduled to participate in the event, as a solid week there could solidify him as a first-round pick.

As a junior with the Bearcats, Evans was the team’s leading scorer as he put up 13.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. Also effective on the defensive end, Evans averaged 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game.

With NBA teams putting a premium on two-way wings, Evans has the potential to vault up draft boards with solid workouts over the next several weeks. Many mock drafts currently list Evans as a late first-round pick.

The loss of Evans is going to really hurt Cincinnati, as the Bearcats now lose three of their top four scorers from last season’s AAC championship team. Without Evans in the lineup, Cincinnati will have to rely heavily on veterans like Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome to provide a scoring lift until some of the team’s unproven players begin to step up.

No. 10 Cincy holds off No. 11 Wichita State to win AAC title

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A smirk came across Gregg Marshall’s face before the final possession. It’s not hard to guess what he was thinking. It was, after all, a Sunday afternoon in March in which Charles Koch Arena was hosting a top-15 matchup with a conference championship on the line. After years of spending the first Sunday of March in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship, often with the ultimate stakes, the Shockers now had the best game on the national slate, with high stakes but house money.

The Shockers were getting the opportunity that would have never come their way in the MVC. They had one of the country’s best teams in their building in March, a serious perk for moving from their long-time home to the American Athletic Conference.

So it was easy to see why, with a chance to win on the final possession, Marshall was smiling, even if that grin wouldn’t survive beyond the final buzzer.

The 11th-ranked Shockers got three shots on their final possession, but none found their mark as 10th-ranked Cincinnati held on to win the game, 62-61, and its first outright AAC regular season championship.

It was the regular season title game that before the season looked inevitable and just a few weeks ago looked unlikely, with the Shockers sitting on three league losses and the Bearcats none before Cincy lost at Houston and then at home to Wichita State to set up a great final Sunday of the regular season.

It was a game, while not beautifully played, that delivered on the preseason promise.

Ultimately, it was a game played at the Bearcats’ pace and in their style. Cincinnati just dictated terms too often for the Shockers to ever gain any significant upper hand on their home court.

Wichita State, one of the country’s better 3-point shooting teams, made just 6 of 23 (26.1 percent) attempts from beyond the arc. Overall, the Shockers converted at just a 40.7 clip at home. They had little luck on the glass either with just nine offensive rebounds on their 32 misses.

Cincinnati didn’t fare much better as it shot just 39.7 percent from the floor and made 6 of 21 from 3, but committed just five turnovers and grabbed 11 boards, giving them just enough extra possessions to narrowly edge the Shockers.

With Memphis and Connecticut not living up to their respective historical strengths, the Bearcats and Shockers are without a doubt not only the standard bearers for the AAC but the only viable national names for the conference right now. That’s a lot of pressure for the matchups between these two teams to live up to the hype for the rare time the AAC has the national college basketball stage. Sunday delivered.

How these two teams will manage outside the league once NCAA tournament play starts remains to be seen.

The Shockers’ defense has been suspect all year, and Cincinnati just showed their offense, that’s been among the elite nationally all year, can be neutralized with the right game plan, roster and mentality. If Wichita State can’t get help for Landry Shamet and Shaq Morris, both of whom scored 16 points Sunday, that offense suddenly look as potent.

For the Bearcats, the question simply will be shotmaking. Their offense isn’t a disaster by any means, but it’s heavily dependent on second-chances for a team who does not count accuracy among its virtues. The defense is going to keep Cincinnati in every game, but eventually the offense will be called upon to get them over the finish line.

Those, though, are problems for another time, though that date is fast approaching. Immediately, the issue is hoping we get a rubber match on a neutral floor between these two teams in the AAC tournament.

That will leave plenty of people smiling.

No. 25 Cincinnati sends Mississippi State to 1st loss 65-50

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — No. 25 Cincinnati had plummeted to the fringe of the rankings and needed a confidence boost. The Bearcats got it against a previously unbeaten team.

Jacob Evans III had 24 points and eight rebounds as Cincinnati recovered from its back-to-back losses and handed Mississippi State its first defeat, 65-50 on Tuesday night.

The Bearcats (8-2) were coming off losses to crosstown rival Xavier and Florida that dropped them from No. 11. They ended the slump with a solid defensive showing against the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team, blocking 11 shots.

“We needed to get this win for us to build our confidence and get this thing back on track,” Evans said.

Mississippi State (8-1) was off to its best start since 2003-04. The Bulldogs struggled to make shots in their first game against a ranked team. They missed 10 straight in the first half and 14 in a row in the second as Cincinnati blew open a close game.

“I think we took a multitude of things away from them,” said Kyle Washington, who added 16 points. “We knew what we wanted to do on defense. We were locked in on how they played well as a team. We just wanted to take all of that away.”

Aric Holman matched his career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 30 percent from the field. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for Cincinnati’s defense.

“We lost the game tonight because of our inability to attack that zone,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were standing way too much, not enough ball movement, not enough cutting and getting the ball inside.”

Cincinnati has won 31 straight home games , the longest streak in the nation. The Bearcats are playing this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University while their on-campus arena is renovated. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season.

BIG PICTURE

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs can’t get that breakthrough win against a ranked team. They have dropped 18 in a row against teams in the Top 25. Their last such win was 67-57 over Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ offense was stymied during the losses to Xavier and Florida. Cincinnati shot 41 percent from the field against Mississippi State but scored 22 points off 14 Bulldogs turnovers.

“This was a defensive victory, no question about it,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We’re still searching on offense a little bit at times.”

DRY SPELLS

Mississippi State went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal in the first half, managing only one free throw, as Cincinnati took control. The Bulldogs’ 14 straight misses in the second half helped Cincinnati pull ahead by 19 points. The Bulldogs shot 45 percent or better in their eight wins, including four games at 50 percent or better.

FIRST TRIP

It was the first road game for Mississippi State, which was picked to finish 12th in the SEC preseason poll. Howland figured it will help get the Bulldogs ready for conference play.

“Cincinnati is like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it’s very similar,” Howland said.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

Cronin on the back-to-back losses: “I was just concerned about the guys’ confidence level. It’s hard to shield them from the social media and the outside world. Young people live in that world, and I’m sure the sky was falling in that world because we lost a few games.”

UP NEXT

Mississippi State plays at UT Martin on Saturday.

Cincinnati plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, a rematch against the team that knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA Tournament 79-67 in the second round last season.