DALLAS — Rashawn Fredericks put No. 23 Cincinnati ahead to stay with his only two field goals and the Bearcats overcame a horrible shooting night to beat SMU 52-49 on Wednesday.
Fredericks finished with six points for the Bearcats (24-4, 13-2 American Athletic Conference), and his consecutive layups midway through the second half made it 36-33. That was part of an 8-0 run, and Cincinnati never trailed again despite shooting a season-low 26.6 percent (17 of 64) from the field.
Jarron Cumberland led Cincinnati with 12 points, well below his season average of 18.6 per game that was second in the conference. He didn’t reach double figures until making four free throws in the final 37 seconds.
Cincinnati has won 12 of its last 13 games, the only loss in that span at league-leading Houston (27-1, 14-1) on Feb. 10. The Bearcats are the defending AAC champions, and the last of their three remaining regular-season games is at home March 10 against the Cougars.
Jahmal McMurray had 27 points for SMU (13-14, 5-10), which has lost seven of eight. The Mustangs were coming off a 95-48 loss at UCF on Sunday that was the most lopsided defeat in program history.
After a dunk by Cumberland put Cincinnati up 19-14 with 5:59 left in the first half, SMU ended the half with a 14-3 run for a 28-22 lead at the break.
The Bearcats, who missed 11 of their first 12 shots to start the game, made only one of their last nine in the half — a 3-ponter by Justin Jenifer that put them up 22-20. SMU then went ahead on a 3-pointer by McMurray.
Cincinnati scored the first six points of the second half, a jumper by Keith Williams with 17:16 left making it 28-all for the only tie of the second half.
Cincinnati: With all those misses, the Bearcats also had a lot of rebounds. They finished with a 50-35 rebounding margin, including 21 offensive boards. Nysier Brooks had 12 rebounds, and Tre Scott 10. … Cincinnati is guaranteed a first-round bye in the AAC Tournament. Keith Williams and Brooks each had eight points.
SMU: The Mustangs have lost three of their last four home games and will have some work to do to avoid a losing season.
No. 21 Houston leads throughout in 69-58 win at SMU
DALLAS — Corey Davis Jr. scored 20 points and Armoni Brooks added 19 with five 3-pointers as No. 21 Houston led throughout in a 69-58 win at SMU on Wednesday night.
Davis hit a 3-pointer for the game’s first points, and the Cougars (17-1, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) jumped out to a 12-4 lead after Brooks made three early 3s. Houston led 31-22 at halftime after Brooks buried a long straightaway 3 just before the break.
Jimmy Whitt Jr. had 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting for SMU (11-6, 3-2), which played most of the game without senior guard Jarrey Foster (sprained left knee).
Houston coach Kelvin Sampson got his 600th career win in 30 seasons, and his 100th victory in five seasons with the Cougars. Sampson, who has a 600-319 overall record, previously coached at Indiana, Oklahoma, Washington State and Montana Tech.
Davis scored 15 points in the second half, when Houston built a 17-point lead. The Mustangs cut the deficit to nine before Houston worked the shot clock down and Brooks hit a long 3 from the left wing to make it 67-55 with 1:47 left.
Fabian White Jr. added 11 points for Houston.
Isiaha Mike had 15 points for SMU and Jahmal McMurray scored 11. Ethan Chargois had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Houston: The Cougars won for the second year in a row at SMU, where the Mustangs are 46-9 under coach Tim Jankovich the past four seasons. Houston has bounced back nicely from a loss last week at Temple that ended its 15-0 start, winning at home over Wichita State on Saturday before the solid road win at Moody Coliseum.
SMU: The Mustangs had won nine of their previous 11 games. … Foster played only four minutes before leaving the game. He missed the second half of last season and the first six games this season after an ACL injury. Jankovich said Foster tweaked his knee and will have tests on Thursday. He is the only scholarship player who has played at SMU more than one season.
Houston is in a stretch with three of four games on the road. The Cougars play Saturday at UCF.
SMU plays at Memphis on Saturday, then has a week between games before playing again the following Saturday at home against Tulane.
AAC Reset: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF established as frontrunners
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
NCAA: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF
NIT: UConn, SMU, Temple
OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Memphis, Wichita State, Tulsa, ECU, South Florida, Tulane
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
SMU’s Jarrey Foster ahead of progress in return from ACL tear
SMU head coach Tim Jankovich told Pony Stampede that Jarrey Foster is ahead of progress as he tries to return from a torn ACL that he suffered in January.
Foster, who was projected as a early-second round pick before suffering the injury, declared for the draft but ultimately opted to return to school when he was unable to workout for teams. Right now, just five months removed from the injury, Foster has already been cleared to resume dribbling and shooting drills. A video on his instagram this week showed him dunking.
And, ironically enough, that might end up being the best thing for him. Foster needs to be a better shooter and a better ball-handler to make the next step in the NBA, and right now that is all he can work on.
“The truth is he’s probably going to sit on a skill more than he might otherwise,” Jankovich said. “It could end up being a blessing in disguise, which I certainly would not say given how miserable it is to be rehabbing and injured. But right now shooting and ball-handling is about the only thing he can work on.”
AAC Conference Reset: Get caught up on all of the league’s offseason action
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.