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Predicting the American 2019-20

Rob Joyce
November 01, 2019 - 3:23 pm

Continuing our college basketball preview, it’s time to look at the American Athletic Conference on the men’s side, as UConn prepares for its final season before bolting to the Big East for 2020-21. Though the Huskies have a highly ranked recruiting class, they’ve never finished higher than fourth in the conference and may not do so again this year in what is expected to be a strong league with three, maybe four, NCAA Tournament bids.

From bottom-to-top, here is how we think the American will shake out for this season:

12) Tulane:

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It’s a full-on rebuild in New Orleans, after going 4-27 last year and winless in conference play. Ron Hunter is in as head coach after a very successful stint at Georgia State, and though he’s an excellent coach, results won’t come in Year 1. There’s only one real significant contributor back (Kevin Zhang) and a ton of new faces. Double-digit wins might be a good year.

11) East Carolina:

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Speaking of turnover, the Pirates have 11 new scholarship players on the roster this season. Eleven! Two of the returners were among the scoring leaders last year in Jayden Gardner and Seth Leday, but there’s just too much of an unknown to put ECU any higher. The Pirates haven’t had a .500 season since 2014, and that won’t end this year.

10) Tulsa:

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The Golden Hurricane finished 18-14 a year ago and brings back two of its top three scorers in Martins Igbanu and Jeriah Horne. However, there’s not a whole lot of proven talent behind them. DaQuan Jeffries, Sterling Taplin and Curran Scott are all gone (31.5 points combined) from a team that was below-average scoring-wise a year ago. Tenth is likely the basement, but their ceiling isn’t a whole lot higher.

9) UCF:

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A roll away from stunning Duke in the second round, things will look different for Johnny Dawkins this season. Tacko Fall, BJ Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins are all gone, meaning 42.7 points, 14.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.9 blocks per game must be replaced. In trying to do so, Dawkins brings in 10 newcomers, a mixture of grad transfers, JUCO talent and freshmen to join returnee Collin Smith (8.0 points, 5.2 rebounds). It might be enough to go .500 and make the NIT, but that’s it.

8) SMU:

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After being in the upper echelon of the league for a number of years, the Mustangs were hit with self-imposed scholarship restrictions and attrition to fall below .500 a season ago. Although SMU won’t return to those heights this year, they have the talent to hang with the better teams. JUCO transfer Tyson Jolly was a monster at Trinity Valley: 22.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and four assists per game, garnering First-Team All-America honors. He instantly steps in as their go-to scorer.

If transfers Dendric Davis (TCU) and Darius McNeill (Cal) both receive waivers to become eligible immediately, then SMU will be higher than eighth.

7) Temple:

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Here is where things start to get tricky. Teams three-through-seven are all close in talent, but the Owls sit at the bottom of this tier for now. After a 23-10 season and an NCAA Tournament appearance, Temple will take a slight step back this year. Fran Dunphy is gone, and former assistant Aaron McKie is now the head man on Broad Street. His leading scorer from last year is gone in Shizz Alston, but he has two other proven scorers in Quinton Rose (16.3 points) and Nate Pierre-Louis (13.3), not to mention Kennesaw State transfer Monty Scott (17.3 points in ’17-18).

Also of note: Ernest Aflakpui graduated as the team’s leading rebounder on a squad that was 285th nationally in rebound margin. The Owls might get dominated inside and on the glass.

6) USF:

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They might be ranked sixth by us, but they are a sneaky dark horse to compete for a top-four seed. The Bulls went 24-14 last year and won the CBI Tournament, with the expectation this year being a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. All five starters are back, led by Laquincy Rideau (13.4 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 2.9 steals) and David Collins (15.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 steals). Beyond the starters, though, there’s proven depth on the bench. Maybe they’re a year away, but the NIT is the minimum expectation in Tampa this year.

5) UConn:

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There’s a growing sense of expectations in Storrs in Dan Hurley’s second season, but we think the Huskies are still a year away from a return to the NCAA Tournament. With a top-20 recruiting class in, Akok Akok and James Bouknight will get plenty of minutes, but it’s the upperclassmen that will decide the season. Can Alterique Gilbert stay healthy? Will Christian Vital be more efficient this season? Can Josh Carlton build off a promising sophomore season and anchor the interior?

UConn will be better in its final year in the AAC and could get to 20 wins, but it will end in the NIT, not the Big Dance.

4) Wichita State:

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It was a down year by the Shockers’ standards, but there was a lot of promise to the end of the season. A very young team got off to an 8-11 start (including just 1-6 in conference play) before winning 14 of its final 19 games, ending in the semifinals of the NIT. Senior Jaime Echenique (9.2 points, 6.0 rebounds) could bust out in his final year, Dexter Dennis is a two-way guard who could take a big leap as a sophomore, and Gregg Marshall will have Wichita State fighting to get into the field of 68 once again.

3) Houston:

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They’ve become the class of the conference, able to re-load year after year under Kelvin Sampson. People thought they’d take a step back last year when Rob Gray left – instead they won 33 games and were a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament, making it to the Sweet 16. Armoni Brooks going pro was a big loss, but reigning Sixth Man of the Year Dejon Jarreau should take another step forward, and sophomore Nate Hinton will likely improve upon his 7.2 points from his freshman campaign.

And having Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes eligible immediately gives the Cougars a five-star talent with something to prove after a disappointing season in Lawrence. Sure, it won’t be a 33-win season again, but it will end in the Big Dance.

2) Cincinnati:

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For the first time since 2006 there’s a new man on the sidelines for the Bearcats, with Mick Cronin’s departure for UCLA. John Brannen comes highly regarded from Northern Kentucky, having won the Horizon league in two of the past three seasons. He inherits a roster that features preseason Player of the Year Jarron Cumberland (18.8 points) plus their two other top scorers in Keith Williams and Tre Scott.

As a bonus, Jarron’s cousin Jaevin enters as a grad transfer from Oakland, where he averaged 17.2 points last year. Though there’s a bit of an unknown with the transition, plus a lack of depth, don’t expect Cincy to take a major step back.

1) Memphis:

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The Tigers bring back exactly zero starters from a team that won 22 games, went to the NIT and finished fifth in the conference. It’s not normally “preseason favorite” material, but this is no normal situation. Penny Hardaway appears to have gotten the Tigers their swagger back, bringing in the nation’s number one recruiting class, headlined by center James Wiseman. Of course, there’s always a chance the class doesn’t pan out, or doesn’t meet admittedly high expectations. But talent-wise, no one in the conference can matchup with the Tigers – now it’s about showing it on the court.