American Athletic Conference Preview
The FBS football laying schools of the old Big East have their own new home, and added a few interesting basketball schools to round out the group. The American Athletic Conference will be able to claim defending National Champion Louisville, who is joined by UConn, Cincinnati, Rutgers, and South Florida from the old Big East, along with Temple from the Atlantic-10, and Houston, Memphis, Central Florida and SMU from Conference USA. The first season will start off very top-heavy, with 2 or 3 teams capable of giving Louisville a run for their money. Over time though, there are some good possibilities for turning this into a major conference from top to bottom.
Donnie Jones has led the Knights to 3 straight 20-win seasons in Conference USA since he took over the team. The competition will be stiffer this year, and he will be without graduated star Keith Clanton. Leading scorer Isaiah Sykes can score, distribute, defend and rebound, while Kasey Wilson provides a consistent perimeter threat. Tristan Spurlock can be a decent threat as a stretch 4, and JUCO transfer Eugene McCrory could provide the strong interior presence that Clanton gave the Knights. The backcourt of Calvin Newell and Daiquan Walker can both defend and knock down open 3’s, but they may need to take some of the facilitating pressure of Sykes.
What to Watch For – Clanton’s numbers may not have been huge, but he drew the defense’s attention and that allowed Sykes to make plays all over the court. Add to that Clanton’s ability to guard the 4 or the 5, and rebound, and his loss will be much bigger than numbers provide. Spurlock isn’t the physical presence, and McCrory isn’t as polished. It will be worth watching any adjustments Jones makes this season to draw attention away from the lack of a strong frontcourt presence.
Mick Cronin didn’t lose many players from last season, but the few he did were important to the Bearcats. Yet, there is a nice mix of returning and new talent which should have the Bearcats near the top of their new conference. Leading the charge is one of the “old” Big East’s leading scorers, Sean Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick can score in a variety of ways, and is probably the Bearcats’ best shooter, but he isn’t very efficient. This has been a problem that has plagued the team the past few years. Senior forwards Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles are both very athletic and have showed flashes of promise, but have not showed that they can produce consistently on the offensive end. Sophomore forward Shaquille Thomas is similar, but could be more talented. Freshman Jermaine Lawrence should gain minutes quickly based on his ability to put points on the board. Big man Cheikh Mbodji is gone, and back up David Nyarsuk hasn’t shown much in limited minutes.
What to Watch For – The biggest question will be around the point guard position with veteran leader Cashmere Wright having graduated. Junior Ge’Lawn Guyn can facilitate the offense, but hasn’t shown that he can be a reliable scorer. Freshman Troy Cupain is a talented point guard, but may not be the kind of defender Cronin likes to have at the point. Likely, we will see Cronin alternate based on game situation, unless one emerges as a two-way player.
Kevin Ollie was able to navigate the Huskies through a year-long postseason ban, and the team will likely be ready to make their presence felt quickly. Even with the prospect of no postseason, UConn still picked up another 20-win season, and gained some experience in the process. The team is led by one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country – Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and Omar Calhoun. Napier and Boatright give the Huskies a dual-point guard attack that forces opponents to make defensive adjustments. Both are strong defenders who can pressure the ball full-court, while also being versatile scorers. Control can be an issue at times for both, and the lack of size can be tough with certain match-ups, but they will win more than their share of backcourt battles. Sophomore Calhoun is a strong wing who likes to use his size to get to the rim, but he needs to become a more consistent shooter. The returning frontcourt players, DeAndre Daniels and Tyler Olander, are a secondary act to the backcourt, but still provide some scoring around the basket. Freshman Terence Samuel is talented, but will need to take a back seat with a crowded backcourt, while fellow Freshman Kentan Facey is a year away from being a contributor in the frontcourt.
What to Watch For – Depth will be an issue, especially in the frontcourt. Facey has still not been cleared by the NCAA to play, and backup sophomore big man Phillip Nolan is still very raw. George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah is eligible immediately and will provide versatility on the wings. Senior Niels Giffey hasn’t shown much in 3 seasons, but did gain valuable experience playing for the German National team this past summer at EuroBasket.
Head coach James Dickey has upped the talent level the past few seasons and he has the Cougars in position to be in the upper half of their new conference. Leading scorer Joseph Young transferred out after his father lost his spot on Dickey’s staff, but there are scorers ready to step up and take his place. TaShawn Thomas has a great combination of athleticism and skill, and he can be a problem when he gets the ball around the lane. Thomas is also a beast on both the offensive and defensive boards, and he runs the floor well. Sophomore wing Danuel House is more athletic than skilled, but he makes plays and could be a force once he gains some strength. The frontcourt has become even stronger with Danrad Knowles, or as you may know him, “Chicken”, finally eligible. Another athletic forward who can create match-up problems, Knowles still needs to work on defending and rebounding. JJ Richardson gives Dickey a true power forward who can handle interior defense, rebounding, and creating space for the scorers.
What to Watch For – Dickey has built an athletic team, though the loss of Young leaves the Cougars without a reliable backcourt presence. Jherrod Stiggers is good at stretching the floor, but he can’t create his own shot. Tione Womack isn’t much of a scorer, and needs to be a stronger perimeter defender. The backcourt could be given a boost by Baylor transfer LJ Rose, a talented and hyped recruit, who didn’t get much playing time last season. He may not provide much early on, but he could become a major factor come February.
Rick Pitino and the Cardinals are coming off a National Championship, and they lost two starters to the NBA, but they are in a very strong position to repeat as champs. It starts with the play of Russ Smith, who can drive even his own fans crazy with his decisions, but he makes plays on both ends of the floor, and his energy is fuel for the rest of his team. Still, with the loss of Peyton Siva, who was a steady influence in the backcourt, it is time for Smith to try and control himself on the offensive end, at least until Siva’s replacement, JUCO All-American Chris Jones, gains control of the team. There is depth in the backcourt as well, with freshmen Terry Rozier and Anton Gill both capable of solid minutes, and Kevin Ware recovering well from his horrific broken leg at the NCAA Tournament. The frontcourt has plenty of returning talent also, including 2 physical, but talented, forwards in Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell, as well as sharp-shooting Luke Hancock.
What to Watch For – By the end of last season, Gorgui Dieng had developed into a decent offensive player, but it was his defensive presence which the team relied on. Behanan and Harrell can play physical post defense, but neither is the rim protector that Dieng was. Stephan Van Treese got some minutes in the post last year, but he isn’t a long-term answer, and freshman Akoy Agau could develop a Dieng-like presence, but probably not this year. Having a strong interior defender allows the perimeter defenders to pressure often, and the Cardinals did it well last year, but it will be interesting to see what happens if they don’t stop people at the basket.