Sports

Jon Rothstein’s American Athletic Conference Offseason Notebook

Questions, Preseason Power Rankings & Players To Watch
Shabazz Napier (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Shabazz Napier (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE AMERICAN

1. HOW MANY BIDS WILL THE AMERICAN GET IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?

At least four or five. The advantage that the American has over leagues like the Atlantic 10 and the Big East is that this conference has three teams — Louisville, Memphis, and UConn — that all should be ranked in the Top 25 for the majority of the season. Why is that such a big deal? It’s real simple. Having three teams ranked in the Top 25 means programs on the bubble from the American could all have better RPI’s than potential bubble teams in the Atlantic 10 and the Big East because they’re going to play Louisville, Memphis, and UConn twice during the regular season. The American will send at least four or five teams to the NCAA Tournament, but that number could stretch to six depending on what circumstances unfold during the course of the season.

2. WILL UCONN BE ABLE TO REBOUND?

It’s the million dollar question in Storrs, and it’s the one thing that could stop the Huskies from potentially being a major factor nationally. UConn returns arguably the best back court in college basketball with Ryan BoatrightShabazz Napier, and Omar Calhoun, but will Kevin Ollie’s team have enough in the paint to compete with the elite teams they’ll face on the glass? Tyler Olander returns as a senior to anchor the middle, and skilled forward DeAndre Daniels did yeoman’s work at the “four” last season (12.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG) despite starting his career as a small forward. UConn won’t have a traditional post player in the pivot, but the Huskies need someone — either Olander or sophomore Phil Nolan to emerge as factor on the boards. The perimeter for this team is beyond loaded, and should improve with the addition of George Washington transfer Lasan Kromah, who averaged 10.1 PPG last season in the Atlantic 10 (Kromah is eligible to play immediately since he’s already graduated). Don’t be shocked to see Ollie regularly turn to four-guard alignments and add different wrinkles offensively to maximize the skills of his deep and talented perimeter.

3. CAN SMU COMPETE FOR A BID TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?

They should be right in the hunt. The Mustangs return their top five scorers from last year’s team that went 15-17 overall, and should have one of the better rosters in the American thanks to a major influx of talent. SMU adds three high-level transfers in Nic Moore (Illinois State), Crandall Head (Illinois), and Markus Kennedy (Villanova) while 6-5 freshman Keith Frazier was a McDonald’s All-American who should start for this team at shooting guard. 6-10 big man Yanick Moreira was rated as the top junior-college prospect in the country by virtually every recruiting service, and is expected to be an immediate anchor in the front court. Games aren’t played on paper, but there’s legitimate buzz surrounding SMU’s current roster. Another thing to remember about the Mustangs? Their coach is Larry Brown.

4. HOW WILL MEMPHIS HANDLE INCREASED COMPETITION?

It’s one of the more interesting story lines heading into college basketball next season, and it should be fascinating to watch unfold. For years the Tigers ran their way through Conference-USA while still maintaining a national presence, but those days are now over. For the first time in almost a decade, Memphis will have legitimate competition within their own conference during the regular season, and the Tigers are well equipped to deal with bumping up a weight class. Josh Pastner’s team returns three of its top four scorers from last year’s squad that reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament, and will also add five freshmen that were ranked in the Top 100 nationally coming out of high school. A key piece to watch for Memphis as they enter the American? George Washington transfer David Pellom. The 6-8 fifth-year senior gives the Tigers the type of “junkyard dog” they’re going to need against teams like Louisville, South Florida, and Cincinnati. Look for a Pellom to log a lot of minutes for this team at power forward because of his tenacity.

5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?

South Florida. The Bulls still have two cornerstone pieces that were a part of their NCAA Tournament run two years ago in point guard Anthony Collins and versatile forward Victor Rudd — and unlike last season — Stan Heath’s team should be able to hold their own on the boards. South Florida was a few possessions away from the Sweet 16 in 2012 thanks to a bruising front line that protected the rim on every play, and the Bulls may have the personnel to get back to that style thanks to their recruiting class. Freshman big man John Egbunu is a legitimate center at 6-10 and will likely be an immediate starter, while Chris Perry is a 6-8 freshman who should be in the rotation at power forward. Those two and 6-7 sophomore Zach LeDay should be the primary front court players for South Florida, with Rudd sliding down in spurts as an undersized four-man. A big X-Factor for this team is 6-5 guard Musa Abdul-Aleem, who only played a total of 93 minutes last season due to a series of nagging injuries. Heath has said repeatedly that Abdul-Aleem is the Bulls’ best outside shooter, and his presence could give South Florida a perimeter option that they lacked last season. If this team can make enough shots from deep and rebound the ball like they did two years ago, a second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons is a legitimate possibility.

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS

1. LOUISVILLE

THE SKINNY: Same coach. New point guard. Same result.

2. UCONN

THE SKINNY: The Huskies may have the best back court in college basketball.

3. MEMPHIS

THE SKINNY: Josh Pastner’s team returns three of its top four scorers, and adds the nation’s second-best recruiting class.

4. CINCINNATI

THE SKINNY: Freshman Troy Caupain is the Bearcats’ X-Factor at point guard.

5. SOUTH FLORIDA

THE SKINNY: First-year big man John Egbunu will give the Bulls what they were missing last season.

6. SMU

THE SKINNY: Larry Brown has a team that could compete for an NCAA Tournament bid.

7. RUTGERS

THE SKINNY: Eddie Jordan inherits a veteran team in his first season in Piscataway.

8. TEMPLE

THE SKINNY: The Owls are in straight rebuilding mode after losing four of their six top scorers.

9. HOUSTON

THE SKINNY: James Dickey’s team could be sneaky good if Baylor transfer L.J. Rose is cleared by the NCAA.

10. UCF

THE SKINNY: The Knights must replace Keith Clanton’s presence on the boards.

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PRESEASON FIRST TEAM

Shabazz Napier, UConn

Russ Smith, Louisville

Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

Victor Rudd, South Florida

Chane Behanan, Louisville

AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Shabazz Napier, UConn

TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT

Chris Jones, Louisville (JUCO)
Mangok Mathiang, Louisville (red shirt)
David Pellom, Memphis (transfer)
Yanick Moreira, SMU (JUCO)
Markus Kennedy, SMU (transfer)
Nic Moore, SMU (transfer)
Crandall Head, SMU (transfer)
Danrad “Chicken” Knowles, Houston (red shirt)
D’Von Campbell, Rutgers (JUCO)
Greg Lewis, Rutgers (red shirt)

TEN IMPACT FRESHMEN

Jermaine Lawrence, Cincinnati
Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
Dominic Woodson, Memphis
Kuran Iverson, Memphis
Austin Nichols, Memphis
Nick King, Memphis
Keith Frazier, SMU
John Egbunu, South Florida
Terry Rozier, Louisville
Anton Gill, Louisville

FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN

Kevin Johnson, Cincinnati
Chris Perry, South Florida
Josh Brown, Temple
Rashawn “Pookie” Powell, Memphis
Jaaron Simmons, Houston

FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS

Shaquille Thomas, Cincinnati
Daniel Dingle, Temple
Kadeem Jack, Rutgers
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Musa Abdul-Aleem, South Florida

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