Monday, December 29, 2014

Who'll be the American heroes this season?

The AAC regular season kicks off on New Year's Eve. You're not as excited as you used to be when the Big East season used to roll around. But look hard enough and the American could be an intriguing league before it's all said and done.

I think UConn is on to something here. As expected, it has taken the Huskies a while to jell with a bunch of new faces and no more Shabazz Napier to bail them out of sticky situations. But there's talent here, obviously strong coaching, and the team has played pretty well lately.

I thought Ryan Boatright would be good this year, but have to admit that, so far, he's been better than I expected. Daniel Hamilton, too. Fun to watch such a fundamentally sound, unselfish player. And it looks like Rodney Purvis might be ready to blow up, as well.

And let's not forget, three of the Huskies' four losses have come from teams currently ranked in the Top 25: No. 2 Duke, No. 11 Texas and No. 17 West Virginia.

Meanwhile, have you noticed what's been going on down at SMU lately?

The Mustangs lost three of their first five games this season and fell off everybody's radar -- including mine. But SMU was without the services of Markus Kennedy, the all-AAC forward who was out on academic suspension. Xavier transfer Justin Martin also missed four games early on.

It should also be pointed out that the 'Stangs lost to three pretty good teams: at No. 7 Gonzaga, at Indiana and at home to a good (10-2) Arkansas squad whose only losses have been to No. 9 Iowa State and Clemson (in overtime).

Kennedy is back now, however, and SMU has won six straight -- including at Michigan (though, admittedly, both NJIT and Eastern Michigan have accomplished the same feat).

"I knew SMU was gonna pick it up once they got big Mo back," said Boatright.

In Kennedy and current AAC player of the week Yanick Moreira, SMU may have the league's best frontcourt. In 2014 first team all-AAC guard Nic Moore and former McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier, the backcourt's very strong, too.

Oh, and the head coach isn't too shabby, either. Emmanuel Who-diay?, the Mustangs might ask.

Is SMU a better team than UConn right now? I thought so -- by a smidge. Then, it barely beats a Division 2 team called Midwestern State at home on Monday. So I'll go with the Huskies right now. But make no mistake -- this conference appears very much to be a two-team race to the top.

And I don't think this will be a one-bid league, as some have suggested. I think both UConn and SMU will continue to improve, and their respective RPI's will remain strong enough, thanks to good out-of-conference schedules. Four bids like last year seems far-fetched, but three isn't out of the realm.

I'll give Cincy some consideration because it always seems to be there, thanks largely to its defense. The Bearcats may miss head coach Mick Cronin (unruptured aneurysm) for a while, though.

And I'm really starting to like Temple, with bona fide scorers Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey now joined by talented transfers Jesse Morgan (UMass) and Devin Coleman (Clemson). The Owls will give the Huskies all they can handle on New Year's Eve (1 p.m.) at the XL Center.

Memphis? Forget about it. No guard play. Tulsa's been a disappointment, but could get better if it buys into Frank Haith. Same with Houston and Kelvin Sampson, I suppose. UCF's strong recruiting class is yielding some nice results. I thought USF (6-7) would be better, and still could be. Tulane's 9-1 start was a fraud, built on a bunch of cupcakes. The Green Wave has lost its last two games to ranked Washington and St. Johns (by 25). East Carolina? No.

Will UConn be better than SMU come March? It remains to be seen, and we'll have two fun games -- one an ESPN College GameDay feature on Feb. 14 in Dallas, the other a nationally-televised showdown on CBS on March 1 in Hartford -- to help sort it out.

But remember: the Huskies have yet to prove they can beat the Mustangs head-to-head, after losing both games last season.

No, it's not the Big East. But I'm looking forward to the start of the AAC season. Could be interesting.

My predictions:

1. UConn
2. SMU
3. Cincinnati
4. Temple
5. Memphis
6. Tulsa
7. Houston
8. Central Florida
9. South Florida
10. Tulane
11. East Carolina

Player of the Year: Ryan Boatright, UConn
Rookie of the Year: Daniel Hamilton, UConn
Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy, Temple
Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Boatright, UConn
Most Improved Player: Yanick Moreira, SMU


Ryan Boatright, UConn
Daniel Hamilton, UConn
Nic Moore, SMU
Yanick Moreira, SMU
Will Cummings, Temple
Octavius Ellis, Cincinnati


Amida Brimah, UConn
Rodney Purvis, UConn
Markus Kennedy, SMU
Austin Nichols, Memphis
Jesse Morgan, Temple


Daniel Hamilton, UConn
B.J. Taylor, UCF
Adonys Henriquez, UCF
Gary Clark, Cincinnati
B.J. Tyson, East Carolina

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