Monday, July 24, 2017

A midsummer's look at the American Athletic Conference

Yes, the AAC just had its football media day last week in beautiful Newport, R.I. (is there a better media day location anywhere, for any sport?).

Still, it's never too early to take a sneak peak ahead to basketball season. So we did that, with a midsummer's look at what the AAC could offer this winter in men's hoops.

Here's what we see:

NCAA TOURNAMENT LOCKS

1. Wichita State: Top eight scorers and all five starters are back from 31-5 MVC champs. Shockers may have league's best overall player in PG Landry Shamet, shooter in Conner Frankamp and on-the-ball defender in Zach Brown. Markus McDuffie is a tough power forward from St. Anthony's High (R.I.P.). They outrebounded foes by 9 per game last year, second in the nation. They'll be rude newcomers to their new league.

2. Cincinnati: Top three scorers (Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington, Gary Clark) are back. Jarron Cumberland is a bull. Troy Caupain is gone, but let's face it, he was a bit disappointing last year. Mick Cronin loves East Hartford's Caine Broome, who'll replace Caupain at point. Washington and Clark will somehow knock down a bunch of 3's against UConn. The Bearcats will make their eighth straight tourney and be serious challengers to WSU for league title.

SHOULD BE IN TOURNEY PICTURE

3. SMU: Mustangs lost three players to the NBA, including AAC player (and scholar-athlete!) of the year, Semi Ojeleye. But Shake Milton is getting some first-round NBA draft buzz, and the 'Stangs get a true point guard in Arkansas transfer Jimmy Whitt. They'll also (somehow) have former USF high-scorer Jahmal McMurray by Christmas. He left USF last December, transferred to a junior college but didn't play. Oh, and Tim Jankovich can coach with anyone.

4. UCF: You know 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall. You may remember B.J. Taylor, who averaged 17.6 per game last season after sitting out a year with injury, and A.J. Davis, who led the team in scoring two years ago while Taylor was out. You'll soon get to know Aubrey Dawkins, the coach's son who's a dynamic athlete and likely would be starting for Michigan this season had he not transferred to play for pop.

MAYBE, IF ...

5. UConn:
Biggest mystery team. There's great talent (Jalen Adams, Terry Larrier, Alterique Gilbert) and great unknown (the frontcourt). If the Huskies can stay healthy (no given considering the injury histories of Gilbert, Larrier and Mamadou Diarra) and get something from at least a couple of a group of young, raw bigs, they'll easily be in the NCAA tourney picture. If not ... that coaching seat could get hot.

6. Temple: Owls have about 70 percent of their scoring back, not to mention Josh Brown, who missed most of last season due to injury. Obi Enechionyia is an all-around talent, and Fran Dunphy can flat-out coach. Expect a nice bounce-back season.

7. Houston: UConn-killer Damyean Dotson is gone to the NBA, but AAC scoring champ Rob Gray, Jr. is back and Kelvin Sampson can coach. Once again, he's got a whole slew of JUCO transfers to integrate into the system. If Sampson can do that, Cougars could definitely finish higher.

8. Tulsa: Golden Hurricane entered last season with almost no one back from NCAA tourney team. This year, they've got nearly everyone back from a 15-17 team.

THEY'LL BE BETTER

9. East Carolina: Jeff Lebo's back from season-ending hip surgery, but he'll be on coaching hot seat if Pirates don't show improvement. With Kentrell Barkley, B.J. Tyson and Jeremy Sheppard back, they just might.

10. Tulane: Green Wave have gone 3-15 in league play last two seasons. Don't expect that this year. A second year under Mike Dunleavy, Sr. should mean even more improvement from Cameron Reynolds, who was the league's most improved player last year, along with Melvin Frazier.

YIKES!

11. Memphis: Odd to put Tigers this low, but they suffered a mass exodus over the offseason that made even UConn's look tame. The Lawson Bros. (Dedric and K.J.) are gone, as are Markel Crawford and five others. Tubby Smith will have to start from scratch, though he's had success doing that in the past.

12. South Florida: Bulls had eight players leave the program in offseason. That doesn't even include coach Orlando Antigua, fired in January, or leading scorer Jahmal McMurray, who left in December and will be hitting 3's for SMU this winter. Former Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory takes over. Good luck.


ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

FIRST TEAM
G Landry Shamet, Wichita State          6-4      188      R-So.
G Shake Milton, SMU  6-6      205      Jr.
G Jalen Adams, UConn           6-3      195      Jr.
G Rob Gray, Jr. Houston         6-2       185      R-Sr.
F Kyle Washington, Cincinnati            6-9       230      Sr.

SECOND TEAM
G Jacob Evans, Cincinnati       6-6       210      Jr.
G B.J. Taylor, UCF      6-2       200     R-Sr.
F Markis McDuffie, Wichita State       6-8      212      Jr.
F Gary Clark, Cincinnati          6-8       225      Sr.
C Tacko Fall, UCF       7-6       290     Sr.

THIRD TEAM
G Obi Enechionyia, Temple    6-10     220      Sr.
G Terry Larrier, UConn           6-8      193      R-Jr.
G Conner Frankamp, Wichita State      6-1      172      R-Sr.
F Cameron Reynolds, Tulane 6-7       215     R-Sr.
F Junior Etou, Tulsa     6-8       240      R-Sr..

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Landry Shamet, Wichita State. Tough one to call, but we'll go with (probably) the best player on (probably) the best team. Turning point in Shockers' season last year was when Gregg Marshall moved Shamet from shooting guard to point and inserted Conner Frankamp at two-guard after loss to Illinois State. Shockers didn't lose again until NCAA tourney second round, to Kentucky.
Runner-up: Shake Milton, SMU. In the running: Kyle Washington, Cincinnati; Jalen Adams, UConn; B.J. Taylor, UCF; Gary Clark, Cincinnati; Rob Gray, Jr., Houston.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Alterique Gilbert, UConn. By AAC standards, this means best freshman or redshirt freshman (after all, Memphis's K.J. Lawson won last year despite playing 10 games the year before). Gilbert is a redshirt after missing all but first 2 1/2 games last season.
Runner-up: William Douglas, SMU. In the running: Cedrick Alley, Jr., Houston.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Aubrey Dawkins, UCF.This means any new player to the league, including grad transfers, regular transfers or JUCO transfers. Johnny's son was known for his acrobatic dunks at Michigan and has the type of athleticism not often seen in the AAC.
Runner-up: Caine Broome, Cincinnati.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tacko Fall, UCF. It's his to lose, after winning it last season. He'll surely lead league in blocked shots, which is usually what seals the deal. Of course, Cincy's Gary Clark won it two years ago.
Runner-up: Clark, Cincinnati. In the running: Zach Brown, Wichita State.

BEST SHOOTER: Wichita State's Conner Frankamp shot 44 percent from 3 last year, just a snooch ahead of teammate Landry Shamet's 43.9 percent. Coach, these dudes can shoot.

BEST ATHLETE: Aren't we all a little excited to see UConn's Kwintin Williams and his 44-inch vertical? I know I am.
Runner-up: Aubrey Dawkins, UCF.

BEST CONNECTICUT NATIVE: Caine Broome, Cincinnati. He had the most points in the nation after his first two years at Sacred Heart, but Mick Cronin loves the idea of moving him to point guard this season. Also, with Steve Enoch's transfer from UConn to Louisville, he's the only Nutmegger left in the league, at least on scholarship. I guess he beats out Christian Foxen or Restinal Lomotey.

HOTTEST COACH'S SEAT: ECU's Jeff Lebo may have had a bit of a reprieve after missing second half of last season for hip surgery. He's got to show improvement.

BEST B.J.B.J. Taylor led UCF in scoring as a freshman, sat out his sophomore year with an injury but returned and pumped home 17.4 ppg last season. He edges out ECU's B.J. Tyson, who led the Pirates in scoring as a freshman and sophomore before being slowed by a stress reaction injury much of last season.

BEST MAMADOU DIARRA: Or Mamoudou Diarra, as the Cincinnati freshman spells it. The league leads the nation in Mamadou (Mamoudou) Diarras, that's for sure. In fact, UConn alone nearly led the nation, until Mamoudou Diarra, a Washington transfer, picked the Bearcats over the Huskies. We'll go with UConn's Mamadou Diarra as the best, for now, providing his knees are healthy. He could be the rebounding force the Huskies very much need this season.
Runner-up: Duh.

BEST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: UConn plays in the best preseason tournament, the PK80 Invitational, and will also play Arizona and Auburn on the road, Syracuse at Madison Square Garden and Villanova at home. 
Runner-up: Temple, which plays in the Charleston Classic, plays at Georgia and hosts both Wisconsin and Villanova. In the running: Cincinnati plays at Xavier and UCLA, hosts Mississippi State, faces Florida in Newark, N.J. and plays in a weak tourney in Grand Cayman. Wichita State plays in a decent Maui Invitational, hosts Oklahoma and plays at Baylor and Oklahoma State. SMU is in the Battle 4 Atlantis, hosts USC and is at TCU. Tulane is at North Carolina. Memphis plays Louisville at MSG. Houston is in a weak Paradise Jam, is at LSU and plays Providence at Mohegan Sun. 

TOUGHEST ROAD SCHEDULE: That's easy - Cincinnati and Houston. Why? Because all their home games will be on the "road," so to speak. With renovations on Cincy's Fifth Third Arena, the Bearcats will play all their home games on the Northern Kentucky Unversity campus about 10 miles away. Meanwhile, $60 million in renovations to Hofheinz Pavilion (soon to be known as the Fertitta Center) will have Houston playing most of its games on the Texas Southern campus, with a few likely at the downtown Toyota Center, home of the Rockets.
In reality: UConn.


WELCOME BACK ...

  • Terrence Samuel, who helped UConn win a national title as a back-up point guard in 2014, is back in the AAC with South Florida. He spent the past three years at Penn State. Should get a nice ovation from UConn fans when Bulls come to Hartford or Storrs this season.
  • Donnie Jones, former UCF head coach, is now an assistant on Gregg Marshall's staff at Wake Forest. Jones was fired during 2016 AAC tourney (which was in Orlando, no less!). Shockers will visit UCF's CFE Arena, but Jones was already there last winter while scouting for the Clippers.
  • Shaq. With the recent departures from the league of Shaq Goodwin (Memphis), Shaq Thomas (Cincinnati) and Shaq Harrison (Tulsa), the AAC gets a much-needed Shaq back in the form of Shaq Morris, Wichita State's starting center.

RETURNING LEADERS

SCORING
Rob Gray, Jr.   Houston           20.6
B.J. Taylor       UCF    17.4
Cameron Reynolds      Tulane             17.0
Jalen Adams    UConn             14.4
Shizz Alston    Temple            13.9
Jacob Evans     Cincinnati        13.5
Kentrell Barkley          ECU     13.2
Obi Enechionyia          Temple            13.1
Shake Milton   SMU    13.0
Kyle Washington         Cincinnati        12.9

REBOUNDING
Tacko Fall        UCF     9.5
Gary Clark       Cincinnati        7.9
Kentrell Barkley          ECU    7.6
A.J. Davis        UCF     7.0
Cameron Reynolds      Tulane             6.8
Tulio Da Silva USF     6.8
Kyle Washington         Cincinnati        6.8
Junior Etou      Tulsa    6.7
Obi Enechionyia          Temple            5.8

ASSISTS
Jalen Adams    UConn            6.1
Galen Robinson, Jr.     Houston           4.8
Shake Milton   SMU    4.5
Jeremiah Martin           Memphis          4.4
Shizz Alston, Jr.           Temple            4.1

3 POINT %
Conner Frankamp        Wichita State    .440*
Landry Shamet            Wichita State    .439*
Shake Milton   SMU    .423
Jacob Evans     Cincinnati        .418
Cameron Reynolds      Tulane             .388









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