College basketball conference previews: AAC
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. First up is the American Athletic Conference.
Coach of the year: Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
In Ollie’s three years as UConn’s head coach, the Huskies have served a postseason ban (2012-13), won the national championship ('13-14) and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament ('14-15). None of those outcomes is likely in 2015-16. UConn is too good to miss the tournament, but probably not good enough to make a run at another title. Still, the Huskies have the talent to compete for the AAC championship, which would putt Ollie on the short list for an award honoring the conference’s best coach. It also would not help stem speculation over the possibility of Ollie leaving Storrs, Conn., for an NBA job.
Player of the year: Nic Moore, Southern Methodist
Perhaps the most frustrating part about the penalties the NCAA assessed to SMU last month—including a postseason ban—is their effect on players who are believed to have done nothing wrong. Among them is Moore, a point guard who led the Mustangs in minutes played (1,179), assist rate (31.1) and Win Shares (5.2) in 2014-15, according to sports-reference.com. Though he won’t be able to play in the NCAA tournament again one year after he and the Mustangs suffered a brutal loss to UCLA in the round of 64, Moore is the best backcourt player on the AAC’s best team. He’ll shine during his final year of college hoops.
Freshman of the year: Dedric Lawson, Memphis
It turns out Lawson’s reclassification 2016 to 2015 is exactly what Memphis needed. When his decision was reported last September, the Tigers expected to add him to a rotation featuring all-AAC first-team member Austin Nichols. But Nichols transferred to Virginia this summer, leaving a void in the frontcourt. Lawson, who’s highly regarded for his offensive versatility, could play significant minutes in his first year on campus. Replacing Nichols won’t be easy; he led the Tigers with 18.0 points per 40 minutes and ranked second in the AAC in block rate in 2014-15, according to sports-reference.com. Yet Memphis will count on Lawson to produce right away.
Projected Conference Race
|conference rank||team||projected Conf. record||last year's Conf. record|
Each team's outlook in about 68 words
Coach Larry Brown will need to convince his charges to play hard even though they’ll spend Selection Sunday watching other teams receive invitations to the NCAAs rather than anticipating their own placement in the field of 68. No matter: This team—led by Moore, forward Markus Kennedy and transfer Jordan Tolbert—is deep and talented enough to outlast UConn and other challengers for its second consecutive conference title.
The Huskies signed one of the nation’s top point guard recruits, Jalen Adams, and added coveted graduate transfer Sterling Gibbs, who had been at Seton Hall, to ensure there’s little dropoff in the backcourt after Ryan Boatright's graduation. UConn will also have firepower on the wing (Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis) plus a proven returnee (Amidah Brimah) and another highly touted graduate transfer (Shonn Miller, Cornell) up front.
Mick Cronin was cleared to continue coaching Cincinnati in late March after he missed most of last season while dealing with an arterial dissection, a vascular condition. The Bearcats also return six of their top scorers from the team that posted 23 wins under associate coach Larry Davis and fell to then-undefeated Kentucky in the NCAA's round of 32.
Speaking of good teams that return a bunch of key players from last season ... the Golden Hurricane bring back everyone who logged at least 17% of available minutes in 2014-15, according to kenpom.com. That group includes dynamic backcourt duo James Woodard and Shaquille Harrison, both of whom ranked among the top eight in the AAC in Win Shares and Points Produced per game, according to sports-reference.com.
The Owls, who finished 26-11, were one of the biggest “snubs” on Selection Sunday last March. To earn a tourney bid this season, they’ll need to effectively replace the graduated Will Cummings, an All-AAC first-team performer who ranked among the conference's top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating in 2014-15, according to sports-reference.com. Senior Quenton DeCosey and junior Josh Brown can help lessen the impact of Cummings’ departure.
|Keelon 'K.J.' Lawson||SF||7.4||4.1||1.1||102.3||20%||52%|
It hasn’t been a great off-season for Memphis. Nichols transferred to Virginia, prime recruiting target and Bolton (Tenn.) product Jaylen Fisher chose UNLV over the Tigers last week and coach Josh Pastner recently told CBSSports.com that expected backcourt starter Kedren Johnson could miss 2015-16 because of a shoulder injury. Even if Johnson plays through the injury, the Tigers will need a lift from Lawson and transfer Ricky Tarrant.
In 2014-15, coach Kelvin Sampson’s first season in charge, the Cougars went 13-19 overall and won only four games against AAC competition. Both of those numbers should improve this season because of a combination of proven contributors in the frontcourt (senior Devonta Pollard and junior Danrad “Chicken” Knowles) and an influx of talent on the perimeter (Purdue transfer Ronnie Johnson and Oregon transfer Damyean Dotson).
|Lance Tejada, Jr.||PG||6.4||1.9||2.3||98.4||22%||49%|
The Pirates haven't made the NCAAs in more than two decades. That drought won't end this season, but coach Jeff Lebo’s team should improve after going 14-19 and finishing 229th in kenpom.com’s team efficiency ratings in 2014-15. Two of East Carolina’s three leading scorers, sophomore B.J. Tyson and junior Caleb White, return, and the Pirates are also adding a highly regarded junior college prospect, point guard Charles Foster.
The Green Wave lost several players to transfer this off-season, including point guard Jonathan Stark, a former Conference USA all-freshman performer who led the AAC with a 36.8 assist rate during conference play in 2014-15, according to kenpom.com. That certainly won’t help a team that dropped 11 of its final 13 games last season, though top scorer Louis Dabney is back to anchor the backcourt.
Then-freshmen guards Adonys Henriquez and B.J. Taylor were named to the AAC All-Rookie team last season after both ranked in the conference’s top 12 in minutes played per game and offensive rating, according to sports-reference.com. The freshman to track this year is Tacko Fall, a 7'6", 300-pound center.
|Troy Holston, Jr.||SG||12.4||3.9||1.5||101.8||20%||85%|
Finishing out of the conference cellar would be progress for second-year coach Orlando Antigua. The Bulls went 3-15 in AAC play (and 9-23 overall) in 2014-15, and top scorer Corey Allen Jr. won't be back. South Florida will have Maryland transfer guard Roddy Peters eligible, and big man Chris Perry returns after missing the last 12 games of 2014-15 because of what the school called a “health issue.”