SI.com's first conference rest examines the AAC, where Southern Methodist looks poised to repeat as league champion, but Connecticut should get a boost from the arrival of Sterling Gibbs and Cincinnati from the return of head coach Mick Cronin.
Now that the last remaining recruits have signed, the transfers have been announced and the coaching carousel has mostly stopped, it's time to take our first full look at each major conference in advance of the 2015-16 college basketball season. Over the next few weeks, SI.com will be examining the AAC, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC, as well as a look at the top mid-major programs. First up, the American Athletic Conference.
State of the champion: Southern Methodist
The Mustangs won both the regular-season and tournament championships in the AAC, but their season ended in devastating fashion. A controversial goaltending call against center Yanick Moreira on a three-point attempt by UCLA point guard Bryce Alford in the final seconds helped the Bruins complete a late rally to stun SMU in the NCAA tournament’s round of 64. While the Mustangs blew a chance for their first win in the Big Dance since 1988, that shouldn’t overshadow the success they had in coach Larry Brown’s third season.
Not only did SMU win 27 games overall and reach the NCAAs for the first time in 22 years, it did so despite overcoming several personnel issues. Top incoming recruit Emmanuel Mudiay never showed up on campus, eventually winding up in China. Forward Markus Kennedy sat out the first semester due to academics. Wing Keith Frazier was ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season in January. And forward Justin Martin left the team the same month to pursue opportunities to play professionally. Meanwhile, assistant coach Ulric Maliji decided in January to take an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons, and SMU announced less than a week later that it had received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA that reportedly involves academic improprieties within the men’s basketball program.
The Mustangs will enter this season with a dark cloud of potential NCAA punishment lurking over their heads, but they will nonetheless be considered one of the strongest contenders to win the conference. Though they lose two starters in Moreira and guard Ryan Manuel, their list of returnees includes Moore, a first-team All-AAC guard, and Kennedy, a second-team all-league forward. SMU also adds two transfers in former Texas Tech forward Jordan Tolbert and former Duke forward Semi Ojeleye, who is expected to be eligible in December. Incoming freshman Shake Milton, a four-star guard in the class of 2015, will add depth to the perimeter rotation.
Assuming the roster remains healthy and intact, SMU has the potential to achieve even more than it did in 2014-15. It may take a while for Mustangs fans to forget the brutal tourney loss, but they should take comfort in the fact that their favorite team is in good position to defend its league crown.
Last March, after falling to SMU in the championship game of the conference tournament, UConn became the fourth team in the last seven years to miss the NCAAs the season after winning the national championship. One of the main reasons to be optimistic that the Huskies won’t fall short of the Big Dance again this season is the presence of Gibbs, who will be eligible immediately as a graduate transfer. Gibbs, who played two seasons at Seton Hall after transferring from Texas, should help the Huskies make a significant leap offensively after they ranked outside the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted points per possession for only the second time since 2009-10.
Last season the 6’2”, 185-pound Gibbs averaged 16.3 points per game while shooting 43.6% from beyond the arc and ranking seventh in the Big East during conference play by assisting on 27.1% of his team’s field goals during his floor time. UConn has lost its leading scorer from last season, guard Ryan Boatright, but opposing defenses could struggle to deal with Gibbs and returning perimeter threats Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis. Though Gibbs should make the biggest impact of UConn’s group of newcomers, don’t overlook Cornell transfer Shonn Miller and top-60 recruits Jalen Adems, a 6’2” point guard, and Steven Enoch, a 6’10” center.
The Owls were one of the first teams out of the NCAA tournament in March and were forced to settle for a No. 1 seed in the NIT. For Temple to make a run at an NCAA tourney bid this season, it will need to replace Cummings, who graduated in May after helping the Owls bounce back from a forgettable 9-22 campaign in 2013-14 to finish 26-11 in 2014-15.
Though his career ended with a relative dud—a 3-of-15 shooting performance in a loss to Miami in the NIT semifinals—Cummings buoyed Temple during conference play with his scoring, distribution and defense. He ranked first in the AAC in steal percentage and fouls drawn per 40 minutes, seventh in offensive rating and usage rate and fourth in assist rate, according to kenpom.com. The Owls will hope guards Quenton DeCosey and Josh Brown can step up in Cummings’ absence, and the team could also get some help from Levan Alston, a three-star shooting guard ranked No. 111 in the class of 2015 by Rivals.com, as well as three-star small forward Trey Lowe (No. 127).
Cincinnati: Mick Cronin, who is set to return as coach after missing the last 25 games of the season because of a vascular condition, will need to stress to his team the importance of limiting turnovers. The Bearcats coughed up the ball on 22.0% of their possessions during AAC play, the most in the conference.
Connecticut: It will be important that UConn figures out how to effectively integrate the scoring-minded Gibbs into a perimeter rotation featuring two other players in Hamilton and Purvis that ranked second and third, respectively, on the team in usage rate last season.
East Carolina: After finishing eighth in the conference standings last season, one major area ECU needs to address is its defense. The Pirates ranked 264th in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency and allowed AAC opponents to shoot a league-high 51.9% on their two-point attempts.
Houston: Coach Kelvin Sampson will need to incorporate a pair of transfers who sat out last season, former Purdue guard Ronnie Johnson and former Oregon guard Damyean Dotson, into his perimeter group. The Cougars could really need their assistance given that point guard L.J. Rose, a 6’3” senior, missed the final six games of last season after he broke his right foot for the third time in seven months.
Memphis: After averaging 13.5 points as a sophomore at Vanderbilt in 2012-13, guard Kedren Johnson transferred to Memphis but only rarely showed flashes of that same scoring ability, as he averaged just 6.7 points per game. The Tigers need him to display more consistency this season.
Southern Methodist: As noted above, the Mustangs return several key contributors, meaning they should be back in the NCAAs and competing for more conference hardware.
South Florida: The Bulls bid farewell to their leading scorer from last season, guard Corey Allen Jr. Can coach Orlando Antigua coax more offense from a group that finished last in the AAC during conference play in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency?
Temple: The Owls often struggled to score with Cummings last season. Without him, how will Temple produce enough offense while also continuing to shut down opponents on the other end of the floor? (The Owls finished second, behind only Cincinnati, among AAC teams in adjusted defensive efficiency last season).
Tulane: The Green Wave have a solid incoming freshman class—which includes three-star small forwards Melvin Frazier and Kipper Nichols, and three-star guards Kain Harris and Charvon Julien—that will have a chance to make a significant impact right away on a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1995.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane narrowly missed out on an NCAA bid last season. One thing it could do to improve its chances for 2016 is work on its free throw shooting. Tulsa made only 64.7% of its attempts from the line in 2014-15, which ranked 317th in the country.
Central Florida: Head coach Donnie Jones should spent some serious time this summer devising ways to get shot attempts around the basket for Tacko Fall, the incoming three-star center recruit who is listed at 7’6”, 270 pounds on the Golden Knights’ roster.