UConn, with guards Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, could be in position to follow its AAC tournament championship with a regular season crown.
With summer recruiting heating up and summer sessions underway, SI.com is taking a look at the state of each conference. Players are listed by what year they will be in the 2016–17 season. First up is the AAC:
State of the Champions: Temple and Connecticut
The AAC had a split championship last season, with Temple taking the regular season crown and UConn showing off its tournament chops once again. The Owls waved goodbye to leading scorer Quenton DeCosey as well as Jaylen Bond and Devin Coleman, two starters who both played more than 63% of the team’s available minutes. The leadership onus falls to junior Obi Enechionyia, who was second on the team with 11.0 points per game last season, and senior point guard Josh Brown, who gave the Owls 8.3 points, 4.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game a season ago. Sophomore guard Trey Lowe, who missed the end of last season due to injuries sustained in a car accident, could have a much bigger role this season as well.
Meanwhile in Storrs, Kevin Ollie has his work cut out for him. Sterling Gibbs, Shonn Miller and Daniel Hamilton, who all averaged at least 12.3 points per game last season, are gone, with Hamilton landing in Oklahoma City late in the second round of the NBA draft. The good news is that leading scorer Rodney Purvis, who put up 12.8 points while playing 28.8 minutes per game, is back for his senior season. He’ll be asked to shoulder the scoring load with a little more than half of the team’s output last season gone in the form of Gibbs, Miller and Hamilton. Just as importantly, sophomore guard Jalen Adams has his opportunity to emerge from the shadow of his departed teammates and take over as the team’s best player.
Notable newcomer: Alterique Gilbert, PG, Connecticut
It should come as little surprise that the Huskies had the best recruiting class in the conference, and Gilbert was the prize of said class. A 5' 10" point guard out of Lithonia, Ga., Gilbert chose Connecticut over a host of other schools that included Louisville, Maryland, Miami and Texas. Gilbert could struggle to see a ton of playing time early in his freshman year, but the Huskies aren’t nearly as stacked in the backcourt as they were last season and will need to call on him heavily as soon as he’s comfortable with the speed of the college game. Ollie’s Huskies have typically been characterized by their guards, from last year’s bunch back to Shabazz Napier leading the Huskies to a championship in 2013–14. That, too, could make Gilbert a key piece this season.
Notable departure: Nic Moore, PG, SMU
The Mustangs were ineligible for the postseason last year, putting a damper on the final season of Moore’s excellent college career. Moore played three years at SMU after transferring from Illinois State, finishing second in program history in assists, third in three-pointers made, ninth in steals and 11th in points. He led the AAC last season with 16.1 points and 5.2 assists per game, and would have had the Mustangs in line for a mid-tier seed in the NCAA tournament if they were eligible. Moore was named the AAC Player of the Year for the second straight season, once again making the All-AAC first team as a unanimous selection. SMU has turned into an AAC power under Larry Brown, but it will be a real challenge for the team to absorb the loss of likely the best player it has had under Brown.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats return four of the top six players from last season’s rotation, including leading scorer Troy Caupain. Sophomore forward Jacob Evans will be expected to step into a larger role this season. The trio of Caupain, Evans and Gary Clark will make this team competitive, but offensive efficiency could again be an issue.
Connecticut: This is one of two teams in the conference that can reload year after year, and Kevin Ollie did just that with the AAC’s best incoming recruiting class. All eyes, however, will be on Jalen Adams. If everything goes according to plan for him this season, he’ll be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
East Carolina: The good news for the Pirates: Their three leading scorers from last season—B.J. Tyson, Caleb White and Prince Williams—are all back. The bad news: They were the three leading scorers on a team that went 12–20 overall and 4–14 in conference. Jeff Lebo must figure out how to make this team competitive again.
Houston: Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars headed in the right direction, finishing just shy of an NCAA tournament berth last season after going 13–19 in his first campaign. Devonta Pollard is gone, but junior guard Rob Gray and senior forward Damyean Dotson make this team a real sleeper in the AAC.
Memphis: Tubby Smith is facing another turnaround job in his first season at Memphis, with Shaq Goodwin, Ricky Tarrant and Trashon Burrell—who accounted for 47.3% of the team’s scoring and 40% of the team’s rebounding—off to the next phase of their basketball lives. That places a lot on the shoulders of last year’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Dedric Lawson.
South Florida: After another dreadful season in which the Bulls went 8–25 overall and 4–14 in conference, Orlando Antigua is looking at a total rebuild. The team’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Jahmal McMurray, is back, but is there anyone who can join him to help make the Bulls, at the very least, respectable?
SMU: The Mustangs are eligible for the postseason again this season, but it remains to be seen if they can reach the same heights of the last two seasons without Nic Moore and Jordan Tolbert. The conference’s second-best recruiting class joins holdovers Keith Frazier, Ben Moore, Shake Milton and Sterling Brown to make SMU one of the better on-paper teams in the AAC.
Temple: The Owls nearly won their first NCAA tourney game since 2013 last year, falling to Iowa in overtime in the first round. Fran Dunphy has to figure out how to get his team back in that position without Quenton DeCosey and Jaylen Bond. The team will spend this summer figuring out who can take on that scoring load.
Tulane: The Green Wave were the worst team in a substandard conference last season, so it would be silly to expect them to compete this year. The team returns five of its six primary rotation players, waving goodbye to leading scorer Louis Dabney. Expect on all-hands-on-deck approach to replacing him.
Tulsa: The Selection Committee surprised everyone, including the players on Tulsa, by gifting the Golden Hurricane an at-large berth last season. Perhaps no team and no coach have more work ahead this season than Tulsa and Frank Haith. The team lost four starters and six key rotation players, including leading scorers James Woodard and Shaq Harrison.
UCF: Looking for a deep sleeper in the AAC? The Golden Knights return all but one of their top-six scorers from a season ago, including 7’6” center Tacko Fall. If they can get him more integrated into the offense, there’s a chance that new coach Johnny Dawkins leads this team takes a big leap in a conference that is relatively soft beyond its top two or three teams.