First Look: After UConn's championship, more changes are coming to the AAC in Year 2
There aren't many better ways to cap a league's first year than to have one of its team win a national championship. So ended the American Athletic Conference's maiden basketball season, with Connecticut hoisting the trophy in North Texas. It put a punctuation mark on a satisfactory 2013-14 showing, but it did not put an end to the transition and change.
Louisville, after winning a share of the regular season title and then storming through the league tournament, is gone next season. In come Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. For that and other reasons, the AAC is altered dramatically yet again in Year 2.
Here's an early look at what's in store for the AAC in 2014-15:
State of the champion
Absent. Louisville tied for the regular season title in 2013-14 and won the inaugural AAC tournament ... all while on a farewell tour before it officially joined the ACC this summer. Cincinnati shared the regular season championship with the Cardinals, and Bearcats coach Mick Cronin has a reloading to do. Cincinnati's 27-win season was built around three seniors – Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles – and the leading returning scorer is Shaquille Thomas, who averaged 6.8 points per game last season. Kilpatrick's departure is particularly profound; the first-team All-American produced at by far the highest rate (20.6 points per game) for his team and was one of the nation's most valuable players by one gauge (7.2 total win shares, a measure of how many wins were attributable to his performance, that ranked sixth in the country). The Bearcats dipped into junior colleges for three incoming players and also welcome four-star, top-100 forward Gary Clark. Four returnees played in 34 games and another played in 33, so there will be carryover. But this will be a sizable overhaul that might leave Cincinnati just off the pace of the leaders this season.
UConn Huskies and SMU Mustangs. Connecticut won a national championship in April after finishing three games out of first place in its own league in the regular season. The Huskies then lost the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Shabazz Napier, and emerging forward DeAndre Daniels to the NBA draft. Retaining senior-to-be Ryan Boatright was critical, for his production (12.1 points per game, 3.4 assists per game), his defensive edge and the hope that he can become the next forceful senior guard, a la Kemba Walker or Napier. But the team's fortunes might depend more on transfer Rodney Purvis, a former five-star recruit from N.C. State, and incoming five-star freshman wing Daniel Hamilton contributing at a high level. And then there is SMU, shunted to the NIT this season but returning leading scorer Nic Moore (13.6 points per game), second-leading scorer Markus Kennedy (12.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and then welcoming Emmanuel Mudiay, the consensus No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014. The Mustangs might not make a Final Four run, but they could compete for a league title. Another team to keep an eye on is Tulsa, in its first year in the AAC and first year under new coach Frank Haith. The team returns its top three scorers, led by guard James Woodard (15.5 ppg).
Mudiay, SMU. The 6-foot-5 Dallas native is the impact recruit of the nascent Larry Brown tenure at SMU, with the frame (he's already near 200 pounds) and the game to have an impact immediately. He's a mismatch at point guard, with the strength to overpower shorter defenders and the athleticism and quickness to bypass any bigger opponents. On the one hand, fit is not a question: He's really good, and it's not like the Mustangs aren't overwhelmed with talent. On the other hand, fit is exactly the question, with Mudiay having to work with Moore to work out a share of point guard duties. (Moore led the Mustangs in assists last season as well, dishing out 4.9 per game.) If Mudiay dominates the ball – almost competing with teammates on the offensive end – then this might not work as well as Brown would hope. If he blends into the team concept, then the AAC is winnable and SMU might have a chance to make noise deep into March.
Purvis, Connecticut. According to the recruiting rankings compilation at RSCIhoops.com, Purvis was the No. 17 prospect in the Class of 2012 and T.J. Warren came in at No. 27. After scoring 1,296 points in two seasons at N.C. State, Warren is off to the NBA draft this year. Purvis, a 6-4 guard and a McDonald's All-American out of Raleigh, didn't last more than a season with the Wolfpack, transferring after a freshman year in which he averaged a very ordinary 8.3 points per game. Connecticut could get some high-level production from Purvis and find itself contending for an AAC title, if not another national championship ... or Purvis could remain a complementary player, and the Huskies might not be able to match the firepower of other teams in the league. We'll see what coach Kevin Ollie can coax out of him.
Coach on the hot seat
There aren't too many obvious win-or-else candidate, but some coaches may have slightly shorter leashes in a now higher profile league. Donnie Jones, for instance, won 21, 22 and 20 games in his first three seasons at Central Florida ... and then the Knights plunged to 13-18 and just 4-14 in their first AAC season in 2013-14. Will another struggle prompt change to ensure the program doesn't fall too far behind? Likewise, East Carolina enters 2014-15 with Jeff Lebo coming off a 17-17 season and a 5-11 record in Conference USA play. Lebo has three CIT berths in four seasons at East Carolina, but he's won 20 games just once. Will sputtering in a new league inspire the school to make a change on the sideline?