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Conference catch-up: American Athletic

The Cardinals are loaded, but sophomore Montrezl Harrell (24) is the player to watch. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Montrezl Harrell

Well, other than creating a brand new conference after splitting off from the non-bigtime football schools in the Big East, there’s not a lot going on for the newly christened American Athletic Conference. The first year for the league will continue to be part of the transition, as Louisville (heading to the ACC) and Rutgers (to the Big Ten) are both leaving after this initial season. Newcomers Memphis, Houston, SMU and Temple have arrived on the scene, and they’ll be joined by East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa next season as all-sports members. Then Navy joins for football-only in 2015. Got all that?

Game Changer

Getting to keep Louisville for this season could be a significant boost to the initial standing of the league. The Cardinals are coming off a monster 2012-13 athletic year in which they won a Sugar Bowl in football and the national championship in men's basketball, as well as making the national title game in women’s basketball. Having a national program like the Cardinals, especially in a year in which they once again should be a major national title threat, will help with the first impressions. Yes, the league is losing them after this season, but this season could have several teams with the chops to go well into March.

Player to Watch

Russ Smith’s return makes him an obvious choice, but let’s go with a different Cardinal and tab Montrezl Harrell. The rising sophomore is coming off a strong summer with the USA Basketball Under-19 team and should be poised for a breakout campaign as he scoops up more minutes in the Cardinals’ frontcourt. Louisville is a consummate outstanding college team that isn’t exactly littered with future lottery picks, but Harrell may prove to be the exception to that rule. He has that kind of potential.

Current favorite

Can it be anyone else besides the defending national champs? Louisville is coming back loaded across both the frontcourt and backcourt. They’re the easy pick despite the presence of others who should be quite good, as well.

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Presumed challenger(s)

Connecticut should settle into a role as the league’s traditional heavyweight after Louisville departs, but Huskies fans have every right to be excited about this season. UConn’s backcourt is going to be one of the best in the nation with Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun in the fold. If the Huskies can find any kind of consistency in the frontcourt, they’re going to be a handful in Kevin Ollie’s second year. Memphis also has the potential to be quite good, but the Tigers and Josh Pastner will run into a glass ceiling unless they can finally start to break through in games in which they’re not billed as the better team. Memphis hasn’t won a game under Pastner as an underdog, and this isn’t Conference USA anymore. The Tigers will have to overachieve expectations a few nights in league play to contend.

Potential darkhorse(s)

Cincinnati has Sean Kilpatrick and some promising young guys. Will it come together on enough nights to make a legit run at the upper division and an NCAA spot? Speaking of the NCAAs, Is Larry Brown really turning SMU into a potential tournament team? That might be a little much to ask this season, but the Mustangs should be much improved. Temple, despite personnel losses, always seems to be solid, and expect nothing less from Fran Dunphy’s crew despite the loss of Khalif Wyatt.

Three big questions

1) Can anyone stop Louisville from the crown in its only league season?

You never say never, especially with a league that should have a decent amount of competitive depth, but Louisville appears to be a class above anyone else in this conference. Too much experience, depth and talent up and down the roster for a team with a legitimate chance to be the first repeat national champ since Florida in 2006 and ‘07.

2) Once the Cardinals are gone, then what?

Big East holdovers UConn and Cincinnati will have to be the bellcows for the league as it adapts to the new landscape. Obviously, the TV contract is not nearly as good as the so-called Group of Five major conferences on the football side, but the league still should get plenty of exposure. Both schools have been good in recent years in football, as well. So if those two can re-establish the upper level of the new league, it will give the other members a bar to aim at, lifting the whole league over time. They hope.

3) How many NCAA bids is the American looking at for this season?