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AAC Preview: Who Will Challenge Front-Running Newcomer Wichita State?

The newest addition to the American has a chance to bring the conference its first Final Four team since UConn won it all in 2014.

Sports Illustrated’s 2017–18 preview is guided by data from our College Basketball Projection System, a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner and SI’s Chris Johnson and Jeremy Fuchs. We project teams on a player-by-player, lineup-based level and then simulate the season 10,000 times to generate our 1–351 national rankings and conference forecasts.

These are the model’s projections for the AAC, including individual awards, the teams’ order of finish and (advanced and raw) stats for the top seven players in each school’s rotation.

The Big Picture

Is this the year the American asserts itself as a power conference? They add Wichita State this season, and the Shockers could be in the mix for a Final Four run if everything breaks right. Cincinnati is coming off a 30–6 season, its best season since 2001–02; we have the Bearcats turning in another strong campaign. UCF, Houston and UConn all have well-founded tournament hopes, and teams like Temple and SMU can play their way into the mix. The AAC has just as many quality teams, if not more, than a league with greater exposure like the Pac 12.

Player of the Year: Rob Gray, Houston

You can make a legitimate case for any of the Wichita State stars, but Gray is the conference’s defending scoring champ (20.6 points per game), and we project him to not only repeat this year, but also finish third nationwide in scoring. Gray, a 6' 1" senior guard, is a junior college transfer; his first year in Houston, he averaged 16.0 points, second in the AAC. We project Gray to average 20.4 this season, and he will get a bump in opportunity now that Damyean Dotson is in the NBA.

Newcomer of the Year: Cane Broome, Cincinnati

We treat newcomer a bit liberally here, as the freshman class is weak across the conference. A 6-foot junior transfer from Sacred Heart, Broome was a machine for the Pioneers, averaging 23.1 points (eighth-best in the country) and winning NEC player of the year as a sophomore in 2015–16. Broome is expected to run the point; we have him averaging 12.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

All-Conference Team

PG: Jalen Adams, UConn
SG: Rob Gray, Houston
G/F: Kentrell Barkley, ECU
G: Landry Shamet, Wichita State
PF: Obi Enechionyia, Temple
Sixth man: Jacob Evans, Cincinnati

Projected Order of Finish

(Projected conference record in parentheses. The tiebreaker for teams with identical records is their standing in SI’s 1–351 national rankings, which will be revealed in early November.)


The Skinny on Each Team

1. Wichita St (15–3)


Wichita State had a slow start to last year, ending with a No. 10 seed in the tournament, where they lost a close second-round game to Kentucky. But their low seed belies their talent—KenPom had the Shockers at No. 8 in his final rankings. The only thing stopping them is health. All-America candidate Landry Shamet had foot surgery in July; Markis McDuffie had a stress fracture in his foot and will be out until at least December. But they bring back all five starters from last year’s No. 13 offense and have the infrastructure in place to be a Final Four favorite.

2. Cincinnati (15–3)


We rate the Bearcats a bit more highly than some other outlets, but it’s not outlandish to see this becoming a top-tier team. Cincy brings back four of its five top scorers and adds Broome to last year’s 30–6 team. A top defense and a better-than-you-think offense will set up the Bearcats for a deep run in the tournament.

3. UCF (13–5)


Defense and UCF? Absolutely. We project the Knights to have one of the nation's top 10 defenses this season. A lot of that comes from Tacko Fall, the 7' 6" junior center. He was 12th in blocks per game at 2.6. B.J. Taylor is a big-time scorer, and they add four D-I transfers, including Aubrey Hawkins from Michigan.

4. Houston (10–8)


They’ll rely on Gray a lot, but there’s not a ton besides him. Juco transfer Chris Harris Jr., a 6' 10" 3.5-star prospect, is intriguing, but is a few years away. Gray is the conference’s best offensive weapon; outside of that, the Cougars don’t have a ton going for them.

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5. UConn (10–8)


We’ve seen what happens when UConn has a dynamic point guard. Can Jalen Adams join the Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier stratosphere? If he does, look out. The Huskies will get Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier back from major injuries—if healthy, they form a dynamic trio that could make UConn a sleeper.

6. Temple (10–8)


Get to know Obi Enechionyia. The 6' 9" forward returns for his senior season as the Owls’ inside-out threat–he was fifth in the conference in blocks and 10th in three-point percentage. Shizz Alson is a good point guard, and there’s scoring depth in Quinton Rose and Josh Brown. Temple has amassed a collection of three-star-or-better prospects, but they are liable to give up points.

7. SMU (10–8)


SMU won 30 games last year, but they’ve lost three of their top four scorers from that team and will be relying on a mix of transfers to get back to the tournament. Jahmal McMurray, a South Florida transfer, is eligible to play in December; he averaged 15.2 points his freshman year in Tampa. Arkansas transfer Jimmy Whitt is a good defender. How well those newcomers jell will be a key storyline in Dallas.

8. Tulsa (8–10)


Tulsa is senior forward Junior Etou and a bunch of unknowns. Curran Scott is a transfer from Charlotte, where he averaged 10.5 points as a freshman, and Jaleel Wheeler can do a little bit of everything, but there’s not a lot of depth in this lineup.

9. Memphis (6–12)


Memphis is relying on three juco transfers this season: Kyvon Davenport and Kareem Brewton Jr. were first-team juco All-Americas, and Raynere Thornton was first-team all-region. All should produce, but we don’t project any to score in double-digits. It will be interesting to see how highly-regarded recruit David Nickelberry fares in his freshman season.

10. East Carolina (4–14)


Kentrell Barkley is the best player you haven’t heard of. The 6' 5" junior forward led the team in scoring, rebounding and steals a season ago, and we have him projected as one of the conference's top scorers and rebounders. Outside of Barkley, though, a bunch of transfers round out the bench. He can’t do it all.

11. Tulane (4–14)


Cameron Reynolds narrowly missed being named to our all-conference squad, and he would headline the second team. The 6' 7" guard, who was named the American’s most improved player last season, is projected as the conference's No. 2 scorer this season. He's also a good rebounder. The Green Wave’s problem is defense—we project them to have the worst in the conference.

12. USF (3–15)


There's nowhere to go but up after a disastrous one-win AAC campaign last year, but there isn’t much in this lineup to take the Bulls to the next level. Payton Banks, a grad transfer from Penn State, has a ton of experience, and Tulio Da Silva, showed promise as a freshman. Other than that, it might be a long year.