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AAC Men's Basketball Preview: Memphis, Houston Provide Plenty of Intrigue at the Top

The Cougars are consistently strong under Kelvin Sampson, but an Emoni Bates–led Tigers team could be primed to deliver Penny Hardaway's first conference title.

As part of Sports Illustrated's preview of the 2021–22 men's college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven biggest conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) plus a "best of the rest." All will be complete with our analyst's breakdown of each team, plus a projected order of finish drawn from SI's master 1–358 rankings, to be revealed before the season's kickoff. First up is the American.

The big picture

It’s impossible to address the AAC without discussing conference realignment. Without it, the combination of Houston’s Final Four run, Memphis’s recent success on the recruiting trail and the presence of perennially strong programs like Cincinnati and Wichita State would be enough to drive optimism about where the league stands on the hardwood. But with Houston, UCF and Cincinnati on their way to the Big 12 and no clear answers on who’ll replace them, the long-term future of the league from a men's basketball standpoint is in question.

That said, Memphis may be the most entertaining team in the sport this season, Houston has top-10 potential again and the programs in the middle of the league could be on the rise. Three NCAA tournament bids should be the minimum standard for success in 2021–22.

Conference Player of the Year: Kendric Davis, SMU

Emoni Bates may be the trendy choice, and no player in the conference can come close to matching his ceiling. But Bates is still 17 years old and being thrust into a new position. Growing pains may come. Enter Davis, the best player who even some committed college hoops fans couldn’t put a name to the face of. The Houston native is perhaps the nation’s best pick-and-roll ballhandler, creative as a passer and dynamic as a scorer. He’s also highly efficient, shooting more than 48% from the field and 37% from three while posting an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 3:1 a season ago.

Newcomer of the Year: Emoni Bates, Memphis

There may be a few bumps in the road as Bates navigates running the point and dealing with the attention that being men's college basketball’s most recognizable star will come with, but his talent as a shotmaker is undeniable. Even if his NBA draft stock has faded some from the near-impossible expectations placed on him early in his career, his ability to generate offense for himself at 6' 9" is unmatched in the sport this season. How he matures as a playmaker and contributor to winning basketball will determine whether Memphis lives up to all the preseason hype.

Dark-horse team: Wichita State

The defending conference champs have flown under the radar some in the preseason despite returning most of their production from a season ago. The Shockers won the league a season ago with less depth, while dealing with significant turmoil surrounding Gregg Marshall’s resignation and a new coach finding his way. It’s far from absurd to believe they will improve from a season ago, particularly with the additions of transfers Qua Grant (Division II's West Texas A&M) and Joe Pleasant (Abilene Christian). Wing Ricky Council IV is also a clear breakout candidate. The likes of Grant and Council joining all-conference scoring guard Tyson Etienne in the backcourt gives Isaac Brown’s team plenty of firepower, and we know the Shockers will be difficult to beat in Wichita.

First-Team All-Conference

  • Kendric Davis, SMU
  • Marcus Sasser, Houston
  • Tyson Etienne, Wichita State
  • Emoni Bates, Memphis
  • DeAndre Williams, Memphis

Memphis coach Penny Hardaway at a recent practice

SI's projected order of finish

1. Memphis

There’s no team I want to watch more in the season’s first month than Memphis. How will star recruit Bates look as a lead guard? Will five-star Jalen Duren fit in given how good Memphis looked going smaller late last year? Can Penny Hardaway run a high-level offense after struggling on that end in the previous three seasons of his college coaching career? The answers to these questions will determine just how good this team will be, but defense and talent level alone should be enough to make the Tigers an elite team.

2. Houston

Yes, Houston loses Quentin Grimes and DeJon Jarreau. But Kelvin Sampson has built a program that has sustained losses before and remained among the nation’s best teams. The Cougars are a blue-collar program that wins with defense and rebounding, capable of pounding teams into submission on the offensive boards. Junior guard Marcus Sasser should take a step forward after some big performances in the NCAA tournament, while transfers Kyler Edwards and Taze Moore provide extra help in the shotmaking department.

3. Wichita State

The job that Isaac Brown did a season ago despite all the adversity his program faced in the wake of Gregg Marshall’s late resignation cannot be overstated. The Shockers rallied around Brown, won the AAC regular-season title and went dancing. There may have been some fortunate breaks involved in that run, but I’m a believer in Brown long-term and expect this to be an NCAA tournament team again. Etienne is one of the nation’s best guards and D-II transfer Grant should be an impact newcomer.

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4. SMU

It’s a put-up-or-shut-up year for Tim Jankovich and the Mustangs, who’ve underachieved relative to their talent level in consecutive years. Last year’s results are a bit harder to read into after the team was rocked with COVID-19 cases in February, but blown leads have been a consistent issue of late under Jankovich. In the last two seasons, the Mustangs have lost six games where they’ve had a greater than 92% win probability at some point, per KenPom. That accounts for more than a third of SMU's losses in that stretch. With star senior PG Davis running the show and a talented stable of transfers around him, Jankovich has no excuses not to win.

5. Cincinnati

Wes Miller takes over at Cincinnati with a mess to clean up following the John Brannen era’s unceremonious conclusion. One of Miller’s first moves was adding some physicality up front, which he did with transfer signings Abdul Ado (Mississippi State) and Ody Oguama (Wake Forest). Retaining core pieces like Mika Adams-Woods, Jeremiah Davenport and David DeJulius also helps, but this team’s upside may be defined by what Miller can get out of speedy sophomore PG Mike Saunders Jr. Saunders’s physical tools are somewhat reminiscent of Isaiah Miller, who was a transformational player for Wes Miller at UNC Greensboro.

6. UCF

A scan of the Knights’ KenPom page from a season ago confirms what my eyes told me then: UCF didn’t do anything particularly well. So what should we make of it bringing virtually its whole roster back in 2021–22? I’m excited to see the growth of gifted young wings Isaiah Adams and Darin Green Jr., who each flashed significant promise a season ago. The biggest opportunity for improvement either lies in an explosion from one of those two guys or major improvement on the defensive end. UNLV transfer Cheikh Mbacke Diong should help as a defensive anchor up front, and former elite recruit C.J. Walker also has upside on that end of the floor.

7. Tulsa

Frank Haith’s Golden Hurricane have finished outside of KenPom’s top 100 in four of the last five years but tend to steal some games in conference play despite that—in the Haith era, they haven’t finished worse than two games under .500 in AAC play. Expect a similar outcome in 2021–22. The big question is at point guard, where Elijah Joiner departs after a strong senior season without a proven playmaker to replace him. The frontcourt trio of Rey Idowu, Jeriah Horne and juco product Tim Dalger should be tough to do battle against, though.

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8. Temple

The first two years of the Aaron McKie era have not gone according to plan. A pair of sub-.500 finishes create questions about whether McKie is the guy to lead this proud program in the post–Fran Dunphy era. This season could go a long way in answering that question. The talented backcourt trio of Jeremiah Williams, Khalif Battle and Damian Dunn showed real promise while being thrown into the fire last winter, and it will be the development of that nucleus that defines the program’s direction long-term.

9. South Florida

This hodgepodge of a roster thrown together late after a mass exodus of transfers out of the program feels more like throwing darts at a wall than anything else. The one key contributor who did return is Caleb Murphy, a dynamic scoring point guard with a future as bright as anyone not named Emoni Bates or Jalen Duren in this conference. The supporting cast will be an issue, though, unless transfers like South Carolina’s Jalyn McCreary and Tennessee’s Corey Walker Jr. really hit.

10. East Carolina

Joe Dooley’s second act at ECU has failed to pick up much steam, and any hopes of 2021–22 being a breakthrough likely went out the window when star forward Jayden Gardner departed for Virginia this spring. Gardner was the only true difference-maker Dooley had brought in since taking over back in '18, and his loss will be felt. Boston College import Wynston Tabbs could be one of the league’s better scorers, but it remains to be seen if he can do so efficiently.

11. Tulane

The last-place-on-paper Green Wave could have some teeth if a pair of backcourt newcomers pan out. LSU transfer Jalen Cook was a well-regarded high school point guard in Louisiana with upside on both ends of the floor, while UNC Asheville’s DeVon Baker is an accomplished scorer whose attacking mindset should fit well with coach Ron Hunter’s. Add in dynamic scoring wing Jaylen Forbes, and the Green Wave have a chance to at least be pesky. 

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