AAC Offseason Report: Power Rankings and Burning Questions for 2019–20
As the midpoint of college basketball’s offseason approaches, it’s time to check in on every major conference. Every team in the country has questions at this point of the summer, some more pressing than others. So in addition to power-ranking each league, we’ll be asking some burning questions about the conference that won’t be answered until tip-off. Up first: the AAC, which sent four teams to the tournament last year and could add to that number next spring.
AAC Summer Power Rankings
1. Memphis: Penny Hardaway brings in a loaded recruiting class, and the Tigers could be a national contender.
2. Cincinnati: Last season’s AAC Player of the Year Jarron Cumberland is back, which is huge news for a team that replaces longtime head coach Mick Cronin (now at UCLA) with Northern Kentucky’s John Brannen.
3. Houston: The Cougars lost three of their top scorers from last season, so they’ll need players like DeJon Jarreau, Nate Hinton and Caleb Mills to step up to get back to the NCAA tournament.
4. Wichita State: The Shockers bring back a lot of players after a rebuilding year, but they’ll need to find some go-to scorers after the loss of Markis McDuffie.
5. South Florida: With basically last season’s entire roster returning, the Bulls may have enough to get back to the dance for the first time since 2012.
6. UConn: The Huskies will have a dynamic backcourt with Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert back for Dan Hurley’s second season as head coach. The frontcourt is more of a concern.
7. Temple: The Owls have some proven entities back, but as a whole they’re a bit of a question mark as Aaron McKie replaces Fran Dunphy on the sideline.
8. Tulsa: It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Frank Haith’s team breaks into the upper half of the league, even with their leading scorer gone.
9. SMU: The Mustangs return two double-digit scorers but not much else.
10. East Carolina: Depth and shooting are concerns for a team that finished 3–15 in conference play last season, though the Pirates bring back three double-digit scorers, including rising sophomore Jayden Gardner.
12. Tulane: Former Georgia State coach Ron Hunter will bring some excitement to New Orleans, but he has a long rebuild ahead of him.
Will Memphis’s star-studded roster jell?
Penny Hardaway brought in the country’s best recruiting class, headlined by the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, center James Wiseman. With two incoming five-stars and five incoming four-stars, Memphis is the most talented team in the AAC by a long shot. The Tigers are definitely a preseason top-20 team, and possibly a top-10 or top-five team in terms of talent alone, so the biggest looming question for Hardaway & Co. will be chemistry. There are a lot of highly-touted mouths to feed, and some of the four-stars will undoubtedly have to become role players. John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski have successfully navigated similar rosters before, but the current situation at Memphis feels like even more of a mad scientist experiment, with seven incoming freshmen and a second-year college head coach whose acumen as an in-game strategist hasn’t been tested in a conference title race or NCAA tournament setting.
Hardaway also earned a commitment from Little Rock transfer Rayjon Tucker this spring, which would’ve added an experienced, high-level scorer to the roster, but Tucker elected to keep his name in the NBA draft. Wiseman and five-star wing Precious Achiuwa should be locks to start, and four-stars Boogie Ellis (a combo guard and former Duke commit ranked No. 37 overall in the 2019 class) and DJ Jeffries (a power forward ranked No. 48 overall in the 2019 class) are good bets to start, too. That means Memphis could very well feature a starting lineup with four top-50 recruits and still have a host of four-stars ready to come off the bench. Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax also had their moments last season as freshmen and should play important roles in the backcourt.
If the chemistry works, Memphis is talented enough to compete for a national championship. It’s no guarantee that the pieces will fit cleanly, however, and an inexperienced roster and coaching staff could make this roster puzzle even more difficult to solve. Still, talent often wins, and Memphis will enter nearly every game it plays as the more talented team. Even if the ultra-hyped Tigers aren’t a surefire title contender as next season unfolds, they will certainly be must-see TV.
What will Cincinnati look like without Mick Cronin?
Cronin is off to UCLA after 13 years coaching the Bearcats, and former Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen will take over at Cincinnati. The Norse played at a much quicker tempo than Cronin’s Cincinnati teams did, so expect the Bearcats to get out in transition and push the pace more than they have in previous seasons. A good chunk of the returning roster was recruited for Cronin’s grind-it-out style, though, so it’s hard to imagine a full-scale philosophical change in just one offseason. Brannen got massive news when AAC Player of the Year Jarron Cumberland announced he would return to school, which instantly vaults the Bearcats back into the conversation near the top of the conference. Plus, Jarron’s cousin, Jaevin Cumberland, joins the Bearcats as a grad transfer after averaging over 17 points per game on nearly 40% three-point shooting last season with Oakland. The talent-level on this year’s Cincinnati team is comparable to past seasons, so the biggest variable for the Bearcats will be John Brannen’s new system, particularly at the offensive end of the floor.
Is UConn ready to contend in Dan Hurley’s second year?
The Huskies struggled in Dan Hurley’s first season at the helm, going 6–12 in conference play and just barely cracking KenPom’s top 100. Top scorer Jalen Adams is gone, but UConn is well-equipped to replace him with Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert—who scored 14.2 and 12.6 points per game last season—in the backcourt. A top-20 recruiting class should be a big help, especially with 6'10" Akok Akok coming in to bolster the frontcourt. It’s logical to expect improvement from the Huskies in year two under Hurley; the question is how much. If Vital and Gilbert can emerge as stars and freshmen guards James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney can contribute, UConn should challenge for a tournament berth.
Can South Florida’s continuity get the Bulls into the tournament?
USF returns its top four scorers from a team that finished in the top 40 in defensive efficiency and went 8–10 in the league last season. With experienced guards in David Collins and Laquincy Rideau, South Florida should improve its standing in the AAC and could even push for an NCAA tournament bid. Brian Gregory will need to squeeze some scoring out of his role players in order for USF to take the next step, which certainly appears within reach. Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson, a former four-star recruit who sat out last season, will be also be a key piece at point guard. The Bulls haven’t been a part of March Madness since 2012, but that could change next season.
Who steps up for Houston?
The Cougars’ 2019–20 outlook took a major hit when Armani Brooks, who scored 13.4 points per game last season, chose to keep his name in the NBA draft. With Brooks and leading scorer Corey Davis Jr. gone, Houston loses three of its top four scorers from last season’s AAC regular season champion. Kelvin Sampson is still arguably the best coach in the conference, though, and there are players who should be capable of shouldering bigger loads offensively. DeJon Jarreau, the team’s third-leading scorer at 8.7 points point game a year ago, and Nate Hinton, who scored 7.2 points per game as a freshman, are both candidates to develop into go-to scorers from Houston. Redshirt freshman Caleb Mills, who enrolled at Houston in January and practiced with the team for part of last season, should also be an early contributor next season. Regression seems inevitable with Davis and Brooks gone, but Houston can still be a force to be reckoned with if Jarreau, Hinton or Mills emerge as a reliable primary scoring option next season.
Can Wichita State find new stars?
The Shockers missed the tournament for the first time in eight years, and that was with star forward Markis McDuffie still on the roster. Now, McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones, Wichita State’s only double-digit scorers last season, are gone, although Gregg Marshall brings back a bunch of pieces from a team that won 14 of its final 18 games last season. Jaime Echenique is the highest scorer from last season’s team who returns, and he has the potential to break out in an expanded role after averaging 9.2 points per game in just 17.9 minutes per game. In the backcourt, Marshall will likely rely on Dexter Dennis, who has great size for a guard at 6'5" and shot 40% from three as a freshman last season. Highly-touted recruits Tyson Etienne and Grant Sherfield should also figure into the backcourt rotation. Marshall is a proven coach and his new roster should be deep, but like Houston, the Shockers need to find new offensive leaders.
How will a coaching change affect Temple?
This upcoming season will be Temple’s first without Fran Dunphy as its head coach since 1995–96. Aaron McKie, who played at Temple and grew up in Philadelphia, was a natural choice to take over after spending the past five seasons as an assistant under Dunphy, though any program’s first head coaching change in over a decade will bring some uncertainty. Leading scorer Shizz Alston Jr. departs after playing nearly 92% of the team’s minutes last season. Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis will form a potent backcourt, but outside of those two, there’s a whole lot of inexperience for the Owls. It will probably be a stretch for Temple to get back to the NCAA tournament after sneaking into the 2019 field.
Who are the candidates for Player of the Year?
The two clear-cut favorites should be Cumberland, who won the award last season, and Wiseman, a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. If Cincinnati falls off a bit without Cronin, it could be harder for Cumberland, and Wiseman has the benefit of playing around other highly-talented players, which should give him more room to operate in the paint. While Wiseman seems like the Memphis freshman most likely to pop, Achiuwa, Ellis, Jeffries or Lester Quinones could be in the conversation if they emerge as standouts for the Tigers.
Outside of Cumberland and the Memphis freshmen, here are some other names to keep an eye on: Quinton Rose (Temple), Laquincy Riddeau (USF), David Collins (USF), Dexter Dennis (Wichita State), DeJon Jarreau (Houston), Nate Hinton (Houston) and Christian Vital (UConn).