- Ky McKeon
- Central Florida
- East Carolina
- South Florida
All Conference Awards
POY: Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Coach of the Year: Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Newcomer of the Year: Alterique Gilbert, Connecticut
Key Returners: Troy Caupain, Gary Clark
Key Losses: Farad Cobb, Octavius Ellis
Key Newcomers: Jarron Cumberland, Nysier Brooks, Kyle Washington, Tre Scott
Postseason Projection: 4 - 7 Seed
The Bearcats had some tough luck last season. Cincy lost to Butler at home by two in a game which they thoroughly controlled until about the one-minute mark. A couple weeks later, they lost to Iowa State, again by two, after having nearly a 90% win probability with just under 2:00 to play. The Cats also suffered a double OT loss to Temple and, later, an OT loss at Tulsa. On March 11th, Cincy was a part of perhaps the greatest college basketball game since the 6OT thriller between Syracuse and UConn. The Bearcats lost to UConn in four overtimes (UConn’s Jalen Adams hit a full court shot to send it into a fourth OT). Finally, the Bearcats’ season culminated in a two-point loss to St. Joe in the NCAA Tourney after the refs waived off what would have been a game-tying dunk. To put it simply – Cincy had a rough go of things last season. But Cincinnati basketball isn’t anything if not tough. The Bearcats this season have one of their toughest units ever, which is saying something in Cincy history, one that is poised to redeem last year’s downfall.
The Bearcats are led by one of the best point guards in the country in senior Troy Caupain. Caupain became one of my favorite college players after that 4OT game against UConn mentioned earlier. The guard poured in 37 points forcing me to pull out many strands of my hair (I bet on UConn). Caupain is a superior, tough leader and exemplifies what the Bearcats are all about. Recently, Caupain was awarded a leadership award at the Steph Curry Camp to which 33 elite guards were invited. So intangibly – Caupain is fantastic. Statistically – he’s not too shabby either. Caupain led the Bearcats in scoring and assists last season while posting a 29.0 assist rate (105th nationally) and turning the ball over only 14.7% of the time with a usage of 22.6% - those are insane turnover numbers for a ball-dominant point guard. If he has one shortcoming, it’s his shooting, but I’m all aboard on team Caupain and think he can improve in this area in 2016-17.
Of course the hallmark of Cincy basketball is defense. Mick Cronin’s teams have finished in the top 15 of defensive efficiency five of the last six years – one of those years, they finished 22nd. The Bearcats play a morphing matchup zone that is simply beautiful to watch when it’s executing at its highest level – which is usually all the time. I liken it to a giant spider that moves gracefully on its web towards its prey (the ball) – Poor metaphor? Probably – but watch them play, it fits. Gary Clark, a junior forward and the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year, is the centerpiece of this matchup zone. Clark averaged 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per contest. At 6’8’’ 235 lbs., Clark was 4th in the conference in steal rate and 10th in block rate - he also beasted on the boards, finishing 7th in the AAC in OR% and 6th in DR%. To boot, Clark had the highest o-rating on Cincy (121.7 – 85th nationally), shooting nearly 52% from the floor, mostly off his sweet baby hook in the lane.
Clark and Caupain are both First Team All-Conference players, but they won’t be shouldering the load alone. Jacob Evans, a rising sophomore with a good outside jump shot, returns to aid in the scoring department – an area where Cincy has truly struggled in the past; the Cats were 199th in effective field goal percentage in 2015-16. Cincy also adds one of the premier freshmen in the country with Jarron Cumberland, an ESPN Top 100 player. Cumberland is a freaking tank at 6’5’’ 215 lbs. He also can flat out score the basketball, able to use his football frame to barrel into the paint and bounce off contact on his way to the rim. Cumberland averaged 30 points per game in high school and could start over senior Kevin Johnson on day 1. Expect Cumberland to do wonders for Cincy’s oft-struggling offense.
Also joining the Cincy team is NC State transfer Kyle Washington, a 6’9’’ post player who will complement Clark in the interior. Washington was a big time rebounder and shot blocker at NC State his sophomore year, which fits right into what the Bearcats value in a big man. He’ll look to replace at least some of the production Octavius Ellis gave the Cats a year ago. Nysier Brooks, a 6’9’’ 3-star center out of Philadelphia, will also provide support the paint off the pine.
The Bearcats have all the tools to win the American conference and make a deep run in the Tournament this season. They have leadership and experience in Caupain, Clark, and Evans, exciting young talent in Cumberland, and a post enforcer in Washington. They will undoubtedly be a top-15 defensive team once again this season and should be an improved offensive entity as well.
Key Returners: Rodney Purvis, Amida Brimah, Jalen Adams
Key Losses: Daniel Hamilton, Shonn Miller, Sterling Gibbs
Key Newcomers: Alterique Gilbert, Terry Larrier, Juwan Durham, Vance Jackson, Mamadou Diarra
Postseason Projection: 4 - 8 Seed
The UConn Huskies promise to be one of the most exciting teams to watch this season as they feature a freshman class that represents Ollie’s best recruiting effort in his five year tenure. The rookie class is highlighted by four Top 100 prospects – Alterique Gilbert (#30), Juwan Durham (#52), Vance Jackson (#78), and Mamadou Diarra (#93) – and one 3-star guy (Christian Vital). Connecticut is one of the most storied basketball programs in the country, particularly when considering the 26 years Jim Calhoun manned the ship (.720 winning percentage; 3 National Championships). With the incoming class, a 2014 National Championship, and a cool, young, former NBAer at the helm, it’s safe to say the Huskies will continue to be a relevant basketball power for a long, long time.
About those freshmen – UConn’s super class ranks 9th overall for 2016 and at least one of them (Gilbert) should crack the starting five on day one. Gilbert is a strong point guard with excellent ball handling skills and a good (if not slightly quirky) jumper. He’s explosive and has that “successful D1 point guard” look – think a smaller version of Troy Caupain. Durham is one of the lengthiest dudes I’ve ever seen. His arms would make Stretch Armstrong jealous (I’m way too young to use that reference). Durham isn’t very strong, but he projects as a good shot blocker (UConn tends to get those types of guys) and rebounder, and he’s athletic enough to put the ball on the floor a little. I see him coming off the bench to start, but he’ll see plenty of time spelling/playing alongside Amida Brimah. Vance Jackson is a shooter, plain and simple. He can certainly do other things on the basketball court, but he was recruited because he’s 6’8’’ and can shoot the shit out of the ball. Diarra to me looks more impressive than the higher ranked Durham on film. He’s a sturdier version of Durham but isn’t quite as offensively talented. Regardless, he should be a menace on defense with his length and strength. Vital, the 3-star, will see some time spelling the three-guard starting rotation, but he’ll be limited his freshman year.
Stud freshmen alone doesn’t make a successful basketball team – except for Kentucky (and now Duke), but f*ck those guys. Lucky for UConn, they have three good returning players and an eligible transfer to help support the youngins. Rodney Purvis, a 6’4’’ senior wing, figures to be the undisputed leader of the Huskies this season. Purvis led the team in scoring last season, just edging out the departed Daniel Hamilton. Purvis scores in a variety of ways – he excels in transition, where he was the Huskies’ primary weapon, he’s solid in an isolation situation, and he hits open threes (38.5%). His 23.1% usage should increase this season as he steps into the #1 option role. Jalen Adams, the hero of the 4OT Cincy game discussed above, returns as well to aid Purvis and Friends. It’s funny, Adams can hit a 65-footer, but he can’t seem to find water falling out of a boat from any other distance behind the arc (27.3% last season on 44 attempts). Adams is an excellent free-throw shooter though at 86.3%, which is my favorite indication of potential outside shooting improvement. Jalen didn’t see an overwhelming amount of minutes last season, but he really started to come into his own late last year – we should see a dramatic jump in his counting stats this season.
Amidah Brimah is the third Husky returner of great significance. Brimah was hurt for a good part of the year in 2015-16, but he should be back at full strength this season and reclaim his sophomore-level minutes. Brimah is the best shot blocker in the American, perhaps even in the country – he averaged nearly three blocks per contest a season ago. Also fun fact – Brimah is 1st place in FG% at the University of Connecticut. His running mate in the frontcourt aside from the freshmen studs Diarra and Durham will be VCU import Terry Larrier. Larrier is more of a wing / stretchy four with his (alleged) shooting ability, and is a very athletic playmaker in the open court. He’s apparently gained about 30 pounds since his freshman season at VCU, so it’ll be intriguing to see what that does to his game. He could be the most influential newcomer in the UConn system.
Uconn was a tenacious defensive team last season – Kevin Ollie teams usually are – and that shouldn’t change with the return of Brimah. On the perimeter, Adams is a pesky defender, and UConn as a team is excellent at forcing opponents to use a lot of clock and force up a poor shot – the Huskies ranked 6th in effective FG% allowed last season. The biggest weakness of UConn’s offensive game last year was their inability to get to the free throw line. I’d expect this to improve with Larrier in the fold and Purvis/Adams each becoming more assertive within the offense. Gilbert, too, represents a slashing threat – he should really open up the Husky offense.
UConn could easily take the American this season, but I like the experience and toughness of Cincy playing with a chip on their shoulder over the young Huskies. Don’t be shocked though if we see yet another deep Tourney run from Ollie(ver) and Company.
Key Returners: Ben Moore, Shake Milton, Sterling Brown
Key Losses: Nic Moore, Keith Frazier, Jordan Tolbert, Markus Kennedy
Key Newcomers: Harry Froling, Semi Ojeleye, Tom Wilson, Dashawn McDowell
Postseason Projection: 6 - 10 Seed
The college basketball fan base was done a disservice last season by the suspension of SMU from postseason play. I could rant for days on the topic of postseason bans (spoiler: I’m very much against them), but instead let’s take a quick peek at SMU’s resume last season. The Mustangs played an overall weak non-con schedule (as evidenced by their 11-0 record), but scored victories over notable opponents such as Yale, Michigan, and Colorado on a neutral. In the American, SMU took down all the major players and finished second in the league to Temple. They ranked 17th in the country per KenPom and their RPI was 13 with a 5-2 record against the top 50. That would have probably been good enough for anywhere between a 4 and a 7 seed in the Tourney and we would have received an added bonus by Tulsa likely falling out of the field of 68. Last year’s SMU squad was super talented and more than capable of making an Elite Eight run. They lose four key players from that team, including two-time AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore, and coaching legend Larry Brown. Despite this, the Stangs figure to be a major force in the AAC once again this season and a Tourney bound squad.
Tim Jankovich takes over the coaching seat for the departed Brown. Jankovich was an SMU assistant for four seasons and was the head honcho at Illinois State, amassing a record of 104-64 (.619) over five seasons and earning four NIT appearances. We really shouldn’t expect to see a major change in style at SMU given Jankovich, like Brown, prefers a slower tempo and Jankovich had the privilege to be under the tutelage of Brown for his entire SMU assistant coaching run.
The turnover in talent at SMU is substantial, but the Stangs still boast three of the better players in the conference in forward Ben Moore, and guards Sterling Brown (younger bro of Shannon) and Shake Milton. Moore is an absolute pleasure to watch – he is super athletic and long, runs the floor extremely well, and grabs a surprising amount of rebounds for his skinny frame (12.4 OR%; 16.9 DR%). That rebounding prowess will need to carry over to this season as the Stangs lose two of the better boarders in the country in Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy. Moore, Kennedy, and Tolbert helped SMU achieve the 2nd best OR% in the nation last season – the team grabbed 41.2% of their misses. Brown and Milton will look to continue SMU’s ridiculous shooting success. SMU ranked 3rd last year in 3P% (42%) but didn’t attempt a significant amount of threes, choosing instead to work the ball into the post and drive and kick off pick and rolls. Brown converted on 53.6% of his threes last season, an SMU record, but didn’t shoot enough (56) to be ranked nationally (he would have been close to first). Brown did however qualify for true shooting and effective field goal percentage – he ranked 4th in eFG% (68.5%) and 3rd in TS% (71.6%) boosted by his 85.7% FT% and 63.2% 2P%. Milton nailed 42.6% of his 122 attempts, good for 89th in the country. Shake will take over most of the playmaking responsibilities from the departed Nic Moore, and rising sophomore Jarrey Foster will also contribute on that end.
Aside from the above players mentioned, SMU will be a fairly inexperienced team and will rely heavily on freshman and transfer production. Incoming big man Harry Froling (an Australian product) figures to slot in alongside Moore in the post. During his stint with the USA East Coast All-Stars in Italy (with fellow frosh Dashawn McDowell), Froling performed well, averaging 10.0ppg, 3.5rpg, and 1.0spg. Froling will give the Stangs a nice outside shooting threat from the 5 spot, but is certainly a downgrade from Tolbert/Kennedy in the rebounding department. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye wasn’t given an opportunity with the Blue Devils, but figures to be a huge factor for SMU. Ojeyele was ranked #40 overall in the class of 2013; he’s an athletic scoring wing capable of making a big impact.
Defensively SMU was solid last year driven primarily by their tough close-outs on the perimeter and shot-blocking experts down low. Moore will once again be the key cog in the paint on D – he averaged 1.4 blocks per contest last year and posted a 5.7% block percentage. Milton, Brown, and Foster were the Ponies’ best perimeter defenders last season. All three are great on-ball defenders and Brown led the team in steal percentage last year. Some down-low enforcement will be lost without Tolbert and Kennedy, but the outside should still be strong. Ojeleye and redshirt junior Ben Emelgou should also be plus wing defenders (Ojeleye will be able to guard some 4’s as well).
SMU is still a top 3 or 4 team to beat in the American this season despite their recent turnover. Returning stud Ben Moore will be itching to get back to the Dance after being forced to sit out last year.
Key Returners: Damyean Dotson, Galen Robinson, Jr., Rob Gray, Jr.
Key Losses: Devonta Pollard, Ronnie Johnson, LeRon Barnes
Key Newcomers: Armoni Brooks, Valentine Sangoyomi, Devin Davis
Postseason Projection: 9 Seed - Bubble / NIT
The once proud Houston Cougar basketball program fell on hard times following their 1984 National Championship runner-up finish. Since that year, Houston has only four NCAA Tourney appearances (only one since 1992) and has not reached the second round. After serving his 5-year show-cause order stemming from the recruitment of Eric Gordon at Indiana, Kelvin Sampson took the reigns at Houston in 2014. Sampson has already made a huge impact on the Cougar program, turning the school’s fortunes around on his way to a 22-win season and an NIT appearance last year. The Cougars started the 2015-16 season 13-2 due to a Bounty-soft schedule (350th toughest non-conference schedule), but the early season stretch did include a victory over dumpster fire LSU and a 27-point shellacking at Temple. Non-conference SOS goes a long way towards a borderline Tourney team’s resume, and while Sampson has somewhat beefed up the schedule this season (at Arkansas, vs. Rhode Island, at LSU, vs. Harvard), the season-opening Gulf Coast Showcase tournament (which Houston should be heavily favored to win) is kind of a pile of doggy-doo that features the likes of George Mason, Bradley, South Dakota, Kent State, Hofstra, Wofford, and Vermont (some of these are good mid-majors – but Houston is a competitive team in a top 7 conference; they need to be playing stiffer competition). Alas.
Preview time. Houston loses their best big man, Devonta Pollard, to graduation, but returns a strong crop of talent giving Sampson the tools to once again compete in the American. Damyean Dotson returns to lead the Cougars in 2016-17. The former Oregon Duck recently completed his most successful college basketball season last year posting the 12th best o-rating in the country while finishing shots inside the arc at a 65.8% clip (19th nationally) and shooting a respectable 36.7% from deep. Dotson can really do everything on the floor, he’s a plus wing defender and an elite catch-and-shoot threat. His usage should climb this season from last year’s 19.1% as he becomes his team’s undisputed floor leader.
The Coogs return a talented guard tandem to complement Dotson with sophomore point man Galen Robinson, Jr. and junior gunner Rob Gray, Jr. Robinson turned in a fine freshman campaign last season, producing the 11th best assist rate in the conference with a relatively low turnover rate. Robinson is great at penetrating and baiting defenders to help off spot-up shooters (Houston’s elite spacing propelled their 18th-ranked offensive efficiency ranking) and should see a major uptick in his minutes this season with the departure of Ronnie Johnson, whom he was forced to split time with last season. Gray has never met a shot he didn’t like – if a basketball shot was a woman – any type of woman – Rob Gray would attempt to sleep with that woman. Seriously his stats are kind of insane – he averaged 16 points per game last season in only 26.5 minutes played per game. I do not have a stat handy for most points averaged per minute last season, but Gray had to be in the top five in the country. When he was on the floor, Gray shot 33.8% of Houston’s shots – the 3rd highest rate in the nation – and used nearly 29% of the Coogs’ possessions (70th highest rate). His percentages really weren’t that bad either (.498/.343/.704).
Inside, Sampson will throw out a rotation that features senior post-men Danrad Knowles and Kyle Meyer, and JUCO transfer (and former Indiana recruit) Devin Davis. Meyer started more games than Knowles last season, but still only played about 13 minutes per games. Likewise, Knowles’ minutes were somewhat limited due to, a) a penchant for fouling, and b) the likes of Devonta Pollard and LeRon Barnes. Knowles has tremendous potential as a rim protector (led team in blocks) and offensive glass eater. Also, he doesn’t miss shots around the rim, shooting 61.3% on 119 attempts. Meyer struggled last season; I really don’t see the appeal of Meyer aside from him being a fair post defender and growing to be 6’10’’. Devin Davis, though, should be a beast in the Coog lineup. Davis was a JUCO All-American last season after a tumultuous year at Indiana in which he was involved in a severe car accident and later booted from the squad. Davis slots right into the starting power forward position and is one of the best players on the Cougar roster according to Sampson.
Houston’s offense was great last season, primarily due to excellent court spacing, offensive rebounding, and the ability to take care of the basketball. Sampson teams always excel on the offensive glass, a big part of which is due to the focus of getting the ball to the basket – the Coogs did not shoot many threes last season. Meyer, Dotson, Knowles, and reserve Bertrand Nkali were the Cougars’ best rebounders last season, and all four players return this year suggesting Sampson’s squad will yet again be a dominant force on the glass. Robinson, Gray, and Dotson will be the primary ball handlers this season, so turnovers should also be a non-issue as it was in prior year. The Coogs were an average defensive team overall last year, but they exceled in taking away clean three-point looks, ranking 9th in the country in 3P% allowed. Houston forced opponents to use up a lot of clock last year with their fierce perimeter defense – that extension of the defense, however, often led to second chance opportunities for opponents which proved to be the ultimate downfall of the team.
With the relatively high roster continuity and the Kelvin Sampson coaching pedigree, Houston looks to be a legitimate American Conference contender this season and could even be an outside shot at an at-large bid.
Key Returners: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Markel Crawford
Key Losses: Shaq Goodwin, Ricky Tarrant, Jr., Trashon Burrell, Avery Woodson
Key Newcomers: Jimario Rivers, Christian Kessee, Chad Rykhoek, Keon Clergeot
Postseason Projection: Bubble / NIT
The reign of Josh Pastner is over in Memphis as he takes his “talents” to Georgia Tech. Pastner’s first five years at the helm could be considered successful, though the Tigers failed to make a single Sweet Sixteen despite having ample ability. Memphis’s recent two year NCAA Tourney drought caused Pastner’s seat to heat up mighty quick, so his departure is really less of a purposeful career choice and more of a “he saw the writing on the wall” choice. Enter Tubby Smith, a world-renowned coach capable of vaulting programs to glory. In the realm of coaching, Tubby is to Usain Bolt as Josh Pastner is to fat eighth grader (tad exaggeration but it gets the point across). Tubbs has had success everywhere he’s been – Tulsa (2 Sweet Sixteens, .648 winning %), Georgia (1 Sweet Sixteen, .703), Kentucky (2 Sweet Sixteens, 3 Elite Eights, 1 National Championship, .760), Minnesota (3 NCAA appearances, .605), and Texas Tech (1st Tourney appearance since 2007). The Tigers will be in good hands.
Memphis loses quite a bit from last year’s squad with the exit of Shaq Goodwin (14.7ppg), Ricky Tarrant, Jr. (11.7ppg), Trashon Burrell (10.0ppg), and Avery Woodson (9.6ppg), but returns their best player in Dedric Lawson and brings in a slew of intriguing complementary pieces. Lawson is the undisputed king of the program. As a freshman, he earned AAC 2nd Team All-Conference honors and was the conference’s Rookie of the Year. Lawson poured in 17 double-doubles last season (a Memphis freshman record), and was one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the nation. He struggled a bit with efficiency last season, scoring at a pedestrian clip of .422/.350/.709, but his talent level is undeniable. Lawson should once again be one of the premier players in the AAC this season.
One of Memphis’s biggest weaknesses last year was their three-point execution. The Tigers didn’t attempt many threes relative to other programs (310th nationally) and when they did, they usually didn’t score (32.4%, 274th nationally). Their primary three-point threats, Woodson (179 attempts), Tarrant, Jr. (149 attempts), and Burrell (91 attempts) are all gone, leaving Lawson as the only returning Tiger who attempted more than 43 threes last year (28/80). Lawson likely becomes a bigger option from beyond the arc in his sophomore campaign, and the addition of Coppin State grad transfer Christian Kessee should help make up for the loss of production. Kessee connected on 39.2% of his 212 three-point attempts last season while pouring in nearly 15 points per contest for a poor Coppin State team. Expect Kessee to be inserted in the starting five immediately as the Tigers’ number one deep threat. Keon Clergeot, a physical freshman point guard, will also provide immediate assistance from downtown.
Dedric’s twin K.J. Lawson and JUCO import Jimario Rivers will round out Memphis’s frontcourt. K.J. Lawson didn’t have quite the enormous success his brother did last season, but the 6’7’’ forward still turned in a serviceable rookie year (though his season was limited to just 10 games). K.J. was the 44th rated recruit coming out of high school last season (Dedric was 35th), so the potential is there. Rivers was one of the top JUCO recruits in the country this season. The forward is versatile at 6’8’’, able to guard both forward spots, and is sure to provide athleticism and rebounding assistance for the Tigers. Tubby will also have Baylor transfer Chad Rykhoek at his disposal. Rykhoek has the size to play center in the American but he has yet to play a single minute in his college career due to injuries.
The rest of the Tigers will be relied on to take larger roles this season as Tubby is liable to play all ten players currently listed on the Memphis roster. Veteran guards Markel Crawford, Craig Randall, and Jeremiah Martin make up the backcourt depth along with Clergeot. Crawford played 20 minutes per contest last season and should handle most the point duties in the early going. At 6’5’’, he’s a big guard capable of defending multiple spots. Randall will serve as one of the few three-point options off the pine while Martin will serve as a backup ball handler. Former walk-on Jake McDowell will provide depth at the wing position.
There’s going to be quite the juxtaposition in coaching styles between the departed Pastner and Tubby. Pastner’s Memphis squads often looked to push the tempo, finishing 14th in adjusted tempo last season, whereas Tubby’s teams have always played a methodical, half court style game. Last year the Tigers attempted the 6th highest percentage of their field goals in transition, while Tubby’s Texas Tech squad ranked 243rd. This Tigers unit is probably more adept to a quick, transition focused pace, but I wouldn’t put it past Tubby to try and mold the youth in his image. One thing in Memphis should stay constant from the regime change – a strong emphasis on defense.
With the roster turnover, Memphis likely ends up on the wrong side of the bubble conversation by season’s end. But with a massive coaching improvement and one of the best players in the conference, Memphis could be a dark horse candidate to make a Tourney run.
Key Returners: Pat Birt
Key Losses: James Woodard, Shaquille Harrison, Rashad Smith, Marquel Curtis
Key Newcomers: Travis Atson, Martins Igbanu, Corey Henderson, Jr., Geno Artison, Junior Etou, Jaleel Wheeler, Joseph Battle
Postseason Projection: NIT
Tulsa, led by Sith Lord Frank Haith, comes off of one of the least-deserving Tourney berths in the history of the sport. Shaq Harrison, a guard on last year’s squad, tweeted this before the Selection Show, “Naw. We out bro. Lost to Memphis by 30”. Of the 144 bracketologists tracked by BracketMatrix.com (of which myself and fellow 3MW writer Jim Root are a part of), 1 (ONE!) person included the Golden Hurricane in their field of 68. Tulsa’s four wins versus the RPI top 50 (and no bad losses) is ultimately what convinced the committee to include them in the field – and really it was the win against Wichita State on November 17th. Their RPI was #60, and their non-con SOS was ranked 106th by ESPN, but 175th by KenPom. Take out the shocking Shocker win (which was at home by the way), and Tulsa went 7-4 out of conference, with losses to Oral Roberts (at home), Little Rock (at home), South Carolina, and Oregon State. Their best wins outside of conference (besides WSU) were Iona, at Oklahoma State, and Ohio. They finished tied for 4th in a respectable AAC (though it was the 7th ranked conference per KenPom) and then proceeded to promptly get their ass kicked by Memphis in the first round of the conference Tourney. This was not an NCAA Tournament team. (Quick case study for comparison – St. Bonaventure was #30 in the RPI with three wins versus the RPI top 25 and finished tied for 1st in the A-10).
The good news for the college basketball world is that we’ll likely get a little retribution from last year’s debacle as Tulsa looks to be in a transition period, returning only one player of significance from last season’s squad and adding 8 newcomers. Pat Birt, the one returning player of significance, is strictly a spot-up shooter – 66% of his shots were from beyond the arc last season and 92% of his makes were assisted. He’s a talented player and a good shooter, but he isn’t the type of guy that can lead a team, and without Harrison and Woodard for defenders to focus on, Birt’s scoring average may take a hit. The only other returning player who saw the floor consistently is sophomore Sterling Taplin, who figures to be the team’s starting point guard this season.
Predicting Tulsa’s rotation with this many newcomers is a crapshoot, but two lineup cornerstones should be Rutgers transfer Junior Etou and JUCO transfer (and former Shocker) Corey Henderson, Jr. Etou functions primarily as a solid post defender and rebounder. He has the ability to shoot from the outside, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily should (shooting spilt of .436/.311/.662 with Rutgers in 2014-15). The big man was a bit of an afterthought in the Rutgers offense, but should take a more central role with Tulsa, which again, may not be a great thing. Henderson is a top 35 JUCO recruit, averaging nearly 15 points per game last season. He’s a dynamite outside shooter and will be part of what should be a very deadly deep-ball tandem with Birt. But, is Taplin a strong enough playmaker or Etou a big enough offensive threat to create open looks on the perimeter? We’ll see.
Geno Artison, a JUCO transfer, likely begins the season starting at center, but Haith will also use freshman Martins Igbanu and Australian import Will Magnay to fill the post void. Artison was a 3-star recruit a few years back coming out of high school and had the attention of several top D1 programs when he announced he was ready to leave JUCO. Igbanu is one of only two nationally ranked Tulsa frosh (the other being Travis Atson) – at 240 pounds he is a beast inside and clearly has the body and strength to play at this level immediately. Magnay projects as a good shot-blocker and rebounder.
Atson, a 3-star guard, will see time off the pine for Haith. He’s a good shooter, particularly from mid-range, and has the athleticism to tale his man off the bounce. Jaleel Wheeler, an Honorable Mention JUCO All-American last season, should compete with Henderson for a starting spot. Wheeler averaged 22.3ppg last year and shot nearly 40% from deep. 6’8’’ redshirt junior TK Edogi should see significant time backing up the frontcourt, he played in 32 games as a sophomore in 2014-15. Lawson Korita, a lights-out sharpshooter, and Joseph Battle, South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball, are two more frosh who could see the floor.
Tulsa is a bit of a mystery this season. If their newcomers produce, they could compete in the middle of the conference. But, this is an inexperienced squad – something that Haith is not used to. I’ll double down on my long-time thoughts that he is not a good coach or leader, making the Golden Hurricane a mediocre squad in 2016-17. For fun, let’s say 17 to 18 wins.
7. Central Florida
Key Returners: A.J. Davis, Tacko Fall, B.J. Taylor
Key Losses: Adonys Henriquez, Daiquan Walker
Key Newcomers: Nick Banyard
Postseason Projection: CIT / CBI
Central Florida is abuzz with the promise of a return to basketball relevance. UCF has not made an NCAA Tournament since leaving the friendly confines of the Atlantic Sun back in 2005. This year, UCF brings in a new coach, Johnny Dawkins, from Stanford. The Dawkins hire is not only a significant x’s and o’s upgrade from the departed Donnie Jones, but also a substantial move for the school’s transfer and recruiting market. Dawkins inherits an experienced team in 2016-17 and already has three major transfers set to join the fold next year in Aubrey Dawkins (Michigan, his son), Terrell Allen (Drexel), and Dayon Griffin (Louisiana Tech).
The first thing anyone notices when UCF is in the building is giant sophomore center Tacko Fall. Fall is a 7’5’’ 300 pound behemoth of a man, and can also play a bit of basketball. Fall was objectively excellent last season, but was limited to only 17 minutes per game due to stamina issues. The big man led the country in field goal percentage (75%), mainly as a result of being a dominant force as a roll man in the P&R and offensive rebounder. Fall also had the 3rd highest block percentage in the nation (12.8%), which makes sense considering he’s about as tall as a skyscraper. I’m not sure of the feasibility given the man’s sheer stature, but if he were able to improve his stamina enough to play 20-25 minutes per game, UCF could really be dangerous this year.
UCF had a real issue shooting the deep ball last season, converting only 31.8% of their attempts, which was amplified by the fact they shot the 76th most threes in the country. Help is on the way in that department with the triumphant return of B.J. Taylor, an All-Rookie team member in 2014-15 that was forced to miss last season with a leg injury. Taylor led the Knights in scoring as a freshman and shot nearly 35% from downtown. Taylor also brings a steady ball handling backcourt presence, something UCF sorely lacked last season, ranking 331st in turnover percentage. Chance McSpadden, one of the major TO culprits as a frosh last year, steps into the starting point guard role looking to right the ship.
Forward A.J. Davis struggled with shooting last season, but he was one of the better all-around players in the conference as a sophomore. Davis was one of only three players to rank in the top 20 of the conference in points, rebounds, and assists. He brings great versatility to the UCF offense, and given he shot 78.7% from the line, I think we’ll see a decent uptick in shooting from the floor this year. On defense, Davis is a good on-ball and post defender, but struggles closing out on shooters. UCF as a team played a very low-pressure defense that didn’t force turnovers, often falling back in a zone. Dawkins will bring a greater emphasis on D with him; his Stanford squads have historically been very strong on that end. Matt Williams, a redshirt senior, represents UCF’s best defender.
Right now UCF is not a very deep team, which can be an issue when one of your cornerstone players can’t play more than half the game. Illinois State transfer Nick Banyard, sophomore Chad Brown, and senior Tanskley Efanayi will be looked upon to provide assistance off the bench. Little-hyped recruit Brock Stephenson may have to play out of necessity due to lack of guard depth.
UCF is a team on the rise. Dawkins appears poised to take this school to another level (especially if their Big 12 bid is successful). This season, UCF likely falls short of conference relevance, but this could definitely be a bubble team in 2017-18 with the influx of new transfers (especially if Fall stays in school).
Key Returners: Obi Enechionyia, Josh Brown
Key Losses: Quenton DeCosey, Jaylen Bond, Devin Coleman
Key Newcomers: Quinton Rose, Alani Moore, Damion Moore
*Likely out for the season: Josh Brown, 6’3, Sr.; 8.3 / 4.8 / 4.9 / 1.2 / 0.5
**Uncertain: Trey Lowe, 6’6, So.; 4.8 / 1.5 / 0.6 / 0.5 / 0.0
Postseason Projection: None
The Temple Owls quietly pulled together a successful 2015-16 campaign. Despite being picked 7th in the preseason AAC polls, Temple won the conference outright with a sterling 14-4 mark and earned a (very high) 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament where they suffered a heartbreaking defeat to an under-seeded Iowa team. This year promises to be quite different for Fran Dunphy and the Owls as they lose their best player, Quenton DeCosey, best big man, Jaylen Bond, and fourth leading scorer, Devin Coleman to graduation. To make matters worse, promising senior Josh Brown is likely done for the year after suffering a torn Achilles this offseason. And, as an added kick in the balls, the status of Trey Lowe, a rising 6’6’’ sophomore, is still uncertain after the guard was injured in a car accident back in March. This leaves Dunphy with very few options to field a competitive basketball team, meaning another AAC title and trip to the Tourney is likely out of the question.
The one known entity returning for the Owls this season is junior forward Obi Enechionyia. The 6’8’’ wing / stretch four contributed mostly as a spot-up shooter for the Owls last year, converting on 38.6% of his threes and 46.1% of his shots inside the arc. Enechionyia scored in three ways last season, 1) catch and shoot (heavy majority), 2) in transition (mostly spotting up from three), and 3) posting up. He’s a crafty player with the ball, able to score in the post in a variety of ways (fades, spins), and able to take slower defenders off the dribble after baiting them outside. With DeCosey, Bond, Coleman, and Brown (likely) gone, Enechionyia is going to be option #1 – 5 on offense. He is one of only two returning Owls (Daniel Dingle) to average over 20 minutes per contest last season. The one issue will be not having the luxury of being the 3rd or 4th option anymore – defenses will be honing in on Enechionyia all season, so his primarily spot-up game is going to have to evolve.
Last year’s role players will have to step up this season in order for the Owls to be competitive. Senior Daniel Dingle (6’7’’ forward) and guard Shawn Alston, Jr. (6’4’’ guard) will be inserted into the starting lineup to provide Obi with reinforcements. Dingle and Alston, to put it simply, were not effective offensive players last season – their shooting splits were brutal at .393/.242/.541 (Dingle) and .385/.283/.500 (Alston, Jr.). Sample sizes were low so the potential could still be there. Another seldom used body, Ernest Aflakpui (6’10’’ forward), should also see a major uptick in minutes. Aflakpui was a beast on the glass in limited minutes and has rim protection potential. He could be somewhat of a secret weapon for Dunphy this season as he’s an unknown commodity in the American thus far in his career.
With the graduations and injuries, Temple’s freshmen will need to have an impact as well. Point guard Alani Moore should start right away with Brown on the sidelines. One thing Moore will need to do is protect the rock, something the Owls did extremely well as a team last season, ranking 2nd in the country in turnover percentage. Dunphy’s teams are always strong with the basketball, consistently ranking among the top in the nation in TO %; Dunphy is a great coach, so there isn’t too much concern about this trend continuing. Other freshmen, Quinton Rose, a 6’6’’ athletic wing, and Damion Moore, a 6’11’’ brute, will be forced into the rotation early as a result of the lack of bodies on the Owl roster.
Temple’s success the last two seasons was driven by their excellent defense. The Owls were terrific at taking away the three-ball and running shooters off the line. They don’t block shots, they don’t force turnovers, but they make the other team shoot tough, contested shots on a consistent basis – and they do not foul. The concern this season on D is the four major departures (DeCosey, Coleman, Bond, Brown) were the best defenders on the roster – Enechionyia is not a good defender, Dingle is so-so, Alston has not shown any flashes of brilliance, and Aflakpui’s worth begins and ends at putting his hand up on the block. As a team though, the Owls should still be a good transition defense unit, an area that is (at least in my opinion) primarily driven by coaching.
It’s difficult to be too optimistic about Temple’s chances this year. I really cannot see this team competing with the top tier (Cincy, UConn, SMU, Houston), but the bottom of the conference (Tulane, South Florida) is a shit show, and Fran Dunphy can flat out coach. Temple has the chops to outperform ECU and UCF, but they aren’t significantly better (if at all). I think we’ll see the 5 – 9 teams jostling for position all year.
9. East Carolina
Key Returners: B.J. Tyson, Caleb White, Kentrell Barkley
Key Losses: Prince Williams, Michael Zangari
Key Newcomers: Elijah Hughes, Jeremy Sheppard, Raquan Wilkins, Andre Washington
Postseason Projection: None
After taking over in 2010-2011, Lebo has been successful in turning around a program that was year-after-year a bottom feeder in its conference. In 2013, The Pirates won the CIT Tournament, a small achievement but an achievement nonetheless. But last season was Jeff Lebo’s worst in Greensville; the Pirates sputtered to a 12-20 overall record and finished tied for 9th in the American with a 4-14 conference mark. This year, ECU loses only two critical players with the graduation of point guard Prince Williams and center Michael Zangari, and returns a strong nucleus headlined by one of the best young talents in the conference.
ECU boasts one of the better returning trios in the conference with senior Caleb White, junior B.J. Tyson, and All-Rookie Team member Kentrell Barkley. But while the counting stats for the trio were solid, they weren’t without weaknesses. One of the biggest issues with the Pirates last season was their ability to score efficiently on offense. The Pirates were a bottom-tier offensive team due to poor shooting, turnovers, and the inability to create shots. White, the 8th all-time leading scorer in Pirates history, was an excellent spot-up shooter, converting 38% of his three-point attempts last season, but Tyson, who shot 150 threes, hit only 29%. Barkley was excellent in transition and crashing the boards on offense, but he could not score off the dribble in the half-court. The loss of Williams is a big one due to the guard’s ability to create open shots for his teammates; with him gone, Tyson, Barkley, and newcomer Elijah Hughes will be relied upon to handle the rock. To be fair, White, Tyson, and Barkley all had pretty good seasons, but the trio had little help from anyone else, especially their bench which featured Lance Tejada (88.0 o-rating), Clarence Williams (80.8), and Kanu Aja (89.6) playing big minutes.
ECU’s frontcourt holds many questions, including who will replace Zangari in the middle of ECU’s zone. Senior Michael Nzege is the most likely candidate to earn a starting nod, with Barkley playing a small-ball 4-man role. Nzege is a capable defender (better than Zangari) and rebounder, so he should be able to hold his own anchoring the paint. On offense, Nzege is a competent contributor – particularly from the foul line where he converted 80.5% of his attempts. 7-footer Andre Washington, a Wake graduate transfer, will be forced into big minutes this season. He didn’t get too many opportunities at Wake, but Washington has potential as a strong rim protector, even if his offense is limited to “catch and dunk”. Deng Riak, a 6’10’’ redshirt freshman, could also have a big impact off the pine.
Hughes, as mentioned above will be assigned ball-handling duties out of the gate. He’s a big guard at 6’6’’ and he has good floor vision for a frosh, averaging 5.4 assists during his senior year in high school (aside: he looked like an absolute man compared to his opponents in high school – it may be fair to say competition wasn’t at its peak). Jeremy Sheppard, a 6’1’’ frosh, also will serve in a point guard role off the bench – he looks to be the only true point on the roster with fellow frosh Shawn Williams being ruled ineligible this year.
The key for ECU will be efficiency. Tyson in particular needs to be less of a volume shooter and more of an efficient asset on offense. Lebo will hope Hughes can add an element of rim attacking to the offense, something ECU severely lacked last season. The Pirates are dangerous in transition, with Tyson, White, and Barkley all able to push the tempo (something the Pirates like to do after wearing opponents down with their zone), but the half-court is still a work in progress. Defensively, ECU improved tremendously compared to the couple years prior, mainly due to the increased experienced playing under Lebo’s fairly new zone philosophy. This team is a year or two away from being truly competitive in the AAC, but they’ll have some talent.
10. South Florida
Key Returners: Ruben Guerrero, Bo Zeigler, Troy Holston, Jr., Jahmal McMurray
Key Losses: Chris Perry, Roddy Peters, Angel Nunez, Nehemias Morillo, Jaleel Cousins
Key Newcomers: Geno Thorpe, Malik Fitts, Isaiah Manderson, Mike Bibby, Jr.
Postseason Projection: None
Coach Orlando Antigua has had a dicey couple of years since taking over the reigns in South Florida. The coach with a city for a first name and a country for a last name has amassed an unimpressive 17-43 record with the Bulls during his tenure, and his program is now facing NCAA investigation relating to possible academic fraud. Not ideal for a new coach at a program not known for its basketball (or any sport?). To make matters worse, USF recently lost commitments from its two biggest recruits this offseason with Troy Baxter, a 4-star ESPN 100 player, successfully receiving the release of his letter of intent, and Andres Feliz, a Dominican stud point guard, no longer with the team. While all those factors don’t paint a pretty picture for things to come, Antigua does have a fairly deep roster at his disposal making his quest to get out of the basement of the American a realistic one.
The return of Jahmal McMurray is enormous. McMurray flirted with the NBA Draft this offseason, but has officially decided to serve his sophomore year with the Bulls. As a freshman, McMurray led USF in scoring (by over 5 points per game) and played the second most minutes out of any player in the AAC. McMurray is a dynamic playmaker from the point guard position capable of scoring from anywhere on the floor. He’s also the only returning Bull to attempt more than 10 three pointers last season (USF ranked 347th in the country in three-pointers attempted). While he should have a similar role as last season, the sophomore guard will have significantly more help carrying the load in the backcourt this year. Penn State import Geno Thorpe will immediately serve as USF’s best perimeter defender and is a capable rim attacker from the wing. Troy Holston also returns after an ACL tear forced him to sit out last season. Holston represents a competent three-point option outside of McMurray – his role will primarily be that of a spot up shooter.
Up front the Bulls feature returning forwards Bo Zeigler and Ruben Guerrero. Guerrero, at 6’11’’, was a top five shot blocker in the conference last season and will be the team’s best rebounder inside. USF was an excellent shot blocking and offensive rebounding team last season, and Guerrero was a big part of that – unfortunately, the loss of big men Chris Perry and Jaleel Cousins suggests a major regression in both those categories for the Bulls this year. Zeigler’s value is in his defense. The forward isn’t much of an offensive factor, but at 6’6’’, he’s capable of guarding both forward spots and can even step out on the wing a bit. Isaiah Manderson, a Texas Tech transfer, will provide a big boost to the frontcourt in the second half of the season when he becomes eligible. The 6’10’’ sophomore offers rebounding and “being tall” to the USF squad.
Without the aforementioned Baxter and Feliz, Antigua’s freshman class will consist of wing Malik Fitts and guard Mike Bibby, Jr. Fitts is a 3-star recruit listed at 6’8’’ on the USF website. Other sources have him at 6’6’’. Regardless of height, Antigua has described Fitts as having the potential to be a solid defender on the wing with the size to body fours as well. Bibby is clearly the son of Mike Bibby, the outstanding former NBA and Arizona point guard. This Bibby is light years away from his Dad’s talent level, but still will play a role in the USF lineup on a regular basis. He represents another shooting threat and ball handling option in the backcourt.
It’s funny, an observer of USF likely gets the sensation that Antigua wants his team to play at a high tempo – but looking at the numbers the last two years shows a team that plays at the bottom third pace in the country. The Bulls whole offense last season can really be summed up as “McMurray shoots from wherever he wants; Cousins, Zeigler, Guerrero, and Perry get the rebound and put it back in”. The Bulls’ piss poor shooting forced them to rely on offensive rebounds for the source of their scoring. The shooting will be marginally better with Holston back and Thorpe capable of creating his own shot, but the rebounding is going to decline a bit. Antigua will have to adjust his offensive game plan accordingly. One thing that should improve with Thorpe, Holston, and the maturation of McMurray, is USF’s turnover rate, which ranked in the bottom ten in the nation last season. The Bulls are still in rebuilding mode and will finish anywhere from 8th to 11th in the AAC.
Key Returners: Malik Morgan, Cameron Reynolds
Key Losses: Louis Dabney, Dylan Osetkowski, Jernard Jarreau
Key Newcomers: Colin Slater
Postseason Projection: None
Tulane basketball isn’t exactly a historical national power. In fact, the Green Wave have only made three NCAA Tournaments in their history (interesting fact: they’ve never lost a first round game despite earning a 9, 10, and 11 seed). So it may come as quite a shock the school was able to lure a coach with the celebrity of Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy of course has never coached a college basketball game, but he fared somewhat successfully as an NBA coach for 17 years. The Dunleavy hire is arguably the biggest event in Tulane basketball history, certainly in the last decade or so, but unfortunately for Green Wave fans, this squad is a few years away from thinking about competing for a fourth Tourney bid.
Tulane loses three of its top four scorers from a year ago – not a good start for a team that finished ranked dead last in the American and 219th overall per KenPom. Losing Louis Dabney, the 9th all-time leading scorer in Green Wave history and a former AAC All-Conference selection, is especially a big blow. With the departures, the reigns will be handed to Malik Morgan, a redshirt senior guard that finished second on the team in scoring and rebounding, and led the team in assists. Morgan was by far Tuane’s best deep-ball shooter last season (35%; 180 attempts) – he was one of only two Green Wave players to attempt over 100 threes and the only player to shoot 35% or better. The load shall be a heavy one for Morgan this year.
Assisting in the backcourt will be point guard Von Julien and rising sophomore Melvin Frazier. Julien is a heavily pass-first point guard (mainly as a result of his lack of shooting prowess). He struggled on the court with turnovers last season and was Tulane’s least efficient player numbers-wise. However, he will almost certainly be counted on to run the offense this season. Frazier will compete for a starting spot; he had a so-so freshman campaign proving to be a good perimeter defender, but his jumper from deep was seriously broken (28.6% on 63 attempts). Next year, Dunleavy brings in Jordan Cornish, a UNLV transfer, who will be a breath of fresh air for Tulane next season. He’s actually a fairly highly-regarded transfer from UNLV and has a legitimate shot to be Tulane’s starting 3 in 2017-18. Colin Slater is a promising 3-star out of Fresno; he should provide a competent backup option for Julien in the likely case the incumbent guard continues his ball protection struggles. If Tulane has one strength this season, it’s their backcourt (which relative to other AAC squads, ain’t that great).
The frontcourt promises to be quite weak this season. Ryan Smith likely starts at center, he’s a 6’11’’ senior who possesses decent offensive rebounding ability, but is more akin to a sieve on defense than he is a wall. Cameron Reynolds will be slotted along side Smith in the frontcourt. Reynolds is all about that stretch four life, unfortunately the stretch four isn’t about him – the redshirt junior shot a miserable 41.2% from two and 26.7% from three last season (though his 82.4% free throw clip is promising). Blake Paul and Samir Sehic are the only big men reserves Dunleavy has at his disposal; Sehic was a non-factor last season but Paul showed flashes of rim protection and rebounding ability in limited minutes last year.
It’s hard to predict what type of style Dunleavy will play this season in his first year as a college coach. He certainly has the experience to succeed at Tulane (which is to say just improve on the Green Wave’s prior season and inch closer to a middle-of-the-pack AAC finish). He’ll have to work with poor overall shooting, outside of Cornish and Morgan, and the inside game on offense will be non-existent, which would cause problems for any coach. The Green Wave, though, actually played pretty good D last season, ranking 119th in the country (this is very good compared to their 308th ranked offense). Morgan and Frazier were arguably the team’s best defenders last year, so having them back suggests the defense could, at least on the perimeter, put up a fight. The Smith/Reynolds combination down low is going to be a major defensive liability, which is why I think we’re going to see a lot more Blake Paul this year. A lot of defense is coaching, however, so if Dunleavy makes it a priority, there’s no reason the Green Wave can’t be stout on that end once again. All in all though, this is a bottom-tier AAC squad that will have to fight to stay out of the cellar.