AAC Preview 2017-18

-Matt Cox

Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Landry Shamet, Jr., Wichita State
Coach of the Year: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Newcomer of the Year: Cane Broome, R Jr., Cincinnati
Freshman of the Year: Jamal Johnson, Memphis

Team Previews

1. Wichita State

See full preview here: #6 in our Top-40 countdown *
* Markis McDuffie will be out until mid-December with a foot injury (stress fracture)

2. Cincinnati

See full preview here: #12 in our Top-40 countdown

3. SMU

See full preview here: #36 in our Top-40 countdown

4. Temple

Key Returners: Obi Enechionyia, Shizz Alston Jr., Quinton Rose
Key Losses: Daniel Dingle, Mark Williams
Key Newcomers: Nate-Pierre Louis, JP Moorman II, De'Vondre Perry, Justn Hamilton


** Only played in 6 games last season

Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT

Outlook: With only one known commodity on the Owls' roster heading into the 2016-17 campaign (Obi Enechionyia), Fran Dunphy knew it'd be a lot to ask of a pair of freshmen (Alani Moore and Quinton Rose) and an unproven sophomore (Shizz Alston) to play big time minutes right away - especially after Josh Brown went down for the season with a torn achilles. Moore, Rose and Alston definitely hit some bumps along their respective learning curves last year, but those that watched this team closely saw glimpses of the major upside potential in the young guns. Alston emerged as a go-to scoring threat, Moore quickly became the Owls' most reliable long range shooter - he knocked down 41% of his triples - and Rose was named to the AAC's All-Rookie team. With a full year of experience under their belts learning to play with and off one another, along with a full healthy Josh Brown back in the mix, Fran Dunphy's squad is ready to make a push to get back to the NCAA tournament in 2018. So where exactly do the improvements need to be made this season if the Owls want to be a serious contender for an at-large berth? Let's start from the interior and work our way inside-out...

  • Rebounding & Rim Protection: For all the mismatches Enechionyia creates offensively with his unique skillset and ability to stretch the defense at 6'10, he has never been a reliable rebounder for the Owls. While Enechionyia's per minute rebounding stats saw a marginal uptick last year as a junior, he should be hauling in more than 6 boards a game, especially given how much Dunphy plays at the 5. The loss of Jaylen Bond's two-way glass cleaning production certainly magnified the rebounding deficiencies last season, which means Dunphy will need Ernest Aflakpui and Damion Moore down low to each take major steps forward. Incoming top-200 freshman Justyn Hamilton could also be a valuable asset, but his 6'10 190 pound frame indicates he has a lot of work to do in the weight room before he can become a reliable piece of the rotation.

Interestingly enough, despite Enechionyia's shortcomings as a rebounder, he's a fantastic shot-blocker, evidenced by a top-20 block rate in the AAC in each of the past two seasons. But as all statisticians know, data doesn't sleep and when you dig into the advanced advanced plus/minus statistics at hooplens.com you'll find that the Owls were significantly worse on the defensive end with "Obi-Wan-Dimensional" on the floor last year.

This is where Damion Moore can earn himself significantly more playing time, assuming he can continue to swat shots at the rate he did in limited action last year.

  • Winning the 3-point line battle: Shutting down open looks from the perimeter is typically a staple of a Fran Dunphy coached defenses, but the Owls were uncharacteristically inconsistent at chasing shooters off the 3-point line last season. A lot of this could simply be a byproduct of the youth and inexperience, but last year was the first time since 2009 that the Owls ranked outside the top-100 nationally in both 3-point FGs allowed and 3-point percentage defense. I'd expect this to be a focal point of the offseason practices and with Josh Brown's veteran presence returning to the fold, the Owls should be just fine in this department in 2017-18.

    The question is will the Owls themselves be able to punish opponents from behind the arc. No team in the AAC was more reliant on the 3-ball than Temple was last season, despite posting a pedestrian 34% shooting percentage as a team (ranked 7th in the conference). Dunphy will need Alston and Rose to improve their shooting marksmanship from downtown and hope that Moore and Enechionyia can avoid any regression from their long range efficiency a year ago.

Bottom Line: All signs point to the Owls making a drastic jump in the AAC standings this year after a disappointing 8th place finish in 2016-17. Not only do they get their point guard back from the 2015-16 team that won the AAC regular season title, but now have a rapidly improving and talented group of guards/wings to build around. Throw in a matchup nightmare in Enechionyia, as well as arguably the league's top-recruiting class (J.P. Moorman, Nate-Pierre Louis and De'Vondre Perry) and the Owls suddenly look like a sure fire top-4 team in the AAC this season.  


5. UCF

Key Returners: B.J. Taylor, Tacko Fall
Key Losses: Matt Williams, Nick Banyard
Key Newcomers: Dayon Griffin (La Tech transfer), Aubrey Dawkins (Michigan transfer), Terrell Allen (Drexel transfer), Rokas Ulvydas (Texas Tech transfer)


Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT

Outlook: Johnny Dawkins continues to build his brand as the "King of the NIT". The Knights are fresh off a semifinals appearance in the National Invitational Tournament, which marked Dawkins' fourth trip to the NIT in the last five seasons after cutting down the nets in both 2012 and 2015. As much as I'm sure he enjoys the moderate amount of glory that comes from dominating the sport's 2nd most prominent postseason tournament, consistently not hearing your name called on Selection Sunday must surely be eating at him on the inside. So will 2017-18 be the year the Knights take a baby step forward to punch their ticket to the Big Dance? Dawkins is hoping a big wave of newcomers, headlined by his own son Aubrey Dawkins, can help him get over the hump and shake the annoying monkey off his back.

The loss of Matt Williams and Nick Banyard were two big blows this offseason, but the combination of Dawkins and Louisiana Tech transfer Dayon Griffin should wind up being a net upgrade. Griffin was outstanding two seasons ago for Louisiana Tech, and Dawkins proved his worth as a Big-10 caliber player in his lone season at Michigan. Despite lacking the size and length of the Williams/Banyard duo, Dawkins and Griffin are certainly more dynamic offensively and will give a UCF new gear in the open floor. Griffin thrived in an up-and-down system two years ago at La Tech, so look for the Knights to proactively push the tempo much more frequently than they did last season, especially with B.J. Taylor - one of the top lead guards in the conference - back to conduct the offense, along with the addition of Terrell Allen from Drexel and Ceasar Dejesus (redshirted last season). But let's not gloss over what Williams and Banyard brought to the table - they were each exceptional complementary players who understood their role playing off-the-ball next to Taylor. But inserting Dawkins and Griffin should take some of the scoring burden off Taylor, which should help further boost his efficiency on the offensive end.

So with a new injection of athleticism and playmaking to the Knights' backcourt, how does the 7'6 giant Tacko Fall fit into the equation? His dominance as an eraser at the rim is well documented and he gobbles up just about every missed shot on both ends of the floor, but it's no secret that his abnormal size limits his versatility in many facets of the game. We once again turn to hooplens.com to open the curtain and reveal what exactly Tacko's net impact was on both offense and defense.

So while Tacko gets all the credit for UCF’s impenetrable interior defense, the advanced metrics tell us that the Knights were actually a bit better defensively when Tacko was off the floor (see the 0.93 PPP vs. 0.90 PPP in the two far right columns). Many who watch UCF closely might attribute this to Tacko's lack of mobility in ball screen action which often left the Knights exposed to open roll men diving to the hoop and scrambling to close-out to 3-point shooters, specifically during possessions in which they played man-to-man (UCF also played a hefty amount of zone - roughly 30% of all defensive possessions). Given the Knights may very well ramp up the pace this year, more athletic and versatile options at the forward spot, such as A.J. Davis and freshman Myles Douglas , could be in-store for a major uptick in minutes. More traditional bigs Chad Brown and Texas Tech transfer Rokas Ulvydas will also get their fair share of run, which will give Dawkins one of the deepest front lines in the conference.

Bottom Line: While Tacko Fall will be the icon of UCF basketball this year, expect the Knights to slowly shift their identify from interior-focused to more perimeter-oriented, particularly with the insertion of Griffin and Dawkins into the backcourt. Turnovers were a major achilles heel last season, much of which was due to Tacko's clumsy footwork and molasses-like decision making with the ball in his hands. I foresee a de-prioritization of Tacko on the offensive end in order to let the dynamic backcourt trio of Taylor, Dawkins and Griffin handle more of the scoring load.


6. Connecticut

Key Returners: Jalen Adams, Christian Vital, Terry Larrier, Alterique Gilbert
Key Losses: Rodney Purvis, Kentan Facey, Amidah Brimah, Vance Jackson
Key Newcomers: Antwoine Anderson (Fordham grad transfer), David Onuorah (Cornell grad transfer), Kwintin Williams (JUCO), Eric Cobb (JUCO), Tyler Polley, Isaiah Whaley, Josh Carlton, Sidney Wilson*


* Sidney Wilson is currently ineligible for 2017-18, but is seeking an NCAA waiver to play this season

Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT

"This is Kevin Ollie's program. Ollie's program had the worst record at UConn in 30 seasons. There had better be anger and angst. There has been. There had better be introspection and conversation. There has been. There had better be change for the better. The months ahead will determine if changes have worked."

Outlook: The above quote is from an article written back in April by Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courtant. With all the scrutiny surrounding Kevin Ollie this offseason, the stripes he earned during the magical 2012 NCAA tournament run are starting to wear off. And while the perpetual revolving door of coach and player movement is par for the course in the 2017 college basketball landscape, there has been an unusually high volume of transfer activity under Ollie’s watch over the past two seasons. But UCONN fans don't care about that - they just want to win and win consistently, and missing the tournament three out of five seasons simply won't cut it in Storrs, CT.

Ollie should be given somewhat of a pass last season, given three vital pieces to the rotation went down with season ending injuries early in the year - Mamadou Diarra took a medical redshirt before the 2016-17 campaign commenced and both Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier each played in just a handful of games before tearing their ACLs before Thanksgiving. Larrier was a top-50 recruit when he first committed to VCU during the 2015 recruiting cycle and Gilbert and Diarra were both 4-stars when they arrived at UCONN last year. If you plug three players of that caliber into a lineup with one of the premier playmakers in the country (Jalen Adams), the Huskies' 2016-17 season could've had a completely different narrative. In fact, Adams and Christian Vital are the lone two returners who played significant minutes last season, meaning the Huskies' success this year will be contingent on how much of a lift the stable of newcomers bring to the 2017-18 roster. Ollie was strapped for bodies far too often last season and found himself relying on a rail thin rotation of 6-7 players on most nights.

Out of the seven key newcomers joining the party this year, six will be asked to reform a frontline unit that was wiped clean this summer with untimely graduations and transfers. Ollie historically has built his defense around imposing interior rim protection that typically centers around one supreme shot-swatter, most recently Amidah Brimah. And as Ollie himself said in an interview with Blue Ribbon this offseason, "There's a big void inside. And plenty of opportunity". So who will rise to the occasion and capitalize on the current vacancy in the paint?

While Diarra presents the highest upside potential, a pair of transfers in David Onuorah (Cornell) and Eric Cobb (JUCO, but South Carolina before that) are experienced options who understand the physical demands that comes with playing down low against the size and strength of D1 opponents. The presence of Onuorah and Cobb will make it tough for Josh Carlton, Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley - three incoming freshman bigs - to earn big minutes right out of the gate, but I suspect Ollie will give all of the new forwards a chance to prove themselves early on. The potential X-factor is JUCO transfer Kwintin Williams who is best known for his freakish athletic ability, but his position at the D1 level and fit on this roster remains to be seen.

The real puzzle that Ollie will need to solve this year, given the laundry list of versatile options at his disposal, is the role of Terry Larrier. The ex-VCU transfer has a world of potential, but the few knocks on him coming out of high school came to fruition in his lone season at VCU. Larrier's on-court awareness and general basketball IQ seemed to be lacking at times, evidenced by a head-scratching disparity in his shot selection. Despite coming into to college with a work-in-progress jump shot, Larrier jacked up 64 3-pointers as a freshman, compared to just 46 2s, and only converted 22% of those long range attempts. While Larrier's explosive athleticism is probably his greatest asset at this point, he is certainly skilled enough to play a small ball 4, but will need to shoot the rock at a much more efficient clip than he did in 2015-16. Ollie has also shown an affection for playing two true bigs during his tenure at UConn, which could force Larrier to shift over to the wing. But that approach could have adverse implications in the form of reduced minutes available for grad transfer Antwoine Anderson, who was a go-to-guy last year at Fordham and could be a disruptive force in the Huskies' perimeter defense.

Bottom Line: The 2017-18 campaign could be a turning point in Ollie’s young coaching career. Similar to Johnny Dawkins at UCF, he'll be faced with the tall task of quickly molding together an array of newcomers into a brand new system. Will the freshmen and transfers mesh together and perform greater than the sum of their individual parts? Or will choppy chemistry inhibit this talented roster from living up to their potential and, consequently, turn up the temperature on Ollie’s coaching hot seat? 


7. Houston

Key Returners: Rob Gray, Devin Davis
Key Losses: Damyean Dotson, Danrad Knowles
Key Newcomers: Nura Zanna (LIU Brooklyn transfer), Breaon Brady (JUCO), Corey Davis Jr. (JUCO), Cedrick Alley Jr.


Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT

Outlook: Had the Coogs avoided a poorly timed three game slide in the middle of January, Houston may have received an invitation to go dancing on Selection Sunday last March. Unfortunately, that three game tumble culminated in a 12-6 conference record (in a relatively down year for the AAC) and significantly reduced the at-large appeal of the Coogs' resume. Kelvin Sampson clearly has momentum building in Houston, but last season's team was probably the most complete roster he's had during his 3-year tenure and the loss of Damyean Dotson is a tough pill to swallow. But preseason AAC player of the year candidate Rob Gray is back to run the show as he continues his journey as one of the most under-appreciated lead guards in college basketball. Simply his presence on the floor will give Houston a legitimate shot to beat anyone on any given night throughout AAC play.

If the 21 points a game average Gray posted last year isn't enough of a reason to think he'll be uber-effective in his senior farewell tour this year, he also gets the luxury of having his point guard - Galen Robinson - back alongside him this season. While Robinson showed some signs of a sophomore slump last season, the continuity of having played with Gray for two straight years will be critical to the continuity of the Coogs' chemistry in the backcourt - that is, unless highly touted JUCO All-American Corey Davis Jr. explodes on to the scene. Davis averaged 17 points and 4 assists a game for the top Junior College team in the country, so he certainly has the chops to steal some of Robinson's thunder at the point.

However, Davis' may be best positioned off-the-ball, especially given his reputation as a long-range sniper (connected on 46% of his 3s last season in the JUCO ranks) and the void of 3-point shooting left behind with Dotson's departure. This would also allow former walk-on Wes VanBeck to resume his familiar role as 6th man and floor-spacing safety blanket. Davis, VanBeck and rising sophomore Armoni Brooks will each need to knock down shots at a high rate this season in order to keep help side defenders honest, which will open up more space for Gray to attack in the half-court. 

In addition to Davis, Sampson will likely give all four of the newcomer JUCO transfers some meaningful run, which include the aforementioned Davis, his JUCO teammate Chris Harris Jr., along with Breaon Brady and Gabe Grant. Brady is the real intriguing piece that certainly has an opportunity to make an impact inside with the Coogs front court severely lacking in experienced size, for the exception of incumbent starter Devin Davis and LIU grad transfer Nura Zanna. Brady projects as an offensively refined low-post scorer, but how well he rebounds will ultimately determine how much playing time he sees this season. Given that the Coogs failed to secure their opponents' missed shots on far too many occasions last season, Sampson may gravitate toward Davis and Zanna as his preferred front court tandem. Both are blessed are with football-esque frames and have proven they can rebound at a high-level against D1 competition.

Bottom Line: The Coogs took tremendous strides on the defensive end of the floor last year. Sampson's preferred defensive style seemed to click in his 2nd year at the helm, which thrived on extended pressure from long and athletic perimeter defenders. However, the Coogs best shot-blocker and two best rebounders will be absent this season, which means the likes of Zanna, Davis and the other aforementioned forward newcomers will need to step up in a big way this season. Even with the loss of Dotson, the offense shouldn't stray too far outside the top-50 (ranked 39th in adjusted offensive efficiency last year), but it's critical that they avoid any major tailspin on the other end of the floor.


8. Memphis

Key Returners: Jeremiah Martin, Jimario Rivers
Key Losses: Dedric Lawson, KJ Lawson, Markel Crawford
Key Newcomers: Jamal Johnson, David Nickelbeery, Kareem Brewton (JUCO)


Postseason Projection: CBI - CIT

Outlook: The blanks in the roster picture above are NOT due to a flaw in 3MW's lineup management Excel spreadsheet. After the countless departures and arrivals this offseason, this year's Memphis roster is finally locked and loaded. Tubby Smith will once again have to quickly integrate and mold whole new crop of newcomers into a competitive product on the floor - a task that is not all that unfamiliar to him. Tubby dealt with a similar dynamic prior to last year when the Tigers lost two starters via the transfer wire (The Lawson brothers) and another vital piece in Avery Woodso (now at Butler).

The only two names Memphis fans will recognize from the 2016-17 squad are Jeremiah Martin and Jimario Rivers. Martin led the Tigers in minutes played last season as a sophomore and proved to be an effective facilitator and playmaker at the point. Martin will now have to step into more of a lead creator role, especially since so much of the offense revolved around Dedric Lawson last season.

Rivers proved what a malleable player he is on both ends of the floor last year - again, having to adjust to playing with such a unique and high-usage player in Lawson. Rivers often found himself playing the 3 next to the Lawson brothers at the other two forward spots. The only real hole in his game in outside shooting, but he adapted to his somewhat awkward spot on the wing quite nicely, posting an efficient 112 O-Rating by focusing on what he does best: slashing and finishing at the rim. On the defensive end, Rivers' versatility and quick-twitch lateral mobility enable him to match-up with any position on the floor - Tubby even played him at the 5 whenever one of the Lawson brothers needed a breather. With the slew of big bodies coming to Memphis this year - see Raynere Thornton, Karim Sameh Azab, Victor Enoh and Mike Parks - Rivers' defensive flexibility will be a critical asset for the Tigers this season.

While Tubby will likely play Rivers a bit more at the 3 and 4 spots this year - especially given the depth of big bodies he can rotate in the paint - an intriguing lineup combination could feature Rivers at the 5 with incoming freshman David Nickelberry as a small ball 4. Nickelberry is a highly-skilled lefty swingman that should blossom into one of the Tigers' more versatile scoring options this year. Nickelberry, Rivers, along with a borderline top-150 freshman in Jamal Johnson and JUCO All-American Kareem Brewton, would likely form Memphis's most potent offensive lineup combination - albeit, they would surrender some girth down low. 

Bottom Line: Despite the crushing losses of the Lawson brothers and Markel Crawford, Tubby certainly has a few intriguing pieces that could keep Memphis right in the thick of the AAC standings this season. And while the Tigers know what they're getting from Martin and Rivers, an emergence from Brewton, Johnson and/or Nickelberry - all of whom have the chops to become All-AAC quality players - would be a godsend for Memphis this season. 


9. Tulsa

Key Returners: Junior Etou, Jaleel Wheeler, Sterling Taplin
Key Losses: Pat Birt
Key Newcomers: Curran Scott (Charlotte transfer), DaQuan Jeffries (JUCO)


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Before reading another paragraph of this [objective and unbiased] preview for the 2017-18 Golden Hurricane [never understood why the mascot is singular], please familiarize yourself with the resume of Frank Haith.

No seriously, go read it NOW...

Now that you're up-to-speed on Haith's shortcomings as a coach, player developer and program leader, it should come as no surprise that Tulsa took a tumble down the AAC standings last season, especially when you consider the roster was overhauled with nine newcomers last summer. In fact, the Golden Hurricane ranked 346th in kenpom.com's "Minutes Continuity" statistic - in other words, the 2015-16 Tulsa team looked nothing like the team that Haith trotted out on the floor last season. That's one reason to be optimisitc about an improvement this season, given Tulsa loses only one key piece from last year's roster (Pat Birt). However, Birt was Tulsa's least efficient player on the offensive end, which paves an opening for one of the more highly regarded newcomers in the AAC - DaQuan Jeffries.

Before tearing up the JUCO circuit last season, Jeffries proved he can be an impact player at the D1 level in his freshman season at Oral Roberts. His long arms and strong build help him finish inside at a high clip, evidenced by a ridiculous 75% conversion rate on all shots at the rim (per hoop-math.com). His drive-first mentality should fit in nicely with this penetration-heavy Tulsa squad that loves to seek contact around the rim to earn trips to the charity stripe. However, he is by no means a one-dimensional scorer - Jeffries capitalized on the few looks he got from the outside in his lone season at Oral Roberts, knocking down 10 of his 26 attempts from behind the arc (39%). 

The combination of Jeffries and Junior Etou will give Haith two of the tougher mismatches in the entire AAC. Etou's offensive repertoire is as complete as any player you'll find in the AAC. At 6'8, Etou cannot be pigeon-holed in to a prototypical 4 or 5 position with his unique ability to slash from the wing and shoot it with range with accuracy. Etou was Haith's only efficient player on the offensive end last season, posting a respectable 108 O-Rating with shooting splits of 53/43/78. Etou, Jeffries and returning point guard Sterling Taplin will carry the bulk of the scoring this season, most of which will come at the free-throw line or from distance. Taplin was careless at times with the basketball, but it's hard to argue with his 85% and 40% shooting displays from the foul line and 3-point range, respectively, last season.  

Rounding out the notable complementary players are Martins Igbanu (typically plays a true 5 next to Etou), a pair of off-guards in Jaleel Wheeler and Corey Henderson (both struggled to find their outside shooting stroke last year) and an intriguing transfer from Charlotte in Curran Scott. Scott averaged double figures in his freshman season two years ago, generating most of his buckets in the two most efficient manners possible - the free throw line and the 3-point shot - which should make him a perfect blend with the rest of the roster.

Bottom Line: There are two converging forces to consider when projecting Tulsa this season: 1) A veteran and talented roster with balance spread across all 5 positions vs. 2) The coaching incompetency of Frank Haith. The backcourt is the undisputed strength of this team and with a perimeter unit composed of Taplin, Jeffries and Scott playing alongside the position-less Etou at the 4, Tulsa could win in-spite of the guy yelling at them from the sidelines.


10. Tulane

Key Returners: Cameron Reynolds, Melvin Frazier, Ray Ona Embo
Key Losses: Ryan Smith, Malik Morgan
Key Newcomers: Jordan Cornish (UNLV transfer), Samir Sehic (Vanderbilt transfer), Bul Ajang, Buay Koka


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: As an avid supporter of the up-tempo, pace-and-space brand of basketball that's infiltrated the NBA, college hoops needs more offensive innovators in the coaching ranks. Perhaps this is why I have such an affection for Mike Dunleavy and Dan D'Antoni (head coach at Marshall), both of whom have brought their NBA-trained minds to the college level and are each looking to build something at lesser-known programs. But Dunleavy learned quickly last year that simply bringing a run-and-gun style of play to D1 basketball doesn't automatically translate into wins - it turns out you need good players to run it effectively...

Why dwell on the stink from last season - lets focus on all the reasons why Tulane should be one of the most improved teams in the AAC this year. We appropriately start with the reining most improved player in the conference, the ultra-versatile hybrid wing/forward Cameron Reynolds. The 5th year senior was the lone bright spot for Dunleavy last season, but showed his new coach that he's willing to do just about whatever is asked of him on the floor. Despite being a teensy bit undersized for a true forward at 6'7, he was the Green Wave's most reliable defensive rebounder last season. His hard work in the offseason was glaringly obvious in his drastically improved outside jump shot, helping him emerge into a true inside-out scoring threat on the offensive end.

The only other two impact pieces returning from last year are Melvin Frazier and Ray Ona Embo. Frazier resembles a slightly leaner, more perimeter-oriented version of Reynolds, just without the polished offensive skill set of it his veteran teammate. However, as Frazier's offensive game continues to mature, he'll continue to be a terror on the defensive end. He uses inspector gadget length arms to routinely swipe the rock away from opposing ball handlers, which helps jump start Tulane's lightning-paced fast break offense. The frenchman Ona Embo is another rangy guard who has yet to crack the surface of his potential. Ona Embo also struggled to refine his outside jumper last season, but if he and Frazier can translate their physical tools into consistent and efficient production, the Green Wave could jump far higher than 10th in the AAC rankings.

Dunleavy will be able to go much deeper in to his bench this year thanks to a formidable freshman class, headlined by a pair of Sudanese monsters and ex-high school teammates in Bul Ajang and Buay Koka. With the departure of shot-swatting specialist Ryan Smith this offseason, this 1-2 punch in the paint should be the perfect replacement to anchor the interior defense. It's likely one of them will be thrust right into the starting lineup from day 1 - I'm predicting the slighter higher rated Ajang wins that battle, but it's anyone's guess at this juncture. Vanderbilt transfer Samir Sehic will also provide additional support down this year low after sitting out the 2016-17 season.

Bottom Line: The roster Dunleavy is beginning to construct has his NBA fingerprints all over it. It's built around interchangeable guards and forwards who have the length and athleticism to guard multiple positions and also do damage in transition. The key will be if they can find more consistent 3-point shooting from the guard position, given Reynolds was the only player who shot better than 34% from downtown last year. That's where Dunleavy hopes UNLV transfer Jordan Cornish can make an impact, who now returns home to New Orleans after a brief stint in America's playground. Cornish had a minor case of the sophomore slumps two years ago (32% from 3), but if he can replicate the long range precision displayed during his freshman campaign (48% from 3), he'll be an instant asset for the Green Wave. 


11. East Carolina

Key Returners: B.J. Tyson, Kentrell Barkley, Jeremy Sheppard
Key Losses: Andrew Washington
Key Newcomers: Isaac Fleming (Hawaii transfer)


* Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay is not pictured above - he is currently seeking a waiver from NCAA to play this season

Outlook: Every time a major media outlets releases a new and improved variation of a "Coaches on the Hot Seat" article, Jeff Lebo's name always seems to get tossed in. And while the justification for his name being included on those undesirable lists is certainly reasonable (ECU has been almost exactly mediocre since Lebo took over in 2010), Lebo will still be found strolling the sidelines for the Pirates this season. It's almost as if we've been conditioned in this day and age in college basketball to expect blood to be drawn if a coach can't make a miraculous turn around by his third full season. That's what makes the current situation at ECU somewhat refreshing. It appears to be administration that understands what the destiny of its basketball program is in the grand scheme of college basketball - that is, a program that hasn't sniffed the NCAA tournament since 1993 - and is simply satisfied with a semi-competitive product at the direction of a semi-competent basketball coach.

Jordan Majewski, one of the more knowledgeable and insightful college basketball writer you'll find on the internet, views Lebo as a capable "X's and O's" guy, despite the lackluster win totals ECU has racked up over the past three seasons. In recent years, Lebo has shown a willingness to alter his defensive philosophies on year-to-year basis in order to respond to personnel turnover and adapt to in-season defensive trends. Perhaps the best example was the complete 180 Lebo took with his defensive approach from the 2015-16 campaign to last season. 

After playing zone on roughly 3 out of every 4 possessions in 2015-16, Lebo went completely away from it last year. A big reason was the addition of one of the more imposing paint patrollers in all of college basketball - Andre Washington - who was a one man wrecking crew down low. So with Washington and a few other big bodies graduating this offseason, perhaps Lebo will return to his roots with a much more guard-dominant rotation this season.

The big boosts on the perimeter come in three forms: 1) The renewed health of veteran guard B.J. Tyson 2) The emergence of a budding star in Jeremy Sheppard and finally, 3) The addition of another dynamic guard in Isaac Fleming, who will play five time zones apart from his former school of Hawaii. Tyson was the Pirates leading scorer before going down with a leg injury that sidelined him for a good chunk of the 2016-17 campaign. However, this may have been a blessing in disguise for the young Sheppard - Tyson's absence paved the way for Sheppard to accelerate his development in a more featured role last year, which he proved more than capable of handling. After being selected to the AAC's all freshman team last season, Sheppard is due for a breakout sophomore year. Fleming was a key cog on Hawaii's 28-win team that knocked off 4th-seeded Cal in the NCAA tournament two years ago. He can play all three guard positions and will be a ball hawk on the defensive end for Lebo, regardless what defense he decides to prioritize this season.

Speaking of versatility, it's probably worth mentioning ECU's leading scorer from last year - Kentrell Barkley. The unorthodox lefty gets the attention of most casual fans with his funky outside shot in which he jumps a grand total of 2 millimeters off the ground - but don't let that quirky jumper fool you - he has a continuous motor and nose for the rim. Barkley is one of the best in the AAC at drawing contact inside as he generated the 3rd most fouls of any player in the league last season. Despite being undersized at 6'5, Barkley has no problem banging down low with the big boys and will certainly have to again this year with the lack of depth in the front court at Lebo's disposal.

Bottom Line: This year's roster is set to undergo a drastic makeover - the Pirates will now be a much more perimeter-reliant attack, compared to the trees Lebo had in the frontcourt last season. Lebo will need get meaningful minutes from JUCO newcomer Haruna Usman and returning veteran Jabari Craig to patch up the holes left inside will the exodus of size this summer. Nonetheless, this year's Pirate squad should be much more enjoyable to watch than last season, spearheaded by three solid guards in the backcourt.


12. USF

Key Returners: Troy Holston, Tulio Da Silva
Key Losses: Geno Thorpe (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Malik Martin (USC transfer), Stephan Jiggets (Fairleigh Dickinson transfer), Payton Banks (Penn State transfer)


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Less than two weeks ago, Bulls fans got a huge sigh of relief when the NCAA's investigation into former USF assistant coach Oliver Antigua ended with a just slap on the wrist. As reported by the "Tampa Bay Times", The Committee on Infractions (COI) determined Oliver Antigua - younger brother of former head coach Orlando Antigua - knowingly violated NCAA rules by providing prospects with impermissible benefits (housing, transportation and meals), which he then later denied on multiple occasions before finally coming clean. As a result, the NCAA put USF in time out in the form of the following repercussions: 1) The loss of one scholarship for 2016-17... 2) a mandate to withhold one coach from off-campus recruiting for 50 days... 3) a $5,000 fine

Each of the three aforementioned punishments were actually already self-imposed by the university, but the NCAA laid down the hammer with the fourth and final penalty - 4) a public reprimand and censure (!!!!!!)...

Because my vocabulary seems to be on par with most 3rd graders - I mean, I'm not a writer or anything - I turned to google to help me figure out what "censure" actually entails...

Yes, yes I know... terrifying isn't it. So hopefully the Antiguas learned their lesson, but it's a moot point at this juncture. It's time to kick-off the Brian Gregory era in Tampa!

After being ousted at Georgia Tech two seasons ago, Gregory now returns to the college ranks after spending a year as a consultant for Tom Izzo at Michigan State (I'm not quite sure Tommy needs a ton of outside consultation, but hey, I won't question one of the G.O.A.Ts). Hopefully Gregory took more than a few pages out of Izzo's playbook before coming down to the Sunshine State because he'll need a full bag of tricks to keep this year's USF squad of out the AAC gutter. 

Similar to the aforementioned narrative with Jeff Lebo at East Carolina, Gregory appeared to be a victim of a fanbase fatigue with being average, which ultimately led to his firing in 2016. And as the USF SB Nation affiliate site explains, a lot of the facts have not been brought to light regarding Gregory's tenure at Georgia Tech - specifically, the fact that he took over a program on 3-year's probation and never got a chance to compete on the same playing field as the rest of the premier powerhouse programs in the ACC. Isolating his last year at Georgia Tech, along with the endured success from his stint at Dayton before that, there is evidence that Gregory is in-fact a good basketball coach. 

To help him jump-start the rebuilding process, he brings in three impact transfers - Stephan Jiggetts (Fairleigh Dickinson), Payton Banks and Terrance Samuel (both Penn State) - in addition to Malik Martin, who is now eligible after sitting out last season. The perimeter unit of Jiggetts, Banks and Samuel is actually a respectable scoring trio, but taking care of the basketball will be their primary focus. The newcomers, along with with returning off-guard Troy Holston, need to correct the turnover epidemic that made the Bulls an absolute nightmare to watch last season. The only competent ball handler and playmaker from last year is now gone (Geno Thorpe), which mean the keys will likely be handed over to Jiggetts to run the point. 

What's quite scary is that the Bulls lone strength last year was protecting the rim. Antigua typically played a vanilla 2-3 zone, which surrendered a ton of 2nd shot opportunities (as most zones do) but at least made it somewhat difficult for opponents to get easy baskets inside. The problem is that the three best shot-blockers from last year's squad are now gone, which means someone will have to step in next to Tulio Da Silva to provide some rim protection down low this year. The overwhelming favorite to win the starting job at the 5 is the ex-USC transfer Martin, unless JUCO transfer Nickola Scekic proves his value extends beyond his imposing size (7'2, 250 pounds).

Bottom Line: There's nowhere to go than up from where the USF program currently sits. And as the SB Nation goes on the explain in their in-depth assessment of the Gregory hire, "USF men’s basketball has become so irrelevant that local news columns don’t even bother keeping up with it anymore".  The influx of a few competent pieces via the transfer wire should help Gregory see an immediate improvement from last year's trainwreck - but even that won't be enough to avoid another last place finish in the AAC standings.