- 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.
Player of the Year: Jalen Adams, Sr., UConn
Coach of the Year: Fran Dunphy, Temple
Newcomer of the Year: LaQuincy Rideau, R Jr., USF
Freshman of the Year: Antwaan Jones, Memphis
Tier 1: Cincinnati, SMU & UCF
See full preview here: #35 in our Top-40 countdown
Key Returners: Jarrey Foster, Jahmal McMurray, Jimmy Whitt, Ethan Chargois
Key Losses: Shake Milton, Ben Emelogu, Akoy Agau
Key Newcomers: Isiaha Mike (Duquesne transfer), Nat Dixon (Chattanooga transfer), Feron Hunt, Jahmar Young
Outlook: While UCF’s injury curse has hogged the offseason attention, don’t forget about the same spell lady luck cast on SMU last year. Both Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster missed more than half of the AAC season, leaving head coach Tim Jankovich with virtually seven competent players over the final month of the year – it’s no wonder SMU dropped 9 of their final 11 games to close out the season.
Karma would soon come back around to the Ponies side, though, when Foster – a do-everything, position-less stud – opted to bring his talents back to Dallas for his senior season. Foster’s return completely shifts the paradigm of SMU’s expectations for the 2018-19 campaign. Without him, SMU would look like a middle-to-upper AAC team on paper. With him, SMU is a surefire AAC title contender, especially with the window of opportunity opened by Wichita State’s and Cincinnati’s roster turnover this offseason.
I’m in no way trying to spin Milton and Foster’s injuries last year into a positive, but their absence from the lineup over the last month of the season gave Jahmal McMurray and Jimmy Whitt a chance to step into the spotlight offensively. McMurray and Whitt got a taste of what their role will be this year as they now move one spot up in the offensive pecking order with Milton’s departure. Foster has never been one to dominant the ball offensively, so McMurray should be a perfect complement to Foster as a higher-usage, score-first combo guard. And while Whitt’s jump-shot form is far from textbook, he’s a perfect ‘glue-guy’ offensively with his ability to slash, cut and find the open man – if he sustains his 10 PPG and 5 APG averages as the 3rd banana this year, that will more than suffice for this SMU offense to click.
The soft spot for the Ponies last season was certainly up front, but Jankovich found himself a budding star in Ethan Chargois. Jankovich has to feel good about his frontline this season with Chargois’ ascending confidence heading into his 2nd collegiate season and reinforcements coming in the form of Duquesne transfer Isiaha Mike and 6’8 Feron Hunt. Hunt, in particular, is cut from the same cloth as many versatile, skilled forwards who played before him at SMU under the tutelage of Jankovich and Larry Brown. He has an untapped potential that could be molded in a variety of ways to help the Mustangs this season.
With Mike and Hunt expected to substantially bolster the interior, you have to wonder if Jankovich will revert back to playing more man-to-man defensively. Last season, Jankovich used a sagging zone defense as a crutch to help mask some of the size deficiencies as the Ponies played zone on 40% of all defensive possessions, a 30% rise from the two years prior.
But regardless of whether or not SMU is in traditional man or in their 2-3 zone, the principles remain the same. Jankovich places an emphasis on shutting down driving and passing lanes in the middle, which comes at the expense of closing out hard to shooters on the perimeter. This is why the Ponies are always susceptible to being shot out of gym with a barrage of 3s, the one prevailing weakness of SMU’s stylistic defensive approach.
Bottom Line: Based on early preseason AAC rankings, it seems a lot of people are snoozing on SMU this season. The Ponies have an all-conference alpha dog with NBA-level talent leading the charge (Foster), next to a high-octane bucket-getter (McMurray) and two-way swiss army knife (Whitt) all back from last year. With that perimeter foundation in-tact, the frontline will be infused with two instant-impact newcomers (Mike & Hunt) on top of an already established, yet still developing, young centerpiece in the middle (Chargois). That right there is a NCAA tournament caliber-team and one that ‘ought to be mentioned in the same breath as Cincy and UCF when discussing AAC title contenders in 2019.
Key Returners: B.J. Taylor, Tacko Fall, Dayon Griffin, Aubrey Dawkins (injured all of last season)
Key Losses: A.J. Davis
Key Newcomers: Collin Smith (George Washington transfer)
Outlook: As my colleague Ky so creatively dubbed ‘The Lopsided Lovelies”, there are a slew of teams that excel on one side of the ball, but are completely incompetent on the other end of the floor - such was the case with UCF last season. The Golden Knights were absolutely abysmal on offense, but rode a top-10 defense to remain competitive after injuries essentially shot down any hopes of an NCAA tournament bid.
If we took all 351 teams in college basketball and subtracted their overall offensive efficiency rank from their overall defensive efficiency rank (per kenpom.com), only William & Mary tipped the scales in one direction more excessively than UCF ("RankAdjOE" = Adjusted Offensive Efficiency rank;"RankAdjDE" = Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rank):
With the key injuries that ravished the Knights last season, an 19-13 overall record qualifies as a moral victory in my book. But now, with the rejuvenation of B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall (each missed 15 games) and the delayed introduction of Aubrey Dawkins (missed entire season), UCF hits the reset button with a veteran-laden group that has all the pieces to go dancing next March. Many pundits are slotting UCF as their projected AAC champs, given the substantial roster overhaul that has deteriorated Wichita State’s roster and Cincinnati likely to regress a smidge. While I have UCF a tick below the defending champ Bearcats in my predicted standings, I think it’s very plausible I will regret not buying all the way into this team come March.
Watching UCF last season with Taylor and without Taylor is like watching two completely different basketball teams. The Golden Knights were desperate for anyone who could create offensively last year, much less knock down an outside shot. Taylor excels in both domains, and while his overall offensive efficiency has never been elite, his presence alone will raise UCF’s offensive ceiling far above the ground floor it sunk to last year.
Throw in a Power-6 conference caliber wing scorer and money 3-point shooter in Dawkins and this suddenly becomes a team I may actually enjoy watching this season. Inserting this duo into the lineup will allow the rest of the role players – and there is an abundance of them – to slide back down into more comfortable roles offensively. I was high on Dayon Griffin entering last season, but he was somewhat of a disappointment in his first year in Orlando – though, that could very well be a result of having to bite off more than he could chew offensively. The backcourt depth should be well seasoned after taking some lumps last year, most notably Ceasar DeJesus, Terrell Allen and Chance McSpadden. Maybe I’m off my rocker, but DeJesus, Allen and JUCO addition Frank Bertz are enough bullets in the chamber for Dawkins to play whoever is hot at any given time. With Taylor and Dawkins expected to carry the bulk of the perimeter scoring load, the other guys’ jobs should be fairly straightforward – make spot-up, open 3s and don’t turn the ball over.
Before getting to the obvious centerpiece of the front line unit, let’s give some love to what will be an underrated supporting cast at the forward spots – newcomer Collin Smith from George Washington and returning veteran Chad Brown. Brown was instrumental as a the primary big replacement to Tacko last year at the 5, who’s as versatile and as gritty of a defender as you’ll find in the AAC. Smith brings some elite size to the mix and is an excellent failsafe for Tacko’s perpetual risk of injury.
Ahhhh finally… I saved the entrée for last here – and it’s 12oz sirloin sized entrée. Big Tacko Fall is back in action again after missing half of last season with a shoulder injury. Dawkins is a devout advocate of his 7’6 giant, as evidenced by a quote in an offseason article by Andy Katz:
“Everything for us is through Tacko,’’ Dawkins said. “There isn’t a player like him. He’s so rare and special in today’s game. It’s not traditional now. He’s such a unique player and we have to utilize him.’’
With Tacko on the floor, Dawkins prefers to ground Fall in the paint by playing a 2-3 zone, which serves two primary purposes (which are interconnected): 1) To keep him out of foul trouble; 2) To prevent opposing offenses from pulling him away from the basket in perimeter ball-screen action or with a sharpshooting stretch forward. As we witnessed last season, less Tacko equated to less zone:
Bottom Line: Not to keep regurgitating the health variable, but with how much BJ Taylor means to this offense, his presence on the court is paramount for UCF's NCAA tournament aspirations. The Golden Knights scored at a rate of 1.03 points per possession with him on the floor last year, compared to a dismal 0.93 without him. The defense will once again be the security blanket and rival Cincinnati as one of the toughest units to score on in the AAC and the offense has nowhere to go but up - how far up is contingent on the health and effectiveness of Taylor and Dawkins.
Tier 2: Temple, Houston, Wichita St., UConn, Memphis
Key Returners: Quinton Rose, Shizz Alston, Nate Pierre-Louis, J.P. Moorman, Ernest Aflakpui
Key Losses: Obi Enechionyia, Josh Brown
Key Newcomers: Arashma Parks
Outlook: From someone who was beating the Temple drum early on last season, the Owls’ 17-16 overall record and sub-500 showing in the AAC was a major disappointment. With a grizzled veteran coach – who now enters his final season at the helm – along with an experienced and talented returning core, Temple had no excuse to finish below Tulsa, Memphis and injury-ridden UCF in the final league standings.
The Owls now lose their senior floor general (Josh Brown) and mismatch nightmare Obi Enechionyia, but there’s enough firepower on this roster to bet on a bounce back in 2019. The offensive catalysts will be 6’4 combo-guard Shizz Alston and ultra-smooth wing Quinton Rose. Alston is best known for his scoring and shooting prowess, but his development as a facilitator last season was evidenced by a steady 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio as he co-piloted the offense with Brown. Expect him to seamlessly step into the full-time point guard spot with Brown now gone, which paves the way for Nate Pierre-Louis to make his mark as the primary off-guard on the perimeter. The rising sophomore took a backseat to Brown and the other veterans last season, but Pierre-Louis was excellent in his role as an efficient off-the-bench scorer / shooter. He's already cemented a reputation as a solid defender and rebounder on the other end of the floor and if he can sustain his offensive efficiency in a higher-usage role this year, look for his name to appear on the all-conference team at season's end.
Pierre-Louis makes up one-third of what was formerly the top-ranked recruiting class in the league, along with J.P. Moorman and De’Vondre Perry. Moorman was especially productive during limited run last season, and saw his minutes steadily increase as the year progressed. He may be the most versatile two-way player on the roster as a crafty, inside-out scorer, and his per minute rebounding stats were off-the-charts good. Pierre-Louis, Moorman and Perry, lay the foundation for the next wave of Owl talent with the potential to break the ceiling most have placed on Temple’s 2019 prognosis.
With only one freshman joining the mix this year (Arashma Parks), a formidable group of upperclassmen will make up the rest of the core rotation. Ernest Aflakpui’s big body will be back to bolster the interior defense, but his foul prone tendencies will likely leave plenty of minutes for Damion Moore at the 5 spot. As far as perimeter depth goes, Alani Moore and Trey Lowe present 'boom or bust' options off-the-pine for Dunphy to work with this year. Everyone and their mother is rooting for Lowe to succeed after a tragic car accident has kept him sidelined for the past two seasons. Moore, on the other hand, was a mainstay in the starting lineup two years ago, but was reduced to a back-up with Josh Brown’s return to the lineup last season.
The root cause of Temple's offensive struggles last year was shaky shot-selection, a major reason why the Owls ranked 10th in the league in effective field goal percentage. Quinton Rose is a microcosm of this fallacy. He's an NBA-caliber talent at 6’8, but the production and consistency has never matched the potential. A two-year sample size of a sub-100 O-Rating leads me to believe Rose is what he is at this point - a pure scorer who’s often complacent in his shot-selection, which leads to relatively poor shooting percentages from all three levels on the floor. Rose is a career 33% 3-point shooter and per hoop-math.com, he converted just 56% and 39% of his attempts at the rim and from midrange, respectively, last year. The fact of the matter is that those figures are by no means abysmal, but they grade out as 'mediocre' when compared to the entire D1 landscape. Perhaps this explains why Temple’s offense as a whole closely mirrored that of its number 1 offensive option with the Owls finishing the season 111th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com.
Bottom Line: With the looming transition to Aaron McKie as head coach next year, Temple fans are hoping a ‘Win one for the Gipper!’ motivation fuels the Owls this season. Dunphy will go to war in his farewell tour with some intriguing pieces at all five positions, which, on paper, should mesh well together offensively. With surehanded Shizz Alston back to run the offense as the lead ball handler, Temple will once again value possessions as highly as any team in America as ball security has always been a calling card of Dunphy coached teams.
The separation between Temple, Houston, Wichita St., UConn and Memphis is minuscule and that group should form a cluster in the upper-to-middle portion of the AAC standings.
Key Returners: Corey Davis Jr., Armoni Brooks, Gala\en Robinson Jr., Fabian White Jr.
Key Losses: Rob Gray Jr., Devin Davis
Key Newcomers: DeJon Jarreau (UMass), Brison Gresham (UMass), Nate Hinton
Outlook: The Kelvin Sampson experiment at Houston is yet another example of how quickly a former high-major coach with serious recruiting chops can turn around a meddling program. The Cougs’ put it all together on both sides of the ball last year, thanks to a game breaking lead guard in Rob Gray and a mid-to-low post monster in Devin Davis. Both components of that inside-out, 1-2 punch have moved on to greener pastures, which presents a special opportunity for the promising core of underclassmen to parlay last year’s momentum into a newly renovated Hofheinz Pavilion – though, it’ll be hard to top last season’s flawless 15-0 record at home, despite sharing a court with Texas Southern at “Health & PE Arena”.
Let’s first pay respect to Rob Gray and his importance to last year’s high-octane Cougs offense. Gray was instrumental offensively as the primary creator who set everything up for the collection of off-ball 3-point snipers. Two of those long range marksmen, Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks, are both back to set nets ablaze in the AAC again, pending Sampson nails down a viable replacement to succeed Gray as the offensive table setter.
The good news here is that there doesn’t need to be a singular answer to this question. Sampson has optionality at the point guard spot with returning veteran Galen Robinson, a steady, pass-first option and incoming UMass transfer DeJon Jarreau, an explosive, more dynamic option. An ex top-100 recruit, the lanky 6’5 Jarreau is an absolute weapon out in the open floor as he showcased during his lone season at UMass playing in Derek Kellog’s lightning-fast offense. It’ll be interesting to see if Sampson gives him the same autonomy he had at UMass to push the pace in transition, which is clearly where Jarreau thrives. Robinson is in many ways the anthesis to Jarreau as a lower risk, but also lower threat, offensive option. Given how Sampson juggled the rotations last year, we may see both Jarreau and Robinson start with Armoni “Super-Sub” Brooks coming off-the-bench (but ultimately playing starters minutes).
Rob Gray’s late game heroics likely overshadowed the importance of Devin Davis last year. Davis was a physical defender and plus rebounder / rim protector at the 4-spot last year who could hold his own against taller / longer bigs in the paint. Given the success Sampson had playing two physical forwards at the 4 and 5 spots last year, look for him to feature a frontcourt pairing of Fabian White and Breaon Brady heavily this season. White was named to the AAC’s All-Rookie team, while Brady was an absolute load in the middle all season long. Despite Brady’s skill limitations offensively, the advanced on / off numbers from last year show surrounding him with a solid supporting cast can mask his offensive deficiencies just fine - Houston scored 1.11 points per possession with him on the floor, compared to 1.13 points per possession with him on the bench.
The larger concern is Brady's chronic foul issues, as evidenced by an astronomical 9.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes. With that in mind, Brison Gresham - Jarreau’s teammate back at UMass – will likely be the first forward off-the-bench and may be forced to eat up significant clock if Brady can’t stay out of foul trouble (which limited the full-time starter to just 13 minutes a game last year).
Finally, it’ll be interesting to see how Sampson integrates top-100 freshman Nate Hinton – a good bet to claim AAC freshman of the year honors – into the rotation. Hinton is regarded as a “jack-of-all-trades”, blessed with advanced ball handling and passing skills packaged into a long 6’6 frame. The only question mark about his development at this stage is his outside shooting, but that hasn’t stopped him down from tearing up the AAU circuits.
Bottom Line: With minimal turnover in the backcourt – Robinson, Davis and Brooks are all solid defenders – and Jarreau essentially replacing Gray, the perimeter defensive front should remain stout in 2019. The key will be whether White and Brady can live up the elite interior defensive standards set by their predecessors Davis and Nura Zanna. The Cougs’ defensive effective FG% of 46% was 6th lowest in the country and 2nd only in the league to Cincinnati, much of which can be attributed to the Davis / Zanna tandem. The specific concern is the lack of depth behind White and Brady, which was a strength of the Cougs’ frontcourt last year and helped mitigate the impact of any foul trouble. This isn’t a major eyesore in the grand scheme, so expect Houston to boast one of the top defensive units in the AAC once again.
The real significant variable will be Jarreau’s effectiveness out of the gate, who has some giant-sized shoes to fill coming in behind Rob Gray. His recruiting pedigree implies he has the natural ability – but can he bring those tools to life in an uptick in competition coming from the A-10, all while running a team with the precision that Gray did last season?
6. Wichita St.
Key Returners: Markis McDuffie, Samajae Haynes-Jones
Key Losses: Shaq Morris, Landry Shamet, Conner Frankamp, Rashard Kelly, Zach Brown, Austin Reaves, Rauno Nurger
Key Newcomers: Ricky Torres (JUCO), James Echenique (JUCO), Erik Stevenson, Chance Moore, Jamarius Burton, Morris Ueze, Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler, Dexter Dennis
Outlook: The fact that many dubbed the Shockers’ 25-8 record and 2nd place finish in the AAC as a relative “disappointment” shows how high Gregg Marshall has lifted the Wichita State basketball program. The Shock instantly boosted the relevancy of a conference that has struggled to find an identity as a hybrid high-to-mid major league jockeying for national attention. But with fierce competition emerging in Houston and SMU, along with up-and-coming coaches taking over at UConn and Memphis, the days of conference domination are far in the rear view for the Shock after smacking around inferior Missouri Valley conference foes year after year.
Marshall now faces one of the toughest challenges in his near-flawless coaching career as the page turns to 2019. To keep his perennial powerhouse competitive in a rapidly improving AAC, he’ll have to patch-up a roster gutted by a mass exodus of talent and experience this summer. For the exception of Markis McDuffie, only Samajae Haynes-Jones of the returning players tallied more than 5 points a game last year. And with Penny Hardaway poaching prized recruit Alex Lomax to Memphis, Haynes-Jones will now have to take on a gargantuan offensive burden. He teased Shocker nation with brief stints of brilliance last year (see 27 and 31 point outbursts against Arkansas State and Savannah State, respectively), but didn’t see the floor from February 21stonward.
We were high on Haynes-Jones’ long-term potential when we previewed the Shock last season, but it’s a bit concerning that he was completely buried by Marshall down the stretch. Haynes-Jones is more of a point guard by trade, but I’d wager he’ll play more off-the-ball with highly touted JUCO prospect Ricky Torres joining the mix this season. An NJCAA All-American, Torres put up gaudy numbers last season at West Plains and has already gained the coaching staff’s confidence that he can step in as the lead ballhandler from the get go. Torres and Haynes-Jones must provide consistent complementary scoring as 2nd and 3rd bananas offensively to McDuffie. Rounding out the backcourt will be freshman Erik Stevenson, a long-range sharpshooter who Marshall has compared to Ron Baker. His shooting accuracy will be pivotal with the departures of both Austin Reaves and Conner Frankamp this summer.
Unlike the backcourt, which appears to have some degree of certainty around who will be the primary contributors, the frontcourt is a total toss up at this juncture. Outside of Danish 7-footer Asbjorn Midtgaard, who got some scrub time last year, anyone of the newcomers could blossom into a high-usage starter. Jaime Echenique enters the fold as a top-50 ranked JUCO prospect who will have an experience edge over the likes of Isiaah “Poor Bear” Chandler and Morris Udeze for run at the 5 spot. Redshirt freshman Rod Brown and fringe 4-star freshman Chance Moore will likely eat up some significant minutes with their versatility as hybrid wing / forwards capable of guarding multiple positions defensively. The lesser known Dexter Dennis and Jamarius Burton are also viable contenders to crack the core rotation and failing to mention their names would be foolish given how consistently Marshall has developed 'diamond-in-the-rough' prospects into bonafide studs…
Bottom Line: An untimely stress fracture threw a wrench in Markis McDuffie’s junior season, which was marred by both volatile production and inconsistent playing time (which are likely correlated). McDuffie was a critical cog in the Shockers’ top-15 nationally ranked offense two seasons ago when he posted a hyper-efficient 118 O-Rating and tallied more minutes played than any other player on the team. If he can regain that sophomore year swagger with renewed health and confidence, it will move mountains for an offense in jeopardy of a significant regression in 2019.
Who will put points on the board is an obvious question mark for the Shock, but the top priority on Marshall’s offseason agenda is restoring the defensive steel curtain that became softer than a tissue last year. Despite having essentially the same roster and core rotation as the year prior, the Shockers’ overall defensive efficiency rank plummeted from 13th to 111th nationally – Marshall’s worst defensive unit since 2009. While roster continuity is usually a key ingredient for sustaining defensive success, perhaps overhauling the roster could be a good thing for the Shockers and give Marshall a fresh slate to work with. His resume of churning out elite defensive teams is too long for me to remain bearish on the Shocker’s defensive outlook, which why I’m betting on a drastic improvement on this side of the ball in 2019. Look for Wichita to come out angry this year and remind folks that this program’s foundation is just too sturdy to fade into irrelevancy – well, as long as Marshall is pacing the sidelines.
Key Returners: Jalen Adams, Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert
Key Losses: Terry Larrier
Key Newcomers: Tarin Smith (Duquesne), Brendan Adams, Kassoum Yakwe (St. John’s), Sidney Wilson (redshirt)
Outlook: With an offseason coaching change that garnered a 99.99% approval rating from an anxious UConn fanbase (not based on real data), the Huskies now kick-off a new chapter in their program’s illustrious history. Dan Hurley comes to Storrs with a full steam of momentum after leading Rhode Island to a 26-8 season, matching URI's highest win total since 2010. And while the circus surrounding Ollie’s termination continues off-the-court, let’s focus solely on the X’s and O’s impact stemming from the Hurley-for-Ollie coaching swap this summer.
Starting in the middle, congratulations are in order to all UConn big men – Josh Carlton, Mamadou Diarra, Eric Cobb, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley and Kassoum Yakwe - who shall now be released from their offensive handcuffs. Under the Ollie regime, forwards were essentially invisible on offense and reduced to glorified mannikins with seemingly two jobs and two jobs only – set screens and crash the glass. We got a chance to see UConn play up close twice last year at the PK80 and it was astonishing how the entire offense was more or less predicated on Jalen Adams, Terry Larrier, Christian Vital and Altreique Gilbert creating their own offense.
With Hurley now calling the shots, I’m curious to see how he integrates the laundry list of forwards into his offensive design. Looking at what made Hurley so successful last year, he was able to optimize a guard-heavy roster by mirroring Villanova’s deadly 4-out, 1-in lineup that blitzed opponents with lightning speed on the perimeter. But go back in time just one year further and you'll find a Rhody team that won with a different blueprint - one that was dominant defensively thanks a twin tower duo of Kuran Iverson and Haasan Martin controlling the paint.
From a personnel perspective, that aforementioned long list of names covers a wide range of typical forward prototypes. Carlton, Diarra and Cobb are more traditional 5s with thicker physical frames, Polley is a lanky stretch-4 who tends to stray closer to the 3-point line and Whaley is a lean, athletic forward with trampoline-level hops. Yakwe is a bit of a wildcard after a promising start to his collegiate career at St. John's was disrupted by an untimely ankle injury last season. If Hurley opts to construct the offense in line with the style he played at Rhody last year, competition will be fierce for minutes up front.
Replicating that potent 4-guard lineup will place the onus on a few newcomers to step into influential roles right away. Tarin Smith and Brendan Adams are the two names to keep an eye on as they remain relatively undiscussed in the national narrative. Adams is as a fringe top-150 3-star prospect according to both Verbal Commits and 247 sports, but Rivals’ assessor Corey Evans sees Adams as 'oozing with talent and upside'. Adams' game is cut from the same cloth as his older brother Jaylen (not to be confused with his new teammate, Jalen), the offensive maestro who led St. Bonaventure to the NCAA tournament last season. Brendan excels at getting into the teeth of the defense, using deceptive change of pace and shifty handles to break down the first line of defense. He's also a crafty finisher at the rim, where he utilizes a diverse array of layups with either hand to convert over and around length in the middle - but occasionally, he'll catch opposing defenses napping and take flight to finish with authority (fast forward to 1:08 in clip below):
While Adams may start the year as an off-the-bench microwave, Duquesne grad transfer Tarin Smith - the reigning A-10 6th man of the year - will likely find himself as a full-time starter from Day 1.
I was severely underwhelmed with the impact Antoine Anderson had last season, who, like Smith, came over from a mid-to-low caliber A-10 team with lofty expectations. But given the comfort Smith should have with Hurley after playing for his dad back at St. Anthony's high school points to a far more seamless transition than Anderson's choppy ride last year. As Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant detailed this summer, Smith is a walking exhibit of 'The Hurley Way' culture that will be engraved in the program going forward.
As far as Smith's 2018-19 impact goes, he should at minimum provide some much needed relief to Jalen Adams in the backcourt. No one in college basketball has borne a larger responsibility for his team than Adams over the past three seasons. With all the injuries and transfers disrupting the Huskies roster over his tenure at UConn, Adams has been demanded to carry a monster scoring load, all while running the offense and setting everything up for his teammates. Adams' career offensive efficiency isn’t exactly pristine, but you could argue that’s a byproduct of the wear and tear Ollie placed on him. If Smith and [Brendan] Adams come in ready to contribute right away, it will be a giant sigh of relief for Jalen, one of the most taxed players in college basketball.
Oh yeah - it also might help if former McDonald’s All-American Alterique Gilbert’s shoulder would stay on for a full year. Gilbert's a lightning rod on the perimeter, who simply can't be corralled in 1-v-1 situations when he has space to operate - but his college career has been completely ruined to this juncture with recurring shoulder injuries. Although, one could argue his injury-ridden sophomore campaign opened a window of opportunity for Christian Vital, who averaged 15 PPG and 5 RPG last year to burst onto the scene with a breakout sophomore campaign. Toss in a former top-75 recruit in redshirt freshman Sidney Wilson, and it’s clear just how much talent is littered throughout this roster.
Bottom Line: While Gilbert’s health is the obvious factor, the missing ingredient from this roster appears to be shooting – precisely what’s limited the Huskies in each of Ollie’s last three seasons at the helm. Terry Larrier was far and away the most consistent long-range threat last season for a team that already had trouble spacing the floor. His departure leaves Hurley with seemingly no outside shooters returning from last year’s squad and neither Smith or the freshman Adams are touted as elite 3-point shooters.
Hurley’s ‘X and O’ brilliance last season gives me confidence he’ll maximize the production and efficiency of both Adams and the collection of high-upside bigs at his disposal – something his predecessor on the sidelines failed miserably at.
Key Returners: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton, Mike Parks
Key Losses: Jimario Rivers
Key Newcomers: Antwaan Jones, Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Ryan Boyce, David Wingett, Jayden Hardaway, Isaiah Maurice (JUCO)
Outlook: Basketball buzz is officially back in Memphis after the Tigers said ‘Sayonara’ to Tubby Smith and appointed a local hoops legend to the throne in Mr. Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. After two prized hometown products in the Lawson brothers opted to take their talents to Kansas, Hardaway steps in at a critical juncture with the roster desperately needing an injection of talent. The former Memphis standout wasted no time getting his hands dirty and quickly assembled a top-notch coaching staff, headlined by NBA All-Star and 3-point sharpshooter Mike Miller and former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell.
As we sit here and dissect the 2018-19 outlook for this team, we must first acknowledge giant-sized elephant standing in the corner of the room – can Penny Hardaway actually coach basketball at the Division 1 level? That’s in no way intended to come off as skeptic, but given the complete lack of prior experience at any level of college, it’s a fair question. Can he design and teach a cohesive team defensive scheme? Can he instill some sort of organized offensive system? At the AAU and high-school level, talent typically trumps all. And while down the road, Penny may be able to simply overwhelm AAC competitors with blue-chip prospects up-and-down the lineup, the 2019 roster isn’t quite there yet.
While Penny has yet to reveal any specifics on the stylistic blueprint he’ll bring to Memphis basketball, it’s safe to assume his NBA-dominant staff will bring many of the professional principles to the college ranks. Under Tubby Smith last year, the Tigers played at the 3rd slowest pace in the conference – that should almost certainly change this season and I’d be shocked if Penny doesn’t rev up the offense into overdrive. The good thing is that he has a surplus of depth in the backcourt, which should allow him to work in plenty of fresh bodies if he does in-fact opt to speed up the tempo this year.
With Penny hogging all of the offseason attention, let’s first pay credence to an underrated group of returning veterans who will be responsible for ensuring a smooth transition to the Hardaway era in Memphis. Jeremiah Martin is back to lead the charge after a hyper-productive junior campaign that earned him 2nd team All AAC honors. Martin has two years of service under his belt as the primary point guard and lead ball handler, but did play off-the-ball at times during his freshman campaign. This is worth noting because two of the top three prospects in the incoming class (Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax) are both point guards at heart, so Penny may consider using the penetration-focused Martin as more of a scoring combo guard to carve out some playing time for his two freshmen PGs.
The backcourt depth gets crowded when you consider how established off-guard Kareem Brewton and versatile wing Raynere Thornton will fit in with top-100 recruit Antwaan Jones, along with Ryan Boyce, David Wingett and Jayden Hardaway. That math equates to roughly 8 guys vying for three spots on the perimeter, but the available minutes shrink even further knowing that Martin and Brewton will likely be penciled in for 25-30 minutes a game.
Up-front, Penny will lean heavily on two incumbents, Kyvon Davenport and Mike Parks Jr., along with a fresh new face in JUCO standout Isaiah Maurice. Davenport, in particular, was a revelation last year for the Tigers who badly needed to replace the stat-stuffing Lawson twins in the frontcourt. Both Davenport and Parks feasted on the offensive glass, which helped produce a hearty supply of 2nd and 3rd shot scoring chances – albeit, their impressive per minute rebounding rates were also inflated by all the bricks Memphis threw up.
Last year's miserable outside shooting made the Tigers a chore to watch play at times and explains why no team in the AAC relied more heavily on scoring inside the arc or at the charity stripe than Memphis did last season. Tubby does deserve some credit for knowing his teams strengths and weaknesses as the Tigers masked a lack of 3-point shooting with a relentless pursuit of the rim in all facets offensively that translated into the 3rd highest effective field goal percentage in the conference at 51.3%. So while Penny and his staff may try to implement a more perimeter-oriented, 3-point shooting-focused offensive attack to trail the "pace and space" movement that's taking over college basketball, this 2018-19 roster – at least, as its currently constructed – is built to score at and around the rim.
Bottom Line: Beyond the basic question of whether or not Penny can game plan and scout at the Division 1 level, a more intriguing question is the approach he’ll take to this season. As many as 12 guys are viable candidates to get serious playing time, which is more or less divided between ‘the veteran old guard’ (Martin, Brewton, Davenport, Parks and Thornton) and the ‘new kids on the block’ (the six freshmen). While appeasing the older guys likely gives the Tigers a better chance to win right away, their minutes will directly conflict with allowing Penny to get a good, hard look at what he has with this new injection of young talent. Penny could go the complete opposite direction and set aside a significant chunk of minutes for the freshmen and treat this season as a one-year evaluation period in preparation for next year and beyond.
While the ultimate solution will likely lie somewhere in the middle, this tradeoff is a fascinating conundrum with so many guys expecting to see the floor this season. Regardless, the long-term picture looks awfully rosy for Memphis basketball with the relationships Penny has established in grassroots basketball. The Tigers’ upside this year is as high as it’s been since the latter days of the Josh Pastner era – but that ceiling will only climb higher as Penny continues to win major battles on the recruiting trail for next year and beyond.
Tier 3: Tulsa
Key Returners: Sterling Taplin, Martins Igbanu, DaQuan Jeffries
Key Losses: Junior Etou, Corey Henderson, Jaleel Wheeler
Key Newcomers: Jeriah Horne (Nebraska transfer), Zeke Moore (SLU transfer), Chris Barnes (JUCO), Simon Falokun (JUCO), Peter Hewitt (JUCO)
Outlook: From someone who’s been overly critical of Frank Haith in recent years – though, not near as harsh as my colleague Jim Root – I have to tip my cap to what Tulsa was able to accomplish last year. While a devout Frank Haith hater would cite the fact that Tulsa’s sexy 12-6 record featured zero signature wins, it’d be unfair to completely dismiss a 4th place finish in the AAC.
But as this league begins to attract higher caliber coaches and more talented players, I fear Tulsa is at risk of becoming stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity over the next few years. As far as the 2018-19 prognosis looks, the graduation Junior Etou and Corey Henderson, leaves Haith with some gaping holes to plug in the scoring, shooting and rebounding departments this season.
Haith does welcome back two beasts on the boards in DaQuan Jeffries and Martins Igbanu, who should help lessen the blow from Etou’s departure. Igbanu is a more traditional big who rarely strays far from the paint, while Jeffries is a position-less asset on the wing capable of checking all five positions on the floor – at 6’5, 230 pounds, Jeffries is built like an NFL tight end. A hand injury in the middle of the season halted some real promising early momentum, but that didn’t stop him from posting a ridiculous 9% block rate, the highest clip in the AAC.
Jeffries will serve as an invaluable centerpiece to a rotation that features a diverse set of playing styles. The primary creator and undisputed floor general, Sterling Taplin, spearheads a versatile backcourt that includes, high-upside scoring off-guard Curran Scott, pass-first point guard Elijah Joiner and 3-point specialist Lawson Korita. Haith also bolstered the wing core with two hybrid forwards in Jeriah Horne and Zeke Moore, formerly of Nebraska and Saint Louis, respectively.
The remainder of the roster spots were filled by some highly regarded JUCO newcomers, headlined by NJCAA All-American Simon Falokun, who terrorized opposing bigs as a freshman at Dawson Community College. While the competition Falokun faced last year pales in comparison to what he’ll run into in the AAC, it’s worth noting that he was the most efficient low-post scorer in the country amongst all qualified JUCO players, per Synergy. Peter Hewitt was another glass cleaning machine at the JUCO ranks who should provide plenty of interior support behind and alongside Igbanu and Falokun in the middle. Chris Barnes is the other name worth mentioning here, who had a cup of coffee at UTEP two years ago before redshirting last season.
From a team-based, stylistic lens, Haith and the coaching staff clearly made a conscious decision to shift to more of a zone-focused defense and away from a traditional man-to-man last year. Per synergy, Tulsa played zone on 64% of all defensive possessions last season, which more than doubled the frequency in which Haith played zone the year prior.
Per the image below, there’s nothing overly complex about this scheme – it’s a sagging 2-3 zone that rotates as most traditional zone do:
Not surprisingly, Tulsa’s fate was often determined by how well their opponent was shooting on that particular night as 41% of all points allowed during conference games were by way of the 3-ball.
Bottom Line: Despite having a proven and experienced lead guard in Taplin back to run the show, a swiss-army knife in Jeffries on the wing, along with some other intriguing complementary pieces, the competition is simply too robust to expect repeat performance of last year and another top-4 finish in the standings. The 12-6 league record last year was impressive and perhaps under discussed relative to other AAC storylines, but the odds of Haith repeating that feat this season are stacked against him.
Tier 4: USF, East Carolina, Tulane
Key Returners: David Collins, Justin Brown
Key Losses: Stephan Jiggetts, Payton Banks, Terrence Samuel
Key Newcomers: LaQuincy Rideau (Gardner-Webb transfer), TJ Lang (Auburn transfer), Antun Maricevic (JUCO), Alexis Yetna, Michael Durr, Rashun Williams, Xavier Castanada, Madut Akec
Outlook: The Bulls are now in year two of their transition to a new coaching era under the direction of the well-respected Brian Gregory. The former Georgia Tech and Dayton head coach tried to patch together last year’s roster with a slew of one-year transfer rentals – to be frank, this did not go well whatsoever…
Not to prod any disgruntled USF diehards out there, but this statistic pretty much encapsulates the current state of USF basketball. The Bulls have won a grand total of 14 conference games over the past five seasons combined – Wichita State, Cincinnati and Houston each won 14+ AAC games last year alone. With that said, wins and losses should not have been high on Gregory’s priority list last season – as backwards as that sounds, the real assessment should hone in on if he was able to identify any potential long-term assets amongst the underclassmen as potential building blocks to build upon moving forward.
The answer at this point is still fuzzy – the only two freshmen who cracked the primary rotation were David Collins and Justin Brown, both of whom project to be starters in 2019. Collins’ confidence took flight once conference play rolled around in January as the young freshman saw his role transform from just one of the guys lost in the shuffle to a surefire starter and one of the Bulls’ most consistent players down the stretch. The addition of lightning-quick, ball dominant LaQuincy Rideau from Gardner Webb may force Collins to accept a 2ndfiddle role in the offensive hierarchy this year – but this dynamic duo should wreak havoc on the defensive end as steal-seeking, disruptive pests in the backcourt, which could lead to the Bulls only reliable source of efficient offense.
The other newcomer worth mentioning is Auburn transfer TJ Lang, a 6’7 sharpshooting wing who Gregory is hoping will be as accurate as Stephan Jiggetts was last year from long range. Alexis Yetna, who was forced to sit out last year due to an unfavorable ruling by the NCAA, could be a solid boost to the interior core, along with highly productive JUCO prospect Antun Maricevic.
Bottom Line: The quest for last place in the AAC should be an intense battle between South Florida, East Carolina and Tulane this season, all of whom possess a roster that would be better suited in lesser mid and low-major leagues. I’m pulling for Brian Gregory to right the ship in Tampa over the next few years, but the Bulls will likely be one of the AAC’s punching bags yet again in 2018-19. The pedigree of Lang coming in from Auburn, combined with the insertion of a gamebreaker like Rideau, should prop the Bulls up just tick over ECU and Tulane in the basement of the standings.
11. East Carolina
Key Returners: Isaac Fleming, Shawn Williams, Dimitri Spasojevic
Key Losses: Kentrell Barkley, BJ Tyson
Key Newcomers: Seth LeDay (JUCO transfer)
Outlook: *Cues up Skylar Grey *…
“He’s coming home, he’s coming home, tell the world he’s coming home”…
That’s right Pirates’ fans – Jeff Dooley returns to his former employer after a 15-year tour across the college basketball landscape, which included pit stops at Kansas (where he won a national title as an assistant to Bill Self) and Florida Gulf Coast (where he carried forward momentum ignited by his predecessor Andy Enfield). Dooley now ‘boomerangs’ back to his old job as the head honcho at ECU after Jeff Lebo essentially pulled his own plug by voluntarily stepping down just six games in to season last year. Lebo was well respected amongst coaching circles, but his resume leaves behind a forgettable legacy – the Pirates eclipsed a .500 conference record just once during his 7-year tenure.
Hitting the reset button with Dooley is a much needed a fresh start for a meddling ECU basketball program in desperate need of an identity. Unfortunately, Dooley will inherit a dull roster in his first year back in Greenville, NC which will significantly reduce any hopes of a major turnaround in 2019.
The only established returners are a pair of double-digit scorers in backcourt mates Isaac Flemingand Shawn Williams. After being a key cog on two excellent Hawaii teams from 2014-2016, Fleming opted to transfer back to the east coast and take on a more demanding role for a what has proven to be an inferior team. Fleming was a solid supporting cast member on those underrated Hawaii teams, but he may be punching above his weight class as one of the go-to-guys for ECU against AAC competition – Fleming posted the 7thhighest usage rate in the conference, but was wildly inefficient for most of the year.
To compound this issue, Fleming and Williams will now be on island all alone this year with two veteran leaders from last season BJ Tyson and Kentrell Barkley no longer in the picture. So, given Dooley will be thinking about the mid and long-term horizon of the ECU program outlook, it may be wise to try and expedite the development of his seven freshmen as soon as possible – this will likely result in some severe growing pains, but it may be necessary to move the youngsters along the D1 learning curve as quickly as possible. Dooley will have to win ugly this year and from his time at Florida Gulf Coast, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pirates send multiple bodies to the offensive glass on every shot.
Bottom Line: It will be a tough opening act for Joe Dooley in his return to Carolina. Unless the freshman far exceed the expectations of most recruiting experts, the Pirates are destined to be trapped once again in the basement of the AAC standings. The only ray of hope comes in the form of highly touted JUCO prospect and former Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay. Much like his older brother Zach, Seth is a smooth lefty hybrid forward who is wired with an Energizer-battery for a motor. His activity on the boards should be a blessing for a Pirates team that was piss poor on the glass last season.
Unless Seth LeDay ascends into an all-league caliber player, there’s just not a lot to be excited about on this roster. I’d ask that ECU fans curb any lofty expectations until next year and beyond once Dooley is able to get settled with his system and his players in-tact.
Key Returners: Ray Ona Embo, Samir Sehic, Jordan Cornish
Key Losses: Melvin Frazier, Cam Reynolds
Key Newcomers: Moses Wood, Kevin Zhang, Connor Crabtree
Outlook: Man, do I feel foolish for going bat for Tulane as my official AAC sleeper heading into last season. On paper, the Green Wave trotted out a NBA-caliber ‘3 and D’ prototype in Melvin Frazier, the reigning AAC Most Improved Player winner in Cam Reynolds, along with two long, athletic guards in Ray Ona Embo and Jordan Cornish on a nightly basis. Perhaps I fell too hard for the talent attraction, but there’s no excuse that Tulane couldn’t win more than five league games last season. The bad taste in my mouth continues to linger from Mike Dunleavy Sr.’s inability to maximize the potential of last year’s roster.
Now embarking on his third season as head coach, Dunleavy has attempted to ‘NBA-ify’ the way Tulane plays. The most obvious proof point is the emphasis placed on pushing tempo as the Green Wave charted the AAC’s shortest average offensive possession length in each of the past two seasons. Dunleavy’s two primary ball handlers and creators, Cornish and Ona Embo, are back to pace the transition-heavy offensive attack. Ona Embo was a popular pick to emerge last year after turning some heads with his performance on the international circuit prior to last season. Ona Embo was one of the lone bright spots for a wildly inconsistent Green Wave team last year, so expect the Frenchmen to act as a calming presence in Dunleavy’s backcourt.
Unlike Ona Embo, Cornish was the polar opposite of consistent in his first collegiate season back home in NOLA after transferring from UNLV. The narrative on his college career remains untouched – that is, an absurdly gifted, but erratic player – after last year’s change of scenery failed to cure his shoddy shot-selection and decision-making. At this point in his career, it may be naive to think he’ll ever live up to the standards set by so many recruiting experts when he came out of high-school.
Caleb Daniels was a pleasant surprise last season as a solid 2-guard who will now likely be thrust into the starting lineup along with Cornish and Ona Embo. Cornish (6’6), Ona Embo (6’5) and Daniels (6’4) will give Dunleavy a long and athletic guard trio, which shouldtranslate into a strong first line of defense on the perimeter. Notice the emphasis on should– the same prognosis was made about last year’s team, which featured the aforementioned Frazier (6’7) and Reynolds (6’8) as linchpins in the starting lineup. Even with the 15thtallest team in the country last season (per kenpom.com’s ‘Average Height’ metric), the Green Wave’s overall defense ranked 3rdto the last in the AAC as Dunleavy never figured out how to utilize that supreme length.
Bottom Line: It’s that lackluster defensive showing last season that I can’t seem to wrap my head around. Incoming freshman Moses Wood, a versatile, rangy athlete, projects to be a ‘Frazier 2.0’ on the wing, and Blake Paul is an intimidating presence in the middle, but expecting a major improvement defensively in 2019 feels like a stretch. Samir Sehic is a great garbage guy inside with a sneaky smooth long range stroke, but he’s far from an elite interior defender. Could either Bul Ajang or Buay Koka morph into that role this season and provide some cover on the back end? Perhaps. But barring a major breakout from Wood, or one of the other freshman (Kevin Zhang and Connor Crabtree), it’s hard to see much changing on either side of the ball from what we witnessed last year.