American 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

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: Jarron Cumberland, Sr., Cincinnati
Coach of the Year: Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Newcomer of the Year: James Wiseman, Fr., Memphis
Freshman of the Year: James Wiseman, Memphis


Tier 1

1. Memphis

See full preview here: #20 in our Top-40 countdown

2. Houston

See full preview here: #34 in our Top-40 countdown

3. Cincinnati

Key Returners: Jarron Cumberland, Keith Williams, Tre Scott
Key Losses:
Nysier Brooks (transfer), Justin Jenifer, Cane Broome
Key Newcomers:
Jaevin Cumberland (Oakland), Zach Harvey, Chris McNeal (New Mexico), Jaume Sorolla (Valpo), Mika Adams-Woods, Jeremiah Davenport

Lineup:

Outlook: With the departure of “Hollywood” Mick Cronin, as he is widely known, Cincinnati begins a new era, one that came as a relative stunner after he emerged as UCLA’s emphatic 10th or 11th option. The Bearcats’ brass needed only to look across the river into Kentucky for its next coaching hire, bringing aboard John Brannen, the 45-year-old responsible for guiding Northern Kentucky through its transition into the Horizon League and earning the school two NCAA Tournament berths in its first three years of Division I eligibility.

Brannen brings an entirely different style to the table than Cronin, and his emphasis on spacing, ball movement, and three-point shooting may leave Cincinnati fans feeling dazed and confused. The cousins Cumberland – returning star Jarron Cumberland and Oakland grad transfer Jaevin Cumberland – should thrive in the new scheme, with Jarron delighting in the driving lanes that the spacing creates and Jaevin raining down hellfire from deep after hitting 105 threes at a 40% clip last year. Jarron is a tank, a physically commanding wing who bullies opponents all the way to the rim, and he displayed improved court vision and marksmanship on his catapult-like perimeter jumper. To properly execute the scheme, though, Brannen will need more shooters than just the two cousins to emerge.

Ideally, that group will include Keith Williams and Trevor Moore, two 6’5 junior wings, whose jumpers last year were hazardous to basketball rims everywhere (28% and 27%, respectively). Williams is more of a physical mid-range scorer, but Moore’s struggles were inexcusable, given that his game is much more in the mold of a “shooter” – he took 68 threes and only 17 twos. Both should see better shot quality in the new system, but if they don’t produce (Moore in particular), freshmen Mika Adams-Woods and Zach Harvey will be ready to seize more playing time. Harvey in particular should be in line for immediate minutes; the top 50ish recruit reclassified from 2020 and gives Brannen an exciting new toy. Additionally, big man Tre Scott should see his three-point volume double after flashing some potential out there last year, and Brannen likely uses him as a small-ball center more frequently, as well.

Two other grad transfer additions will give Brannen more lineup flexibility. The roster was looking solid from positions 2 through 4, but a true point guard and shot-blocking center were nowhere to be found. Enter Chris McNeal from Tennessee Tech (and New Mexico and junior college and Western Kentucky…) and Jaume Sorolla from Valparaiso, two pieces who can help fill those roles. Like his predilection for school-hopping, McNeal’s decision-making on the court can be erratic, as well, and Sorolla is stepping up quite a bit in competition, but having another body at center alongside incumbent Mamadou Diarra should help both players.  

Defensively, the old and new coaches have a little more in common. Both mix in full court pressure (Brannen spent six years under current Dayton boss Anthony Grant at VCU and Alabama), getting up the line and into passing lanes while hoping to force offenses into difficult isolation possessions. Surprisingly, Brannen’s teams have actually rebounded better on the defensive end on a per possession basis than Cronin’s squads, likely due to the now-UCLA coach’s affinity for employing his matchup zone (although he is loath to call it that). Apart from McNeal, the Bearcats’ sizable wing rotation will be highly switchable, and Sorolla gives them an intimidator when he’s on the court. With that said, this still could be the first time since 2008-09 that the Bearkitten offense actually ranks ahead of its defense in advanced metrics (11 years since that happened!).

Bearcat Nation may also be relieved to know that the grinding, walk-it-up days are mostly over. Cincy ranked in the bottom 10% in the country in tempo each of the last six years, and although Brannen’s teams haven’t been crazy fast (just above average the last two years), Cincy games will be veritable track meets compared to how they’ve seemed recently. The roster appears well-suited for such a shift, and Freight Train Cumberland (that’s Jarron) will be an absolute terror in the open floor.  

Bottom Line: The depth isn’t ideal unless most or all of the newcomers fit in quickly, but Cumberland is going to be a preseason All-American at nearly every outlet, and his production should only increase with the coaching change. Scooping his cousin off the transfer market was vital to help stretch out the offense (interesting that Jaevin played against Branne in the Horizon League), and the athletic pieces are present to maintain an intimidating defense. As a program, the floor may not always be as high without Cronin’s nearly-automatic top 25ish defenses, but the ceiling finally raises beyond the round of 32 with the infusion of more offensive potency and Brannen’s continued zeal to recruit shooters.


Tier 2

4. Wichita St.

Key Returners: Jamarius Burton, Dexter Dennis, Jaime Echenique, Erik Stevenson
Key Losses:
Markis McDuffie, Samajae Haynes-Jones, Ricky Torres (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Trey Wade (JUCO), Tyson Etienne, Grant Sherfield, Noah Fernandes, DeAntoni Gordon, Josaphat Bilau

Lineup:

Outlook: It took a while, but the Gregg Marshall Effect finally took hold down the stretch last year. After the young and brand new Shockers (346th nationally in minutes continuity) opened the year 8-11, 1-6 in the American, they closed the regular season on a tear, winning 9 of their final 11 games. They also picked up two wins at the AAC Tournament and three impressive road wins in the NIT (at Furman, Clemson, and Indiana) before finally falling to Lipscomb at Madison Square Garden. During that second-half run, they more than halved their KenPom ranking (142nd to 66th) and the promising freshman guards started to blossom, giving rise to some optimism in 2019-20 despite the graduations of Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones.

The run was sparked on the defensive end, where Marshall’s physical man-to-man made it difficult to find quality shots. He mixed in more zone than normal (still only 8.6% of the time, though), but the key for the Shockers was their ability to switch 1 through 4 without creating obvious mismatches. McDuffie’s graduation robs them of a hyper-versatile forward, but JUCO transfer Trey Wade should help approximate his impact defensively. Marshall has made it fairly clear that the South Plains (and UTEP) product will slide into McDuff’s spot (from the program website):

“Having watched Trey all year long, we feel like he is as good as we can get at replacing the productivity of a Markis McDuffie. No one can walk in the door and be McDuffie – we don’t expect Trey to do that – but he’s got the mind, the athleticism, the strength and the skills to come in and impact our program as a forward and hopefully take us to another level.”

He'll allow the Shockers to continue switching liberally, and the three-headed sophomore back court of Jamarius Burton, Dexter Dennis, and Erik Stevenson has plenty of length and tenacity to execute that scheme, as well. One area Wade and the team’s other forwards (sophomore Rod Brown, freshman athletic dynamo DeAntoni Gordon) can improve the defense is on the glass. Marshall’s teams have ranked in the top 10 nationally in defensive rebound rate every year but two – 2015, when they ranked 37th, and last year, when they tumbled to 113th. For all of McDuffie’s strengths, he was not a ferocious rebounder, and Wade should help alleviate that issue. The team’s international center combo, Jaime Echenique (Colombia) and Asbjorn Midtgaard (Denmark), were given far too large a burden on the boards.

Playing “Grandpa” Burton at point guard (seriously, that’s his nickname) with Stevenson and Dennis on the wing should be a boost to the defense, as well. It’s a relatively small sample, but when Burton ran the team (Haynes-Jones and Ricky Torres on the bench), his large frame clearly had an impact:

This year’s team will have three more freshmen guards, but the sophomore trifecta should be the go-to lineup to get a stop.

Of those newcomers, Tyson Etienne seems a lock to earn immediate minutes given his scoring prowess and athleticism, with Grant Sherfield (shooting) and Noah Fernandes (floor general) each providing something different as a possible fifth guard in the rotation. Per 247sports, Etienne is the second-best recruit in the program’s history (shouts to Sean Ogirri) and Sherfield is fourth, so the future continues to look bright at the Roundhouse.

Another reason the Shockers took a while to get going last year: Marshall’s complicated motion offense. It takes reps to learn, another reason he’ll likely lean on the sophomores in the backcourt (especially early on), and he eventually let the offense grow more pick-and-roll heavy as it became clear the Shockers were struggling to score. Expect more off-ball cutting and screening next year, as well as Echenique, Midtgaard, and Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler on the offensive glass, as all have the size to wreak havoc.

Bottom Line: Marshall once again has a talented roster in Wichita, and while it’s probably a year or two away from its peak, I’m not interested in betting against him. He’ll be a thorn in the side of the title contenders in Tier 1, and if he can coax more offense out of this group via the freshmen and some improved outside shooting, the Shockers could have an even rosier outlook. I think they’ll flirt with an NCAA bid in a deeper American, lurking in bubble land as March rolls around, and once again hitting their stride late as the youngsters gain even more experience.

5. South Florida

Key Returners: LaQuincy Rideau, Alexis Yetna, David Collins, Justin Brown, Michael Durr, Mayan Kiir, Xavier Castaneda
Key Losses:
TJ Lang
Key Newcomers:
Zach Dawson (Oklahoma St.), BJ Mack, Jamir Chaplin

Lineup:

Outlook: Long one of the American’s RPI anchors with East Carolina and Tulane, South Florida finally emerged from the depths of the league last season, mirroring the NET in its rise to relevance (okay, maybe that’s a bit strong). Brian Gregory’s talent accumulation paid off, as “his guys” led the Bulls to the CBI championship and the Bulls’ first above-.500 year since 2012. Outside of shooter TJ Lang, the entirety of that team’s core returns to Tampa this year, and with some development from the rising sophomores, they’ll have their sights set on goals higher than the CBI this time around.

One of the key shifts in last year’s approach was becoming an almost exclusively man-to-man team defensively, as Gregory actually had the athletes up and down the roster to do so (numbers per Synergy):

The bruising front line of French forward Alexis Yetna and seven-footer Michael Durr was ferocious in the paint and on the glass, and Durr was a tremendous rim protector when he managed to stay on the court – like most freshman bigs, he struggled with foul trouble. Couple those two with Croatian senior center Antun Maricevic and LSU transfer Mayan Kiir, and the Bulls sport one of the biggest and most athletic front courts in the American, a key to Gregory’s lockdown defense.

Having such an intimidating group in the paint allows the Bulls’ perimeter players to extend pressure on the perimeter, where they have two of the country’s most feared on-ball defenders. LaQuincy Rideau did not skip a beat after transferring from Gardner-Webb, using his quickness and stout frame to rank third in the entire country in steal rate at 5.2%. Collins wasn’t far behind, ranking 53rd nationally in the same category (3.5%), and the two guards set the tone for an aggressive defense that often completely disrupted the opponent’s offensive flow. Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson adds another dynamic athlete to the backcourt, and even sophomore Xavier Castaneda has some upside after a highly inefficient freshman campaign.

Unfortunately, returning everyone from an excellent defense (37th in the country, per KenPom AdjDE) doesn’t always mean that’s destined to repeat itself. Jordan Sperber’s research at HoopVision showed that continuity had little to no correlation with consistency on the defensive end, whether that be due to lower motivation, bad luck, or other harder-to-quantify reasons. South Florida will need to avoid that pitfall this year, as its best-case outcomes certainly involve another stalwart defense.

“Aggressive” is the same adjective I’d use to describe the Bulls offense, as they relentlessly assaulted the rim via drives (Collins and Rideau took over 450 free throws combined) and the offensive glass. Justin Brown was the only consistent deep threat, though, and the offense’s effectiveness ebbed and flowed with Collins and Rideau’s effectiveness from deep on that particular day. Yetna showed a burgeoning perimeter stroke of his own, and if he refines it into a high-volume threat in half court settings, the Bulls’ ceiling rises correspondingly.

Bottom Line: The Bulls are still young (Rideau is the only senior in the top seven of the rotation), so they may still exhibit some frustrating bouts of inconsistency, particularly early in the season. The Bulls are also heavily leveraged on officiating (1st in offensive free throw rate, 340th in defensive free throw rate), so if the whistles aren’t going their way, things could get ugly. Still, South Florida fans and administrators alike have to be thrilled to see USF this high up in a preseason projection, and the ceiling this year might even approach NCAA Tournament if enough factors break right.

6. Temple

Key Returners: Quinton Rose, Nate Pierre-Louis, JP Moorman, Alani Moore, De’Vondre Perry
Key Losses:
Shizz Alston, Ernest Aflakpui
Key Newcomers:
Monty Scott (Kennesaw St.), Joshua Pierre-Louis, Damian Dunn

Lineup:

Outlook: The Owls snuck into last year’s NCAA Tournament as one of the Last Four In, and the conspiracy theorist might wonder whether that had to do with it being the legend Fran Dunphy’s swan song in college hoops. Temple was highly bubblicious, and like the overrated gum, the Owls’ taste of the postseason didn’t last long, falling to Belmont in the First Four. I don’t think that’s the reason Temple got in, but it was the deciding factor for me slotting them into my final bracketology on Selection Sunday, so it worked out regardless.

In another avian analogy, it was also a quasi-lame duck year for Dunphy, as the administration had named Temple and Philly legend Aaron McKie as its next head coach before the season even began. Of course, it made all the sense in the world for roster and recruiting continuity purposes, but it still seemed a little odd for players to almost have two head coaches.

The burning question is one of style. How will McKie have his team play? He played for John Chaney in college, spent 15 seasons playing in the NBA (and five more as an assistant), plus five years assisting under Dunphy at his alma mater, exposing him to a multitude of different coaches and schemes. He described is plan loosely as “uptempo, but reliant on defense” in an article done by The Athletic’s Dana O’Neill; reading between the lines, I expect an aggressive, physical man-to-man, weaponizing athletes like Quinton Rose, DeVondre Perry, and the Pierre-Louis brothers, junior Nate Pierre-Louis and freshman Joshua Pierre-Louis, in an effort to disrupt opponents’ offensive rhythm and generate some turnovers. That won’t be much of a change for the returning Owls, as Dunphy had them in man more than 99% of the time, per Synergy.

McKie will hope that Damion Moore or redshirt freshman Arashma Parks can give them more of a shot-blocking presence, though; foes shot 63.3% at the rim against the Owls last year per hoop-math, ranking just 290th in the country. Rebounding is a concern as well, because Ernest Aflakpui basically handled that responsibility by himself.

On the offensive end, though, things are less certain. Graduated guard Shizz Alston hinted at a similar approach in this article – “same sets, just a faster pace” – and McKie also emphasized a desire to spread the floor and beat teams with ball movement. Dunphy utilized a lot of off-ball cuts (some Princeton influence), and though McKie may lean more towards pro-style pick-and-roll action, don’t expect the cutting to vanish overnight.

The loss of Alston is a big blow, but senior Alani Moore has experience as the likely starting point guard, and Rose and both Pierre-Louis brothers can facilitate when needed. Rose in particular is a high-level talent who can create for himself and others at 6’8:

His size and skill combination is alluring to NBA scouts, but his mercurial motor and streaky-at-best shooting have cooled his college production and pro prospects alike. Additionally, the Owls add a pure scorer via the transfer market. Coming from Kennesaw State, Monty Scott impressively managed to shoot 148 threes during his sophomore season without Al Skinner nailing him to the bench (Al Skinner hates three-pointers, people), and he may pass out with exhilaration at the newfound offensive freedom he’ll experience with the Owls. Stretch fours Perry and JP Moorman should help the floor-spacing goals, although Moorman was significantly more effective from deep (41% vs. 29%).

Bottom Line: Figuring out McKie’s coaching priorities and effectiveness will be a waiting game to start the year, hence the semi-copout answer of placing the Owls squarely in the middle of the standings. His recent experience within the program and the college game is promising, and he does have a talented and athletic roster with which to deploy his style of choice. The safe bet is that Temple hangs around the bubble once again, with the upper and lower ranges of outcomes dependent on McKie’s coaching prowess.

7. UConn

Key Returners: Christian Vital, Alterique Gilbert, Tyler Polley, Josh Carlton, Sidney Wilson
Key Losses:
Jalen Adams, Tarin Smith
Key Newcomers:
James Bouknight, Akok Akok (redshirt), Jalen Gaffney, Richie Springs

Lineup:

Outlook: The Huskies turned in their “two weeks notice” to the American Conference this offseason, and you can bet everyone around the league will be anxious to give them a kick them on their way out the door to the (probably) greener pastures of the Big East. Dan Hurley is never one to shy from a challenge, though – I’m pretty sure he’d go “cage match” with Godzilla if he felt slighted by the beast – so he and UConn will do everything possible to exit with a bang - and hopefully provide some tremendous Hurley sideline/locker room memes in the process.

The challenge is considerable, though, considering a team that had Jalen Adams couldn’t even finish better than .500 overall (6-12 in the league). This is where a Husky apologist might point out that Adams missed an eight game stretch in which UConn went 1-7, but then I would have to point out that, ya know, they also won’t have him this year. Without Adams on the court, the Huskies floundered - data per Hoop Lens:

Of course, this year’s team also has a full offseason to prepare for not having the dynamic scoring guard, as well as more depth in the backcourt with the addition of a strong recruiting class. The point of this tangent, though, is simply this: it’s hard to envision this year’s team being demonstrably better than last year’s team without Adams and his heroics.

The primary area for improvement should be on the defensive end, where Hurley was largely disappointed at his team’s execution of his man-to-man pressure scheme (and his own implementation of it). His teams are consistently elite at taking away the three-point line and pushing foes into the midrange, and while that continued last year in Storrs, the rotations later in possessions lagged relative to Hurley’s high standards.

With a second year for most of the players on the roster, expect more of the principles to stick, helped by having two quick, veteran guards in Alterique Gilbert (if healthy) - pretty sure that’s his legal name - and Christian Vital to extend that pressure. Gilbert’s health issues are a major concern after he’s missed a litany of games with shoulder issues over the years, to the point where I’m concerned his arm might actually fall off. But when he’s on the court, he’s a rock solid on-ball defender and a vocal veteran presence. Those two will be backed up by Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight, respectively, two intriguing freshmen that bring a little more size to the guard spots.

On the interior, the development of Josh Carlton into a true intimidator at the rim allows wings Sidney Wilson and Brendan Adams to be more aggressive. Carlton actually won the league’s Most Improved Player Award, and he’s the perfect microcosm of the program’s progress in Hurley’s first year. Under Ollie, the Huskies’ post players were nearly invisible at all times, but Carlton blossomed on both ends of the court last season. Isaiah Whaley has some potential as his backup, and Hurley added 2020 reclass forward Richie Springs midway through the offseason, as well.

Unsurprising given Hurley’s demeanor, the aggressive style of play shows itself on offense, as well. In the same Athletic article linked above, he expressed a desire to further instill better shot selection habits in his guards while still allowing them to play up-tempo; that responsibility will fall heavily on Gilbert, Vital, and Gaffney. All four of the Huskies’ primary rotation guards can score at multiple levels, and Carlton’s interior scoring has the makings of an offensive hub, too. Tyler Polley may be the worst 6’9” rebounder in the country, but he has a smooth perimeter shooting stroke, and his floor spacing alongside either Akok Akok or Wilson will give them more opportunities to attack mismatches. Akok is the swing factor after during the 2018-19 season: if he asserts himself as an offensive weapon using his combination of size and perimeter shooting, the ceiling really opens up for the Husky attack.

Bottom Line: Entering Year Two, Hurley has a clear direction of how he wants his team to improve – discipline on the defensive end, finding better shots on offense. The incoming recruiting class offers some solutions in that regard, and if the defense is closer to Hurley’s standards at Rhode Island, UConn can crack the American’s top five. I don’t think they can push into the league’s upper tier with such an impactful loss in Jalen Adams, but Hurley has clearly jump-started the internal development and recruiting, reinforcing the perception of him as a strong hire in Storrs.  

8. SMU

Key Returners: Ethan Chargois, Isiaha Mike, Feron Hunt
Key Losses:
Jahmal McMurray, Jimmy Whitt (transfer), Nat Dixon, Jarrey Foster
Key Newcomers:
Tyson Jolly (JUCO), Emmanuel Bandoumel (JUCO), Isaiah Jasey (Texas A&M), Bryce Cook, Darius McBride, Charles Smith IV

Lineup:

Outlook: Back to back 6-12 seasons in the American have made SMU fans restless, and Tim Jankovich has to be feeling the pressure. Injuries have thrashed the program of late (Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster in 2017-18, Foster again last year), and those were even harder to overcome with the program’s scholarship limitations in the wake of Larry Brown’s departure. Still, though, the concerns are far more focused on the future: can Jankovich bring in talented enough recruits to correct the program’s downward trajectory? The answer has been a resounding “no,” with mostly transfers (both Division I and JUCO alike) keeping the program afloat lately. Without significant progress on the court or crucial victories on the recruiting trail, the administration may be forced to look elsewhere.

And that’s a shame, because we think Jankovich is a good basketball coach! He’s worked under coaches like Brown and Bill Self, and his teams at SMU have attempted to mimic Brown’s in terms of free-flowing ball movement and prioritizing the offensive glass. One of the few homegrown difference-makers he’s brought in is Ethan Chargois, a stretch five whose versatility sets the tone for the offense. He’s a decent passer and offensive rebounder, and the spacing he creates should open driving lanes for the newcomers in the back court.

JUCO transfers Tyson Jolly and Emmanuel Bandoumel may both start, and the approach will shift with them taking over for long-range sniper Jahmal McMurray and total non-shooter Jimmy Whitt. Both have more diverse scoring profiles, and Jolly even led the entire NJCAA in rebounding (12.5rpg) despite standing just 6’4. Neither is a true point guard, though, and getting a waiver for either Darius McNeill (Cal transfer) or Kendric Davis (TCU) would help put them in more familiar roles. Jitterbug freshman point guard Bryce Cook was hoped to be the successor at that spot, but a stroke during his senior year of high school tragically derailed his hoops career. Jankovich and Brown’s best SMU teams thrived on crisp ball movement, and he’ll need to resurrect that up and down the roster this year without a true distributor.

The issues last year were far more pronounced on the defensive end, where Jankovich’s matchup zone was gashed on the glass (expected) and failed to force any turnovers (unexpected). The 6’8 forward tandem of Isiaha Mike and Feron Hunt offers plenty of length and defensive upside, and they’ll hopefully make more plays in year two in the scheme (Mike was a transfer from Duquesne). Bandoumel and Jolly give the Mustangs size at the guard spots, as well, and Texas A&M big man Isiah Jasey should be a top-shelf rim protector when he becomes eligible in December. Having more dynamism in the lineup is vital for a team that too often looked content to simply hope opponents missed open shots.

The freshman class is not highly regarded (individual players ranked 308th and 422nd per 247sports), but any contributions they can provide will be huge, particularly if Davis and McNeill are forced to sit the whole year. Charles Smith is the more highly-rated and physically ready of the pair, a long wing with a promising outside shooting stroke, while Darius McBride is more of a slasher. The sophomore class has yet to prove much of anything either, but Everett Ray and CJ White have at least flashed some potential in very limited minutes.

Bottom Line: Jankovich probably can’t survive another below .500 season overall, amplifying the pressure on him on the sidelines. The defense should be demonstrably better than last year with a bigger, more athletic lineup, and if Jolly is as good as advertised, the offense shouldn’t fall too far, either. Depth will once again be a question unless the two transfer guards can play immediately, but unless injuries strike for a dreaded third year in a row, that should not be an excuse. I think this team is good enough to be right in the bubble mix in a deeper American, but if not, the voices of fan unrest will reach a fever pitch.


Tier 3

9. UCF

Key Returners: Collin Smith, Caesar DeJesus, Frank Bertz
Key Losses:
BJ Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins, Tacko Fall, Terrell Allen (transfer), Chad Brown, Dayon Griffin
Key Newcomers:
Dazon Ingram (Alabama), Matt Milon (William & Mary), Yuat Alok (TCU), Tony Johnson, Avery Diggs (JUCO), Ibrahim Doumbia (South Carolina), Moses Bol (JUCO), Darin Green, Dre Fuller (redshirt)

Lineup:

Outlook: I don’t want to be too cruel to UCF fans, but previewing this year without mentioning just how impossibly close last year’s team came to college basketball immortality feels impossible. Beating that Duke team before it could even reach the Sweet 16 team would have been monumental, and perhaps even more so for Johnny Dawkins, as it would have meant defeating his old coach and mentor. Alas, a missed box out on RJ Barrett and a last gasp tip-in that rolled tantalizingly off the rim became the difference, allowing the Devils to skate by into the tournament’s second weekend. UCF was then thrashed by roster turnover this offseason: only two players and 33 minutes return (out of 8 and 200) from that memorable second-round clash, forcing Dawkins to scramble in the offseason to piece together a competitive squad.

The biggest challenge will be in facing Life After Tacko. The man mountain had some athletic limitations, but his size bent the floor on both ends in pronounced ways: offensively, teams had to be constantly aware of his positioning, as he was always a quick seal and lob away from an easy dunk. This opened up space for the Knights’ shooters (most of whom are gone, unfortunately). And defensively, he basically erased the rim as a viable scoring option for opponents – per hoop-math, teams shot just 53% at the rim against UCF last year, 16th-lowest in the country, and I’d be willing to wager some American dollars that the number was weighted lower when Tacko played. Hoop Lens on/off numbers illustrate his impact on both ends:

That means Dawkins will need to employ a more conventional style, similar to the conference season in 2017-18 when Tacko was out with injury.

If UCF is going to avoid tumbling down the AAC standings, it will need to be via its defense. Dawkins ran less zone the last two years than in his debut season in Orlando, aided by finally having a fully healthy contingent of guards and wings, most notably the departed BJ Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins. The Knights will continue to have plenty of size between returning forward/center Collin Smith, TCU transfer Yuat Alok, JUCO transfers Avery Diggs and Moses Bol, and South Carolina transfer Ibrahim Doumbia. That group will be menacing at the rim due to its length, even if that’s not quite in the same larger-than-life fashion that Tacko was.  

The perimeter has some size too, particularly with wing Frank Bertz and Alabama grad transfer Dazon Ingram. Bertz uses his length and quick hands well within Dawkins’s scheme, and Ingram’s physicality coming over from the Crimson Tide should be a welcome addition for a team that lost point guard Terrell Allen to a transfer decision of his own. All of that size on the floor should allow UCF to play a weaker defender – like William & Mary grad transfer gunner Matt Milon or freshmen Tony Johnson and Darin Green – without being exposed.

And the offense will need it. It’s difficult to imagine UCF not struggling on offense this year, with an erratic point guard in Ingram and inefficient finishers inside in Smith and Alok. Plus, only Bertz and Milon are proven perimeter shooters, meaning the floor is going to be cramped constantly. Dawkins should hurl his bigger lineup at the offensive glass, hoping to produce easy points via put-backs and kick-out threes, because this team is going to struggle to score in half court settings.

Bottom Line: After such a banner season last year, this one looks like a clear rebuilding campaign in Orlando. Smith and Ingram should put up numbers, but Dawkins may be faced with a decision later in the year on whether he should hand the keys to the younger guys (Johnson at point, Green on the wing). The defense may be stout enough to limit the Knights’ floor, which could bump them up into the league’s middle tier, but for now, I’m expecting a sizable drop for a team that lost so many important and productive pieces in one offseason.

10. Tulsa

Key Returners: Martins Igbanu, Jeriah Horne, Elijah Joiner, Lawson Korita
Key Losses:
Sterling Taplin, DaQuan Jeffries, Curran Scott (transferring)
Key Newcomers:
Reggie Jones (Western Michigan), Brandon Rachal (JUCO), Isaiah Hill, Emmanuel Ugboh (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: Tulsa is coached by Frank Haith, a perfectly fine gentleman who has definitely never committed any NCAA rules violations or left any programs in horrendous spots as he took a parachute deal somewhere else. And he absolutely COULDN’T DREAM of inspiring me to write an article titled “Frank Hate.” Not a chance. This stand-up class act has won an incredible one NCAA Tournament game in 15 seasons (four appearances), and his unparalleled run of success is surely due to his integrity and tendency to leave teams in a better place than he found them.

/end of bitter sarcasm

Haith has been fine at Tulsa, finding success about equal to his predecessors, Danny Manning and Doug Wojcik. Similar to his 2012 Mizzou squad, he’s embraced a spread-out attack on offense, employing a four-out, one-in approach to open space on the floor for his physical guards to operate. He complements them with a bruising post player and running plenty of pick-and-roll to generate shots. Last year’s best perimeter creators have departed, but the system should still function smoothly with Martins Igbanu battling in the paint and shooting forwards Jeriah Horne and Lawson Korita stretching the defense. That bigger trio also boosted the defense, creating a taller back line for Haith’s zone and making it difficult to get easy shots inside:

Western Michigan transfer Reggie Jones adds another big, physical wing to the mix, a strong defender and driver who should fit in well on both ends after practicing with the team last year.

Playing through Igbanu in the post should be a priority: he ranked in the 91st percentile on such plays last year, per Synergy, and drew fouls at the 14th-highest rate in the country. His mix of strength and quickness makes him a matchup issue for many of the more lumbering centers in the league, and he has an innate sense of how to pump fake and use his body to initiate contact. Haith brought in JUCO transfer and fellow Lagos, Nigeria, native Emmanuel Ugboh for depth behind him (nearly averaged a double-double at Iowa Western), but expect some lineups with Horne as a stretch five, as well.

The swing factor for the Golden Hurricane will be how effectively Elijah Joiner and JUCO transfer/former LSU player Brandon Rachal can replace the backcourt production. Joiner deferred heavily to the older players around him last year, but his game – knock down a few threes, use his bigger, physical frame to bully smaller guards towards the hoop – matches the Sterling Taplin/Curran Scott/Shaq Harrison mold. Rachal, a second-team NJCAA All-American, has probably has the highest upside; he’s another battering ram that will punish opposing guards on his way to the basket and the free throw line. True freshman Isaiah Hill is another potential answer at point and is more likely to beat you with quickness; he feels like a perfect change-of-pace option off the bench. Haith’s teams consistently get a ton of production at the charity stripe, and between Igbanu, Joiner, and Rachal, that trend is sure to continue. Teams that take away driving lanes and are disciplined at the rim (read: verticality) will have an easier time shutting down the Tulsa offense.

The zone-heavy defensive strategy leaves Tulsa vulnerable to hot-shooting nights from its opposition, which in turn makes this a hard team to predict on a night-to-night basis. It’s loosely a 3-2 alignment, but the wings are very willing to spread out and it seemingly has some matchup principles mixed in, as well. Crisp ball movement – hit the high post, then he hits a weak side cutter – will do consistent damage if scouted properly, so having a skilled passing forward is crucial.

Bottom Line: In a guard-oriented system, having more question marks in the backcourt usually means a slightly down year. Joiner and Rachal have the ability to fill in for Taplin and Scott, but replacing the impact of an NBA-caliber wing in DaQuan Jeffries may be too much to overcome. In a deeper AAC with a few clear contenders and others rising into bubble territory, it’s hard to envision the Golden Hurricane pushing far ahead of this level, although perhaps Igbanu & Co. will settle more into Tier 2.  


Tier 4

11. Tulane

Key Returners: Kevin Zhang, Ray Ona Embo (injury), Buay Koka
Key Losses:
Jordan Cornish, Caleb Daniels (transfer), Connor Crabtree (transfer), Samir Sehic (pro), Moses Wood (transfer), Shakwon Barrett (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
KJ Lawson (Kansas), Jordan Walker (Seton Hall), Christion Thompson (Rhode Island), Nic Thomas (Norfolk St.), Nobal Days, Charlie Russell, Tylan Pope, RJ McGee

Lineup:

Outlook: Pour some of your beverage out for the end of one of college basketball’s most puzzling tenures, as Mike Dunleavy Sr. was fired after a disastrious 4-27 (0-18) campaign in Year 3. The administration bounced back nicely, though, smartly bringing in Ron Hunter from Georgia State, where he wasn’t able to find a contract extension tailored to his liking. Hunter worked wonders during his eight seasons in Atlanta, making three NCAA Tournaments (the Panthers’ first since Lefty Driesell in 2001) and finished above .500 in league play every year but one. Tulane hopes he can revitalize the Green Wave program in the same way: big southern city, relatively neglected basketball team, some in-state talent to work with. His work on the grad transfer market in his first offseason inspires hope, and “hope” is an element long lacking around the Tulane campus, meaning Hunter is already off to a great start.

The most severe and noticeable philosophical shift will be on the defensive end. Dunleavy favored man-to-man from his professional days, although he mixed in more zone in his final year as he searched for some sort of answer. The approach became more and more conservative over his tenure, too, looking to avoid fouls and limit driving lanes. Hunter, on the other hand, is one of the more radical defensive coaches in the country, employing a variety of trapping ones in the half court to disrupt flow and create easy points going the other way. Just look at the stark contrast in those two measures over the past three years:

Knowing he would need more athleticism to roll out those trapping schemes, Hunter scooped up several players who should be able to help. Kansas transfer KJ Lawson has taken a circuitous route to the Bayou, but after being relegated to a purely complementary role at Kansas, he should be a featured player once more in the American (and should be more efficient than his sophomore year at Memphis). He flashed some defensive tools as a freshman, and in a more pressure-centric system, he may rediscover those skills. Another transfer, Rhode Island wing Christion Thompson is a perfect fit. He’s a disruptive athlete, and he’ll cause issues at either the top or the wing of Hunter’s various zones. Lightning quick Seton Hall transfer Jordan Walker can be a menace too, and honestly, the coaching change worked out best for him (he committed to the Dunleavy regime and sat out last year).

The deep stable of guards has some offensive weapons, as well. One of Hunter’s biggest recruiting wins was actually keeping French point guard Ray Ona Embo around; the promising junior missed all of last year with injuries, but he’s long and can shoot, and he’ll share ball-handling duties with Walker. The biggest critique I have of Hunter over recent years is his over-reliance on stars (his son RJ Hunter, D’Marcus Simonds) to generate offense at the expense of ball movement – Ona Embo may be the closest thing to that kind of creative hub. Nic Thomas is taking a large step up in competition from the MEAC, but he’ll mostly be asked to space the floor with his shooting around frequent pick-and-roll action.

For the offense to thrive, though, it will need some of the forwards on the roster to take a step forward alongside Lawson. Kevin Zhang exploded in his college debut for 24 points against Florida State, but he only tallied double figures five more times for the rest of the year (one of them, coincidentally, was a 23-point against Hunter and Georgia State). If he can find his perimeter stroke more consistently, that would open space up in the lane for big men to roll down. That role will be filled by Sudanese center Buay Koka or freshman Nobal Days, both of whom are rather raw. Expect some smaller lineups with just Zhang, Lawson, or freshman Charlie Russell Jr. up front, although those groups will get obliterated on the glass.

Bottom Line: After years of malaise around the program, Hunter’s enthusiasm and track record bring a long-awaited spark to Tulane basketball. He found a few Band-Aids to patch up the roster in year one, and he’ll hope to see some potential from freshman wings Tylan Pope and RJ McGee in whatever minutes they can manage to earn. Tulane won’t be nearly as bad as last year, but even a six-win improvement in the standings (unlikely) would keep them in the league’s lower levels.

12. East Carolina

Key Returners: Jayden Gardner, Seth LeDay ***
Key Losses:
Isaac Fleming, Tyler Foster (transfer), Shawn Williams (transfer), Dimitrije Spasojevic (transfer), KJ Davis (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Tremont Robinson (JUCO), Tyrie Jackson (JUCO), JJ Miles (JUCO), Bitumba Baruti (JUCO), Logan Curtis, Brandon Suggs, Charles Coleman, Edra Luster (JUCO), Ludgy Debaut (JUCO)

Lineup:

*** - LeDay tore his ACL in March 2019, and initial reports were that he would be out 6-9 months. It will almost certainly impact the start of his his season, with more pessimistic projections having him missing most of the year.

Outlook: Year one of the Joe Dooley Era started well enough: the Pirates managed a 7-5 non-conference record against one of the country’s softest schedules, followed by stunning Cincinnati in their second conference game. At 8-6 (1-1), it seemed like Dooley had immediately started the forward momentum that Jeff Lebo had largely destroyed. Important note: this is actually Version 2.0 of the Joe Dooley Era. Like an East Carolina basketball Grover Cleveland, he returned to the head coaching position after holding that title from 1995-1999, and like that tenure, the 2018-19 season fell off the rails quickly. ECU went 0-15 the rest of the way against schools not called Tulane (2-0 against the Green Wave though!), finding themselves in a familiar spot near the bottom of the AAC standings.

Still, though, it seemed like a positive year – an exceedingly young team had young pieces emerge in the freshman and sophomore classes, and with a full offseason in Dooley’s system, the arrow should have pointed distinctly upward. Unfortunately, the team was gutted by transfers (basically the entire rising junior class, plus Tyler Foster), leaving only two major contributors returning, forcing Dooley to start over again with a cast of junior college transfers and lightly-regarded freshmen.  

Ordinarily, the largest concern would be perimeter shooting; after all, ECU lost the only above-average shooter from one of the country’s most brick-tastic teams (28.4% from deep, 349th). And while that is still an issue, it’s probably beneficial to have different players taking those shots. Plus, Dooley’s system largely eschews triples, instead focusing on getting the ball to the rim via flex cuts, post ups, and offensive rebounds. The system fits forwards Jayden Gardner and Seth LeDay like a glove, as both are effective paint scorers and can be difficult matchups (Gardner due to his strength, LeDay due to his quickness). Gardner was tremendous in his debut season, unanimously voted to the league’s All-Freshman Team and a budding star in the paint – provided he can get some space to work in. LeDay’s season may be affected by a torn ACL suffered in March, though.

Where will that space come from? And who will get him the ball? ECU returns exactly zero (none) guard minutes from last year’s roster, so projecting the lineup is a bit dicey. Dooley added five JUCO guards and three freshmen, with the most highly ranked being combo guard Tyrie Jackson and wings JJ Miles and Bitumba Baruti, all from the junior college ranks. Jackson started his college career at Virginia Tech (with LeDay, actually), while Miles and Baruti were productive for two decent programs in Cape Fear and Chipola, respectively. Freshman guard Tristen Newton averaged a staggering 37.4ppg as a senior in El Paso, Texas, and his offensive abilities will demand immediate minutes.

The real swing player for this team is Tremont Robinson, a JUCO point guard who sat out last year after a tremendous season as a freshman at Northwest Mississippi. If he can solidify that role, it greatly reduces the burden on the rest of the roster.  Otherwise, Jackson and freshman Logan Curtis are the only other options at that spot, and neither is a natural distributor.

Bottom Line: With so many newcomers on the roster, it’s hard to expect much from this year’s Pirates. Dooley smartly filled the non-conference schedule with cupcakes again (they won’t play a single power conference team, even in tournament play), hoping to build his team’s confidence as it gels together. Playing through Gardner gives them a path to a decent offense, and if any of the new 7-footers (two JUCO, one freshman) can offer some shot-blocking, maybe the defense won’t be terrible either. Still, though, I prefer the newcomers and coach at Tulane vs. the ones at ECU, leaving the poor Pirates back in the basement.