AAC Preview: The Contenders

Andy Lyons

A look at the two teams expected to challenge UConn for the inaugural American championship: Louisville and Memphis.

The American may not have the same brand appeal as the old Big East, but damn does it have some tough teams at the top. UConn, Louisville and Memphis are all expected to be among the top teams in the country, and the three should provide some thrilling conference matchups as the season goes on.

There are other teams in the American that should be pretty good too, but if UConn wants to claim the first American men's basketball championship trophy, these are the two teams they'll have to beat to earn it.

Louisville

AAC preseason rank: No. 1

KenPom preseason ratings: Overall - No. 1, Offense - No. 2, Defense - No. 1

2012-13 finish: 29-5, 14-4 Big East (T-1st), Won National Championship

By just about every metric, Louisville looks to be an extremely dangerous team again this year and is expected to contend for its third straight trip to the Final Four and its second consecutive National Championship. Rick Pitino's squad returns six of its top eight scorers from last year's championship team, including senior point guard Russ Smith, who ranks among the top players in the country, and also adds JUCO star Chris Jones, who averaged 21.8 points per game at Northwest Florida a year ago.

Senior Luke Hancock, juniors Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear and sophomore Montrezl Harrell all return to the team's frontcourt as well, although Behanan remains suspended indefinitely due to a violation of university policy, and Hancock – who won Most Outstanding Player in last year's Final Four – is dealing with a nagging Achilles injury and won't be ready for the start of the season.

One player Louisville will be getting back earlier than expected is junior guard Kevin Ware, who unexpectedly returned to the court during Wednesday's exhibition game against Pikeville and nailed a three pointer in his first shot attempt. It was the first action Ware has seen since suffering his devastating leg injury during the Cardinal's NCAA Tournament game against Duke, but while he acknowledged that it felt good to get the jitters out of the way, he is not in game shape and will likely need more time before he really feels like himself again.

With Smith and Jones expected to carry the load, Ware will have time to ease himself back into the lineup. Freshman Mangok Mathiang, however, will not have that luxury. Until Behanan and Hancock return to the court, the Cardinals will be relying on the 6-foot-10, 200 pound Mathiang to be a difference-maker upfront, and even afterward, he will likely be relied upon to fill the void left by Gorgui Dieng.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:

G - Russ Smith, Senior, 18.7 PPG

G - Chris Jones, Junior, 21.8 PPG (at Northwest Florida JUCO)

F - Wayne Blackshear, Junior, 7.6 PPG

F - Montrezl Harrell, Sophomore, 5.7 PPG

C - Mangok Mathiang, Freshman, DNP last season

Memphis

AAC preseason rank: No. 3

KenPom preseason ratings: Overall - No. 16, Offense - No. 21, Defense - No. 15

2012-13 finish: 30-4, 16-0 Conference USA (1st), NCAA Tournament Round of 32

Since taking over for John Calipari four years ago, head coach John Pastner has maintained Memphis' status as a nationally relevant program, and last year he led his team through one of its best seasons yet, finishing with a 30-4 regular season and a perfect 16-0 mark in conference play.

One of the big obstacles that Memphis has always had to overcome, however, is its strength of schedule. In Conference USA, Memphis could clobber everybody but never get any respect because nobody else in the conference was perceived to be that good. Memphis won't have that same problem in The American, with teams like Louisville, UConn, Cincinnati, Temple and potentially SMU, the Tigers will have plenty of opportunities to show that they're the real deal.

And considering the talent they have on their roster, they definitely look like they're the real deal. Senior Joe Jackson returns from last year's team and figures to be the team's unquestioned leader, and the team also adds nine new players, including highly-touted transfers Michael Dixon Jr. from Missouri and David Pellom from George Washington, along with seven freshmen, led by blue-chip recruits Austin Nichols and Nick King.

How well this team gels will probably play a major role in how far the Tigers go this year, but based on talent alone, Memphis should be considered a favorite in the American and will likely earn a high seed come tournament time.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE (via collegehoopsmadness.com):

G - Joe Jackson, Senior, 13.6 PPG

G - Geron Johnson, Senior, 10.4 PPG (2011-12)

G - Chris Crawford, Senior, 10.4 PPG

F - Shaq Goodwin, Sophomore, 7.4 PPG

F - Austin Nichols, Freshman, DNP last season

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