The UConn Huskies finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll. That’s right about where most of the national media sees Kevin Ollie’s squad in what should be a highly-competitive conference.
Wichita State and Cincinnati seem to be top-10-ish teams and SMU appears to be in a good place as well. On top of that, many are expecting UCF to take another step forward in year two of the Johnny Dawkins era.
Those are the teams picked to finish ahead of UConn, but there are plenty of challengers in the middle of what is usually a top-heavy conference. Houston, Temple, and Tulsa will all be tough outs for the Huskies.
Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from the competitors in the AAC.
Wichita State - Dec. 30 in Hartford, Feb. 10 in Wichita
The newest addition to the AAC has every team feeling like the quality of play in the league is on its way up and with it the number of NCAA Tournament bids it gets.
Gregg Marshall’s team returns all five starters from a team that finished eighth in the KenPom rankings and bowed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Kentucky. They are a great 3-point shooting team and have a bunch of players who have seen postseason success.
Landry Shamet had an excellent freshman season at point guard last year (11.4 points per game, 3.2 assists per game) and will be joined in the backcourt by senior Connor Frankamp, an experienced technician who paced the Shockers late in the season. Last year’s leading scorer Markis McDuffie (11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is back as well as senior big men Darral Willis (9.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Shaquille Morris (9.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg). They have everything in place to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Shockers start the season fourth in the KenPom rankings, seventh in the AP Preseason Top 25 and eighth in the preseason USA Today Coaches’ Poll. SB Nation has them 10th in their preseason rankings.
Preseason expectations are as high as they have ever been for the Bearcats in the Mick Cronin era, with three out of five starters from last year’s team returning who also happen to be last year’s top three scorers. Those three—Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington and Gary Clark—are joined by Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome, a prolific scorer. With a team that has always been stout defensively, the Bearcats will have some offensive punch this year as well.
Cincinnati opens the season 11th in the KenPom rankings, 12th in the AP Top 25, and 13th in the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll. SB Nation has the Bearcats 14th. Along with Wichita State, they represent the clear top tier of the conference.
Tim Jankovich had an excellent rookie campaign for the Mustangs, going 30-5 with a sweep of the AAC regular season and conference tournament title. Despite losing three of their top four scorers from last year, scoring guards Shake Milton (13.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.5 apg) and Jarrey Foster (9.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.1 apg) bring plenty to the table. They’ll be counting on transfers and freshmen after that. They have a lot of new pieces, but plenty of talent to work with and a budding tradition of success.
SMU has been a thorn in UConn’s side since the two became conference foes, especially at the Moody Center, and that’s not likely to change. This year, the Mustangs start the season 24th in the KenPom rankings and are also receiving votes in the major Top 25 polls.
The Knights lost to UConn twice last year, but had a pretty solid season in Johnny Dawkins’ first year as head coach, going 24-12 with three wins in the NIT. For a program that last won 20 games in 2012 as a member of Conference USA, that’s a pretty good season.
This year, they return a lot of production and depth including point guard B.J. Taylor, who averaged 17.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game last season. Up front, they’ll still have 7-foot-6 big man Tacko Fall (10.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg), who is quite tall. They will lead the way for a group which will be counting on a number of newly eligible transfers. Unfortunately, that crew took a huge blow when Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son who transferred from Michigan to play for his father, suffered a season-ending injury in late-October.
The Knights are ranked 60th in the preseason KenPom rankings but I could see them finishing third in the conference even though most see SMU ahead of them. They’ll be a tough out for UConn this year.
Houston returns its leading scorer in Robert Gray and loses Damyean Dotson but is still returning a lot of experience from last year’s team. Kelvin Sampson also brought in a number of grad or junior college transfers who are eligible immediately and can make an impact. The Cougars have also given UConn trouble in the past, and are at the very least contender this year to finish ahead of the Huskies in the conference standings when it’s all said and done.
Fran Dunphy’s Owls have some interesting upside this year. With star guard Josh Brown returning from injury and Obi Enechionyia back for his 85th collegiate season, Temple also gets back its leading scorer from last year in Shizz Alston. They have a solid returning core but are also looking to replace a lot of production from last year’s senior class, which included three key contributors. The Owls could be a surprise team in the conference.
Tulsa might be sneaky competitive, but that’s about it. After that, there is a huge gap into mediocrity and worse in Memphis, Tulane, ECU, and USF. If UConn loses to any of them, there should be heck to pay, so obviously expect it to happen.