It’s officially preview season here at Barstool Sports. We’re less than a month away from games being played and your football teams might already be worthless. Last week we broke things down via lists – top players, coaches, jerseys, rivalries and more. This week it’s conference preview season. We’ll look at the major six conferences along with the AAC, A-10 and a mid-major preview. Disagree with anything? Let me know @barstoolreags
Big 10 Preview: Here
Pac-12 Preview: Here
The American Athletic Conference has found itself in a weird place the last few years. They aren’t a mid-major yet the conference isn’t considered a major six conference in basketball. The main reason for that has been two-fold. The first is UConn hasn’t been UConn. The Huskies were supposed to be the flag-bearer of the conference and the big name within the AAC. The fact is they’ve been very mediocre, never finishing higher than third in the conference. The second is the middle of this conference has been traditionally weak and the bottom has been traditionally terrible. Until those two things change, the AAC will find itself in this weird spot.
They did a smart thing though in bringing in Wichita State. This is the first year where Wichita is a member of the AAC and it gives those teams one or two more chances at a quality win. That will pay off for teams like Cincinnati, SMU, UConn and UCF. This is the first year where it feels like there are two legitimate Final Four-caliber teams, which again is a big step for the conference.
Five storylines to watch
1. Wichita State’s injuries and transitions to the AAC
Wichita State is not healthy coming into the season, which absolutely sucks. The main reason why is it’s star point guard Landry Shamet, who is dealing with his second foot injury of his career. The other player is starter Markis McDuffie who also is battling a stress fracture in his foot. Outside of those serious injuries, anything involving a foot is the scariest thing for a team/player to deal with. We’ve seen guys get sidelined with lingering foot injuries. We’ve seen it completely shut a guy down for a year. You hope with the talent that Wichita has that both guys are able to come back at 100%. The other thing to pay attention to is how Wichita transitions to the AAC. It’s a step up from the Missouri Valley, where Wichita absolutely dominated teams. Yes, they’ll still coast against a couple of teams in the AAC, but you’ll still have to go win road games at Tulsa or Houston instead of Drake and Bradley. Due to the talent on this team, I don’t see a problem with them transitioning to a better conference, but it’s worth mentioning.
2. A new look Cincinnati
Cincinnati and Wichita are the two clear favorites in this conference – and it’s not close. For Cincinnati though it’s going to be a different look this season. Gone is Troy Caupain – who fit perfectly in Mick Cronin’s slow it down tempo and grind out in the half court. In comes Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome who thrives in playing in a faster pace, wanting to push the tempo. Along with that are wings in guys like Jacob Evans and Jarron Cumberland who are better in transition as is a guy like Gary Clark. We’re going to see Cincinnati push the tempo on offense, because the roster finally allows them to. Caupain was great at what he did and was huge for Cincinnati, especially in late-game scenarios, but this is the style change that Cincinnati needs. The other thing it will do is change how they will defend. They are more athletic and long now than they were in the past. That means they can be more aggressive defensively with ball screens and where/how to trap. Don’t be surprised to see them throw a little more 3/4 court pressure on teams either.
3. Can Kevin Ollie shows signs of improvement
Listen, Kevin Ollie has struggled as a head coach at UConn. There’s no denying that. He won a title early with two caveats. The first is people can say he won it with Calhoun’s kids and still hasn’t won with his players. The second is the story that’s out there that the team pretty much threw a mutiny against Ollie and the staff that year and Shabazz led the way saying get on my back, I know how to win from Kemba. Not good stories to hear if you’re an Ollie believer. Last year you can chalk up to injuries, but this year he needs to show signs of improvement. He’s been a solid defensive coach but the offensive schemes have been atrocious. He’s had a top-50 offense just once and that was the Shabazz year. On top of that there is major questions about his ability to develop players as a head coach. This is a huge year for Ollie. If he can show signs of improvement in those two categories he can buy himself some more time. If UConn struggles yet again, I don’t see how fans can continue to want Ollie there.
4. Can UCF build on last year’s NIT run
UCF is the one team in the conference this year that people are pegging as a darkhorse. The casual fan would think it’s because of Tacko Fall (it’s not). It’s because of BJ Taylor – who is one of the best guards in the conference. Taylor is a do-it-all sort of guard as he averaged 17.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 3.5 apg last year while averaging over 36 minutes per game. He was supposed to have more help this year with Aubrey Dawkins joining his dad, but it was announced yesterday that Dawkins is out for the season with a shoulder injury. That means Fall will need to continue to grow offensively and become even more polished as the season goes on. This roster is still fairly deep even with the injury to Dawkins, but they’ll need a third person to step up on the offensive side of the ball after losing Matt Williams.
5. Can a fifth team come into play
It looks like there will be a clear top-4 in Wichita, Cincinnati, SMU and UCF. The question is can there be a fifth team that comes into play to solidify the top half of the conference? Ideally it would be UConn becoming a national name again, but don’t sleep on Houston or Temple. Houston has arguably the most underrated player in the country in Rob Gray while Temple has a guy in Shizz Alston that can really play.
Preseason AAC Player of the Year: Landry Shamet, Wichita State
I’m going to bank on Shamet coming back healthy and not having a lingering foot problem here. He’s one of the best point guards in the country this year and is going to have a huge year. Shamet averaged over 11 a game last year but really broke out against Kentucky in the Round of 32 when he dropped 20. He can beat you in a variety of ways as he can really shoot the ball and take you off the bounce. I’m a huge fan of his game.
Preseason AAC Freshman of the Year: Alterique Gilbert, UConn
I mean he’s technically able to win this again and it’s a pretty weak freshmen class in the conference. There are a bunch of good newcomers in terms of transfers, but the incoming class is not great. So we’ll go with Gilbert, who looked the part last year before having a season-ending injury. He was averaging over 10 per game in the three games he played in last year. You hope his shooting improved as he shot just 22% from the 3-point line during that time.
Preseason AAC Coach of the Year: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
I’m going to give Marshall the slight edge here because I’m picking Wichita to win the conference. Marshall will have to deal with the injuries that were mentioned above and I think you see him really thrive in the bigger conference. He’s an excellent in-game coach and always seems to get the most out of the guys on the roster. He’s been able to up his recruiting effort lately and even more talent is coming to
All AAC Teams
Landry Shamet (Wichita State)
Rob Gray (Houston)
BJ Taylor (UCF)
Jacob Evans (Cincinnati)
Shake Milton (SMU)
Gary Clark (Cincinnati)
Shizz Alston (Temple)
Jalen Adams (UConn)
Markis McDuffie (Wichita State)
Cameron Reynolds (Tulane)
1. Wichita State – Two numbers to look at with Wichita State revolves around the 3-point line. On offense they were the 10th best shooting team last year from deep. On defense, they defended the 3-point line incredibly well, letting teams just shoot 31% for the season (good for 9th in the country). On top of that they ranked 9th in defensive rebounding percentage, keeping teams to just one chance.
2. Cincinnati – They don’t have to necessarily rely on just one person to score in order for them to be successful this year. The question I have though is exactly how does Cane Broome fit within the style of Cincinnati. Now, all reports that I’ve heard from people I trust say that he’s doing just fine over the redshirt year and getting ready for this year, but you never know 100% until the season tips. If he can fill the void left by Troy Caupain – who was the type of PG that fit this style really well, this is a team that should easily make the Sweet 16. They need to continue to take care of the ball – they led the nation in not giving up steals last year, which is an incredibly important stat. You hear ‘points off turnovers’ but what that doesn’t do is break down whether it was a live turnover or not. Outside of Broome, I’m really anxious to see the jump that both Evans and Cumberland make this year as they take on a bigger role.
3. SMU – We’ve seen SMU develop this small-ball type of play and it’s been a ton of fun to watch. This year the Mustangs will rely on Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster, both averaged 10 per game last year. They do get two big transfer this year in Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray (eligible in December) to make up for the losses of Semi, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown. Keep an eye on how they attack teams from the 3-point line again.
4. UCF – Last year is a great jumping off point for this team. Remember they only had seven scholarship players last year and made the run to the NIT semifinals. This year they’ll have a deep roster even with the injury to Aubrey Dawkins. I’m a big fan of what BJ Taylor brings to the table and if Tacko Fall has developed more post moves this offseason they should easily be a NCAA Tournament team.
5. Temple – The two-man game of Shizz Alston and Obi Enechionyia is one of the best in the conference. Both averaged over 13 per game last year and the Owls get back Josh Brown who only played in six games before injury. Fran Dunphy is a solid coach and this is a team that could jump into the top-4 if everything falls in to place.
6. UConn – Jalen Adams needs to continue to make a jump and be more consistent shooting the ball from deep. The main question though is how healthy do Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert return and are there any sort of setbacks for the two? They are going to be a little smaller than years past as the starting five shouldn’t have a guy over 6’8″ in it.
7. Houston – Rob Gray is good enough to get this team into the top-5 if he plays out of his mind. He’s the most underrated player in the conference as conference coaches have said whatever you think of Gray it’s too low. Wherever you rank him, it’s 15 spots too low. That says a lot about this kid. He averaged over 20 a game last year and should have help in the starting five as all five guys averaged over six per game last year.
8. Tulsa – Tulsa doesn’t really lose anyone from last year, which means they have another year to build chemistry together. This should be a team that jumps next year, but keep an eye on Junior Etou this year. He’s a possible All-Conference team as he averaged over 12 and 6 last year.
9. Memphis - This just feels like a Tubby team. They had a disastrous offseason and Memphis has a ragtag bunch of dudes out there. That means they will likely overachieve because that’s when Tubby always overachieves. They return just two guys who recorded stats last year and will rely on Kareem Brewton, a JUCO All-American.
10. Tulane – Cameron Reynolds averaged 17 and 7 last year. I expect those numbers to go up again this year. Mike Dunleavy has brought his NBA system to Tulane, which means you’re going to see them push the tempo and their sets will mimic what you see in the NBA. Last year they were 64th in adjusted tempo. Jordan Cornish, a UNLV transfer, is a guy that can come in and help out Reynolds here.
11. East Carolina – They return three guys in Jeremy Sheppard, B.J. Tyson and Kentrell Barkley who averaged over nine points per game last year. They also get Isaac Flemming eligible who averaged over 9 a game while at Hawaii. Jeff Lebo has shown his willingness to adjust schemes based on roster, but at some point that has to start drawing in wins.
12. South Florida – It’s going to be a long rebuild for Brian Gregory and USF. This year it will be a pair of Penn State transfers in Payton Banks and Terrence Samuel along with Stephan Jiggets leading the way for the Bulls.