College Basketball Insider

College Basketball Conference Previews: AAC

Joe Jackson (USATSI)
Memphis guard Joe Jackson and the Tigers will be in the hunt for an AAC title.(USATSI)

The American Athletic Conference is a first-year all-sports league comprised of leftover members of the Big East and the best of Conference USA. Plus Temple. That's the formula that created this 10-school hodgepodge. And though it's not exactly the place any of these members wanted to be as recently as two years ago, it's still a compelling basketball league that, on paper, projects this season as superior to the Big East.

(It's funny how that worked out, isn't it?)

The problem, of course, is that this is as good as it'll ever be. Why? Because Louisville is off to the ACC -- not to be confused with the AAC -- after this season, that's why. But there's no sense in worrying about that now. Let's live in the present, and the present has this league as the home of the reigning national champions.

Here's a preview of the American Athletic Conference:

Coach's Take

"The league is going to be better than people realize, especially at the top. Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut are all Top 25 teams, and Louisville could win the whole thing again. Rick Pitino is the best, and he has some great players. But it's going to come down to how well Chris Jones is at replacing Peyton Siva. He's more talented, and I think he's really good. But you just never know how junior college guys are going to adjust to this level. Memphis is really strong on paper. The addition of Mike Dixon is huge. He might end up being their best player. And don't sleep on Houston. Nobody is going to pick them in the top four. But they're good enough to finish up there. Houston has some good players."

Projected order of finish

Louisville

Is it possible to win a national title, lose your point guard (Peyton Siva) and primary big (Gorgui Dieng) and actually improve as a basketball team? Man, I don't know. But don't be surprised if Louisville somehow does exactly that thanks to the enrollment of Chris Jones and development of Montrezl Harrell. Jones is the reigning National Junior College Player of the Year with a higher ceiling than Siva. Harrell is positioned to be this season's breakout star with a higher ceiling than Dieng. So, yes, those two guys still must prove they can be key parts of an elite Division I program. But if they play to their talent, watch out.

Memphis

The Tigers have won 106 games under Josh Pastner over the past four seasons -- that's an average of 26.5 per year -- and yet the program is still questioned on some level nationally, mostly because the overwhelming majority of those wins came against vastly inferior competition in C-USA. Can the Tigers consistently beat comparable talent? That's a question that'll get answered one way or another this season thanks to the upgrade in league affiliation and a non-conference schedule featuring games against Oklahoma State, Florida and Gonzaga (plus a possible game against LSU and a second against Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic).The good news for Memphis is that Pastner has the kind of experienced, talented and deep team that should make the transition easier than it would've otherwise been. It's a roster highlighted by four senior guards -- Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Missouri transfer Michael Dixon -- who have each averaged double-figures in points at the Division I level.

Connecticut

Kevin Ollie is now armed with a longterm contract and free of the APR sanctions that prevented his Huskies from competing for a spot in last season's Field of 68. So Ollie is clearly in a better spot now than he was this time last year when he, you know, inherited a bit of a mess and a lot of uncertainty. And his roster -- headlined by Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, Omar Calhoun and basically every other relevant player from last season's team -- should be enough to get the Huskies back into the NCAA tournament, an event they participated in during 12 of the past 16 seasons.

Cincinnati

Evidence of the quality of guards in this league is the fact that I couldn't find a place for Sean Kilpatrick on the all-conference team even though he averaged 17.0 points and 5.2 rebounds last season while leading the Bearcats to the NCAA tournament. For that, Cincinnati fans, I apologize. And I'm well aware that decision could look like a foolish decision come March, especially if UC finishes higher than projected here. But let's not forget that Kilpatrick is the Bearcats' only returning double-digit scorer. So it'll be interesting to see which players fill that void.

Temple

Khalif Wyatt was the highest profile and best player on last season's roster, just a dynamic scorer who trended on Twitter when he put 31 points on Indiana in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament. Now he's gone. And so is Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. But Fran Dunphy is still around, and he's still Fran Dunphy -- the accomplished coach who has led the Owls to six consecutive NCAA tournaments. So pick against him (and them) at your own risk.

Houston

Basketball is not played on paper (or rocks or scissors, for that matter). But if it were -- man, if it were -- I'd be really excited about the prospects of this team James Dickey has assembled. Tashawn Thomas and Daniel House are both talented and experienced double-digit scorers at this level, and Jherrod Stiggers averaged 8.1 points per game last season. Combine them with the additions of Baylor transfer L.J. Rose and Class of 2012 standout Danrad "Chicken" Knowles, and the Cougars have at least five heralded players in the program and a realistic chance to be better than they've been in a pretty good while.

SMU

Larry Brown is still the coach at SMU, which I realize is surprising to some (and worth money to anybody who took the over on a one-year/over-under bet). Also returning with the Hall of Famer is every starter from last season's team, and the addition of McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier gives the Mustangs a unique talent unlike anything the program has experienced in years, possibly decades. That said, SMU is still probably a year -- and an Emmanuel Mudiay -- away from cracking the top four of this league and making the Field of 68. But things are on the right track. And you'd be wise to never completely dismiss Brown as a tactician who can do more with less, regardless of how little he might have.

Rutgers

Whether Rutgers would even have more than four respectable scholarship players was in doubt in the aftermath of Mike Rice's highly publicized dismissal, and things got shakier when it was revealed that Eddie Jordan was hired to replace Rice despite not having a college degree. (Boy, that was some kind of offseason in Piscataway.) But here we are, a little more than a month away from the start of the season, and things don't look too bad, relatively speaking. Myles Mack is an accomplished scorer, Wally Judge and Jerome Seagears are competent veterans, and Kadeem Jack just might have a breakthrough season. To be clear, nobody is predicting that Rutgers will compete for a trip to the NCAA tournament. But, again, relatively speaking, the program is in a better spot than most thought it would be in when things were falling apart last April.

UCF

Some folks, mostly Marshall fans, were baffled (and generally insulted and pissed) when Donnie Jones, a West Virginia native, left Marshall for UCF after the 2009-10 season. But the truth is that Jones always figured the UCF job would eventually turn into a Big East job, and, though that's not exactly the way it worked-out, his theory was solid. The Knights, quite clearly, have upgraded leagues and television packages and pretty much everything, and now there's no reason UCF can't become a relevant basketball program. Everything is in place, including the right coach. Jones received a contract extension this offseason. And nobody should be surprised if his team, led by do-everything guard Isaiah Sykes, finishes a few spots higher than projected here -- point being that if I miss badly on a projection in the American Athletic Conference I'm well aware that the Knights will likely be responsible.

USF

The Bulls are neither comfortable playing fast nor good at scoring points, and that's going to be a problem in this league that'll be dominated at the top by high-level guards. So, sure, Victor Rudd and Anthony Collins are nice pieces. But they aren't close to enough to lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years, meaning it's unlikely that Stan Heath will be able to take advantage of the step down in competition from the old Big East to the new American Athletic Conference. And the worst thing of all is that while the step down is undeniable in general, it still cost USF an annual league game with DePaul, and USF sure could use an annual league game with DePaul.

Our Preseason All-AAC Team

G:Joe Jackson (Memphis)

G:Shabazz Napier (Connecticut)

G:Russ Smith (Louisville)

F:Chane Behanan (Louisville)

F:Montrezl Harrel (Louisville)

Our Preseason AAC Player of the Year

Not only did Russ Smith lead the Cardinals in scoring last season, his 18.7 points per game were 8.7 more than the next best scorer on that championship-winning team. Does Smith get a little too wild at times? Sure. But he's still an experienced, high-level scorer who can also cause problems on the defensive end, and he's a no-brainer pick for the American Athletic Conference Preseason Player of the Year.

Our Preseason AAC Newcomer of the Year

Chris Jones, Louisville

Chris Jones is the reigning National Junior College Player of the Year and a dynamic playmaker who could be really, really good. Rick Pitino loves him. NBA scouts are intrigued by him. He's a hard-nosed point guard from Memphis who chose Louisville over Memphis (as well as Kansas, Florida State, Baylor, etc.), and he might just be the key to the Cardinals' quest to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Florida did it in 2006 and 2007.

Our Preseason AAC Coach of the Year

Rick Pitino, Louisville

A Coach of the Year award typically goes to the coach who either A) wins the league, or B) overachieves by a significant margin. Obviously, at this point, it's difficult to project which coach will overachieve relative to preseason expectations. So why not just go with the coach who figures to win the first American Athletic Conference? I mean, Pitino is already in the Hall of Fame. So this doesn't seem like a reach.

Three Numbers to Know

1:That's the number of times Houston has made the NCAA tournament in the past 21 seasons. It's a disappointing fact considering this is a program that played for the national championship twice in the 1980s.

3:That's the number of American Athletic Conference schools that will be in the CBSSports.com preseason Top 25 (and one). That's one more than the Big East will have.

6:That's the number of times in the past nine years that Memphis has played its league tournament at home inside FedExForum. This season will make it seven in 10. Yes, the American Athletic Conference tournament will be held in downtown Memphis.

CBSSports.com staff predictions

American Athletic Conference
Finish

Gary Parrish

Jeff Borzello

Matt Norlander

Doug Gottlieb

Jerry
Palm

Jon Rothstein
1.
LVILLE

LVILLE

LVILLE

LVILLE

LVILLE

LVILLE
2.
MEMP

MEMP

MEMP

UCONN

MEMP

UCONN
3.
UCONN

UCONN

CINCY

MEMP

UCONN

MEMP
4.
CINCY

CINCY

UCONN

CINCY

CINCY

CINCY
5.
TEMPLE

SMU

TEMPLE

HOU

SMU

SMU
6.
HOU

UCF

SMU

SFLA

TEMPLE

SFLA
7.
SMU

TEMPLE

HOU

TEMPLE

HOU

RUT
8.
RUT

RUT

UCF

UCF

UCF

TEMPLE
9.
UCF

HOU

SFLA

SMU

RUT

HOU
10.
SFLA

SFLA

RUT

RUT

SFLA

UCF
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