2019-20 AAC predictions, preview: Penny Hardaway's recruits make Memphis a national title contender

Four AAC teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2019 -- Temple lost in the First Four and Cincinnati fell in the first round; UCF made it to the second round and Houston went to the Sweet 16 -- but compiled a combined record of just 3-4. A stronger showing is expected this year as revival of sorts seems to have been sparked within the conference. The likes of Memphis and Wichita State look poised to challenge the AAC's usual contenders, Houston and Cincinnati, and expectations of more (and more serious) NCAA title contenders have emerged.

The Tigers are the clear-cut favorite thanks to Penny Hardaway's top-ranked incoming class which features seven talented newcomers, all of whom are four and five-star recruits. The Bearcats and the Cougars are both expected to have strong seasons once again, setting the conference up to potentially land multiple teams in the top 25 this year. The middle of the conference underwent a bit of a shakeup, with the likes of Wichita State and South Florida making the jump up from the lower tier. 

The bottom of the AAC features a host of teams undergoing significant changes -- either coaching or personnel -- and looking to rebuild. Tulane and Temple will both begin new coaching eras, while teams like UCF and East Carolina replace key puzzle pieces in light of offseason departure. Things are a bit of a toss-up as to where the teams in the lower half of the conference will land in the standings, but answers to all of those unknowns should start to come early enough in the season.

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Cincinnati senior guard Jarron Cumberland is the CBS Sports Preseason AAC Player of the Year. USATSI

CBS Sports Preseason AAC Player of the Year

Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati: After deciding to return to Cincinnati for his senior season following a dominant 2018-19 performance, Cumberland will likely land his second consecutive Player of the Year award this season. His toughness and physicality combined with his ability to knock down open 3-pointers make him a hard threat for opposing defenses to contain and he's continually developed his game during the course of his college career, making the biggest leap last season. After leading the Bearcats with 18.8 points per game to go with a team-high 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals last year, he went on to drop 33 points in Cincinnati's win in the AAC Tournament championship, proving that he's a big-time player with big-time potential. Given that Cumberland is only expected to continue to improve upon last season's impressive showing, the honor is his to lose.

CBS Sports Preseason AAC Coach of the Year

Penny Hardaway, Memphis: The coup of hauling in several blue-chip recruits could honestly be enough to earn Coach of the Year honors. He snagged Wiseman, who looked like a lock for Kentucky; landed Boogie Ellis over Duke (he even got the freshman guard to decommit from the Blue Devils for that one)— but more likely is that what he's going to do with all the talent coming in with his No. 1 ranked recruiting class will be what earns him the nod. In his first season at the helm, Hardaway was able to take the Tigers to their first postseason appearance in four seasons with a talent-depleted roster left by former coach Tubby Smith, and now, with the incoming 2019 talent, he has the personnel in place to take this team even further. In just his second season at the helm, Hardaway could, should and likely will win the conference crown — something the team hasn't yet done since the creation of the AAC — and could create a legitimate tournament title contender.

CBS Sports Preseason Freshman of the Year

James Wiseman, Memphis: Expectations are sky-high for 7-foot freshman James Wiseman, the headliner of Memphis's top-ranked recruiting class and the foundation of Penny Hardaway's highly-anticipated rebuild in Tennessee. With five of the Tigers' top-six scorers from last season and nine players in total (five graduated and four transferred) departed, the team will be Wiseman's from the start. The Gatorade and Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year averaged over 25 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks per game his senior season of high school and, at 7-foot-1 and 240-pounds, he's expected to be ready to dominate in the same fashion at the college level. He's a high-impact big man with the agility, size and skill to absolutely dominate the AAC this season.

AAC predicted order of finish

1
The Tigers are the most interesting team in college basketball this season. No one really knows how good Penny Hardaway and the No. 1-ranked recruiting Class of 2019 will be. Might be a No. 1 seed. Might be a No. 8 seed. James Wiseman should be a top-five pick come June, but what of Boogie Ellis, Precious Achiuwa, Damion Baugh and D.J. Jeffries? What a fascinating experiment this will be.
2
No coach at a new spot inherits a better situation this season than 45-year-old John Brannen, who bumped up from Northern Kentucky to UC after Mick Cronin left his alma mater to take the UCLA job. Brannen will have a potential All-American in senior tweener Jarron Cumberland (18.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, 38.8% 3-point shooting). Cumberland will probably put up gaudy enough stats that, if UC can be a top-15 team The Bearcats should have a nice blend of size, shooting, depth and a jolt from Brannen's system/style. 
3
The Cougars have sold out their season-tickets allotment -- for the first time in 20 years -- and it's on account that this team should be top-three quality in the AAC. Kelvin Sampson's program, which lost big pieces off a 33-4 team, should see DeJon Jarreau step into the light. 
4
Gregg Marshall's team is gonna win a few this season it probably should not. The Shockers don't have a star, but they'll be as hard-nosed defensively as any club in the AAC. With the right schedule breaks, the Shockers can make the NCAAs. 
5
The Bulls have realistic NCAA Tournament hopes for the first time since 2011-12. USF won 24 games a season ago and returns almost every legitimate minutes-getter. LaQuincy Rideau is possibly a top-20 point guard in America. 
6
Dan Hurley's career record when not accounting for his first season at a new job: 130-67. The Huskies are going to be right near last-four-in/first-four-out territory. Alterique Gilbert is a creative shooting guard. He's owed a season of full health. Hopefully he gets it. UConn'll need it.
7
Quinton Rose's return allows Aaron McKie to get some much-needed sleep in his first year at the helm. The Owls will be fighting for an NIT bid thanks to the return of Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis.
8
The last couple of years have been disappointing for SMU, and it deserves its place in the middle of the pack based not only what is returning but its average freshman class. The Mustangs could have a good year or a poor year, but most likely, they will be right in the middle.
9
Martins Igbanu is perhaps Tulsa's best player, a good rebounder who should be a go-to guy for coach Frank Haith, who is looking to advance to his second NCAA Tournament since joining the Golden Hurricane. It will be interesting to see how much Western Michigan transfer Reddie Jones contributes right off the bat.

Despite being courted for other jobs, Johnny Dawkins wound up sticking with the Knights. Many will remember UCF nearly upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament, but this is not that same team considering they lost their top three scorers from a year ago.  However, Dawkins staying in Orlando is great for the long-term health of the program. 
11
There are 11 -- yes, 11 -- new players on the roster, but ECU returns Jayden Gardner, arising sophomore and one of the Pirates' top three scorers from a year ago. Gardner is a true triple-double threat on any given night, and ther will be few players with more on his shoulders this year.
12
Former Georgia State coach Ron Hunter is in his first year, and he takes over a Tulane team that has lost a bevy of starters. One of the toughest jobs in the conference, Hunter has almost guaranteed the Green Wave will not finish last in the AAC. That may be a tough sell considering Tulane finished 4-27 (0-18 AAC) a season ago.

For a deep dive into all 14 AAC teams, hit up the folks at Three Man Weave.

AAC expert picks

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