The departure of UConn casts a slight pall over the American Athletic Conference's eighth year as the league is down to just 11 members. But there is reason to believe the American will rebound in the season ahead after it was projected to land just two teams in the 2020 NCAA Tournament field, according to CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm.
Five coaches in the conference were in their first or second season last year, and it showed as the league collectively struggled with offensive execution. AAC teams hit just 32.1% of their 3-pointers, ranking 30th of the 32 Division I conferences in that regard.
The league was also hindered by James Wiseman's NCAA suspension and subsequent departure from Memphis, as well as a season-ending injury to its 2019 Freshman of the Year in South Florida's Alexis Yetna. Both the Tigers and Bulls harbored NCAA Tournament hopes that were dashed by the loss of those key players. Wichita State's unexpected lull also continued last season as the Shockers failed to find team chemistry during a disappointing season.
Ultimately, Houston was projected to be a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Cincinnati to be a No. 11 seed by Palm before the event's cancelation amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the ingredients are there for the AAC to have a better showing in both total teams and seeding status when the NCAA Tournament comes around at the conclusion of the season ahead.
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AAC Preseason Player of the Year
Caleb Mills, Houston
The 6-foot-3 Mills returns as the leading scorer for the preseason favorite to win the league. So his selection as the Preseason Player of the Year should not be shocking. But if you look at his statistics from last season, it's enthralling to imagine what could be this year. Mills averaged 13.2 points per game in just 22.5 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman while playing mostly off the bench. He'll be a starter this season and is likely to play closer to 30 minutes a game. Don't be surprised if he elevates his scoring to 16 or 17 points a game while developing as a defender and passer.
AAC Preseason Coach of the Year
Kelvin Sampson, Houston
The fact that Mills is the Preseason Player of the Year helps explain why Sampson is the Preseason Coach of the Year. From 2015 to 2019, Houston's recruiting classes finished at an average of 89th nationally in the 247Sports team rankings. That's the talent foundation on which Sampson has built the best team in the AAC. He takes players like Mills and fellow sophomore guard Marcus Sasser, who were both three-star prospects, and turns them into great college basketball players. Houston finished the 2019-20 season ranked in the top-25 for a third straight year. That streak looks destined to continue in Sampson's seventh year at the helm.
AAC Preseason Freshman of the Year
Moussa Cisse, Memphis
Look for Cisse to surpass the 1.9 blocks per game that Memphis forward Precious Achiuwa averaged while winning AAC Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year honors last season. The rangy and athletic 6-10 center is a serious rim protector. He'll also be a steady lob threat. The diversity of his offensive repertoire is unclear, but his defense alone should make him an impact player on a team expected to compete for the league title.
AAC predicted order of finish
| Houston is poised to make a run at its third-straight league title after sharing the crown with Tulsa and Cincinnati last season. A loaded backcourt led by last year's surprising freshman Caleb Mills also returns veteran DeJon Jarreau and former five-star prospect Quentin Grimes. Sophomore Marcus Sasser also outplayed his modest recruiting hype last season and Idaho transfer Cameron Tyson is now eligible and ready to knock down some 3-pointers. The questions for the Cougars are in the frontcourt, where they must replace graduated center Chris Harris and starting power forward Fabian White Jr., who is expected to be out for the season after tearing his ACL. That puts the onus on redshirt seniors Brison Gresham and Justin Gorham to rebound well and provide a scoring punch in the paint as their roles are likely to increase. Arkansas transfer Reggie Chaney should help provide some heft as well. The 6-8 junior played a lot off the bench for the Razorbacks the past two seasons.|
| Moussa Cisse's reclassification and subsequent commitment to Memphis gave the Tigers a nice jolt after a disappointing 2019-20 season. Cisse, the No. 10 overall player in the 2020 class, is a shot-blocking phenom who is the preseason favorite to become the second straight Memphis player to win AAC Freshman of the Year. If he does that, this could be a special team. Last year's Freshman of the Year winner Precious Achiuwa is gone, but four of the six players who comprised the nation's No. 1 recruiting class in 2019 are back. Third-year coach Penny Hardaway also landed a couple of key transfers in Landers Nolley from Virginia Tech and DeAndre Williams from Evansville. This looks like the most-talented roster in the AAC on paper, and if the Tigers get a little offense to go with what figures to be another stifling defense, the program will easily make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.|
| SMU vs. Houston will be a treat this season, because the Mustangs' backcourt may be every bit as good as Houston's lauded group of guards. Tyson Jolly, a 6-4 junior, returns after leading the team in scoring with 14.5 points per game last season as the Mustangs finished 19-11 (9-9 AAC). He's joined by junior point guard Kendric Davis, who led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. Jolly started his career at Baylor, Davis began his career at TCU and the Mustangs will add at least one more high-profile transfer to their lineup this season in Darius McNeill. The 6-3 guard averaged 11.2 points per game during his first two seasons at Cal before sitting out last season while transferring. McNeill will definitely be eligible, but the status of Oklahoma State transfer Yor Anei is uncertain. The 6-10 junior averaged 2.3 blocks per game in two seasons for the Cowboys and could provide a huge defensive boost for SMU if he's eligible.|
| Replicating last season's 13-5 league record and share of the AAC title will be a challenge for coach John Brannen in his second season as Cincinnati replaces three of its top-five scorers, including alpha guard Jarron Cumberland. Fortunately for the Bearcats, key players Keith Williams and Chris Vogt opted to withdraw their names from NBA Draft consideration to return for their senior seasons. Williams, a 6-5 guard, reached double figures in 12 of Cincinnati's final 13 games last season, proving that he has the chops to take over for Cumberland as the leading scorer. Vogt is a 7-footer who started out with Brannen at Northern Kentucky and has experienced meteoric development in his three seasons of college basketball. This team's ceiling will depend partially on how much better Vogt can improve his physicality as the Bearcats replace last season's leading rebounder Tre Scott.|
| The Golden Hurricane lose two of their top three scorers from last year's surprising AAC regular season co-championship. But versatile guard Brandon Rachal returns after averaging 12.1 points last season as a transfer from LSU. If coach Frank Haith's new crop of transfers are as productive as Rachal was last season, this team will be solid again. Former Arkansas guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson and Georgia Tech transfer Curtis Haywood II could be impact players. Sharpshooting junior college transfer Austin Richie is intriguing, too. If the 44.9% 3-point shooting mark he posted at Triton College translates to the AAC, it would be a huge boost for a team that shot a subpar 32.2% from beyond the arc last season.|
| Nearly half the roster transferred out of the program as part of a mass exodus this spring. And that was before it became known that longtime coach Gregg Marshall is under investigation for his allegedly abusive treatment of players and assistant coaches. It all creates a sea of uncertainty for a program that made seven straight NCAA Tournaments from 2012 to 2018. That streak ended in 2019, and it will be tough for whoever is coaching the Shockers this season to start a new NCAA Tournament streak this season. There is some intriguing returning talent with sophomore guard Tyson Etienne, junior guard Dexter Dennis and senior forward Trey Wade. Each of the trio started for much of last season and are the reasons for optimism amid an uncertain time for a proud program.|
| One of the reasons the AAC's depth and overall strength in the 2019-20 felt so lacking is because of what happened to USF. The Bulls lost budding star forward Alexis Yetna for the season with a knee injury just as they were projected to turn a corner in Brian Gregory's third season as coach. Yetna was coming off an AAC Freshman of the Year campaign, and the Bulls never recovered from his loss as the struggled to a 14-17 (7-11 AAC) record. But with Yetna and five of their top six scorers from last season back, this really could be the year USF gets back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. Landing top-100 point guard Caleb Murphy will help as well.|
| The Knights' roster took a significant blow recently when redshirt senior big man and last year's leading scorer Collin Smith announced he is stepping away from the game. It means even more will be riding on the eligibility of C.J. Walker. The former five-star prospect from the class of 2019 is originally from Orlando and decided to transfer home this offseason after playing a reserve role for Oregon last year. If he's eligible, UCF should still have enough talent to finish in the league's top half. Darin Green Jr. is the leading returning scorer after averaging 10.1 points per game during a standout freshman season in which he shot 41.7% from 3-point range on 5.4 attempts per game. Louisville graduate transfer guard Darius Perry and VCU transfer forward Sean Mobley should have opportunities to shine as well.|
| Second-year coach Aaron McKie is replacing four of the top five scorers from last year's 14-17 (6-12 AAC) team. That means things could get worse before they get better for the former Owls star and 13-year NBA veteran who spent five years as an assistant for Fran Dunphy before taking over the head job. The ceiling of this team could depend on the readiness of a four-man 2020 signing class to contribute right away. Otherwise, look for versatile senior forwards De'Vondre Perry and J.P. Moorman to lead. Both have contributed consistently throughout their careers, and the 6-foot-7 Perry improved from 28.6% 3-point shooting as a sophomore to 41.3% last season.|
| The Pirates finally have a roster capable of finishing above .500 in the AAC for the first time since the league's formation for the 2014-15 season. But reaching that plateau will require the Pirates to shoot better than 28.1% from 3-point range. That shooting percentage ranked 347th nationally last season as the Pirates finished 11-20 (5-13 AAC) in Joe Dooley's second season as coach. There is plenty of reason for optimism, though, as ECU returns all of its key contributors, including the AAC's leading scorer in Jayden Gardner. The 6-7 forward averaged 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as a sophomore last season and could enter the running for AAC Player of the Year if he's able to lift this ECU team past modest expectations.|
| It's going to be a transition year for second-year coach Ron Hunter as he remakes the roster to his desired specifications following a 12-18 (4-14 AAC) debut campaign. It was actually a great season when compared to the 4-27 (0-18) record the program endured in the season before Hunter's arrival. But now the rebuild will really take shape as transfers Gabe Waston (Southern Mississippi), Jaylen Forbes (Alabama), Kevin Cross (Nebraska), Oton Jankovic (Vanderbilt) enter the picture. All are sophomores, except for Watson is a junior. With this season not counting against players' eligibility, the crop of transfers could be Hunter's foundation for a few seasons to come.|