American offseason power rankings: The AAC's new team is also its best team

Now that college basketball is nuzzling into the middle section of its offseason, we wanted to look at the major seven conference in the sport and address all that has happened since early April. We're starting the series with the American Athletic Conference, and will post one league per weekday over the next seven days. 

No conference in America should have as big of a profile jump next season as the AAC. I'll explain why below. Let's just get to the goodies and let you know what you need to know. Here's what's happened with this league over the past three-plus months. 

Impact players returning

Not included, but certainly worthy: Wichita State's Landry Shamet, Shaq Morris and Markis McDuffie. Technically not "returning" to the AAC, but here they come. I think all three have a great chance at landing first and/or second team all-league honors. 

As for the names above, all will be considered for our annual top 100 (and one) players list. There are even guys not listed who will get a good look (incoming/eligible transfer Cane Broom, at Cincy, for instance). 

Impact players leaving

The Lawsons transferring out of Memphis (and going to Kansas) could be massively detrimental to the Tubby Smith era in Memphis. UConn was an injury-riddled mess last season, but losing Purvis and Brimah shouldn't prevent the Huskies from being better next season. Ojeleye and Dotson were second-round draft picks, the latter of whom was a massive riser (despite his history; Dotson was infamously banned from Oregon's campus in the aftermath of a sexual assault case that brought no charges) on draft boards. 

Coaching changes 

Brian Gregory, South Florida: Gregory taking over for Orlando Antigua, who was fired in January in the midst of an NCAA investigation, is the only coaching move in the conference this offseason. USF is in a state of significant change, but Gregory can be a savior. He did well at Dayton, then never managed to find success with Georgia Tech. For coach and program, this seems like a hire that should work for anywhere from 6-10 years. Gregory's career record is 248-180. 

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Wichita State's set up to be a top-10 team in college hoops next season. Best Shockers team ever? USATSI

Three biggest AAC offseason headlines

  1. Wichita State leaves the MVC to join the American: The biggest move in conference realignment of 2017 came within a week of the season ending. Wichita State severed tied with the Missouri Valley (it was a member beginning in 1945) to upgrade its conference and better its chances at respectable seeding and overall consideration for Big Dance inclusion. The move is perfectly timed, because Wichita State is at the height of its powers and still has Gregg Marshall running the program. The AAC could use a boost, too, and this means ...
  2. Commissioner Mike Aresco agressively pursues inclusion into the Power 5: Aresco and the American put together a hefty PR pitch/manifesto/stratagem in order to up the league's public standing. Here's the thing: the Wichita State inclusion promotes the conference in and of itself. And it's not a "power 6." There's a -- go with me on this term? -- Major 7. The Big East, though not a player in football, is indisputably a top-four conference in college basketball now. We had a major six group of leagues, and the AAC can now definitively be put with those groups thanks to successfully recruiting the Shockers. As for football, that's another matter I'll leave to the gridiron scribes. 
  3. Memphis' Tubby Smith loses the Lawson brothers: The Memphis drama has been a disaster. Smith removed Keelon Lawson, the father, from the picture when it came to significant involvement in the program. What came next is no surprise. Dedric was a top-50 player in college hoops last season. Now Smith is floundering and fighting off all the negative recruiting that's come with the fallout. I've got more perspective, in the power rankings below, on how bad it is. 
AAC power rankings
1
Easy call for No. 1. Everybody's back on a team that ranked top-10 in KenPom and was brutally under-seeded in the NCAA Tournament. Let me put it to you like this: Gregg Marshall took one team to a Final Four, had another go undefeated in the regular season, and last year's squad was the highest-rated he's ever had in the computer metrics. The 2017-18 team could wind up better than all of those others.
2
Mick Cronin stays winning. The Bearcats will make the NCAAs with ease. Cane Broom running the offense is going to be one of the most interesting storylines in the conference. He transferred from Sacred Heart , just dominating in complete obscurity. He should have the capability to step up and be a big-time player, but we won't know until we see it. Jarron Cumberland might blossom into a 15-point-per-game player, BTW.
3
Yep, I think UCF is going to be a single-digit seed. Tacko Fall rightfully gets most of the attention, but B.J. Taylor is a top-five point guard in a very good point guard league. The Knights made the NIT Final Four. Johnny Dawkins enters year No. 2.
4
I'll go with the Huskies in the four spot. Kevin Ollie will start to feel the heat if this team isn't good enough to make the NCAAs. Terry Larrier and Jalen Adams must be exceptional in order to get UConn back to national relevance. And the league needs it, too.
5
Losing Ojeleye is big, but SMU isn't out of guys. The Ponies will still compete for a bid. In fact, I expect SMU to make the field. If and when that happens, it might be Tim Jankovich's final shot to land at a bigger job -- if he wants it.
6
Rob Gray is the best player even dedicated college hoops fans don't know about. He's entering his senior season, and as a combo guard, he'll almost certainly be a preseason First Team selection.
7
Fran Dunphy has most of his roster returning. The Owls aren't flashy, but Quinton Rose could wind up as a top-two sophomore in the conference.
8
I rank the Golden Hurricane eighth, and I think it's the team I stand the greatest chance at being wrong about. Very decent dark horse potential here. Might have a No. 4-overall ceiling in this league.
9
Perhaps Smith pulls off one of his better coaching jobs ever, but things are as dismal from a fan perspective with this program as they've been in more than 15 years. My colleague, Gary Parrish, who is of course local to the area, gave me this: Memphis enrolled 37 consensus 4-star or 5-star players in a 16-year span before Smith was hired. (There were 18 in seven years for Josh Pastner. There were 19 in nine years for John Calipari.) But zero 4-star or 5-star players have enrolled at Memphis since Smith was hired, according to 247 Sports' composite rankings. He inherited a roster with four top-100 recruits. He now has a roster with zero. Treacherous.
10
This will be probably be the hot-seat season for Jeff Lebo, who has not taken ECU to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons with the Pirates. Hard to see the Pirates making the leap, because they're not prone to score from deep.
11
Mike Dunleavy only won six games last season, half of those coming out of AAC play. It was his first season, and I do think the bottom of the league will be better next season, but 10 wins should be the expectation
12
Gregory will need to be as aggressively optimistic on the recruiting trail this July as he's ever been. If he can make inroads with 2018 and 2019 prospects, USF can move into position to be a top-six team in this league come 2019. But there are miles to go.
CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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