Cincinnati Bearcats – The national media isn’t exactly ignoring Cincinnati, but I don’t think they are getting all the love they deserve either. Coming off a 30 win season, boasting one of the best defenses in the nation and returning four of their top five scorers, the Bearcats look poised to top the American and make a deep tournament run in 2018. A player to watch: junior point guard Cane Broome, who joins Cincy after transferring from Sacred Heart. Broome was the NEC player of the year two years ago and while he won’t be as ball-dominant on his new team, he could form one of the most dynamic backcourts in college basketball alongside Jacob Evans.
Wichita State Shockers – We’ve been wondering for years when the AAC will finally make the leap and be recognized as a power conference. With the arrival of Wichita St., that time may be now. The Shockers at their best are probably the best team in the conference, returning all five starters from an underachieving squad that finished eighth in KenPom’s final rankings and took Kentucky to the brink in the second round. They will lose ground early to Cincinnati as sniper Landry Shamet and swingman Markis McDuffie recover from offseason injuries, but come the new year, look out.
UCF Knights – Even for a college team, UCF’s roster looks a little top-heavy, so this ranking could end up being way off with an injury to any key pieces. But barring the unforeseen, the Knights look like legit contenders for the conference crown. 7’6” Tacko Fall has proven himself to be more than just a sideshow, coming less than a rebound shy of averaging a double-double and shooting 71.5 percent (!!) from the field in only 26 mpg. Look for Fall and bulldog perimeter defender Aubrey Hawkins, a Michigan transfer, to anchor one of the conference’s stingiest defensive units.
Houston Cougars – If this were the NBA, I would have justifiable concerns over Houston’s lack of options behind Rob Gray. Gray fits the mold of a thousand ball-dominant college point guards before him, undersized but armed with enough athleticism, skill and sheer moxie to throw his team entirely on his back for a cinderella run. Though it’s a tentative one, he’s my pick for conference player of the year. But after him, what are this team’s options? They were already a two-headed monster last year and now one of those heads, sharpshooter Dameyon Dotson, is in the NBA. If Gray ends up looking more like the pro version of Trey Burke than Kemba Walker, the Cougars don’t stand a chance.
UConn Huskies – Speaking of Kemba Walker, the Huskies may have just found his second coming in Jalen Adams. If you’re looking for a deep preseason sleeper to make some real noise in the tourney, this team may be a good bet. Size should be an issue but who isn’t that true of these days? Meanwhile, UConn will get talented playmakers Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert back from injuries; both should be upgrades over Adams’ best departed teammate, overrated chucker Rodney Purvis.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane – Homer time, break it down! Joe Lunardi is already rapping on my office door and screaming “indefensible by every known standard” but let’s be real, it’s not like I’m predicting a top of the conference finish here. And I really do think the Golden Hurricane is all sorts of talented. Like I’ve said before, their success will come down to what kind of offense Frank Haith wants to run. If he wants to make this the Junior Etou show because he’s the only well-known commodity outside of Tulsa, then this team is doomed. If a little more control is ceded to Sterling Taplin, we work the ball into Martins “the rich man’s Hakeem Olajuwon” Igbanu on the block and newcomers Curran Scott and Elijah Joiner are allowed to flex their muscles, this team could be dancing come the spring.
SMU Mustangs – I’m sure some of you are all SMH at this SMU pick because the Mustangs won 30 games last year (also, that means the American has three teams coming off 30-win seasons. Why aren’t we a power conference again?) But this team lost three starters and over 50 percent of its offense from 2016-17 and is replacing that talent with an inefficient point guard in Jahmal McMurray who plays the same position as Shake Milton, the only leftover impact player on the roster. Maybe if I was the sports editor of SMU’s paper I would have great things to say about all the unknowns on the end of the bench but as things stand, I’m foreseeing a second-division finish in the conference.
Temple Owls – Are you buying the Obi Enechionyia stock? I’m not so sure that I’m as hot for the guy as everybody else seems to be coming into the season. Sure, some measure of hype is understandable after the inside-out threat ranked in the conference’s top 10 in both blocked shots and three-point shooting but there are plenty of small red flags. One, he’s a senior, which likely means that NBA scouts don’t see his talent as anything transcendent. Second, the 6’9” big man averaged a whopping 5.8 rpg last year despite playing over 32 mpg. No doubt Obi is good but this team will bleed points and I don’t think he and junior point guard Shizz Alston have enough in them to make up the difference.
ECU Pirates – It’s the same problem that exists in East Carolina. The Pirates have one legit superstar in do-it-all forward Kentrell Barkley. You don’t have to squint too hard to see a lot of Draymond Green in Barkley and Green almost single-handedly carried Michigan St. to the Final Four a few years back. Still, unless Barkley’s three-point shooting makes a leap it’s hard to imagine him being able to take this ramshackle group of transfers and chuckers anywhere.
Memphis Tigers – If you are searching for the pick that has the best chance to come back and bite me in the ass come season’s end, look no further. You can never count out the Tigers, who last finished below .500 in 2000, and it’s not like this year’s squad lacks high-level talent. The only problem is most of that talent is completely unproven and comes in the form of transfers (Kareem Brewton and Kyvon Davenport) and a freshman (David Nickelberry). They could gel and this team could win 20 games … or this mix could prove toxic as coach Tubby Smith fails to manage a team without continuity. We’ll see.
Tulane Green Wave – You know, I’m starting to think there’s an ongoing theme with these second tier teams. It will be the Cameron Reynolds show in “Nawlins” as the athletic swingman will do his damndest to make up for a porous defense and lack of other reliable options on offense. Mike Dunleavy is too sharp a basketball mind for this team to not improve by some significant measure in 2018 but let’s be real here; a 100 percent improvement on last year would amount to a grand total of 12 wins.
USF Bulls – When South Florida moved to the American from the Big East in 2013, they were probably anticipating having an easier go of it. WELL HOW YOU LIKE DEM APPLES USF?? That reference was as pointless and unnecessary as the Bulls’ season figures to be. Aside from Tulio Da Silva, a promising two-way big man and owner of perhaps the suavest name in the conference, there is nothing to see here.