There may not have been a conference in the nation that was more struck by injuries last season than the American. UCF was devastated by losses of the likes of Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall, while SMU (Shake Milton) and UConn (Alterique Gilbert) were among others that had their season hopes dashed by doctors’ reports. Of course, not every team’s problem was injuries – just ask Cincinnati, who apparently forgot how to play defense midway through the second half of their NCAA Tournament loss to Nevada.
This season, the American has a large number of teams that appear to be good enough to contend for tournament bids, led by Cincinnati, UCF and Houston. Expect UConn to make big upwards strides with Danny Hurley taking over at head coach, and it will be tough to count out SMU, Wichita State or Temple, all of whom have excellent coaching as well. Memphis should be fascinating to watch as Penny Hardaway gets his first-ever college head coaching job. All in all, there should be a ton of competitive teams in this league, and if they don’t end up just beating each other up too much, it would not be a shock to see four or more NCAA bids come March.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Cincinnati – The Bearcats need to put what happened against Nevada last March in the rear-view mirror and find a way to gel without Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington around anymore. That may not be too difficult for Mick Cronin, especially with Jarron Cumberland poised for a breakout season in the backcourt and some good size down low with the likes of Nysier Brooks and redshirt freshman Mamoudou Diarra. Getting solid scoring from the likes of Cane Broome and Juco transfer Rashawn Fredericks could be the key to the team’s success.
- UCF – The Knights were snake-bitten by injuries last season and need to keep their players on the floor if they want to succeed this year. If they can do that, between the experience gained last season by backups thrown into starting roles, and the returns of stars Aubrey Dawkins, B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall, this team has enough talent to win the league and even challenge for a protected (top 4) seed in March. If they stay healthy, that is.
- Houston – It will be tough for Kelvin Sampson to make up for the loss of Rob Gray’s 19.3 points per game and Devin Davis’ rebounding skills. Corey Davis, Jr. should score a ton of points for the Cougars, and Fabian White Jr. has a chance to be a force down low, but the rest of the frontcourt is full of question marks and depth could be an issue.
- Connecticut – Dan Hurley takes over as head coach and he may not have as big of a rebuild project as some people fear. Despite finishing 14-18 last season, the Huskies return potential conference player of the year Jalen Adams and will hopefully finally have Alterique Gilbert healthy. There is enough talent here that, if Hurley can pull the team together, it would not be a shock at all to see UConn in the Big Dance in his very first season.
- SMU – Much like UCF, the Mustangs were hit hard last season with injuries and will need to find a way to stay healthy this season, especially given that they are still limited to only 11 scholarship players due to NCAA penalties. The key will be the return of Jarrey Foster and how much offense he can add to complement his superb defensive skills and help make up for the loss Shake Milton. Also keep an eye on Duquesne transfer Isiaha Mike who averaged over 11 points per game as a freshman at his former school.
- Temple – Do not be surprised if the Owls find a way to challenge for a Dance Ticket to give Fran Dunphy one last hurrah on his way to retirement at the end of the season. Guards Quinton Rose and Shizz Alston Jr. will lead the way, but there are a lot of holes in the front court with forward Obi Enechionyia now gone.
- Tulane – Picking the Green Wave this high may surprise some, but Mike Dunleavy is finally starting to make some noise in New Orleans. The team lost both Melvin Frazier and Cameron Reynolds to the pro ranks but does have three other starters and a lot of depth returning. Tulane is still a few years away from contending for a tourney bid, but things are definitely looking up.
- Wichita State – The Shockers have made 7 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and it is hard to bet against Gregg Marshall. However, the only significant contributor back from last season’s team is Markis McDuffie, making this a rebuilding year in Wichita.
- Memphis – Of all programs in the American, the Tigers may be one of the most intriguing to follow this season. Penny Hardaway takes over as head coach after never coaching above the prep level. If he proves that his coaching skills on the court are as good as his recruiting so far has been, the Tigers could be on their way to the top of the AAC in just a few years. As for this season, a nice handful of heralded freshmen are joining 2017-18 HoopsHD American Conference Player of the Year Jeremiah Martin (almost 19 points per game last season) and Kyvon Davenport (just over 13 points per game). Expect the Tigers to struggle early as they attempt to put the pieces together and Hardaway learns the ropes, but this could be a very dangerous team by February and March.
- Tulsa – The Golden Hurricane were a big surprise last season, putting together a 12-6 conference record and 4th place finish. With Junior Etou and Corey Henderson gone now, it is difficult to see them finishing anywhere close to that mark, even with one of the conference’s top point guards in Sterling Taplin.
- East Carolina – Joe Dooley’s return to the helm, after a great run over the past five years at Florida Gulf Coast, bodes well for the future of East Carolina basketball. Unfortunately, this team lost two of its best players from a team that took an ‘L’ 20 times last season, and making any serious progress will take a few years, even with AAC Rookie of the Year Shawn Williams on the court.
- South Florida – If you are going to be on a team that has the sort of season we expect the Bulls to have, at least you can take solace in the fact that you are spending the winter in Tampa. David Collins averaged 10 points per game last season and will likely be the team’s top scorer.