American Athletic Conference College Basketball 2020-21 Preview

Had COVID-19 not hit just days before Selection Sunday back in March of this year, the American Athletic Conference was poised to land anywhere from 3-5 schools in the 68-team field depending on how the conference tournament played out.

Of course, we’re all very aware of what would happen in the days leading up to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and any conference tournaments that had yet to play out, and we were left with the worst ending any college basketball fan could have hoped for.

However, that was then and this is now, and the start of a brand-new college basketball season is just a few days away.  For the members of the AAC, they hope it’s an opportunity to position themselves in the same manner they did back in March.

The American Athletic Conference enters the 2020/21 season playing as an 11-team conference instead of the 12-team conference we’ve grown accustomed to since Wichita State joined the conference in 2017.  That’s because UConn has formally left the conference to rejoin the Big East, and their loss could be fairly significant to the overall standing of the conference, as UConn would give the AAC a borderline blue blood basketball program to hang their hat on. 

While UConn’s departure certainly weakens the overall state of the American Athletic Conference, the AAC features at least four programs that figure to land in the field of 68, and all four teams could very well find themselves playing during the second week of the tournament.

Here’s how the American Athletic Conference shakes out for the 2020/21 season, including a prediction of who we like to win the conference.

The Contenders

#15 Houston Cougars (+125 to Win AAC)

The consensus selection to win the AAC this season, and the lone team from the conference to appear in the preseason Top 25 is none other than Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars.

Houston was well on their way to staking claim to another share of the regular season AAC crown and another NCAA Tournament appearance before COVID-19 rained on the college basketball parade. 

The Cougars are ranked 15th in the country for a reason, they have a roster that is littered with talent.  Outside of Memphis, there is not another team in the conference that can match Houston’s depth. 

Houston’s backcourt is especially strong with Caleb Mills (13.2 ppg), Quentin Grimes (12.1 ppg), DeJon Jarreau (9.0 ppg), and Marcus Sasser (8.1 ppg) giving opposing teams fits game in and game out.  In games against a team like Memphis or SMU, Houston is even in a position to play small ball with their four-guard lineup.

If there is a concern for the Cougars, it would come in their frontcourt, as there just is not a great deal of size or experience with Houston’s bigs.  Sampson was able to land former Arkansas Razorbacks forward Reggie Chaney in the transfer portal, but they will still be dangerously thin against teams with a lot of size to deal with.

Nonetheless, the Houston roster is stacked with talent and should be another 25-win team in the making.  Look for Sampson’s group to once again contend for a conference title and to find themselves playing deep into March.

SMU Mustangs (+375 to Win AAC)

Head coach Tim Jankovich finally got to work with a full slate of recruits a season ago after the infractions brought to the program by Larry Brown finally expired. 

The result was a respectable 19-11 season that had SMU in the thick of the bubble race to land in the field of 68, however, the team did end the season on a rough 1-5 skid including a terrible 80-72 loss to Tulane.

The future of SMU basketball remains bright, however, and that’s in large part to a young nucleus of talent on the roster lead by the Mustangs explosive backcourt of Tyson Jolly and Kendric Davis.

SMU returns most of the team from a season ago, with the exception of the team’s second-leading scorer Isiaha Mike.  However, another year of playing together and in Jankovich’s system should result in more consistent play from the team this season. 

The Mustangs also jumped into the transfer portal foray by adding on former Oklahoma State big Yor Anei.  They should have one of the most balanced teams in the conference and figure to be in the mix for another Top 4 finish in 2020/21.   

Memphis Tigers (+400 to Win AAC)

The 2019/20 season was expected to go much differently for Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers.

Hardaway began the second year of his coaching career in Memphis by landing the top recruiting class in the country, headlined by top prospect James Wiseman.  Wiseman would go on to run into various issues regarding his eligibility and would barely see the floor before ultimately deciding to opt-out of playing college basketball to focus on the draft.

Everything else for Memphis seemed to unravel shortly thereafter.  Despite a roster littered with talent, the team never really seemed to gel and would flounder throughout the season.  Had the season not been stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Memphis very likely needed a deep run in the conference tournament just to get back on the bubble to get into the NCAA Tournament.

Fortunately for the Tigers, a bounce back 2020/21 season is not only a very distinct possibility, but it’s also a very likely occurrence.

Following the disappointing season, Penny Hardaway went back to what he knows best – recruiting.  Hardaway was able to lure Landers Nolley II away from Virginia Tech and also Deandre Williams away from Evansville.  Nolley is an elite scorer and disruptive wing presence while Williams is a very talented forward that was stuck playing on a middling Evansville team.  This paired with future one-and-done prospect Moussa Cisse, and Hardaway once again has a roster loaded with talent.

The biggest question now is can Hardaway coach these guys up.  His recruiting talents are unquestioned, but the coaching acumen has not been present yet.  If Memphis can transform from a group of AAU talent into an actual team, the sky is truly the limit for this group. 

Cincinnati Bearcats (+900 to Win AAC)

Cincinnati had a solid first season under new head coach John Brannen, who was hired from Northern Kentucky to run the team after Mick Cronin accepted the vacancy at UCLA.  Brannen continued the Cronin way of playing ferocious defense (held opponents to 39% shooting) and relying on 15-year Cincinnati player Jarron Cumberland for timely baskets.

We’re being facetious in how long Cumberland was a member of the Bearcats, but he was certainly the key player from this program the past several seasons.  Cumberland has since graduated from the school, so seniors Keith Williams (12.6 ppg) and Chris Vogt (11.0 ppg) will have to pick up the slack for Brannen’s ‘Cats.

Cincinnati also added, what could be, the biggest transfer of the offseason when they lured guard David DeJulius over to the Queen City away from Juwan Howard’s Michigan Wolverines.  DeJulius was primed for a big role on Howard’s team this season and should immediately step in and contribute in the Cincinnati backcourt.

The Bearcats were on the brink of their 10th straight NCAA Tournament bid before COVID-19 shut everything down, look for them to accomplish this feat in March and be very much in the mix for a conference championship.  This is a team that has never finished outside of the Top 3 in the AAC standings since joining the conference.

The Middle of the Pack

South Florida Bulls (+1100 to Win AAC)

After winning the 2019 CBI Tournament, excitement for the 2019/20 season in Tampa was at a fever pitch for an emerging South Florida Bulls team looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

Then star forward and former AAC Freshman of the Year Alexis Yetna injured his knee and would miss the entire season, and USF never got their season quite off the ground en route to a disappointing 14-17 record and 9th place finish in the American Athletic Conference.

If there’s a positive to take from last season, however, it’s that the Bulls bring back four starters from a season ago, including the hyper-talented Yetna.  USF also was able to sign four-star guard Caleb Murphy, in addition to landing Prince Oduro (Mississippi State), Russel Tchewa (Texas Tech), and Luke Anderson (Iowa State) in the transfer portal, so USF figures to have one of their deeper teams in recent memory.

If there’s a lurking sleeper to be found in the AAC, Brian Gregory’s USF Bulls could very well be that team this season.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane (+1500 to Win AAC)

By far, the biggest story of the 2019/20 season in the American Athletic Conference was the surprising play from Tulsa. 

Frank Haith’s Golden Hurricane was tabbed by media and coaches alike to finish 10th in the conference a season ago.  They wound up claiming a share of the regular season AAC championship with Houston instead.

If Tulsa is to once again rise to the top of the AAC standings, they will once again need to depend on their smothering defense which was the catalyst for their surprising success a year ago. 

Haith loses two of his top three scorers from a year ago, so offense may be harder to come by this season for Tulsa.  Senior forward Brandon Rachal is the lone returning starter from a year ago that averaged double-digits in scoring, so Tulsa will need someone else to fill the void left by Martins Igbanu and Jeriah Horne.

If Tulsa can fill that offensive void, this is a team that can once again contend for a Top 4 standing in the conference, however it looks like the Golden Hurricane are more likely to regress to the mean than to repeat as regular-season champions.

Wichita State Shockers (+1500 to Win AAC)

It’s been an offseason to forget if you’re a Wichita State fan, alum, or booster.  After controversy swirled around some pretty serious allegations involving longtime head coach Gregg Marshall, the school ultimately decided to cut ties with the school’s all-time winningest coach.

While all of this was going on, the Shockers were losing players left and right.  In total six players in all departed the program before Marshall was finally let go.  Interim head coach Isaac Brown will be left to pick up the pieces and to try to get a team with nine new players to come together to play during a season currently set to run during a pandemic.

In other words:  Good luck Coach Brown.

Oddsmakers don’t reflect the tumultuous Wichita State offseason in their odds, however, as the Shockers are still getting a very respectable 15/1 price to win the conference.  However, if there’s a team that could go from the top of the conference to the bottom, it’s likely going to be this group.

The Long Shots

UCF Knights (+3000 to Win AAC)

It wasn’t very long ago that UCF nearly sent Coach K and the Fighting Zion Williamson’s packing from the NCAA Tournament.  The 2019/20 season, however, was a return to the middle of the pack for Johnny Dawkins’ Knights.

However, UCF may not be down for too long.  The Knights thought they would be losing lethal outside shooting guard Darin Green to the NBA, but he elected to return for his sophomore season instead.  Green’s return is especially large for the team as forward Collin Smith, UCF’s best player from a season ago, elected to sit out the final year of his collegiate career due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus.

Dawkins hopes the transfer portal can fill the void left by Smith, as UCF landed former Louisville talent Darius Perry along with former five-star recruit CJ Walker (Oregon).   With the additions of Walker and Perry into the UCF lineup, the Knights should improve upon a lethargic offense that failed to score 60 points or more in seven different conference games. 

East Carolina Pirates (+4000 to Win AAC)

The East Carolina Pirates enter the 2020/21 season fresh off an 11-20 campaign that saw them finish just one-game above last place Tulane, but despite that the Pirates showed quite a bit of improvement from the season prior when they finished with a nearly-identical record of 10-21.

That’s enough reason for coach Joe Dooley to have excitement for the possibility of yet another step forward for the basketball program looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993.

That next leap back into the field of 68 is not likely to happen this season, but the team is slowly improving and was competitive in more games than not a season ago.

There may not be a more important player to their team in all of the American Athletic Conference than what forward Jayden Gardner means to ECU.  Gardner is widely considered to be among the most underrated players in all of college basketball, as the junior nearly averaged a double-double in his sophomore season with 19.7 ppg and 9.2 boards per contest.

ECU figures to hover around 7-9 conference wins this season, but keep an eye on them as a sneaky underdog throughout the year.  If things break right for them, they could conceivably be this season’s version of Tulsa.  

Temple Owls (+5000 to Win AAC)

Former Philadelphia 76ers sixth man Aaron McKie returns to Temple for his second season as head coach and hopes to build off of a 14-17 2019/20 season, but will have enormous challenges along the way in hoping to replicate that feat.

The Owls enter the 2020/21 campaign losing four of their top five scorers from a season ago, so they will be fielding one of the youngest teams not only in the AAC but in all of college basketball.

McKie’s young freshmen class will have the challenge of filling the shoes left by the departed Quinton Rose, who led the team in scoring and was one of the best players to play at the school in at least the past decade. 

The Owls recruiting class has a lot of promise (look out for Jake Forrester and JP Moorman), but this is a team we’ll be talking more about a few years from now.  There will be quite a bit of growing pains from this group, and while they could give some of the contenders in the conference the occasional scare, look for the Owls to finish near the bottom of the American once again.  

Tulane Green Wave (+10000 to Win AAC)

To say Tulane had a difficult offseason would be a great disservice to the term “difficult”, as the team that was about to finish dead last in the American a season ago managed to lose what little talent they had coming into this season, the most notable loss being that of leading scorer Teshaun Hightower who was arrested and charged with murder back in April.

Tulane HC and former March Madness darling Ron Hunter has his work cut out for him this season as he looks to build on a 12-win season a year ago.  Hunter hopes transfers Jaylen Forbes (Alabama) and Kevin Cross (Nebraska) can bridge some of the gaps that are on this roster from a talent perspective, but the cupboards in NOLA are still looking quite barren, to say the least.

Look for the Green Wave to be on the other end of several blowout losses and to finish at the bottom of the conference again.  Finishing 10th or above would be considered a win for Tulane this season. 

American Athletic Conference Projected Order of Finish

  1. Houston
  2. Memphis
  3. Cincinnati
  4. SMU
  5. South Florida
  6. UCF
  7. Tulsa
  8. Wichita State
  9. East Carolina
  10. Temple
  11. Tulane

All Betting Odds Courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook as of November 23, 2020.