Predicting the 2014-15 American Athletic Conference College Basketball Standings
The American Athletic Conference is the most successful conference in college basketball history as far as percentage of seasons producing a national champion is concerned, but is the AAC headed for a sophomore slump in 2014-15?
Even before Louisville and Rutgers were replaced by East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa, the AAC was a borderline major conference. It ranked eighth in conference RPI and was the seventh-strongest conference by Ken Pomeroy's estimation (KenPom subscription required).
But now? Well, let's just say it was a bit of a stretch to even include the AAC in this summer series of projecting conference standings.
To be sure, this is still a multi-bid conference. Only instead of sending four teams to the tournament and having a fifth serve as the most talked about snub on Selection Sunday, don't be surprised if the American struggles to get three invites to the Big Dance.
In ranking the teams from No. 1 through No. 11, we looked at outgoing players, incoming freshmen, D-I transfers, JUCO transfers, redshirts and projected starting fives. For better or worse, no stone was left unturned.
We look forward to your civilized disagreements about the order in which these teams will finish.
This will be the last conference of the series, but brace yourself for next week's capstone to all these predicted standings: Our first projected bracket of the 2014-15 season!
11. South Florida Bulls
2013-14 Record: 12-20 (3-15 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Javontae Hawkins, Zach LeDay, Victor Rudd, Martino Brock, Josh Heath, John Egbunu, Shemiye McLendon, Musa Abdul-Aleem
Key Incoming Players: Jaleel Cousins
Projected Starting Five: Corey Allen Jr., Anthony Collins, Bo Zeigler, Chris Perry, Jordan Omogbehin
Fewer people flee South Florida during a Category 5 hurricane.
The Bulls already weren't good, and now they're losing their head coach of seven years as well as eight of the 12 players who appeared in a game for them last season—even though only two of them were seniors.
Two of the returning players—Allen and Perry—started every game in the month of December but had played their way out of the starting lineup by the beginning of March. And the players who replaced them decided to transfer.
Even though he was their second choice after the whole Steve Masiello degree fiasco, the hiring of Orlando Antigua should prove to be a great one. His recruiting skills will help lure talent that otherwise would have never even considered South Florida.
But that doesn't do much to help the team this year.
The Bulls will inevitably win a game or two in this conference, but their chances of making the 2015 NCAA tournament are about as good as the chances of neither Duke nor Kentucky going dancing this year.
10. Tulane Green Wave
2013-14 Record: 17-17 (8-8 in C-USA)
Key Players Leaving: Kevin Thomas, Tomas Bruha
Key Incoming Players: Keith Pinckney
Projected Starting Five: Jonathan Stark, Louis Dabney, Jay Hook, Cameron Reynolds, Trevante Drye
Tulane had a .500 record last season and doesn't lose any of its top six scorers.
Normally this would be cause for optimism, but Tulane really might have been the worst 17-win team ever.
Against teams rated in the top 150 by KenPom.com, the Green Wave went 0-11 and lost those games by an average margin of 20.5 points per game. They only got to 17-17 by ranking No. 1 in the country in luck and playing a lot of games against really awful teams.
Dating back to the 2004-05 season, every team to rank No. 1 in luck ended up having a worse record the following season. Montana (25-7) was statistically the luckiest team in 2012-13, but the Grizzlies were exceptionally average this past season, going 17-13.
It should probably also be noted that Tulane is the first team in the history of KenPom.com—which goes back to the 2001-02 season—to be top three in the country in luck without also posting a winning record.
Throw in the fact that the Green Wave are transitioning to a more difficult conference, and this could be a colossal train wreck of a season.
If Ed Conroy can lead this team to the NCAA tournament despite failing to bring any team to the promised land in his eight-year career, he just might deserve the most lucrative contract extension in the entire country next summer.
9. Central Florida Knights
2013-14 Record: 13-18 (4-14 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Isaiah Sykes, Tristan Spurlock, Calvin Newell, Steven Haney, Eugene McCrory
Key Incoming Players: Adonys Henriquez
Projected Starting Five: Daiquan Walker, Brandon Goodwin, Matt Williams, Kasey Wilson, Staphon Blair
Manhattan was 14-18 two years ago but managed to improve by 10.5 games in one summer to represent the MAAC in the NCAA tournament this past season. So, it technically could happen.
But the 2012-13 Jaspers didn't have a single senior on the roster who averaged more than 4.0 points per game, and their best player was injured just six games into the season and never returned.
UCF, on the other hand, is losing its three leading scorers, as well as a fourth player who averaged 5.0 points per game. So you'll have to forgive my lack of optimism for the Knights in 2014-15.
Sykes did everything for this team last year. He led them in points, rebounds, assists and steals.
Now that he's gone, the projected starting backcourt is a pair of young players who combined to score 6.5 points per game last season.
UCF hasn't been to the tournament since leaving the Atlantic Sun in 2005. That certainly won't be changing this year.
8. East Carolina Pirates
2013-14 Record: 17-17 (5-11 in C-USA)
Key Players Leaving: Akeem Richmond, Brandan Stith
Key Incoming Players: Kanu Aja, Lance Tejada, Terry Whisnant
Projected Starting Five: Antonio Robinson, Paris Roberts-Campbell, Prince Williams, Caleb White, Michael Zangari
Stith will be missed. As a freshman who averaged just 19.5 minutes per game, he led the Pirates in rebounds and blocks. But they still have Zangari, Aja and Marshall Guilmette to handle the big man duties.
Replacing Richmond won't be anywhere near that simple.
The senior guard led the nation in made three-point field goals per game while shooting 39.5 percent from downtown. The man made at least 10 three-pointers in three different games last season. On the season, he made 21 more triples than the rest of the team combined.
Despite having one of the most valuable players in the conference, ECU went just 5-11 in C-USA last season due in large part to horrible defense.
Including their two conference tournament games, the Pirates allowed C-USA opponents to average 1.09 points per possession against them. According to KenPom.com (subscription required), C-USA was one of the least efficient conferences in the country, ranking 28th out of 32 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
In summation, the Pirates are losing easily their most important player and transitioning to a more difficult conference despite failing to show an ability to defend in their previous conference.
Putting that in video-game terms, they were failing on the medium setting of Guitar Hero when at full strength but have decided to give the hard setting a try after having a finger amputated.
What could go wrong?
7. Houston Cougars
2013-14 Record: 17-16 (8-10 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: TaShawn Thomas, Danuel House, Jaaron Simmons, Brandon Morris, Tione Womack, J.J. Richardson
Key Incoming Players: Torian Graham, Devonta Pollard, Eric Weary Jr.
Projected Starting Five: L.J. Rose, Graham, Jherrod Stiggers, Pollard, Danrad Knowles
Had they kept the whole gang together, the Cougars legitimately could have contended for the AAC title this year.
Not a single one of their five leading scorers was a senior. Thomas was one of the best total packages in the conference, averaging 15.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game last year. House ranked second on the team in scoring average despite missing nine games in the middle of the season after knee surgery.
But those two studs are gone, electing to transfer away from Houston after the firing of James Dickey and hiring of Kelvin Sampson.
Sampson will still have some quality players to work with, though. Stiggers averaged 18.9 points per 40 minutes last season while shooting 36.0 percent from three-point range. Rose had the 15th-best assist rate in the country, according to KenPom.com, and had a strong 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. Knowles averaged 14.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per 40 minutes.
Sampson also has some great incoming JUCO players.
247Sports.com rated Pollard as the 25th-best incoming player in 2012—one spot ahead of House—before overly public family legal issues led to his decision to leave Alabama for East Mississippi Community College.
That same summer, Graham was a 4-star recruit who committed and decommitted from North Carolina State twice before spending the past two seasons at Chipola College.
If both players are able to deliver on some of that promise from two years ago, Houston will be in pretty good shape.
6. Temple Owls
2013-14 Record: 9-22 (4-14 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Dalton Pepper, Anthony Lee
Key Incoming Players: Obi Enechionyia, Jaylen Bond, Jesse Morgan*, Devin Coleman**
Projected Starting Five: Will Cummings, Quenton DeCosey, Daniel Dingle, Mark Williams, Devontae Watson
*Morgan will need a waiver to be allowed to play another season in college after being ruled ineligible last summer.
**Coleman likely won't be available until January after a midseason transfer away from Clemson.
Nothing quite says "power conference" like a 22-loss team from last season vying for a spot in the middle of the pack despite losing two of its top four scorers from last year.
Sarcasm aside, Temple should be much improved this season—particularly if they can win the eligibility battle and have Morgan in the mix this year. The Owls were pretty solid for the first 10 games of last season before losing Dingle to a torn meniscus.
His injury turned an already thin roster anorexic. Knowing that no one could afford to get into foul trouble, the Owls pretty much just stopped playing defense. Over the final 21 games of the season, they allowed their opponents to average 79.4 points per game and 1.15 points per possession.
Adding four players and getting Dingle back should be a huge boost for a team that almost never played more than seven guys in any given game.
Whether or not Morgan is allowed to play, Fran Dunphy will have an excellent pair of starting guards in Cummings and DeCosey. The presumed backcourt duo combined to average 32.2 points and 7.0 assists per game last season.
If Dingle is healthy and if Williams blossoms as many expect he will as a sophomore, Temple should be much closer to 22-9 than 9-22 this year.
5. Cincinnati Bearcats
2013-14 Record: 27-7 (15-3 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson, Titus Rubles, Jermaine Lawrence, David Nyarsuk
Key Incoming Players: Gary Clark, Coreontae DeBerry, Farad Cobb, Quadri Moore
Projected Starting Five: Troy Caupain, Ge'Lawn Guyn, Jermaine Sanders, Shaquille Thomas, DeBerry
I'm all for giving great coaches the benefit of the doubt when it comes to roster turnover, but Mick Cronin hasn't dealt with anything quite like this since his second season at Murray State.
In his first year as a head coach in 2003-04, Cronin led the Racers to a 28-6 record and a NCAA tournament berth. But that team had eight departing seniors and two juniors who were dismissed from the team for a series of legal issues, meaning 93 percent of the team's scoring was not on the roster the following season.
This year's situation at Cincinnati isn't quite so dire, but Cronin will be without his top three players from last season, as well as two reserve bigs who received a decent number of minutes while Jackson frequently dealt with foul trouble.
Without Kilpatrick doing all of the scoring and Jackson and Rubles going to work in the post, this is going to be a much different team than the one that earned the No. 1 seed in the 2014 AAC tournament.
It's one thing to bank on a couple of role players developing into key assets, but this entire team is going to be made up of role players from last season.
Caupain, Guyn, Sanders and Thomas each averaged between 19.0 and 23.0 minutes per game and ranged from 4.5 to 6.8 points per game. Save for Caupain's better-than-average assist rate, none of those guys did anything noteworthy last season.
Of course, this could be a "chicken or the egg" situation. Did they have mediocre stats because Jackson, Kilpatrick and Rubles were so great, or did Cincinnati's three leading scorers put up such good numbers because they were the only viable options the team had?
Considering the team's complete inability to do anything on offense when Kilpatrick was smothered in the final two games of last season, I'm leaning toward the latter.
Caupain may develop into a special talent, as he was only a freshman last year; but if Guyn or Sanders was going to become a reliable scorer, you'd think we would have at least gotten a glimpse of that at some point in their first three seasons with the Bearcats.
Unless the incoming freshmen and JUCO transfers perform much better than expected, Cincinnati will likely be spending much of this season on the bubble.
4. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2013-14 Record: 21-13 (13-3 in C-USA)
Key Players Leaving: Pat Swilling Jr., Tim Peete, Lew Evans
Key Incoming Players: Keondre Dew
Projected Starting Five: Shaquille Harrison, James Woodard, Rashad Smith, Brandon Swannegan, D'Andre Wright
Tulsa ended up being a year or two ahead of schedule last season.
Early on in the year, the Golden Hurricane wasn't anything special. They started out 4-9, including two losses to TCU—a team that otherwise went 0-21 against the RPI Top 150.
But then something happened when the calendar flipped from 2013 to 2014, and this team made up almost entirely of sophomores was suddenly one of the best mid-majors in the country, winning 17 of its next 20 games before falling to UCLA in the NCAA tournament.
The Golden Hurricane overachieved, but they also showed some serious promise for the future.
Woodard built on a strong freshman year by leading the team in scoring and rebounding as a 6'3" guard. Smith bounced back quite nicely from a foot injury that caused him to miss all but four games in 2012-13 by averaging 12.0 points and 4.9 rebounds while playing less than 25 minutes per game.
Harrison had flashes of brilliance last year, developing into a huge asset on both ends of the court with his scoring, passing and defense.
Can they carry over that success with a new coach in a new conference? Considering the lack of strength we've seen to this point in the standings, I don't see why not.
3. Memphis Tigers
2013-14 Record: 24-10 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, David Pellom
Key Incoming Players: Dominic Magee, Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins, Avery Woodson
Projected Starting Five: Rashawn Powell, Magee, Nick King, Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin
It feels like we never got a good read on Memphis last season.
Five days after getting blown out at home by Cincinnati, the Tigers went on the road and beat Louisville. And after suffering by far their most humiliating loss of the season to Houston—five days after needing overtime to win a home game over Temple—they went ahead and completed the season sweep of the Cardinals.
Was Memphis a good team that never really got into a groove or just an average team that ended up being a matchup nightmare for Louisville?
Perhaps we'll never know what we saw, but we do know it'll look a lot different this year without those four senior guards who combined to play 56.4 percent of the team's minutes last season.
As a result, there will be a lot of unfamiliar faces on the court for Josh Pastner.
Goodwin will be back as the team's heart and soul in the paint, and Nichols just might be the breakout player of the year as a sophomore. But we're completely guessing at what Memphis' starting backcourt will look like.
King figures to be the favorite to start at small forward, as he appeared in every game last season for Memphis, but Kuran Iverson, Burrell and Hawkins will all be battling for minutes at that position. Meanwhile, the playing time at the guard positions could go to any combination of Powell, Magee, Woodson, Markel Crawford and Damien Wilson.
Whatever the Tigers choose to do with their guards and small forward, it will be young and unproven.
It could be lightning in a bottle, or it could be a disaster waiting to happen.
Until he actually loses more than 10 games in a season, though, let's go ahead and assume that Pastner will be able to figure out a workable solution.
2. Southern Methodist Mustangs
2013-14 Record: 27-10 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Nick Russell, Shawn Williams
Key Incoming Players: Justin Martin, Jordan Tolbert*
Projected Starting Five: Nic Moore, Keith Frazier, Martin, Markus Kennedy, Yanick Moreira
*Tolbert should be eligible to play immediately, but no official word yet.
In the month of July, there's usually no such thing as good news in college basketball. Things that make the biggest waves at this point in the calendar are scandals, injuries and eligibility issues.
Suffice it to say, SMU's season didn't exactly take a turn for the better when news of Emmanuel Mudiay's decision to go pro overseas began to make its way around the Internet on July 14.
But if you suddenly think the Mustangs are going to miss the tournament, I would implore you to reconsider.
They are still a better team than last season. They are still playing in a weaker conference than last season. And the biggest knock against their resume was a poor nonconference schedule that will be substantially better this year.
The irony here is that SMU actually is a sleeper team once again, as opposed to being a consensus Top 15 team that everyone is calling their sleeper pick.
Kennedy quietly emerged as one of the best big men in the AAC last season. He struggled in his first month last season after transferring from Villanova, but he averaged 20.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per 40 minutes after Dec. 4.
Martin may wind up being the best 2014 transfer in the country, as he fills a void at small forward after averaging 14.0 points per game and shooting just a shade under 40.0 percent from three-point range over his final 21 games with Xavier.
And we haven't even mentioned last year's leading scorer, Nic Moore. He averaged 4.9 assists per game while shooting 43.6 percent from three-point range. The Mustangs may not have Mudiay at point guard, but that's a pretty solid plan B.
Better yet, the Mustangs will have the deepest and most talented bench in this conference. In addition to that projected starting five, Larry Brown will have some key reserves in Ben Moore, Cannen Cunningham, Ryan Manuel, Sterling Brown and Tolbert.
Rather than asking how far the Mustangs should fall, we should instead be legitimately pondering if they have what it takes to win this conference.
1. Connecticut Huskies
2013-14 Record: 32-8 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey, Lasan Kromah, Tyler Olander, Leon Tolksdorf
Key Incoming Players: Daniel Hamilton, Rodney Purvis, Sam Cassell Jr., Rakim Lubin
Projected Starting Five: Ryan Boatright, Purvis, Hamilton, Phillip Nolan, Amida Brimah
With all due respect to the defending national champions, the Huskies are the least convincing of the projected first-place finishers that we encountered in this series.
I'm not necessarily saying they would go 0-6 in a round-robin tournament against North Carolina, Villanova, Kansas, Wisconsin, Arizona and Kentucky, but they aren't anything close to the favorites in that fictitious group of death.
This won't be a popular game of "What if?" in Storrs—and it's in no way meant to take away from their championship run—but would the Huskies even be in the preseason Top 25 if they had lost that opening-round game against Saint Joseph's?
But even though Connecticut lost four of its five primary players and leading scorers, it still has to be considered the team to beat in the AAC with Louisville gone and Cincinnati losing a ton in its own right.
Boatright and Brimah will be the returning anchors for the Huskies—particularly on the defensive end of the court. Brimah was one of the best shot-blockers in the nation, and Boatright had nearly as many steals on defense (61) as he did turnovers on offense (76) last season.
Beyond that, here's hoping the new pieces fit seamlessly into Kevin Ollie's puzzle. Hamilton will be more or less expected to fill the void left by Daniels' departure, and Purvis will have some mighty big shoes to fill by taking Napier's spot in the starting lineup.
In addition to needing new players to fulfill their potential, the degree to which Kentan Facey improves as a sophomore could be the deciding factor in whether Connecticut wins this conference.
Facey was the Huskies' top-rated recruit last summer, but he was used extremely sparingly, pretty much only playing in blowouts. Aside from a momentary cameo in the final seconds of the round-of-32 win over Villanova, Facey didn't even set foot on the court in Connecticut's final eight games last season.
If his role doesn't increase considerably, that's a lot of hope being pinned on Brimah, Nolan and incoming 3-star forward Lubin.
Long live the king?
Other conferences previously covered:
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.