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AAC men's basketball preview 2021-22

AAC Men’s Basketball Preview 2021-22

With football-driven conference realignment in the air, the future of the American Athletic Conference is far from certain. Current members Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF are on their way to the Big 12 in the not-too-distant future, and these departures will have an impact on the hardcourt in addition to the gridiron. For the time being, however, the AAC is intact, and there is plenty to be excited about for the 2021-2022 men’s basketball season.

The heavy favorites figure to be Memphis and Houston after the Cougars made an impressive Final Four run last season and the Tigers beefed up their roster in the offseason with the massive additions of Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren. That’s not to say that the likes of SMU and Wichita State don’t have a title shot, but going through Memphis and Houston will be an uphill battle.

AAC Men’s Basketball Preview 2021-22

Favorites: Memphis, Houston

Memphis

Head coach: Penny Hardaway (4th season)

2020-21 record: 20-8 (11-4 in AAC)

Conference finish: 3rd

The offseason additions of consensus five-star freshmen Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren have the nation buzzing about Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers. Both players are projected as eventual top-10 NBA draft picks, but both are young and inexperienced talents at this point. The tutelage of Coach Hardaway and staff will be instrumental in taking Bates and Duren to the next level.

By all accounts, however, these two are already big-time players, and their addition to the core of Memphis basketball, including returners Lester Quinones, Landers Nolley II, and DeAndre Williams, will make the Tigers a formidable foe for the rest of the AAC and possibly the nation.

Houston

Head coach: Kelvin Sampson (8th season)

2020-21 record: 28-4 (14-3 in AAC)

Conference finish: 2nd

Houston’s historic return to the Final Four last season legitimized what so many knew already: Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars are talented, deep, and well-coached. If not for Memphis’ offseason talent coup, Houston would be in the driver’s seat of AAC men’s basketball, despite having to replace four of the team’s top players; Coach Sampson has done a masterful job of elevating the Houston basketball program in terms of talent, culture, and brand recognition.

In addition to excellent coaching, a bevy of talented players led by junior guard Marcus Sasser and Texas Tech transfer Kyler Edwards make Houston a force to be reckoned with once again. Expect to see Houston near the top of the pack in the AAC and making waves on the national scene again this year.

Contenders: SMU, Wichita State, UCF, Cincinnati

SMU

Head coach: Tim Jankovich (6th season)

2020-21 record: 11-6 (7-4 in AAC)

Conference finish: 4th

Head coach Tim Jankovich and staff are feeling the pressure to make waves this season after COVID-19 derailed an otherwise-promising campaign last year. The Mustangs lost several pivotal players in the offseason, but acquisitions including senior guard Zach Nutall (Sam Houston State) and twin brothers Michael (Texas Southern) and Marcus (Duquesne) Weathers beef up the cast surrounding star point guard Kendric Davis, who led the league in scoring and assists last year.

With Jankovich desperately needing a solid season to quiet critics, everything is on the line for the coaching staff at SMU. Don’t be surprised to see the Mustangs hanging near the top of the AAC. 

Wichita State

Head coach: Isaac Brown (2nd season)

2020-21 record: 16-6 (11-2 in AAC)

Conference finish: 1st

Head coach Isaac Brown and staff were more than impressive last season, leading Wichita State to the regular season AAC title and an at-large NCAA selection. Earning AAC Coach of the Year honors in the process, Coach Brown turned a rocky offseason and an uncertain regular season into a surprising success.

Now, the Shockers are primed for another solid campaign with the return of star guard Tyson Etienne and all but two of his teammates from last year. Throw in a smattering of newcomers, including transfer forward Joe Pleasant (Abilene Christian), and Wichita State should remain competitive. However, the talent at the top of the conference may just be too much for the Shockers to overcome down the stretch.

UCF

Head coach: Johnny Dawkins (6th season)

2020-21 record: 11-12 (8-10 in AAC)

Conference finish: 6th

Although UCF finished sixth place in the AAC last season, head coach Johnny Dawkins’ squad built some late momentum that it hopes to carry over into this year. With the return of all contributors and the addition of big man transfer Cheikh Mbacke Diong (UNLV), the Knights have plenty of talent and experience to give opponents fits.

Balance is the name of the game for UCF with four to seven players capable of scoring in double figures on any given night. Such a spread will be difficult for opponents to defend, but lacking a true star to rely on can be challenging in crunch time. Senior point guard Darius Perry is the most obvious candidate to lead the Knights this season, and his play may be the key to a respectable AAC finish and possible NCAA Tournament appearance.

Cincinnati

Head coach: Wes Miller (1st season)

2020-21 record: 12-11 (8-6 in AAC)

Conference finish: 5th

New head coach Wes Miller takes over a Cincinnati program that failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than a decade last season – the Bearcats are understandably ready to leave ousted coach John Brannen’s coaching in the rearview mirror.

Miller’s teams have turned heads with their defense and grit, but improvement on offense is a must to take Cincinnati back to where it believes it belongs among the nation’s elite programs. The addition of six transfers (including three who followed Miller from UNC Greensboro) creates an opportunity for the team to reinvent its identity, both in terms of culture and performance on the court.

The most likely offensive leader is junior forward Jeremiah Davenport, but others like David DeJulius and Mika Adams-Woods must step up on the offensive end if Cincinnati is to compete at a high level.

Stuck in Purgatory: Temple, Tulsa

Temple

Head coach: Aaron McKie (3rd season)

2020-21 record: 5-11 (4-10 in AAC)

Conference finish: 9th

COVID-19 did Temple no favors last season, as the Owls played only 16 games total and notched just five wins. Head coach Aaron McKie has his work cut out for him to get Temple into the contending mix in the AAC, but a trio of talented young guards could be difficult for opponents to corral. Khalif Battle, Damian Dunn, and Jeremiah Williams all have the ability to take the ball strong to the rack, and senior forward Jake Forrester is a physical presence not to be underestimated.

Tulsa

Head coach: Frank Haith (8th season)

2020-21 record: 11-12 (7-9 in AAC)

Conference finish: 7th

Head coach Frank Haith and the Golden Hurricane must develop consistency on the offensive end of the court if they want to have any shot at competing in the AAC this season. While Haith’s signature matchup zone defense and frequent small-ball lineup are sure to give teams intermittent headaches, Tulsa relies far too heavily on poor shooting from the opposition to win games.

If Haith’s squad is going to crash the AAC men’s basketball party this year, prodigal son and college journeyman Jeriah Horne (Nebraska, Tulsa, Colorado, and Tulsa again) and super senior Darien Jackson need to heat up.

Basement: Tulane, East Carolina, South Florida

Tulane

Head coach: Ron Hunter (3rd season)

2020-21 record: 10-13 (4-12 in AAC)

Conference finish: 10th

The Green Wave are likely bottom dwellers in the AAC again this year. Head coach Ron Hunter did bolster his lineup with additions of transfers Jalen Cooke (LSU) and DeVon Baker (UNC Asheville), who will join standout guard Jaylen Forbes to form a solid backcourt. Hunter and staff also have their squad primed to cause problems for opponents with their high energy, trapping defense, but there is just not enough depth or offensive firepower in the arsenal to hang with the big boys of AAC men’s basketball.

East Carolina

Head coach: Joe Dooley (4th season)

2020-21 record: 8-11 (2-10 in AAC)

Conference finish: 11th

The transfer of star forward Jayden Gardner to Virginia leaves East Carolina looking for a new identity this year. Gardner led the team in scoring and rebounding, and his absence creates a massive void.

However, head coach Joe Dooley has some new pieces to work with in transfers Wynston Tabbs (Boston College), Vance Jackson (Arkansas), and Alanzo Frink (South Carolina). Ultimately, after finishing last in the conference last season and losing their team leader and best player, Dooley and the Pirates are in for a tough year again.

South Florida

Head coach: Brian Gregory (5th season)

2020-21 record: 9-13 (4-10 in AAC)

Conference finish: 8th

South Florida is a completely different team this year following the transfer of 10, yes TEN, players from last year’s squad, including five of its top scorers. But this is probably not the worst thing to happen for head coach Brian Gregory – the Bulls struggled mightily and fizzled down the stretch last season. A fresh new start could be cause for optimism, and returning guard Caleb Murphy and transfer Javon Greene (George Mason) could be an entertaining tandem to keep an eye on.

2021-22 AAC Men’s Basketball Players to Watch

Kendric Davis – Guard – Senior – SMU

After leading AAC men’s basketball in scoring (19 ppg) and assists (7.6 apg) last season, the senior point guard is back to prove it this year.

The undersized Davis (5-foot-11) does most of his damage driving to the basket while keeping his dribble active, and because he finishes so well around the hoop, defenders are forced to collapse when he probes his way into the paint. His patience, vision, and superb passing ability make it very difficult for defenders, and he nearly always finds the open man. Davis is also an above-average defender (1.6 spg) and rebounder (4.2 rpg), making him irreplaceable on the SMU roster and a must-watch player this year.

Emoni Bates – Forward – Freshman – Memphis

The ultra-talented, 6-foot-9 freshman has all the hallmarks of the next young superstar. Size? Check. Ball handling? Check. Finishing ability? Check. Shooting range? Check plus.

However, lackluster measurements at Memphis’ recent pro day (6-foot-7¼ wing span and 24.5 vertical jump) have cooled the NBA hype a bit on the lanky youngster, and Coach Hardaway has to work some magic to get Bates up to speed with his passing and defense if he truly is going to be a star at the point guard or two-guard position. Expect Bates to face somewhat of a learning curve as he progresses this year with Memphis, but you won’t want to miss out on watching him at the college level, especially with fellow freshman phenom Jalen Duren at his side.

Marcus Sasser – Guard – Junior – Houston

Houston has a deep and talented roster, but 6-foot-2 junior guard Marcus Sasser stands out even among such a stellar group. After averaging 13.7 ppg and hitting from three at a 33.5 percent clip (78-of-233) last season, Sasser is primed for an even more impressive encore performance as the feature guard on a squad that has aspirations of making another deep run in March.

Sasser is a pick-and-roll master, has a deadly mid-range jumper, and a sweet floater in his repertoire. Combine these skills with his long-range shooting prowess and elite free throw shooting (85.2 percent last season), and Sasser has the opportunity to turn some heads this year.

2021-22 Men’s & Women’s College Basketball Conference Previews

Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.

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