Breaking down every team in the American Conference

Queens College's Kevin Buron, center, is sandwiched between Connecticut's Eric Cobb, left, and Kwintin Williams, right, as Williams pulls down a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college exhibition basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Wichita State

Men: The AAC’s newest team is going to make their presence felt right from the get-go. Redshirt sophomore point guard Landry Shamet is arguably the best player in the conference. His combination of length (he’s 6’4”), vision and accurate shooting (he shot 44 percent from deep last season) makes him an electric offensive threat. On top of that, the Shockers have one of the best forwards in the conference in two-way stud Markis McDuffie. McDuffie not only contributes on the offensive end (11.5 ppg on 46% from the field last season), but his speed, length, and IQ allow him to switch onto virtually anybody. Watch out for “the new kids on the shock.”

Women: The Shockers are going to seek a fresh start in their new conference with their new head coach after going 23-38 the past two seasons. Head coach Keitha Adams is experienced and knows how to win. She was the head coach at UTEP from 2001 to 2016, winning their conference three times during her tenure. Senior forward Rangie Bessard, who has led the Shockers in scoring and rebounding each of the last two seasons, is going to have to be a leader if this team has any chance of contending. The coaches voted Wichita State to finish tenth in the conference, so this team is looking to shock the world.

Cincinnati

Men: Ranked No. 12/13 in national preseason polls and picked to win the conference, the Bearcats come in with their highest expectations in years. They graduated star guard Troy Caupain, but have plenty of weapons to take his place. Cincy boasts the most fearful frontcourt duo in the conference in Gary Clark and Kyle Washington, with guard Jacob Evans shouldering most of the scoring duties. The Bearcats return 75% of their scoring from a year ago, and while Mick Cronin’s squads are generally only known for stifling defense, this may be his most complete, and dangerous, team ever.

Women: The Bearcats were having a surprisingly successful season last year at 14-5 until they lost nine of their last 11, struggling against conference opponents. Senior point guard Ana Owens, who currently sits at 18th on the Cincinnati career scoring list, and senior forward and reigning conference Newcomer of the Year award winner Shanice Johnson will look to play major roles. Head coach Jamelle Elliott, who won a championship as a player for UConn and five more titles as an assistant coach on Geno Auriemma’s staff, is well-acquainted with the Huskies, but her team is still a few years away from competing for the conference title.

UCF

Men: Tacko Fall is a very large man who wears rec specs, and he’ll be the lynchpin to UCF’s defense as they look to build on last year’s success. Fall blocked a staggering 11% of opponent’s shots when he was on the floor in 2016-17, and I expect that trend to continue. The bulk of the offense will fall on junior guard BJ Taylor, who led the team in both points per game and assists in 2016-17. The Knight’s 22 wins last year were the second most in program history, and their hot finish means expectations are high in Orlando.

Women: The UCF women have their highest expectations in years, ranked 4th in the AAC Coaches poll when they’ve never been picked to finish higher than eighth. A big reason for that is preseason first-team All-AAC guard Aliyah Gregory, who led the Knights to a 21-12 overall record last year with 16.6 points per game. Second-year head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson will have to find a way to replace their second-leading scorer, three-point sharpshooter Zykira Lewis, if UCF wants to live up to expectations in 2017.

SMU

Men: After finishing first in the conference last season with a 17-1 in-conference record and 30-4 overall, it will be tough for SMU to repeat that kind of success. They lost 3 of their 4 double-digit scorers from last year, but the one remaining is now their best player and has the cool name to justify this role. The AAC Preseason Player of the Year Shake Milton is a must-watch guard who shoots the lights out, 42.3 percent from 3 last season, and isn’t afraid to drive hard to the basket and use his 6’5 frame to convert through contact. Look for Shake to scramble opponent defenses and keep SMU near the top of the conference this season.

Women: The AAC head coaches picked SMU to finish fifth in the conference in a preseason poll, which would be marginal progress from last year’s sixth-place standing. This team could potentially make expectations look silly, as they return six seniors with experience playing together. They also have a best player in Alicia Froling that will give opposing frontcourts nightmares. Froling was named to the AAC second-team last year after averaging a double-double, putting up 14.3 points and 10 rebounds a night. If the seniors stay steady and their incoming freshman provide a boost, look for SMU to be a sneaky, tough opponent every night.

UConn

Men: UConn had a difficult time last season, missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Part of that was due to poor execution and injuries that left the bench depleted of talent. The Huskies lost several players to graduation and several more transferred. It helps that Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier are back and healthy after sitting out nearly all of last year. Look for those two to join Jalen Adams and Christian Vital as the team leaders this season in a year where returning to the big dance will be the Huskies’ primary goal.

In this March 11, 2017, file photo, Central Florida's Tacko Fall, right, guards SMU's Ben Moore, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference tournament semifinals, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Women: Everywhere you look on the roster, there is talent. This team is hungry after a shocking defeat to Mississippi State ended their 111-game winning streak last year, and they’ll be looking to avenge that. Four starters return from last year’s Final Four team, including Williams, Samuelson and Collier. Nurse, now a senior, adds another scoring threat to worry about, while Dangerfield has an added maturity and poise that will make it difficult to stop the Huskies’ offense. Duke transfer Azurá Stevens adds versatility off the bench that causes matchup problems. Expect a national championship.

University of Houston

Men: After a respectable third place finish in the conference last season, the Cougars are looking to take the next step. Rob Gray led the conference and scoring last year, averaging 20.6 points per game. However, the team loses Damyean Dotson, who received first team honors for the American Conference last year. To fill his void, Houston added five junior transfers and three freshmen. While there is plenty of talent coming in, it will be hard to match their success of 2016-2017, especially after losing Dotson. Nonetheless, expect the Cougars to compete in the top half of the conference.

Women: The Houston women finished near the bottom of the AAC last season with a dismal 4-12 record in conference play. Two of those wins came against East Carolina, the only team to finish below them. On the bright side, the Cougars managed to advance to the second round of the conference tournament, defeating Cincinnati. Nobody expects much of them this year, so they will have the opportunity to surprise opponents. They will be tested right out of the gate, facing 20th ranked Texas A&M in their opener.

Temple

Men: Last season, the Owls finished 16-16 on the season and 7-11 in conference play. Watch out for redshirt senior point guard Josh Brown and junior guard Shizz Alston Jr. Brown was the team’s starting point guard for the 2015-16 season but redshirted last season after suffering an Achilles tendon injury. Alston Jr. led the American last season in free throw percentage at .868 and ranked 10th in the American in points per game with a solid 13.9. Obi Enechionya is also a scoring threat.

Women: Coached by former UConn assistant coach Tonya Cardoza, Temple was picked by coaches to finish third in the American this season. However, in a heartbreaking loss to the program, senior guard Alliya Butts tore her ACL and will not play in the 2017-18 season. Butts is a three-time All-Conference selection and was the 2014-15 Big Five Rookie of the Year. With lots of young players on their team this season, the Owls will have to grow up quickly to replace Butts’ production.

Memphis

Men: There are plenty of new faces on the Tigers’ roster. With eight new scholarship players, including five junior college transfers, there’s a level of uncertainty when assessing Memphis. Power forward Kyvon Davenport and guard Kareem Brewton were first team JUCO All-Americans. Freshman big man David Nickelberry has been wowing coaches with his passing. Head coach Tubby Smith has plenty of tools at his disposal, it’s just a matter of getting them to all work together. If the Tigers coaching staff can sort out this puzzle, Memphis could make a significant leap up the standings.

Women: Memphis floated around .500 for most of last season, finishing 14-6. The Tigers are expected to be in the middle of the pack this year.  The Tigers are led by veterans Cheyenne Creighton and Brea Elmore, who were both AAC Third-Team All-Conference picks last season. Creighton and Elmore led the team in scoring with 14.4 and 13 points per game respectively. Ashia Jones, who averaged 23.4 points per game for Tennessee-Martin in 2014-15, will miss her senior season, a huge blow for a team that struggled to score points last season, finishing dead last in the AAC.

Tulsa

Men: Former Miami and Missouri head coach Frank Haith is still leading the Hurricanes, but faces another talent-barren roster. Tulsa had nine newcomers last season, so struggles were to be expected, but a year later they lack standouts. Junior Etou is an undersized but talented stud. Etou transferred from Rutgers, expanded his range to the perimeter and received preseason All-Conference Second Team honors, but Tulsa needs more. Guard Sterling Taplin seems like a breakout candidate after averaging 9.2 points per game last year.

Women: Picked ninth by the coaches, Tulsa is looking to improve from a 10-21 record a season ago. Erika Wakefield was the only player to average double-digits, at 11.6 points per game. Continuity will be something to look for. The Golden Hurricane return their top six leading scorers including Wakefield. Those six were also six of the top seven minute earners last season and experience is going to be vital to their plans going forward. Kendrian Elliott, a sophomore forward who scored nine points per game along with 7.9 rebounds could be best setup to make a leap.

East Carolina

Men: After going 6-12 in conference last year, this ECU season looks to be very similar. They do have some bright spots such as junior guard/forward Kentrell Barkley, a member of 2016 American All-Freshman Team, who returns as their leading scorer and rebounder from last year. However, they did graduate three of their starters, so there will certainly be a learning curve at least at the beginning of the season. They should have some success against their out-of-conference opponents, but in AAC play, expect them to struggle.  

Women: ECU was surprisingly adequate at home last season, going 8-7 overall. They struggled on the road, where they went 1-10. They also lost their top four scorers, so they will need junior point guard Alex Frazier and sophomore guard Raven Johnson, who put up the most points last season of players still on the roster, to step up. Inexperience will hurt, but compared to the results of last season there is always chance for improvement. Expect a last place finish once again.

USF

Men: The team has brought in not only new head coach Brian Gregory, but 10 new players. Gregory was at the helm for Dayton (2003-2011) and most recently from Georgia Tech (2011-2016). With so much change, the Bulls were projected to finish dead last in the American preseason poll. USF’s leading scorer Geno Thorpe, who averaged 15.1 points a game from last season is no longer with the team. However, redshirt sophomore Tulio Da Silva, who averaged 9.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, is back. For a squad that finished 8-23 last season, it is reasonable to expect more of the same.

Women: USF will most likely be UConn’s biggest competition as they were projected to finish second to the Huskies in the American preseason poll. The Bulls finished last season with a 24-9 overall record and fell to Missouri in the NCAA tournament. However, this team is led by a two-headed monster of Kitija Laksa and Maria Jespersen. Laksa averaged 19.2 points and shot 38 percent from 3-point range a year ago, while Jespersen averaged 14.7 points and nine boards. USF is UConn’s biggest threats.

Tulane

Men: The Green Wave was picked 10th in the AAC coaches’ preseason poll. They have three returning starters, including Cameron Reynolds, who won AAC Most Improved Player last season. They’re also returning Melvin Frazier and Ray Ona Embo. The latter competed in the French U-20 European championship this past summer. So far, Tulane has won both of their exhibition games. The first was a victory over LSU by a narrow margin of 10 points. The second was more significant, an 84-46 victory over Loyola.

Women: The Green Wave women were picked sixth in the coaches’ preseason poll. Senior guard Kolby Morgan was also voted to a second-team honor. This team also swept their preseason exhibition games, first earning a 78-48 win over Loyola, followed by a 65-51 victory over South Alabama. Tulane finished fifth in the conference last season with an 18-15 record (7-9 AAC). Their young players have developed and the Green Wave lead the third tier of teams in the American, behind UConn and USF in tiers of their own.