College basketball is back! UConn is looking to take a step in the right direction on the men’s side with Dan Hurley in charge. In a wide-open American Conference, anything could happen. Here's a look at the conference’s top contenders for the upcoming season.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats are the team to beat in the American this season, coming off a 31-5 season that led them to winning both the American regular season championship and the conference tournament.
Cincinnati suffered some of the biggest losses in the conference coming into the new season, but their repertoire helps them remain the frontrunners. They lost 2017-18 American conference player of the year, Gary Clark, as well as top guards Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington. But Cincinnati's sustained success has allowed them to rack up a line of players that step up each year in order to ensure that the Bearcats finish in the top portion of the standings.
Jarron Cumberland expects to contend for the conference Player of the Year this season. He averaged 11.5 points per game last year to go along with a shooting percentage of 41. Cumberland will need to raise his game in order for the Bearcats to win the conference, as they anticipate he will be the best player on the team.
But what can ultimately ensure that Cincinnati finishes among the best in the conference is the unbreakable defensive play instilled by coach Mick Cronin. Teams averaged just 57.5 points per game against them last season. After losing some stars, they will look to ramp up their pressure defense further.
Cronin has built fundamentally sound teams year after year, making it difficult to pick against them in conference play. He will likely take Cincinnati to its ninth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance this season. But what is in question is whether the Bearcats will be able to make any noise once they get there. Despite their continuous dominance of the American, they have fared poorly in the NCAA tournament every year. Cincinnati collapsed in last year’s tournament as a No. 2 seed, being upset by Nevada in the round of 32. This year’s squad is less proven, but behind Cronin’s system, they should still have a strong shot at taking home the conference title.
UCF: Favored in the 2018-19 American Conference coaches’ poll, UCF looks to make just its fifth tournament bid in program history. The Knights are the opposite of the Bearcats, as they have little foundation as a source to project them to finish better than the rest.
Yet six conference coaches picked them to finish first in the standings. UCF finished smack in the middle of the conference last season with a mediocre 9-9 record in conference play. But they send a mature group into the new season, and one that boasts senior guard B.J. Taylor and senior center Tacko Fall. The Knights are primed for their best run in program history with an experienced core of talent. Ceasar DeJesus, Terrell Allen and Dayon Griffin round out the group, as Coach Dawkins will look to take UCF deep into March.
The skill is certainly present for the Knights, but whether it will all come together for a conference championship remains to be seen. While Dawkins’ assortment of players has experience on the college court, they have little prior history in meaningful March games. Injuries riddled UCF last season as well, making their potential to succeed an even bigger question.
It will be tough for them to take down a perennial conference leader in Cincinnati, but look for them to contend through the end of the regular season. The program hopes to reach the NCAA tournament and win its first ever game there.
Houston: The Cougars can be easy to forget about after falling just short of winning anything in 2017-18, but they should not be taken lightly. This team will be hungry after coming so close last year and finishing in a tie for second with Wichita State in the regular season conference standings.
The Cougars are not as far off from Cincinnati as people often see them. They lost a close one against the Bearcats in the conference tournament championship game last season, falling 56-55. During the regular season, they finished with only two fewer wins than the Bearcats in American play.
The loss of Rob Gray will sting for Houston, but they are primed to continue to contend. Corey Davis Jr will take charge as they look to replace his nightly point totals.
The difference between who wins the conference will be who steps up for their respective teams. With Cincinnati and Houston losing some of their top players, the door is open for a team like UCF to take the crown. But Cincinnati and Houston still have the firepower to come out on top.
Dylan Barrett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.