As the countdown continues to the beginning of the 2021-22 faculty basketball season on Nov. 9, ESPN.com’s panel of specialists is making its predictions for the entire nation’s prime leagues. After looking at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt, and WCC) earlier this week, we proceed with the American Athletic Conference.
The Houston Cougars, who made a run to their first Final Four since 1984 final season, would in all probability be the AAC’s staff to beat had been it not for the Memphis Tigers, whose headline-grabbing offseason included the late reclassification and signings of projected future NBA lottery picks Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren.
Beyond Houston and Memphis, a league that will soon be undergoing a makeover has different intriguing groups together with the SMU Mustangs, UCF Knights and a Cincinnati Bearcats squad that’s set to start out a brand new teaching period underneath first-year head coach Wes Miller. ESPN.com’s writing staff of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions and weighed in on all of the convention’s prime points.
American 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
American 2021-22 author roundtable
Memphis enters 2021-22 as certainly one of faculty basketball’s most intriguing groups. Are Final Four expectations unreasonable? What’s your greatest fear for the Tigers?
Medcalf: Every Final Four projection about Memphis is sensible. If you will have two gamers (Bates, Duren) who might play within the NBA proper now, you in all probability have an opportunity to make a run. And Penny Hardaway appeared to hit his stride as a head coach within the second half of final season, too. I feel it is easy to overlook that though he was an NBA star, he made the unheard-of leap from highschool/AAU head coach to go coach of a high-level collegiate program. The Tigers weathered a significant COVID-19 interruption final season and completed 11-2 of their last 13 video games, successful the NIT title. That’s good momentum for Hardaway. Sure, the Tigers misplaced some key items to the switch portal, however they added a pair of projected lottery picks.
The concern must be that freshman-stacked groups do not normally win championships. Kentucky (2012) and Duke (2015) are the one two nationwide championship groups within the one-and-done period to do it with freshmen. Jalen Suggs was a star for Gonzaga however the veteran guards on Baylor’s roster had been a problem for him and his staff within the title sport. The skilled gamers are simply bodily completely different and that issues in these late phases. There are a large number of different groups that had high-level freshmen however misplaced lengthy earlier than the Final Four. Memphis additionally will not have a straightforward path within the AAC. The league is filled with good coaches and there’s at all times a staff — or two — that everybody doubts and then makes a run. Memphis clearly has the potential, although.
Borzello: It’s exhausting to think about Final Four expectations unreasonable for a staff that has two projected top-five picks on the prime of its roster — plus numerous different proficient items surrounding these two gamers. I’ve Memphis at No. 7 coming into the season, however clearly in that prime tier of groups that ought to be competing for a nationwide championship. The Tigers are going to be among the best defensive groups within the nation, as they’ve been for many of Hardaway’s tenure, and the additions of Bates, Duren, Miami switch Earl Timberlake and others ought to actually assist them on the offensive finish. Adding Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown to the workers cannot damage at that finish of the ground, both.
The greatest fear is identical because it was final season for the Tigers: Point guard play and taking good care of the ball. Turnovers have been a significant downside for Memphis, and it sounds just like the plan is to play Bates on the level guard spot for lengthy stretches this season. That’s a task he hardly ever, if ever, performed at the highschool and AAU ranges. He has measurement and playmaking means, so if he is capable of adapt and turn into one thing of a facilitator, Memphis ought to turn into considerably harder to defend in a half-court setting.
Gasaway: Final Four expectations are cheap and comprehensible for a Memphis rotation that blends veterans with two freshmen who might finally be top-five picks: Duren and Bates (who just isn’t eligible for the draft till 2023). However, these expectations may additionally be a bit untimely, at the very least till these new-look Tigers present us they’ll handle the ball.
It’s at the very least a secure guess Memphis will commit fewer turnovers than what we noticed a yr in the past, when Hardaway’s males gave the ball away a whopping 24% of the time in American play. Bates, Landers Nolley II and firm will are available in underneath that determine, absolutely, and how a lot house they put between themselves and current historical past will dictate a good portion of this staff’s potential. Hardaway has proven he can put an excellent protection on the ground, and this was really probably the most correct capturing staff from the sphere in AAC play final season. If the Tigers get sufficient probabilities to attain, they’ll dwell as much as the hype.
Lunardi: The Tigers play and defend as exhausting as anybody within the nation, however… Despite all of the hype round Penny Hardaway’s star-studded rosters, Memphis hasn’t cracked the code for an NCAA bid in his three seasons. Maybe it is so simple as the “whole” being lower than the “sum of the parts.” Maybe the veteran voice of Larry Brown will assist. Who is aware of?
In the meantime, it says right here that the leap from NIT champion to NCAA Final Four is just too large a step for a single season. The Tigers ought to make the 2022 tourney in a breeze, however their yr of promise is extra more likely to finish in March than April.
Houston’s first Final Four journey since 1984 was amongst faculty basketball’s nice tales final season. Should we now view the Cougars as a constant Final Four risk, a pleasant second-weekend type of staff, or one thing else totally?
Gasaway: We ought to view UH as a pleasant second-weekend staff — and that is superb. This is a program that performed in only one NCAA event within the 25 years between 1992 and 2017. Now Kelvin Sampson’s taken the Cougars into three consecutive fields of 68. (It would have been 4 in a row, after all, if there had been a event in 2020.) Houston seems to have discovered an inefficiency within the expertise market and mined it for all it is price. When different packages look previous recruits who “can’t” shoot, Sampson sees a possible difference-maker on the offensive glass. So, sure, it appears the Cougars are each a pleasant second-weekend staff and an modern and forward-looking program.
Lunardi: The Cougars are a second-weekend program with Sampson and a bubble staff with out him. The Houston coach is that good. And neither facet of the assertion ought to be taken as an insult.
In the present panorama, the one non-power convention program to fee annual “Final Four” standing is Gonzaga (the Zags are an anomaly in their very own proper). And the Cougars had however a single NCAA invite in 26 years earlier than Sampson arrived, so it is also hardly a attain to name them bubble-ish with out him.
For now, let’s simply benefit from the Cougars as they’re.
Borzello: As lengthy as Sampson is on the town, the Cougars ought to be seen as a constant second-weekend risk — and as Joey Brackets stated, it isn’t an insult. There are only a few groups which might be legitimately “consistent Final Four threats,” and it is largely the bluest of bluebloods and some current powers like Gonzaga and Villanova.
Under Sampson, Houston has turn into form of like Virginia and Florida State to me, within the sense that it will be in my preseason Top 25 whatever the roster. No matter the personnel, Houston goes to be one of many elite defensive groups within the nation, it will be one of many elite offensive rebounding groups within the nation and it as a rule can have a go-to scorer that may get a bucket anytime he needs. That’s a recipe to win video games in March each single season.
Medcalf: It’s necessary for any coach to seek out the fitting match. And Sampson struck gold with Houston. They’re good for each other. That’s why I feel Houston will at all times be a staff that may be a risk to achieve the Sweet 16 and then, relying on the expertise pool, a program that is within the combine for the Final Four. That ambition is how he attracted a switch akin to Quentin Grimes, who blossomed into one of many sport’s prime gamers final season. Houston will proceed to capitalize on the switch portal with Sampson in cost.
You know the Cougars are going to smother opponents with their defensive stress. And they will play collectively. I feel Houston is actual. Also, they’ve some deep pockets behind this system. See: the $25 million follow facility that opened in 2016. Houston’s profile will proceed to develop as soon as the varsity enters the Big 12, too.
Wes Miller was a top quality on-paper rent for Cincinnati. Given Miller’s strategy and among the previous issues at UC, what’s your expectation of the Bearcats in 2021-22?
Lunardi: The Bearcats need to be taking the lengthy view at this level. New coach, new gamers and a soon-to-be-new convention are huge challenges. And the Big 12 that Cincinnati shall be becoming a member of is a monumental step up. Cincy’s historical past and custom give good reason for optimism, however we will not sugarcoat that it figures to take some time. The Bearcats shall be a middle-of-the-pack AAC staff in Miller’s debut; that might be at or close to the underside of the Big 12. The new coach received a a lot tougher job earlier than he even held a follow.
Medcalf: I feel we’ll see a rocky season for Miller in Year 1. And that is comprehensible. He inherited a large number of a state of affairs after the investigation that led to John Brannen’s departure. If Miller can get this staff, in all of its fluidity, to the highest half of the league, it might be successful and an ideal place to construct for the next season.
Being on this spot will not fear Miller, although. He was employed at UNC Greensboro in 2011 following a seven-win marketing campaign, and he did not have his first successful season till 2016-17. I do not suppose it’ll take Miller that lengthy to get Cincinnati again heading in the right direction. But his aim this season must be to stabilize a program backed by a fan base that watched Mick Cronin depart just a few years in the past and win large at UCLA, then watched his successor depart the staff amid controversy this offseason. Miller has to indicate indicators of progress and proof that he is constructing a brand new tradition.
Borzello: In yr one, Miller is unlikely to see the identical success at Cincinnati he guided UNC Greensboro to during the last 5 seasons. Given that he received three league titles and went to 2 NCAA tournaments over that span, it is comprehensible. But Miller needed to spend the early a part of his tenure merely retaining the roster collectively following the tumultuous finish to the season and ouster of Brannen, and then beef up the rotation by way of the switch portal. He did land some affect newcomers — Abdul Ado (Mississippi State) and Hayden Koval (UNCG) ought to type a dominant defensive tandem inside — however we’re extra more likely to see Miller actually put his imprint on the Bearcats beginning subsequent season.
Gasaway: Miller authored a slightly outstanding run at UNC Greensboro, as much as and together with the 70-20 file that the Spartans posted within the SoCon over the previous 5 seasons. He’s actually able to returning the Bearcats to their Cronin-era stage of energy and consistency — it is simply not going to occur within the first season. UC is younger. The few returning gamers that Miller has are veterans of a staff that was common on each side of the ball in American play final season.
Who’s the staff on this league not practically sufficient persons are speaking about heading into 2021-22?
Gasaway: UCF. Johnny Dawkins’ staff might make the NCAA event for the primary time for the reason that Knights scared the daylights out of Zion Williamson and Duke within the 2019 spherical of 32. Darius Perry and Brandon Mahan each return as fifth-year seniors, giving Dawkins his prime 9 scorers from a yr in the past. True, UCF was simply 11-12 final season, however the Knights closed by successful six of seven earlier than falling to Memphis within the AAC quarters. Perry, Mahan and Darin Green Jr., can all rating from outdoors. If UCF can maintain on to the ball and get some defensive boards, we’ll finish the season saying we weren’t speaking about these guys sufficient.
Borzello: When I requested AAC coaches this query final month, UCF received the broad majority of the votes. But now that I see the Knights are picked third by a number of folks sitting at this roundtable, I’m going with my predicted third-place staff, SMU. I feel the Mustangs are completely loaded, particularly on the offensive finish of the ground, and ought to get again to the NCAA event for the primary time since 2017.
Kendric Davis is a Player of the Year contender after averaging 19.0 factors and 7.6 assists final season, and Tim Jankovich brings in 4 affect transfers — highlighted by Southland Player of the Year Zach Nutall and Michael and Marcus Weathers. The key might be Baylor switch Tristan Clark, who shall be among the best bigs within the league if wholesome. SMU was hit exhausting by COVID-19 points final season, enjoying its last common season sport on Feb. 8; a smoother marketing campaign ought to consequence within the Mustangs listening to their identify on Selection Sunday.
Lunardi: I’m with Jeff on this. SMU’s roster is deep and intriguing, and Davis may very effectively be the very best participant within the nation outdoors the Power 5/Big East/Gonzaga conglomerate. Not solely might the Mustangs shock — they’re ok to win within the Big Dance in the event that they make it that far.
Medcalf: Wichita State, and this is why: all the pieces about final season was magical. For Isaac Brown to take over the staff after Gregg Marshall’s resignation, earn the AAC title, get a brand new contract and the official head teaching position and attain the NCAA event is a surprising listing of achievements. Tyson Etienne is certainly one of three starters again for the Shockers, who additionally add Abilene Christian switch Joe Pleasant, the NCAA event hero. Are folks speaking about Wichita State after that tremendous run final yr? Yes. But are they actually speaking about them as a staff that might win the league? Maybe, however the groups forward of them have been the principle story so far. Wichita State might crash that celebration once more.
American 2021-22 predicted order of end
3. SMU (tie)
3. UCF (tie)
3. Wichita State (tie)
10. East Carolina
11. South Florida
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