As the countdown continues to the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. We continue with the American Athletic Conference, in which the Memphis Tigers are arguably college basketball’s top team, but they will have to get through Houston, Cincinnati and a group of additional hopefuls in conference play:
Which hyped college basketball teams of the past does this Memphis team’s buzz remind you of? Do you expect the Tigers to live up to the hype?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: It’s a unique situation, but it reminds me a little bit of 2015, when LSU and California both came out of nowhere with top-10 recruiting classes and preseason top-10 recognition. LSU landed Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, and Cal picked up Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. It was Johnny Jones’ fourth season at LSU and Cuonzo Martin’s second season with the Golden Bears.
Neither team truly lived up to expectations. LSU missed the NCAA tournament, and Cal was bounced as a 4-seed in the first round. I think Memphis will do better than both, and I think they will live up to the hype — if the hype is an AAC title and a second-weekend NCAA tournament appearance.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Thad Matta led Ohio State to the Big Ten title during the 2005-06 season, but the arrivals of Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook the following season shifted the national landscape. I understand the differences between the buzz that surrounded Oden and the frenzy around Wiseman. But this feeling that Penny Hardaway might have this overwhelming pool of young talent that will change the national picture is similar.
That Ohio State team reached the national title game and lost to Florida, the only back-to-back national champion since Duke’s run in 1991 and ’92. To land on that stage, the Tigers will have to fight through a collection of veteran squads. I don’t see that happening. But I do think they’re a second-weekend squad. Anything can happen from there.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The excitement around Memphis this season reminds me a little of St. John’s heading into 2011-12. We have a big name landing as head coach (Steve Lavin eight years ago, Penny Hardaway last season) at a storied program that has been down recently. No sooner does the coach arrive than he pulls in an incredible — and populous — recruiting class. Heck, that Red Storm team even had Precious Achiuwa’s older brother, God’sgift. As it happens, St. John’s that season seriously underachieved relative to the hype surrounding ESPN’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class nationally, but I expect the Tigers’ No. 1-ranked class to justify all the talk and push for the program’s first American title.
Which American team other than Memphis is going to elicit the most national attention in 2019-20?
Borzello: Houston. I think Cincinnati is the second-best team in the league right now, but I think Houston can be a really interesting group if Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes receives a waiver to play immediately. Grimes struggled during his lone season with the Jayhawks, but he was a top-10 prospect and projected lottery pick coming out of high school. He could be the difference between Houston finishing third or fourth and Houston winning the AAC title.
Kelvin Sampson has to replace a lot, but Dejon Jarreau and Nate Hinton have as much talent as anyone outside of Memphis, and Towson transfer Justin Gorham has generated some positive offseason buzz. We know the Cougars will defend. But ultimately it comes down to Grimes.
Gasaway: Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a shot at an at-large bid in head coach John Brannen’s first season at the helm, and that’s always a good story. The former Northern Kentucky coach inherits three of the starters from UC’s round-of-64 loss to Iowa last March. (Although, clearly, Nysier Brooks‘ transferring to Miami was a blow.) This could be yet another good Cincinnati team, but that will require a clean bill of health from reigning American player of the year Jarron Cumberland. The senior has been hampered by a recurring foot issue.
Medcalf: I’m with Borzello here, largely because of Cumberland’s injury. Kelvin Sampson lost a lot when Armoni Brooks surprised many and bolted for the pros, joining Galen Robinson Jr. and Corey Davis Jr. as three of the top losses in the league. But I trust Kelvin Sampson. He has had one losing campaign (his first year at Houston in 2014-15) since the 1989-90 season.
Jarreau (8.7 PPG) will become the new catalyst of the most efficient offensive and defensive team in the league last season. And I think Grimes will appreciate the change of scenery if he’s cleared to play. I do wonder how he’ll take Sampson’s coaching because the veteran leader is old-school. If Grimes fits and plays this season, however, this team will be a legit contender in the AAC and an NCAA tournament squad.
It’s farewell to the AAC for UConn after this season. Twenty years from now, what are people going to say about the Huskies’ seven-season association with the American?
Medcalf: They’ll say it was weird. That’s what they should say — it never made sense. I think we’ll look back and wonder how it happened in the first place. More than anything, however, I think they’ll remember Kevin Ollie and the turbulence attached to his time with his alma mater. In 2014, he was a national champion as a representative of the American Athletic Conference, celebrating on the court with notable former players such as Richard Hamilton and Ray Allen. Five years later, he was hit with a three-year show cause over a series of alleged violations that led to his firing. What a bizarre stretch.
Gasaway: In 20 years, people will say, “UConn used to be in the American?” Even the Huskies’ 2014 national title with Shabazz Napier might be mistakenly but occasionally credited in retrospect to the Big East. To be sure, the American has a strong hoops nucleus even without Connecticut. Programs such as Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Wichita State and Temple will keep the league in good stead for years to come. But at the end of the day, UConn belongs in the Big East. No, Syracuse isn’t there anymore, but Georgetown, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Providence still are. With the Huskies coming home, that makes five of the original seven right there. Somewhere, Dave Gavitt is smiling.
Borzello: Well, they won a national championship while in the American, so the relationship has that going for it. But it’s going to be remembered as a strange fit that never quite worked out.
UConn was supposed to be the basketball power that highlighted a fairly strong core of basketball programs in the league, but besides the title, the Huskies made one NCAA tournament appearance and finished below .500 the past three seasons. Plus, there was always the talk that UConn fit better in the Big East — which is true — and it’s why the Huskies are back in the league after a seven-year hiatus. Like Gasaway said, 20 years from now, people might not even remember that UConn was in the American. But they will always have that 2014 national title for the league.
John Brannen (Cincinnati), Aaron McKie (Temple) and Ron Hunter (Tulane) are the new coaches in this league. Who will have the biggest immediate impact on his team?
Gasaway: Hunter. The Green Wave are still a year or three or more away — don’t get me wrong. But in terms of a coach altering the trajectory of a program compared to where it was going otherwise, Hunter is my choice to make the biggest difference. In 2011, he inherited a Georgia State program that had finished under .500 in seven consecutive seasons, and all he did was win 64% of his games over the course of eight years in Atlanta. Again, Tulane would be a tough rebuild for any coach, but all things considered, getting Hunter to New Orleans was a quality hire.
Medcalf: I think you’ll see an immediate shift in the culture at Tulane with Hunter. But John Brannen can win now with a healthy Jarron Cumberland.
In 2017, Brannen led Northern Kentucky to the NCAA tournament in its first year of eligibility following the jump from Division II. That group outscored Kentucky 46-41 in the second half of a nine-point loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That’s the resilience Brannen’s teams have demonstrated during a 72-win stretch over the past three years. Mick Cronin is a great coach. But Brannen has the talent to keep the Bearcats in the AAC mix. He has done a lot more with less over the past three seasons. Now, scratch all of this if Cumberland is hindered by the foot injury throughout the season.
Borzello: Long-term, I think the answer is Hunter. He has already landed three talented graduate transfers, but the Green Wave haven’t won a game since December and won’t be an AAC factor this season. The biggest immediate impact needs to come from Brannen.
Cincinnati has the pieces to finish second in the league and push Memphis at the top in case the Tigers’ talent doesn’t mesh like we expect. Jarron Cumberland is the best returnee in the league, and his cousin, Oakland graduate transfer Jaevin Cumberland, adds pop on the perimeter. But Brannen will have to combine the key holdovers from Mick Cronin’s regime with a list of impact newcomers while trying to change the system and style the Bearcats were used to. It’s a tough task, but he’s a good coach, and Cincinnati has talent.
American 2019-20 predicted order of finish
American 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: James Wiseman, Memphis
Borzello: James Wiseman, Memphis
Gasaway: Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: James Wiseman, Memphis
Borzello: James Wiseman, Memphis
Gasaway: James Wiseman, Memphis