Conference Preview: American

Conference Preview: American

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.

Yes, the American Athletic Conference is a major conference... for basketball. The tendency, like with anything newer, is to discount and underrate it until the masses feel they have earned a higher status. 

Memphis has been an elite basketball program more often than not under coaches such as Dana Kirk and John Calipari. Under second-year leader Penny Hardaway, they are now in the spotlight again with a top-rated recruiting class that includes arguably the best incoming freshman in James Wiseman. Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries are expected to be instrumental immediately as well. 

Perennial powerhouse Cincinnati is slightly down. Losing head coach Mick Cronin doesn't help, but John Brannen -- who had previously brought Northern Kentucky to prominence in the Horizon League shortly after moving to Division I -- now faces the task of keeping the Bearcats in the upper echelon. They do have the potential player of the year in Jarron Cumberland

Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson, in spite of losing multiple key players, expects to have the Cougars fighting for a conference title. However, they will be without the services of Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes as he sits out this season. 

South Florida will seek to have another solid season. They finished with 24 wins last year and can reach the 20-win plateau again behind all-conference players David Collins and Alexis Yetna

The UConn Huskies have been in a flux and have fallen hard amid scandal and a lack of the talent they once had.

Yes, the American Athletic Conference is a major conference... for basketball. The tendency, like with anything newer, is to discount and underrate it until the masses feel they have earned a higher status. 

Memphis has been an elite basketball program more often than not under coaches such as Dana Kirk and John Calipari. Under second-year leader Penny Hardaway, they are now in the spotlight again with a top-rated recruiting class that includes arguably the best incoming freshman in James Wiseman. Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries are expected to be instrumental immediately as well. 

Perennial powerhouse Cincinnati is slightly down. Losing head coach Mick Cronin doesn't help, but John Brannen -- who had previously brought Northern Kentucky to prominence in the Horizon League shortly after moving to Division I -- now faces the task of keeping the Bearcats in the upper echelon. They do have the potential player of the year in Jarron Cumberland

Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson, in spite of losing multiple key players, expects to have the Cougars fighting for a conference title. However, they will be without the services of Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes as he sits out this season. 

South Florida will seek to have another solid season. They finished with 24 wins last year and can reach the 20-win plateau again behind all-conference players David Collins and Alexis Yetna

The UConn Huskies have been in a flux and have fallen hard amid scandal and a lack of the talent they once had. Danny Hurley mans the helm in his second season and managed a solid recruiting class as he continues the rebuild. 

It will be a "Shocker" if Wichita State can take the title this season, as they have lost a lot of talent over the past three years. Gregg Marshall is a confident head man and can still lead his team through the trenches and rise above the competition, however. 

Beyond that, the Owls of Temple figure to be in the middle of the pack. East Carolina boasts one of the best in the conference in power forward Jayden Gardner, but he won't be able to shoulder the load necessary to pull them out of the bottom of the conference. Central Florida has had a great run, but losing B. J. Taylor, Aubrey Dawkins and Tacko Fall will be too much to overcome for the Golden Knights. Expect SMU, Tulsa and Tulane to show flashes, but mostly meander in the lower half. 

All in all, I rank the American Athletic as the seventh-best conference in the preseason.

Top Players

Center: James Wiseman, Memphis Tigers

Top-rated freshman James Wiseman will literally be the "center" of attention, not just for the Tigers, but the entire conference. Wiseman not only possesses the talent to be conference player of the year, but national player of the year. He will be the focal point for Penny Hardaway's squad, both offensively and defensively. At seven feet tall and 210 pounds, he might be a bit underweight, but his athleticism should compensate. Wiseman won the 2018-19 Gatorade National Boys Player of the Year for Tennessee with averages of 25.8 points, 14.8 rebounds, 5.5 blocks and 1.3 steals during his senior year at Memphis East High School.

Also Considered: Josh Carlton, Connecticut; Ethan Chargois, SMU; Jaime Echenique, Wichita St.

Freshmen: The Memphis Tigers Class

Obviously, Wiseman is the one to watch here for this category, but Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries fit as well. This trio of high school All-Americans will lead Memphis as its primary players. Achiuwa averaged 15 points and almost eight boards his senior season at Monteverde. Jeffries is a smooth scorer who tallied a 24.4 points per game average at Olive Branch High School in Mississippi.

Also Considered: Rejean Ellis, Memphis; Akok Akok, Connecticut; James Bouknight, Connecticut; Charles Smith, SMU; Ty Etienne, Wichita St.

Scoring: Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati Bearcats

I think the greatest potential to be a great scorer is once again Wiseman. However, Bearcat point guard Jarron Cumberland averaged 18.8 a game along with his 4.4 assists per game. With their losses including their head coach, Cumberland will have to shoulder the scoring load besides his role as floor general.

Also Considered: Quinton Rose, Temple; Nate Pierre-Louis, Temple; Jayden Gardner, ECU; David Collins, South Florida; Matt Milon, UCF; Christian Vital, Connecticut

Rebounding: Alexis Yetna, South Florida Bulls

Alexis Yetna can be a monster on the boards for the Bulls of South Florida. Last season he pulled down rebounds at a clip of 9.6 per game. He is the closest to Wiseman that can be the conference's best rebounder. He can also score enough with 12.3 points per game, but his rebounding prowess is what makes him a high level, all conference player.

Also Considered: Jayden Gardner, ECU; Tre Scott, Cincinnati; Ethan Chargois, SMU; Josh Carlton, Connecticut; Jaime Echenique, Wichita St.

Assists: DeJon Jarreau, Houston Cougars

There aren't any returning players with great assists totals and averages. However, Cumberland will be a leading contender to be the top assist man in the conference. DeJon Jarreau will be the full time point man for Houston and with more minutes should amass a higher average than 3.6 as he had last year.

Also Considered: LaQuincy Rideau, South Florida; Alterique Gilbert, Connecticut; Jamarius Burton, Wichita St.

SLEEPERS

Nate Hinton, G, Houston Cougars 

Hinton was a unanimous all-rookie selection last season averaging 7.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Look for him to move up to a primary offensive weapon for Sampson and offset the losses of leading scorers Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks from last season.

Jaevin Cumberland, G, Cincinnati Bearcats

Cumberland transfers in from Oakland to pair up with cousin Jarron. Jaevin was 22nd in the nation in three point shooting his last season while averaging 17.2 points per game. While Jarron leads the team, that could open up for Jaevin to become the team's leading scorer.

K.J. Lawson, F, Tulane Green Wave

Lawson has already not been able to break through at Kansas or Memphis. However, the Green Wave suffered significant losses and is in a situation where he can step into a primary and lead role with this team. In 2017, he was the AAC rookie of the year and hopefully a return to the conference might spark his abilities to shine again.

Top-10 Players*

1. Jarron Cumberland, G, Cincinnati
2. James Wiseman, C, Memphis
3. Jayden Gardner, F, East Carolina
4. David Collins, G, South Florida
5. Quinton Rose, F, Temple
6. Alexis Yetna, F, South Florida
7. Precious Achiuwa, F, Memphis
8. Christian Vital, G, UConn
9. Nate Pierre-Louis, G, Temple
10. Nic Thomas, G, Tulane

*Note: These rankings are at the discretion of the article author and may not necessarily correspond with Rotowire's official 2019-20 player rankings.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Drumright
Chris graduated from MTSU with a journalism degree and is a college basketball blogger and columnist for RotoWire. He has previous experience with editing and rankings at Athlon Sports.
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