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The countdown to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on November 9 begins, and ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making predictions for all of the country’s major leagues. We continue with the American Athletic Conference after looking at Gonzaga and the top teams from the mid-major leagues (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt, and WCC) earlier this week.
The Houston Cougars, who reached their first Final Four since 1984 last season, would almost certainly be the AAC’s team to beat if it weren’t for the Memphis Tigers’ headline-grabbing offseason, which included late reclassification and the signings of projected future NBA lottery picks Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren.
Aside from Houston and Memphis, the SMU Mustangs, UCF Knights, and a Cincinnati Bearcats club that is poised to begin a new coaching era under first-year head coach Wes Miller are all interesting teams in a conference that is about to undergo a makeover. Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway, and Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com presented their forecasts and discussed all of the conference’s major problems.
Superlatives | Roundtable | Picks | Superlatives
Superlatives in the United States in 2021-22
Athlete of the Year
Kendric Davis, SMU Medcalf Kendric Davis, SMU, Borzello: Houston’s Marcus Sasser is a gasaway. Marcus Sasser, Houston Lunardi
Newcomer of the Year is a prestigious award given to a newcomer
Emoni Bates, Memphis, Medcalf Emoni Bates, Memphis, Borzello Jalen Duren, Jalen Duren, Jalen Duren, Jalen Duren, Jalen Emoni Bates, Memphis, Lunardi
Writers’ roundtable in the United States during the years 2021-22
Memphis will be one of the most interesting teams in college basketball in 2021-22. Is it fair to have high hopes for the Final Four? What is your main concern for the Tigers?
Emoni Bates and Memphis are skilled, but will they be able to live up to their enormous potential? Matt Smith/Memphis Athletics
Medcalf: Memphis makes sense in every Final Four prediction. You have a chance to make a run if you have two guys (Bates, Duren) who could play in the NBA right now. In the second part of last season, Penny Hardaway also appeared to find his stride as a head coach. It’s easy to forget that, despite being an NBA superstar, he made the unheard-of transition from high school/AAU head coach to college head coach. Last season, the Tigers overcame a huge COVID-19 setback to go 11-2 in their last 13 games and win the NIT championship. Hardaway is on a roll right now. The Tigers did lose a couple of important players to the transfer portal, but they also get a pair of predicted lottery selections.
The main source of worry must be the fact that freshman-heavy teams seldom win championships. In the one-and-done era, only Kentucky (2012) and Duke (2015) have won national championships with rookies. Jalen Suggs was a standout player for Gonzaga, but the experienced guards on Baylor’s squad posed a problem for him and his teammates in the championship game. The more experienced players are just physically different, and this makes a difference in the late rounds. There were a slew of other teams with high-level rookies that fell short of the Final Four. Memphis won’t have it easy in the AAC, either. There are many excellent coaches in the league, and there is usually a team — or two — that everyone doubts before making a run. Memphis, on the other hand, has a lot of promise.
Borzello: Final Four expectations are difficult to justify for a team with two predicted top-five selections at the top of its roster, as well as a plethora of other quality players around those two guys. Memphis is ranked No. 7 in my preseason rankings, but it is obviously among the top tier of teams that should be contending for the national title. The Tigers will be one of the greatest defensive teams in the nation, as they have been for the most of Hardaway’s career, and the additions of Bates, Duren, Miami transfer Earl Timberlake, and others should help them tremendously on offense. At the other end of the floor, adding Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown to the staff can’t hurt.
The Tigers’ greatest concern is the same as it was last season: point guard performance and ball security. Memphis’ turnover problem has been a significant issue, and it seems like Bates will be playing point guard for extended periods this season. At the high school and AAU levels, he seldom, if ever, played that position. Memphis could become much more tough to defend in a half-court situation if he can adjust and become a facilitator. He possesses size and playmaking skills.
Final Four aspirations are fair and logical for a Memphis rotation that includes veterans and two freshmen who might be top-five selections in the future: Duren and Bates (who is not eligible for the draft until 2023). Those expectations, though, may be a little too high, at least until the Tigers’ new look proves they can handle the ball.
Memphis will almost certainly commit fewer turnovers than they did a year ago, when Hardaway’s team threw the ball away 24 percent of the time in American play. Bates, Landers Nolley II, and the rest of the squad will almost certainly come in under that total, and how much distance they put between themselves and previous history will determine a large part of this team’s potential. Hardaway has shown that he can put together a strong defense, and this squad was the most accurate shooting team in AAC play last season. The Tigers can live up to the expectation if they receive enough scoring opportunities.
Lunardi: The Tigers compete as hard as anybody in the nation on offense and defense, but… Despite the excitement surrounding Penny Hardaway’s star-studded teams, Memphis has yet to earn an NCAA bid in his three seasons as a head coach. It may just be that the “whole” is smaller than the “sum of the parts.” Larry Brown, a seasoned broadcaster, may be able to assist. What are the chances?
Meanwhile, the jump from NIT winner to NCAA Final Four is too much for a single season, according to this article. The Tigers could sail through the 2022 tournament, but their promising season will most likely conclude in March rather than April.
Last season, one of college basketball’s great storylines was Houston’s first Final Four appearance since 1984. Should we see the Cougars as a perennial Final Four contender, a pleasant second-weekend team, or something else entirely?
Will Marcus Sasser and Houston be able to capitalize on their spectacular Final Four performance from last season? Getty Images/Jamie Squire
Gasaway: We should think of UH as a good second-weekend team, which is fantastic. In the 25 years between 1992 and 2017, this program only appeared in one NCAA tournament. Kelvin Sampson has now led the Cougars to three straight 68-yard fields. (Of course, if there had been a tournament in 2020, it would have been four in a row.) Houston seems to have discovered a talent market inefficiency and exploited it to its full potential. When other schools overlook prospects who “can’t” shoot, Sampson sees a potential offensive difference-maker. Yes, the Cougars seem to be a good second-weekend squad as well as a creative and forward-thinking program.
Lunardi: With Sampson, the Cougars are a second-weekend program, and without him, they’re a bubble club. That’s how excellent Houston’s coach is. Neither side of the argument should be regarded as a personal attack.
Gonzaga is now the only non-power conference program to receive yearly “Final Four” designation (the Zags are an anomaly in their own right). Before Sampson came, the Cougars had only received one NCAA invitation in 26 years, so calling them bubble-ish without him isn’t a stretch.
Let’s just appreciate the Cougars as they are for the time being.
Borzello: As long as Sampson is in town, the Cougars should be considered a reliable second-weekend danger — and that’s not an insult, as Joey Brackets put it. The bluest of bluebloods, as well as certain recent powers like Gonzaga and Villanova, are the only teams who can be considered “constant Final Four contenders.”
Houston has become similar to Virginia and Florida State in my eyes under Sampson, in that it will be in my preseason Top 25 regardless of the roster. Houston will be one of the best defensive teams in the nation, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, and it will almost always have a go-to scorer who can get a bucket whenever he wants, regardless of the personnel. Every season, that’s a formula for winning games in March.
Medcalf: Finding the proper match is critical for any coach. And Houston was a gold mine for Sampson. They’re made for each other. That’s why I believe Houston will always be a team capable of reaching the Sweet 16 and, depending on the skill pool, a school capable of reaching the Final Four. That desire is what drew a transfer like Quentin Grimes, who turned into one of the best players in the sport last season. With Sampson in control, Houston will continue to take advantage of the transfer portal.
You can count on the Cougars’ defensive pressure to suffocate their opponents. They’ll also have fun together. Houston, I believe, is real. They also have a lot of money behind the initiative. Take, for example, the $25 million practice center that debuted in 2016. Houston’s prominence will rise much more if the school joins the Big 12.
On paper, Cincinnati made a good hiring in Wes Miller. What are your expectations for the Bearcats in 2021-22, given Miller’s approach and some of UC’s previous issues?
Wes Miller had a great season at UNC Greensboro, but he’ll have a tough task at Cincinnati. AP Images/Icon Sportswire
Lunardi: At this point, the Bearcats have to be looking at the big picture. The difficulties of a new coach, new players, and a soon-to-be-new league are tremendous. And entering the Big 12 will be a huge step forward for Cincinnati. The history and culture of Cincinnati provide cause for hope, but we can’t deny that it will take time. In Miller’s first season, the Bearcats will be a middle-of-the-pack AAC club, which means they’ll be at the bottom of the Big 12. Before he had conducted a session, the new coach was given a far more difficult task.
Medcalf: I believe Miller will have a difficult first season. This is understandable. After the inquiry that led to John Brannen’s resignation, he inherited a disaster. If Miller can bring this club to the top half of the league in its current state, it will be a success and a wonderful position to develop for next season.
Miller, on the other hand, seems unconcerned with being at this location. He was hired at UNC Greensboro in 2011 after a seven-win season, but it wasn’t until 2016-17 that he had his first winning season. I don’t believe Miller will take that long to get Cincinnati back on track. But his priority this season must be to restore stability to a program that saw Mick Cronin depart a couple years ago and win big at UCLA, only to have his replacement leave under controversy this summer. Miller must provide progress and evidence that he is establishing a new culture.
Borzello: Miller is unlikely to have the same success in his first year at Cincinnati as he had at UNC Greensboro over the previous five seasons. It’s reasonable, given that he won three league championships and qualified for two NCAA tournaments during that time. But, after a turbulent finish to the season and the firing of Brannen, Miller had to spend the first part of his tenure just keeping the roster together before bolstering the rotation through the transfer window. Although he added some key recruits — Abdul Ado (Mississippi State) and Hayden Koval (UNCG) could create a formidable defensive duo inside — Miller is more likely to make his mark on the Bearcats next season.
Gasaway: Miller produced a spectacular run at UNC Greensboro, culminating in the Spartans’ 70-20 SoCon record over the last five seasons. He has the ability to restore the Bearcats to their Cronin-era level of strength and consistency, but it won’t happen in the first season. UC is a young university. Miller’s few returning players are veterans of a squad that was mediocre on both sides of the ball last season in American competition.
What club in this league isn’t getting nearly enough attention going into 2021-22?
Kendric Davis and his skilled SMU teammates are looking for some national recognition. George Walker/Icon Sportswire photo
UCF is Gasaway’s alma mater. For the first time since the Knights frightened the living daylights out of Zion Williamson and Duke in the round of 32 in 2019, Johnny Dawkins’ team has a chance to enter the NCAA tournament. Darius Perry and Brandon Mahan, both fifth-year seniors, are among Dawkins’ top nine scorers from the previous season. True, UCF finished 11-12 last season, but the Knights won six of their last seven games before losing to Memphis in the AAC semifinals. Perry, Mahan, and Darin Green Jr. are all capable of scoring from the perimeter. We’ll finish the season thinking we didn’t speak about these guys enough if UCF can keep the ball and get some defensive boards.
Borzello: When I asked the AAC coaches this subject last month, UCF received the overwhelming majority of responses. But given since several folks at this roundtable had the Knights as their third-place choice, I’m sticking with my third-place decision, SMU. I believe the Mustangs are very well-equipped, particularly on offense, and should return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
After averaging 19.0 points and 7.6 assists last season, Kendric Davis is a Player of the Year candidate, and Tim Jankovich brings in four impact transfers, including Southland Player of the Year Zach Nutall and Michael and Marcus Weathers. Tristan Clark, a Baylor transfer who, if healthy, would be one of the greatest big men in the league, may be the key. Last season, SMU was hampered by COVID-19 problems, losing its last regular-season game on Feb. 8; a more successful year should result in the Mustangs hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
Lunardi: I agree with Jeff. Davis may be the greatest player in the nation outside of the Power 5/Big East/Gonzaga conglomerate, and SMU’s roster is deep and fascinating. The Mustangs are not only capable of surprising, but they are also capable of winning the Big Dance if they go that far.
Medcalf: Wichita State, and here’s why: last season was spectacular in every way. Isaac Brown’s list of accomplishments includes taking over the team following Gregg Marshall’s departure, winning the AAC championship, receiving a new contract and the formal head coaching position, and reaching the NCAA tournament. Tyson Etienne is one of three starters returning for the Shockers, who also get NCAA tournament hero Joe Pleasant from Abilene Christian. Is anybody talking about Wichita State after their incredible season last year? Yes. But are they really referring to them as a squad capable of winning the league? Perhaps, but the teams ahead of them have been the focus of attention thus far. Wichita State has a chance to crash the party once again.
Order of finish in the United States in 2021-22
1. Memphis, Tennessee 2. The city of Houston 3. UCF (tie) 3. SMU (tie) 3. Wichita State University (tie) Cincinnati is number six. Temple No. 7 Tulsa is ranked number eight. 9. Tulane University East Carolina is number ten. 11. The state of Florida
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