Just under a week ago I began writing a summary of each AAC men’s basketball team, how their regular season had finished and what I thought their prospects looked like for the conference tournament and postseason generally.
By about Wednesday mid-afternoon the prospects of even beginning the AAC men’s basketball tournament seemed dim and before the opening game could tip off the league cancelled the tournament.
Even before Mike Aresco made the cancellation we all expected official, I couldn’t get myself in the headspace to even consider basketball still being played in the wake of the outbreak of the Coronavirus/Covid-19.
The prospect of college basketball resuming this fall doesn’t even feel like a certainty at this point, but the possibility is the kind of thing keeping me going during a time of great turmoil.
I intend here to look at what each team projects to return, with the assumption the NCAA won’t do a radical about face and give eligibility relief to players projected to exhaust their eligibility.
Transfers and early declarations are assumed, but other than what’s already announced or what seems obvious (e.g. Precious Achiuwa entering the NBA draft) I can’t guess with 100% accuracy what the roster movement among AAC teams will entail.
Because of this lack of precision, I am going to refrain from predicting an exact order of finish for each team. Instead I am going to give a confidence interval of sorts for each team: ranging from a team’s worst-case scenario to best-case.
Without further ado, here is the first team in your way too early look at 2020-21 AAC men’s basketball…
2019-20 Record: 23-8 overall, 13-5 AAC (T-1st)
Final KenPom Ranking: 14
Final NET Ranking: 20
What made the Cougars so impressive this year was that they were in the bottom 20% of Division 1 in experience, lost 4 starters off of a Sweet 16 team and still managed to be the only AAC team safely on the right side of the bubble before sports halted.
The picture only gets rosier when you realize that the entire roster minus Chris Harris Jr. is slated to return, although there are questions related to scholarship limits I’ll touch on in a bit. It’s worth noting that while Harris was never an offensive virtuoso, he developed into an unbelievable shot blocker and offensive rebounder. The Cougars simply would not have been among the very best in the country at doing those 2 things without Harris.
As for the returning talent, the Cougars have an embarrassment of riches: Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser and Caleb Mills all showed the ability to take over games and will an offense that was sometimes inconsistent to victories. Grimes definitely had peaks and valleys in his first year at UH, but finished the year strong. When things were going well, he showed not only the ability to take the offense on his back, but to make his teammates better and drew high marks from Kelvin Sampson as a defender. Sasser and Mills were sometimes inconsistent, but both flashed an ability to take over a game you don’t often see from freshmen.
Nate Hinton still won’t be a guy that demands the ball like the 3 players I just mentioned, but Hinton has a good case for being the best rebounding guard in the country and can score in a variety of different ways. Fabian White Jr had a lot of ups and downs, especially in conference play, but still improved from his sophomore to junior season and is a freakishly good rebounder for 6’6” power forward. Deeky Jarreau undeniably had a disappointing junior year, but there’s enough there that you wouldn’t turn down the prospect of seeing him play one more year under Sampson. I expect Brison Gresham and J’Wan Roberts (who redshirted in 2019-20) will be guys who can effectively attack the offensive glass.
Added to an experienced group of returners is a 2020 signing class that’s the best group UH has signed in the era of recruiting rankings. Tramon Mark from a half hour south of UH in Dickinson is a consensus top 100 national recruit as a big scoring guard and if not for the current health scare, would’ve likely won a Texas state title. Jamal Shead from Manor in the Austin suburbs is a blue-collar point guard and ranks just outside the national top 100 and big man Kiyron Powell is as good of a rebounder as any player Sampson has brought to Houston. Also, Cameron Tyson sat out 2019-20 as a transfer from Idaho after scoring a ton of points and shooting the 3-pointer well on a terrible Vandal team his freshman year.
Admittedly, there will be a departure among all the returning players. If all underclassmen returned, Tyson stays with the program and all 3 freshmen enroll, UH would have one too many players under scholarship.
You can believe I am simply wearing Cougar scarlet-tinted glasses, but the Cougars with this roster, recruiting class and a hall of fame-caliber coach in Sampson should be the safest bet in this league for 2020-21.
Confidence Interval: 1st place to 3rd place
2019-20 Record: 20-10 overall, 13-5 AAC (T-1st)
Final KenPom Ranking: 44
Final NET Ranking: 51
When Mick Cronin left late in the 2019 coaching carousel, it seemed like Cincy had a 2-pronged decision to make: promote a Cronin assistant who would get the most out of the 2019-20 team or hire a promising young coach at a mid-major school in your backyard. Credit the Cincy brain trust for making the higher risk/higher reward decision by hiring John Brannen from Northern Kentucky.
Any coach that wasn’t Cronin or an assistant was going to result in some roster turnover and growing pains adjusting to a new style of play. Jarron Cumberland never looked entirely comfortable with the role he played offensively under Brannen, although a big part of the problem was rotten injury luck. On the flip side, for the last month or so of his college career Tre Scott was playing at conference player of the year levels. I also wildly respect Jaevin Cumberland’s (TV announcer voice: did you know Jaevin and Jarron are cousins?!) decision to take only 48 two-point attempts in 30 games this past season.
I know Cincy fans weren’t wildly confident about their team’s chances of being on the right side of the bubble without a couple of AAC tournament wins. That’s why I think Bearcat fans may need to give Brannen, the staff and this group of players another year to get this team looking like something approaching vintage Cincy. I like Keith Williams and I’ll be interested to see what his role looks like with Cumberland gone. Mika Adams-Woods earned the trust of the staff as a freshman and started all but 1 of the Bearcats’ conference games. There might not be a player in Division 1 who improved more than Chris Vogt, now entering his senior year. Vogt went from a bench guy under Brannen at NKU to one of the AAC’s best centers at Cincy.
Outside of those 3 there are a lot of unknowns. Zach Harvey signed late in the recruiting cycle with Brannen’s staff as a consensus 4-star recruit, but didn’t do much his freshman season. Mamoudou Diarra had his best Division 1 season last year and if he continues developing could become a useful AAC big man. That’s basically it in terms of anyone who played consistently for the Bearcats by the end of the season. I like the Bearcats’ recruiting class, currently 2nd in the AAC per 247Sports. They got a commitment from 4-star power forward Tari Eason, the #2 player in the state of Washington and high 3-stars forward Gabe Madsen and point guard Mike Saunders should also play a bunch early.
I am optimistic about the Bearcats long-term outlook and fully expect to see this team higher than I expect in the standings. This is a program where guys go in and no matter the year or coach, expect to win. But this will be a young team that has to replace a couple of really good, veteran players.
Confidence Interval: 2nd to 7th
2019-20 Record: 21-10 overall, 10-8 AAC (T-5th)
Final KenPom Ranking: 59
Final NET Ranking: 59
Undeniably, Penny Hardaway showed his inexperience when he said some infamous quotes last offseason. But devoid of all the hype and external noise, Hardaway is still doing a much better job than his predecessor Tubby Smith and latter days Josh Pastner. It’s easy to take shots at Hardaway’s bluster and Memphis almost certainly missing the NCAA Tournament a 6th straight year before the season was cancelled. The narrative is worth questioning.
This would have been a dramatically different season if 5-star and future NBA high lottery pick James Wiseman’s financial relationship with Hardaway doesn’t garner NCAA attention. The college career of Wiseman is going to be a tantalizing ‘what if’ as he left the Tigers during an NCAA-related suspension and only played in 3 games. Precious Achiuwa, even without the foil of Wiseman, was the AAC player of the year and a genuinely terrifying big man who should be picked with Wiseman in the NBA draft 1st round. DJ Jeffries, another member of the 2019 recruiting class, looked like he was developing into one of the Tiger most consistent scoring options. But Jeffries went down with a season ending injury in late January. The Tigers didn’t have 2 of their best 3 players for most or all of conference play and still finished 5th in the country in defensive efficiency. The problem was they also finished 210th in offensive efficiency and were one of the worst in the country at turning the ball over.
By the end of the season he was being asked to do more than he was capable of, but Lester Quinones I think will eventually be a really good college player. Quinones is the classic guy you love if he’s on your team and hate if he’s not. He struggled taking care of the basketball (21.3% turnover rate) but that goes back to him being asked to do too much. I was disappointed in Boogie Ellis’ freshman season, I can’t sugarcoat it. Ellis simply went missing from way too many games than you’d expect from the #32 recruit in the country. I also didn’t think Tyler Harris or Alex Lomax took the leap forward Tiger fans were hoping for in 2019-20, but both guys can still be good options off the bench.
The big wild card right now is what Hardaway and his staff can do in recruiting. Outside of Wiseman, the Tigers got nearly all their top 50 recruits in that heralded 2019 class after March Madness concluded. I will be surprised if Hardaway hasn’t landed at least 1 heralded recruit before the 2020 recruiting cycle concludes, although our current health crisis complicates things.
Clearly, Hardaway has some things to figure out with what his team is doing offensively but the Tigers being an elite defensive team I think lends credence to the idea he’s a serious college coach. I have this feeling the Tigers snap their NCAA drought next season and I think that defense (even without Achiuwa) will be the biggest reason why.
Confidence Interval: 2nd to 4th