As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Nov. 9, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. After taking a look 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 continue with the American Athletic Conference.
The Houston Cougars, who made a run to their first Final Four since 1984 last season, would probably be the AAC’s team to beat were 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 other intriguing teams including the SMU Mustangs, UCF Knights and a Cincinnati Bearcats squad that is set to start a new coaching era under first-year head coach Wes Miller. ESPN.com’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions and weighed in on all the conference’s top issues.
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American 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Kendric Davis, SMU
Borzello: Kendric Davis, SMU
Gasaway: Marcus Sasser, Houston
Lunardi: Marcus Sasser, Houston
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Emoni Bates, Memphis
Borzello: Emoni Bates, Memphis
Gasaway: Jalen Duren, Memphis
Lunardi: Emoni Bates, Memphis
American 2021-22 writer roundtable
Memphis enters 2021-22 as one of college basketball’s most intriguing teams. Are Final Four expectations unreasonable? What’s your biggest worry for the Tigers?
Medcalf: Every Final Four projection about Memphis makes sense. If you have two players (Bates, Duren) who could play in the NBA right now, you probably have a chance to make a run. And Penny Hardaway seemed to hit his stride as a head coach in the second half of last season, too. I think it’s easy to forget that although he was an NBA star, he made the unheard-of leap from high school/AAU head coach to head coach of a high-level collegiate program. The Tigers weathered a major COVID-19 interruption last season and finished 11-2 in their final 13 games, winning the NIT title. That’s good momentum for Hardaway. Sure, the Tigers lost some key pieces to the transfer portal, but they added a pair of projected lottery picks.
The concern has to be that freshman-stacked teams don’t usually win championships. Kentucky (2012) and Duke (2015) are the only two national championship teams in the one-and-done era to do it with freshmen. Jalen Suggs was a star for Gonzaga but the veteran guards on Baylor’s roster were a challenge for him and his team in the title game. The experienced players are just physically different and that matters in those late stages. There are a multitude of other teams that had high-level freshmen but lost long before the Final Four. Memphis also won’t have an easy path in the AAC. The league is full of good coaches and there is always a team — or two — that everyone doubts and then makes a run. Memphis clearly has the potential, though.
Borzello: It’s hard to consider Final Four expectations unreasonable for a team that has two projected top-five picks at the top of its roster — plus countless other talented pieces surrounding those two players. I have Memphis at No. 7 entering the season, but clearly in that top tier of teams that should be competing for a national championship. The Tigers are going to be one of the best defensive teams in the country, as they have been for most of Hardaway’s tenure, and the additions of Bates, Duren, Miami transfer Earl Timberlake and others should really help them on the offensive end. Adding Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown to the staff can’t hurt at that end of the floor, either.
The biggest worry is the same as it was last season for the Tigers: Point guard play and taking care of the ball. Turnovers have been a major problem for Memphis, and it sounds like the plan is to play Bates at the point guard spot for long stretches this season. That’s a role he rarely, if ever, played at the high school and AAU levels. He has size and playmaking ability, so if he’s able to adapt and become something of a facilitator, Memphis should become significantly more difficult to defend in a half-court setting.
Gasaway: Final Four expectations are reasonable and understandable for a Memphis rotation that blends veterans with two freshmen who may eventually be top-five picks: Duren and Bates (who is not eligible for the draft until 2023). However, those expectations may also be a bit premature, at least until these new-look Tigers show us they can take care of the ball.
It’s at least a safe bet Memphis will commit fewer turnovers than what we saw a year ago, when Hardaway’s men gave the ball away a whopping 24% of the time in American play. Bates, Landers Nolley II and company will come in under that figure, surely, and how much space they put between themselves and recent history will dictate a fair portion of this team’s potential. Hardaway has shown he can put an outstanding defense on the floor, and this was actually the most accurate shooting team from the field in AAC play last season. If the Tigers get enough chances to score, they can live up to the hype.
Lunardi: The Tigers play and defend as hard as anyone in the country, but… Despite all the hype around Penny Hardaway’s star-studded rosters, Memphis hasn’t cracked the code for an NCAA bid in his three seasons. Maybe it’s as simple as the “whole” being less than the “sum of the parts.” Maybe the veteran voice of Larry Brown will help. Who knows?
In the meantime, it says here that the leap from NIT champion to NCAA Final Four is too big a step for a single season. The Tigers should make the 2022 tourney in a breeze, but their year of promise is more likely to end in March than April.
Houston’s first Final Four trip since 1984 was among college basketball’s great stories last season. Should we now view the Cougars as a consistent Final Four threat, a nice second-weekend kind of team, or something else entirely?
Gasaway: We should view UH as a nice second-weekend team — and that’s amazing. This is a program that played in just one NCAA tournament in the 25 years between 1992 and 2017. Now Kelvin Sampson’s taken the Cougars into three consecutive fields of 68. (It would have been four in a row, of course, if there had been a tournament in 2020.) Houston appears to have found an inefficiency in the talent market and mined it for all it’s worth. When other programs look past recruits who “can’t” shoot, Sampson sees a potential difference-maker on the offensive glass. So, yes, it seems the Cougars are both a nice second-weekend team and an innovative and forward-looking program.
Lunardi: The Cougars are a second-weekend program with Sampson and a bubble team without him. The Houston coach is that good. And neither side of the statement should be taken as an insult.
In the current landscape, the only non-power conference program to rate annual “Final Four” status is Gonzaga (the Zags are an anomaly in their own right). And the Cougars had but a single NCAA invite in 26 years before Sampson arrived, so it’s also hardly a reach to call them bubble-ish without him.
For now, let’s just enjoy the Cougars as they are.
Borzello: As long as Sampson is in town, the Cougars should be viewed as a consistent second-weekend threat — and as Joey Brackets said, it’s not an insult. There are very few teams that are legitimately “consistent Final Four threats,” and it’s mostly the bluest of bluebloods and some recent powers like Gonzaga and Villanova.
Under Sampson, Houston has become sort of like Virginia and Florida State to me, in the sense that it’s going to be in my preseason Top 25 regardless of the roster. No matter the personnel, Houston is going to be one of the elite defensive teams in the country, it’s going to be one of the elite offensive rebounding teams in the country and it more often than not will have a go-to scorer that can get a bucket anytime he wants. That’s a recipe to win games in March every single season.
Medcalf: It’s important for any coach to find the right fit. And Sampson struck gold with Houston. They’re perfect for one another. That’s why I think Houston will always be a team that is a threat to reach the Sweet 16 and then, depending on the talent pool, a program that’s in the mix for the Final Four. That ambition is how he attracted a transfer such as Quentin Grimes, who blossomed into one of the sport’s top players last season. Houston will continue to capitalize on the transfer portal with Sampson in charge.
You know the Cougars are going to smother opponents with their defensive pressure. And they’ll play together. I think Houston is real. Also, they have some deep pockets behind the program. See: the $25 million practice facility that opened in 2016. Houston’s profile will continue to grow once the school enters the Big 12, too.
Wes Miller was a quality on-paper hire for Cincinnati. Given Miller’s approach and some of the past problems at UC, what is your expectation of the Bearcats in 2021-22?
Lunardi: The Bearcats have to be taking the long view at this point. New coach, new players and a soon-to-be-new conference are enormous challenges. And the Big 12 that Cincinnati will be joining is a monumental step up. Cincy’s history and tradition give reason for optimism, but we can’t sugarcoat that it figures to take a while. The Bearcats will be a middle-of-the-pack AAC team in Miller’s debut; that would be at or near the bottom of the Big 12. The new coach got a much harder job before he even held a practice.
Medcalf: I think we’ll see a rocky season for Miller in Year 1. And that’s understandable. He inherited a mess of a situation after the investigation that led to John Brannen’s departure. If Miller can get this team, in all of its fluidity, to the top half of the league, it would be a success and a great place to build for the following season.
Being in this spot won’t worry Miller, though. He was hired at UNC Greensboro in 2011 following a seven-win campaign, and he didn’t have his first winning season until 2016-17. I don’t think it will take Miller that long to get Cincinnati back on the right track. But his goal this season has to be to stabilize a program backed by a fan base that watched Mick Cronin leave a few years ago and win big at UCLA, then watched his successor leave the team amid controversy this offseason. Miller has to show signs of progress and proof that he’s building a new culture.
Borzello: In year one, Miller is unlikely to see the same success at Cincinnati he guided UNC Greensboro to over the last five seasons. Given that he won three league titles and went to two NCAA tournaments over that span, it’s understandable. But Miller had to spend the early part of his tenure simply keeping the roster together following the tumultuous end to the season and ouster of Brannen, and then beef up the rotation via the transfer portal. He did land some impact newcomers — Abdul Ado (Mississippi State) and Hayden Koval (UNCG) should form a dominant defensive tandem inside — but we’re more likely to see Miller really put his imprint on the Bearcats starting next season.
Gasaway: Miller authored a rather remarkable run at UNC Greensboro, up to and including the 70-20 record that the Spartans posted in the SoCon over the past five seasons. He’s certainly capable of returning the Bearcats to their Cronin-era level of strength and consistency — it’s just not going to happen in the first season. UC is young. The few returning players that Miller has are veterans of a team that was average on both sides of the ball in American play last season.
Who’s the team in this league not nearly enough people are talking about heading into 2021-22?
Gasaway: UCF. Johnny Dawkins’ team could make the NCAA tournament for the first time since the Knights scared the daylights out of Zion Williamson and Duke in the 2019 round of 32. Darius Perry and Brandon Mahan both return as fifth-year seniors, giving Dawkins his top nine scorers from a year ago. True, UCF was just 11-12 last season, but the Knights closed by winning six of seven before falling to Memphis in the AAC quarters. Perry, Mahan and Darin Green Jr., can all score from outside. If UCF can hold on to the ball and get some defensive boards, we’ll end the season saying we weren’t talking about these guys enough.
Borzello: When I asked AAC coaches this question last month, UCF got the wide majority of the votes. But now that I see the Knights are picked third by multiple people sitting at this roundtable, I’m going with my predicted third-place team, SMU. I think the Mustangs are absolutely loaded, especially on the offensive end of the floor, and should get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
Kendric Davis is a Player of the Year contender after averaging 19.0 points and 7.6 assists last season, and Tim Jankovich brings in four impact transfers — highlighted by Southland Player of the Year Zach Nutall and Michael and Marcus Weathers. The key could be Baylor transfer Tristan Clark, who will be one of the best bigs in the league if healthy. SMU was hit hard by COVID-19 issues last season, playing its final regular season game on Feb. 8; a smoother campaign should result in the Mustangs hearing their name on Selection Sunday.
Lunardi: I’m with Jeff on this. SMU’s roster is deep and intriguing, and Davis might very well be the best player in the country outside the Power 5/Big East/Gonzaga conglomerate. Not only could the Mustangs surprise — they are good enough to win in the Big Dance if they make it that far.
Medcalf: Wichita State, and here’s why: everything about last season was magical. For Isaac Brown to take over the team after Gregg Marshall’s resignation, earn the AAC title, get a new contract and the official head coaching role and reach the NCAA tournament is a stunning list of achievements. Tyson Etienne is one of three starters back for the Shockers, who also add Abilene Christian transfer Joe Pleasant, the NCAA tournament hero. Are people talking about Wichita State after that amazing run last year? Yes. But are they really talking about them as a team that could win the league? Maybe, but the teams ahead of them have been the main story thus far. Wichita State could crash that party again.
American 2021-22 predicted order of finish
3. SMU (tie)
3. UCF (tie)
3. Wichita State (tie)
10. East Carolina
11. South Florida