By Jesse Kramer
Out of the mess that was conference realignment came the American Athletic Conference, which is essentially a mix of teams from Big East and Conference USA.
Louisville, which will be spending its only season in this league before moving to the ACC, is the heavy favorite. The defending champions have the potential to repeat in the NCAA tournament.
The defending champion Cardinals are once again a Final Four favorite in 2013-14. The losses of point guard Peyton Siva and forward Gorgui Dieng will hurt, but Rick Pitino returns enough pieces to be the heavy favorite in the American.
In the backcourt, Louisville brings back Russ Smith (pictured), Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear, and Kevin Ware. Smith, a third team All-American, led the Cardinals with 18.7 points and 2.1 steals per game. He missed double figures in scoring only four times last season, and in the NCAA tournament he averaged 22.3 points per game.
Hancock, a former George Mason transfer, was a key piece in Louisville’s title run. He averaged 8.1 points and shot 39.9% on three-pointers and averaged 21 points in the 2013 Final Four.
Blackshear averaged 7.1 points and Ware, who suffered a gruesome leg injury in March but is expected to be healthy for the season opener, added 4.5 points and 1.1 steals per contest.
Louisville will also add freshman Terry Rozier and junior college transfer Chris Jones to the backcourt. Both should have an immediate impact.
Up front, the Cardinals return Chane Behanan (9.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.4 spg), Montrezl Harrell, and Stephan Van Treese (1.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
Harrell averaged 5.7 points and 3.6 boards off the bench as a freshman, but he will step into a starting role this season. Expect a huge jump in his numbers as he becomes a more significant piece for Louisville.
Memphis has arguably the best backcourt in the nation this season. Already returning guards Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, and Geron Johnson, the Tigers will add Missouri transfer Michael Dixon and top-100 point guard RaShawn Powell.
Together, Jackson, Crawford, and Johnson recorded 34.4 points and 11.5 assists per game last season. All three are capable scorers, and all three can run the offense.
At Mizzou, Dixon averaged 13.5 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 36.8% from beyond the arc.
In the frontcourt, Memphis returns sophomore Shaq Goodwin and adds George Washington transfer David Pellom. Goodwin was an impressive freshman, averaging 7.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, and 1.1 steals. Pellom averaged 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds for the Colonials while shooting 68.5% from the field in 2011-12.
In addition to Powell, the Tigers are adding four other top-100 recruits.
Connecticut has a great perimeter with Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and Omar Calhoun, but its lack of size and a true post player will keep it from winning a conference title.
Napier, a conference player of the year candidate, is one of the best point guards in the country in 2013-14. Last season, he averaged 17.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and a pair of steals. He was also a 39.8% three-point shooter.
Boatright, although sometimes reckless, was a good complement in the backcourt for Napier, averaging 15.4 points and 4.4 assists.
Cincinnati returns two starters from last year’s club: Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson. Kilpatrick, who is predicted to make the All-AAC First Team, led the Bearcats with 17 points per game last season. He also had a pair of outings with more than 30 points against Iowa State and Marquette.
Jackson, a 6’8″ forward, averaged 3.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 18.8 minutes per game.
The Bearcats also return Titus Rubles to join Jackson in the frontcourt. Rubles averaged 5.9 points and led the team with 5.9 rebounds per game.
The key addition for Cincinnati this season is that of freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence. Lawrence, a top-50 recruit, was limited during his senior season of high school with an injury, but as a junior he averaged 18.8 points, 13 rebounds, and 6.4 blocks.
5. Southern Methodist
In only two seasons, Larry Brown has Southern Methodist on the fringe of the NCAA tournament. The Mustangs, who finished 15-17 last season, return all five starters while adding top-50 recruit Keith Frazier, Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy, Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, and junior college transfer Yanick Moreira.
Moreira, who played at South Plains College in Texas, averaged 18.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks, earning the honor of the No. 1 junior college prospect by JUCO Junction.
Among the Mustangs’ notable returnees are Jalen Jones and Nick Russell. Both averaged 14 points per game last season, while Jones added 7.7 boards and Russel posted 4.3 assists.
Southern Methodist also returns Ryan Manuel (12.1 ppg), Cannen Cunningham (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.8 bpg), and Shawn Williams (8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
6. Central Florida
Central Florida lost star forward Keith Clanton, but that’s it.
Seniors Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell return to form an experienced, talented backcourt. Sykes averaged 16 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.3 steals last season. He posted a pair of triple-doubles against Stetson and East Carolina. Newell, a former Oklahoma transfer, averaged 11.1 points and 2.6 dimes.
Houston will be plenty competitive in the American this season.
Although leading scorer Joseph Young transferred to Oregon, the Cougars still return star forwards Tashawn Thomas and Danuel House. Thomas nearly averaged a double-double with 16.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game. House, a sophomore, averaged 12.4 points and 4.9 boards as a freshman.
The Cougars also add Baylor transfer L.J. Rose, who averaged 1.2 assists in 7.5 minutes per game for the Bears as a freshman.
A perennial contender in the Atlantic 10, Temple will have some struggles in its first season in the American. The Owls lost three starters in Khalif Wyatt, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, and Scootie Randall, in addition to Jake O’Brien and T.J. DiLeo, their first two guys off the bench.
Anthony Lee (9.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) returns to lead the frontcourt while Will Cummings (5.8 ppg, 1.9 apg) will move into the role of starting point guard.
Under new head coach Eddie Jordan, Rutgers will be rebuilding this season. Forwards Dane Miller and Austin Johnson exhausted their eligibility, and Eli Carter, Mike Poole, and Derrick Randall all transferred.
Despite all the defections, the Scarlet Knights still have a talented inside-outside duo with Myles Mack and Wally Judge. Mack averaged 13.6 points and 2.7 assists last season while Judge, a former Kansas State transfer, averaged 7.1 points and 5.4 rebounds.
10. South Florida
South Florida finished 3-15 last year in the Big East, and its first year in this new league will likely be similar. The Bulls return a pair of talented players in point guard Anthony Collins and forward Victor Rudd, but after them they have little else.
Collins is a potential All-AAC first teamer after averaging 8.6 points and 6.5 assists as a sophomore. He ranked No. 7 in the nation in assist rate last season.
American Player of the Year
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
American Defensive Player of the Year
Russ Smith, Louisville
American Freshman of the Year
Keith Frazier, Southern Methodist
American All-Conference Team
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Joe Jackson, Memphis
Russ Smith, Louisville
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Chane Behanan, Louisville
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.