2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview: The American Athletic ConferenceElsa/Getty Images
The American is the best conference in college basketball.
Now that I have your attention, let’s return to earth. Of course I don’t mean that the American, which counts Tulane and East Carolina among its members, has the best assortment of teams. I’m just saying that I expect the American to produce the best entertainment of any conference in the country.
Look at the league’s coaches: Kevin Ollie won a national title in the first season his team was eligible; he’s the new guy with his chest puffed out. Larry Brown has never been afraid to speak his mind; he doesn’t care about hurting feelings,1 he’s got a chip on his shoulder because his stud recruit turned him down to play in China amid eligibility concerns and because his team got “snubbed” by the NCAA tournament selection committee, and he puts his crank in strangers’ faces. Josh Pastner is still trying to claw his way to a seat at the adult table. Kelvin Sampson’s sleaze knows no bounds, as evidenced by how he left Indiana in such a shambles that he makes Hoosiers fans feel lucky to have Tom Crean. Mick Cronin takes crap from no one, especially Ted Valentine. Fran Dunphy is so diabolical that he shaved his legendary 40-year-old mustache just because he could. Watching these guys try to kill each other week after week is going to be fantastic theater.
Oh, and did you even realize that Orlando Antigua, a.k.a. “The curly-haired dude who has been John Calipari’s shadow for the past five years,” is coaching at South Florida? Did you know he’s a former Harlem Globetrotter (his nickname was “Hurricane”) or that he played three years at Pitt with a bullet in his head? (Wait, WHAT?!?!) And did you remember that Antigua got the job only because Manhattan College coach Steve Masiello, who was offered the South Florida gig first, lied about graduating from Kentucky? Speaking of that, here’s a conspiracy theory: Calipari was behind it all. He ratted on Masiello to secure the USF job for his buddy. Meanwhile, he knew Masiello would return to UK to finish his degree, which would give Calipari credit for graduating another Kentucky basketball player. Cal is a genius. Prove me wrong.
Anyway, a third of the fans of schools in the American are pissed that they’re stuck in what feels like a mid-major conference, another third are content, and the final third are happy to be moving up in the world. This means the potential is sky-high for trash talk between fans in the AAC, especially when you consider the following factors: One program in the conference just won the national title after returning from a postseason ban; another program is led by a coach coming off a five-year show cause penalty; another program tried to hire a coach who had falsified his résumé;2 another program is led by the Pete Carroll of basketball in that he’s won both a college and pro title, and he bailed on one of the best college programs in the country right as shit was about to hit the fan; and yet another program has a coach who was suspended for five games last season over NCAA violations committed at his previous job.3
The conference player of the year race last season was the closest in a major conference in recent memory. The best recruit in the American’s history is playing in China. And if you asked me to rank the coaches in the league, I’d probably just draw their names out of a hat. I don’t care that blowouts were common in league play last year. I don’t care that I still hate the name of the conference as much as I did when I first heard it. The American has so much potential to be a circus this season that I’m already glued to my TV in anticipation.
Let’s see what else America’s best college basketball conference has to offer.
The Top Three Teams
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT
This year’s UConn team can be better than last year’s, which, in case you forgot, went 26-8 in the regular season and finished three games back in the race for the American crown. “Can” is the operative word here. Whether the Huskies actually reach their potential depends on how the following questions are answered:
Will the newcomers live up to the hype?
Rodney Purvis is a 2012 McDonald’s All American transfer from NC State. He’s an athletic marvel who averaged 8.3 points and shot 44 percent from the field as a freshman. Ollie referred to him as a “Ferrari in my garage I can’t use” when Purvis sat out last season (get ready to hear that quote a million more times), which means Purvis should be able to fill a decent chunk of the Shabazz Napier void. Sam Cassell Jr., who for some reason hasn’t yet officially claimed the nickname “Little Balls” for his dad’s famous dance, was a first-team juco All-American last year. Top-30 recruit Daniel Hamilton will play that Jeremy Lamb/DeAndre Daniels role. Those three should start alongside Ryan Boatright and whichever big man Ollie likes the best. If they don’t live up to the hype, UConn could be in trouble. If they do, UConn might as well change its name to Backcourt U.
Will a reliable big man step up?
The candidates: Amida Brimah, Kentan Facey, Phillip Nolan, and Rakim Lubin. Lubin is a freshman who probably won’t see the court in big games. Nolan made strides last season and started throughout the NCAA tournament, but he doesn’t do much other than commit fouls. Facey has potential but is still very raw. That leaves Brimah, who lost his starting spot after Ollie revamped the lineup in response to a blowout loss against Louisville. Brimah’s body and athleticism have NBA scouts foaming at the mouth, which is why he’s a lock to start every game this season. But he was also pretty inconsistent last year, so there’s really no telling if he can give the Huskies reliable production on a game-to-game basis.
If UConn’s guards are as good as they project to be, it won’t matter which big man Ollie throws out there. But given the frontcourt talent at Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Duke, you have to think that UConn needs stability down low.
Is Omar Calhoun’s confidence salvageable?
The Huskies are pretty deep on paper, but that paper includes the name “Omar Calhoun.” One problem: Calhoun was basically UConn’s Jordin Mayes last season,4 which is another way of saying he went from averaging 11 points per game as a freshman to averaging 13 minutes per game as a sophomore. And honestly, that 13 minutes is a little deceptive, because by the end of last season, Calhoun could’ve forgotten to wear his jersey and nobody would’ve noticed. Calhoun could be a major asset off UConn’s bench, but how much of his game and his confidence does he have left? Does he even remember how to play basketball? Hell, does he even want to play basketball, or is he just going through the motions at this point for a free education? We’ll see.
Will Tyler Olander be hired to the coaching staff?
Olander has more national championship rings than Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Bill Self, Phog Allen, Lute Olson, Jerry Tarkanian, John Thompson, Al McGuire, and Eddie Sutton. If UConn lets him walk away from the program, it will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of college basketball. (He is currently playing in Lithuania.) Mark my words.
Elsewhere in the American, Southern Methodist would’ve been a preseason top-10 team and a serious national title contender if Emmanuel Mudiay’s commitment hadn’t fallen through. As it stands, the Mustangs are still good enough to steal the conference title from UConn. Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy will be the best inside-outside tandem that average fans don’t know about yet. Ben Moore was on the All-American team for Surprisingly Good Freshmen last season.5 Yanick Moreira played well last year until a knee injury sidelined him in January. Now he’s healthy and destroying Aussies. Keith Frazier wasn’t great as a freshman, but he’s a bomb of potential just waiting to explode and this could be his breakout year. Throw in Xavier transfer Justin Martin and sprinkle a little Moody Magic on everything, and it’s easy to see why SMU fans should be optimistic, even without Mudiay.
Finally, I’m picking Memphis third because Cincinnati’s offense was one of the worst in the nation last season before the Bearcats lost 61.8 percent of their scoring heading into 2014-15, and the rest of the conference is a mess. But don’t get me wrong: I like Memphis. The Tigers lost a ton of perimeter talent, but Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin, Chris Hawkins, and Nick King should be one of the best frontcourts in the country and should at least make Memphis an NCAA tournament lock.
Best College Player: Nic Moore (SMU)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Here’s why Moore should be considered the American’s preseason POY favorite: He averaged 13.6 points, 4.9 assists, and 1.5 steals last season against a murderer’s row of opposing guards that included Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, Sean Kilpatrick, Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon Jr., Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford, Dalton Pepper, Myles Mack, and Isaiah Sykes. This year, every one of those players is gone from the conference, leaving Moore behind to kick ass and take names.
But what about UConn’s guards? Moore is still going to have to deal with Purvis, Boatright, and Little Balls. Just because he can light up East Carolina and Central Florida doesn’t mean he can play, right? What if UConn exposes him as a good-but-not-great point guard?
It’s a possibility. I actually asked Moore about this a few weeks ago. “You played well against guard-oriented teams last season, but SMU isn’t sneaking up on anybody this year. How will you handle high-profile games when SMU is depending on you to be its no. 1 guy on the perimeter? On the road against UConn, will you be able to step into the spotlight, rise to the occasion, and contain Boatright and Cassell?”
For whatever reason, America still hasn’t caught on to Nic Moore. Maybe it’s because he was overshadowed by the other great guards in the conference last season. Maybe it’s because he’s still being overshadowed by the Mudiay story. Maybe it’s because SMU didn’t make the 2014 NCAA tournament and casual fans haven’t seen Moore play. But believe me, sometime this season, there will be a moment when Moore makes casual fans stop and say, “Wait, SMU has a 5-foot-9 dude with some serious game?” With nationally televised games at Gonzaga and Indiana in the next two weeks, that moment may come sooner rather than later.
Best Pro Prospect: Rodney Purvis (UConn)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
I’ve done a 180 on Purvis. Throughout last season, I heard commentators call Purvis the key to Ollie’s coaching future. “Ollie has done a great job leading UConn through the postseason ban to this point,” they’d say. “And the program is on solid footing because Rodney Purvis will be eligible next season.”
All the Purvis talk accumulated into a mountain of hype so big that I’d bet my life at least one UConn fan wondered last January if the team’s best guard was the one on the bench in street clothes. Meanwhile, I just scratched my head. Did everyone forget Purvis at NC State? He showed flashes of brilliance, but he also showed sulking and pouting that hinted at selfishness and immaturity. And worst of all, it affected his play. This is the guard who will be handed the UConn franchise? And Huskies fans are excited? Huh?
Since then, I’ve realized that the culture at UConn is completely different from what Purvis encountered at NC State. Purvis was an All American star recruit from Raleigh who was sold a dream by Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried: Come to NC State with a handful of other All American recruits, join the four returning starters from our Sweet 16 team, win a national championship, go to the NBA, and become a hometown hero.
Then Purvis arrived on campus and found NC State basketball in the midst of an identity crisis. The Pack has always dealt with an inferiority complex that stems from being Duke and North Carolina’s third wheel, but it feels like that attitude has reached a fever pitch in the Gottfried era. Four of the six recruits to come to Raleigh in Gottfried’s first two years ended up transferring. Another one of those recruits tweeted about how Gottfried couldn’t coach, which was then retweeted by the sixth recruit (who also happens to be the best NC State player in 20-plus years). One segment of the fan base wants Gottfried fired, while another segment either likes him or thinks he should stay because NC State isn’t going to do any better without him, while yet another segment has no opinion because it’s too busy yelling at Dan Dakich on Twitter.
Of course Purvis wanted to escape that situation, especially since his one year in Raleigh was spent playing for probably the most underwhelming team in Wolfpack history. UConn, meanwhile, is this tight-knit family that sends tons of guards to the NBA and is led by a young, exciting, and charismatic coach. Purvis’s freshman season was spent playing for a recruiter who doesn’t know what to do with talent once he gets it and a group of teammates who seemed solely focused on pursuing their NBA careers at the expense of the team. Last season, with Ollie, Purvis learned from a coach who mentored LeBron James and Kevin Durant, a roommate who would stay in the gym with him until 2 a.m., and a senior superstar who demanded all-out effort from his teammates.
This stuff matters, and it’s why I’ve joined the Purvis bandwagon. All signs point to Purvis being more mature, in better shape, and revitalized by the atmosphere at UConn. In other words, all signs point to Purvis becoming a superstar.
Most Underrated Player: Austin Nichols (Memphis)
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
Can I interest you in a fundamentally sound 6-foot-8 power forward who runs the floor, has great hands, and finishes over both shoulders? What if I told you that he averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds as a freshman despite playing only 23 minutes per game? What if I told you that he put up those numbers while playing with four senior guards who all averaged more than eight shots per game? What if I told you that I was going to keep asking these questions until you agreed that, yes, you are interested? Yeah, I thought so.
Last season, Nichols was a top-15 recruit who could’ve played wherever he wanted. He chose Memphis, which made sense because Nichols grew up 30 minutes from the Memphis campus and the Tigers have a strong basketball tradition. But there was one obvious drawback: Nichols would have to wait his turn.
A year ago, you couldn’t watch Memphis play without hearing all about the Tigers’ quartet of senior guards. This left Nichols to be an afterthought or nothing more than a nod to the program’s future. Meanwhile, he was shooting 59 percent from the field and doing all the little things the team needed him to do. If Nichols had gone to Virginia or Duke (two schools he visited), he might be a household name by now.
Don’t get me wrong — Nichols still has plenty of room to improve. While some folks believe he was held back by playing with last season’s crop of senior guards, others might note that those high-profile guards got Nichols a lot of easy looks at the rim. Now that Nichols and Goodwin will be Memphis’s go-to guys, points may not come so easy. After all, Nichols hasn’t shown much skill in terms of shooting or ballhandling. Most of his scoring came from pick-and-rolls, drop-off passes, and transition finishes. Can he consistently score off his own post moves? Can he develop a reliable jump shot?
Time will tell. For now, I bet he’ll have a big year because he has great touch around the rim, he works hard on defense, he doesn’t make mistakes, and he gained 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.6
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: Will Cummings (Temple)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Remember when I wrote that SMU’s Nic Moore won’t have to deal with all of those great guards who have moved on from the American since last season? Well, one name not on that list of departures was Cummings, who is back at Temple for his senior year and certainly good enough to compete with Moore (or any guard in America, for that matter). A season ago, Cummings had a breakout year, averaging 16.8 points and leading the Owls with 4.6 assists per game. And Cummings did this in the same conference as Moore, so everything I wrote about the competition that Moore faced and the expectation for him to be one of the American’s best guards also applies to Cummings.
Moore and Cummings differ in that SMU was on the NCAA tournament bubble last season while Temple wasn’t even on the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament bubble. But so what? What if Temple was awful because it lost its emotional/spiritual leader Khalif “Not Khalid El-Amin” Wyatt, its roster was riddled with injuries, and its only players taller than 6-8 were two guys who each weigh 210 pounds and a third big man who averaged 3.5 fouls and less than one block per game? Temple certainly didn’t suck because of Cummings, who was great all season and outplayed Moore in their last head-to-head meeting.
You know what? Screw it. I’m switching my preseason POY pick to Cummings. Every non-Temple fan skipped this section anyway, so it’s not like I’m going to catch heat for this. Cummings is going to be a stud this year. He has almost no shot at the NBA because he’s not a great shooter (30.8 percent on 3-pointers last season) and he doesn’t really have that one great skill that could make him a valuable role player. Also, Temple should still be pretty bad this season, even with Tulane and East Carolina replacing Louisville in the American. But whatever — Cummings is going to average a million points a game, Temple is going to upset somebody along the way, and I’m going to look like a genius for picking a player from a nine-win team as my conference POY.
[Crosses fingers in hopes that if this prediction bombs, you assume I was just joking.]
Most Frustrating Player: Ryan Boatright (UConn)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Calm down, UConn fans. Let me at least explain myself.
I’ll start by saying that Boatright was underappreciated as one of the most improved players in the country last season. Two years ago, when he was a sophomore, I noticed Boatright for all the wrong reasons. He was extremely talented; that was obvious. But he seemed to reject his role as Robin to Shabazz Napier’s Batman. He’d hit a few shots, start feeling himself, and then proceed to throw the ball everywhere in the gym except through the basket. Instead of being one of the best second options in America, he was the guy who desperately wanted to be Shabazz. Basically, this is what Napier and Boatright looked like in 2013.
Last season was a different story. As a sophomore, Boatright had six games in which he attempted more than 14 shots and five games in which he committed at least five turnovers. As a junior, he had one game in which he shot more than 14 times and not one five-plus-turnover game. He matured and reined in his game, and that was a huge reason why the Huskies hung another banner in Gampel Pavilion.7
But now Napier is gone, UConn’s alpha-dog spot is up for grabs, and another handful of talented guards has joined the Huskies. What happens if Purvis or Little Balls takes over as the no. 1 scoring option? I don’t mean to suggest there will be locker-room chemistry issues or anything. But what if 10 games into the season it becomes clear that Little Balls is a better scorer than Boatright? What if it’s clear that Purvis is better suited to run the offense? It took a long time for Boatright to defer to Napier. Now it’s Boatright’s senior year — will he be willing to do the same for Little Balls or Purvis if that’s what the team needs? And will he do it before it’s too late? Can Boatright handle being a secondary scoring option his entire career when he has the talent to be the no. 1 option at virtually any other school?
This could be an interesting subplot in UConn’s national title defense. Boatright should be clearly better than Little Balls and Purvis, making this a nonissue. But there’s also a chance he won’t be. If that happens and Boatright thinks his maturity last season was just a way of paying dues before taking over as this season’s go-to guy, the Huskies will be in trouble. And Boatright will be the most frustrating player in America.
(OK, now you can begin sending the hate mail, UConn fans.)
Most Intriguing New Coach: #HAITH
Rob Foldy/Getty Images
Can we all stop what we’re doing and give Frank Haith a standing ovation for the double middle fingers he gave Mizzou over the summer?
Middle finger no. 1 was how he took the power back from Missouri with a perfectly timed “You can’t fire me if I quit first!” move. Middle finger no. 2 was taking the Tulsa job, thus leaving the Mizzou fans who called for his firing to wonder how bad their program must be if the head coach abandoned the team to go to … Tulsa??? Haith turned the tables on Mizzou so brilliantly that I almost expected him to give the Michael Caine monologue from The Prestige as he signed his contract at Tulsa. It was a genius move that has me rethinking everything I thought I knew about Haith. Bravo, Frank. Bravo.
In all seriousness, I think Haith is a dynamite hire for Tulsa. I genuinely do. Even though I’ve lobbed plenty of criticism and jokes at Haith over the years, I’ve never had anything against him. He just seemed to be in over his head at Missouri. Haith is somewhere between a mediocre and good basketball coach. He’s certainly not a great coach. And an institution like Missouri — a top-40 job in college basketball — should strive for better than “somewhere between mediocre and good.” After all, we’re talking about a fan base that has made it perfectly clear it ain’t waiting anymoooooore to be champioooooons.
Tulsa should be a much better fit for Haith. He’ll be in a weaker conference with fewer expectations, but he’ll still be at a basketball school that can give him the resources to build a winner. I’m excited to see what Haith can do at Tulsa and I expect he’ll have a better experience than he had at Missouri. His second career NCAA tournament win just might be right around the corner.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Kelvin Sampson (Houston)
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
If you’ve read anything about Houston’s hiring of Sampson, you’ve likely read that he has “changed” and that he’s “owning up to his mistakes” at Indiana and Oklahoma. You may have been sold a redemption story about a coach who stepped away for five years, did some soul searching, and vowed never to commit the same errors. And maybe that’s all true. Generally speaking, people deserve second chances.
Before we give Sampson that second chance, though, let’s remember what he did wrong. For starters, it’s probably not accurate to call the Houston job a second chance. It might be more like chance no. 678. Sampson’s second chance came after he made his first illegal phone call to a recruit. The chance he’s getting now comes after Sampson and his assistants made more than 676 other illegal phone calls, after he got Oklahoma’s program put on probation, and after he got Indiana’s program completely nuked.
Things are different now, of course. The rules that Sampson broke at Indiana and Oklahoma don’t even exist anymore, so perhaps there’s nothing to worry about this time. Besides, Sampson isn’t stupid. He knows that the NCAA will be tracking every move he makes. There’s no way Sampson will be dumb or crazy enough to screw up again. It would be career suicide.
For those reasons, let’s begin the season by giving Sampson the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that’s more than he deserves, but for whatever reason, I believe him when he says this: “I have learned an invaluable lesson, and I hope that this reinforces to other coaches the importance of every aspect of NCAA compliance.”
Whoops. That’s not something he said recently. I accidentally pulled that quote from when the NCAA sanctioned him for the Oklahoma violations, which was a punishment Sampson willfully disregarded throughout his tenure at Indiana. Sorry about that!
Something to Keep an Eye On: UConn’s Place Among the “Blue Blood” Programs
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
We’re almost at the point when “Is UConn a blue blood?” has become college basketball’s version of “Is Joe Flacco elite?” Especially now that the Huskies have more national titles than Kansas and as many as Duke. Yet some people believe that UConn isn’t a “blue blood” program because its national titles have all come in the last 15 years, and because those championship teams probably weren’t actually the best team in the country when they won. These people are going to be so confused when they learn that Duke also won its first title in the ’90s, and that the Blue Devils won their most recent title with Brian Zoubek in the starting lineup.
My official stance here is “Who cares?” But if I have to pick a side, then I’ll say that UConn is absolutely a blue blood. Why do fans pretend that titles from 60 years ago signify a strong program? Arizona and La Salle each have one national title — am I supposed to believe that La Salle has a better program since its championship came in 1954 and Arizona’s came in 1997? If anything, recent titles should mean more in these discussions since it’s much harder to win one today than it was in previous eras. You could probably even convince me — a guy who grew up worshiping at the Church of Bob Knight — that UConn has overtaken Indiana.
UConn consistently churns out NBA talent. Only Duke has won as many post-1985 (when the tournament expanded to 64 teams) national titles. And UConn has won national championships with two different coaches (something Duke can’t say). Romanticize the past all you want. It doesn’t change the truth that UConn is a blue blood. Whatever the hell that means, anyway.
Five Pressing Questions
1. Among Cincinnati, Tulane, and South Florida, which two will provide us with the lowest-scoring game in college basketball this season?
2. Why can’t the best programs in the American and the best programs in the Big East form their own conference? In other words, why does football insist on ruining everything?
3. Will Temple coach Fran Dunphy ever bring his mustache back?
4. Did you know that East Carolina has two NCAA tournament appearances (1972 and 1993) and both were by teams that finished their seasons with losing records?
Filed Under: College Basketball, AAC, Connecticut Huskies, Ryan Boatright, Rodney Purvis, Kevin Ollie, SMU Mustangs, Larry Brown, Frank Haith, Kelvin Sampson, Memphis Tigers, 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview