For a moment during last season’s AAC Tournament, the league’s prognosis looked particularly bleak, as Wichita State’s loss to Cincinnati in the semifinals put the Shockers on the NCAA Tournament bubble and moved the conference perilously close to being a one-bid league for the first time in its history. Ultimately, though, the Shockers made it to the Big Dance, Houston made a Final Four run and Memphis won the NIT as the league made the most of an otherwise down season with a good postseason.
But with the days now numbered for Cincinnati, Houston and UCF in the AAC, the pressure is on for the league to capitalize before it loses some of its muscle to the Big 12 in the future. Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA are in line to join the league once that trio departs, but those six won’t come close to replacing the basketball clout of Cincinnati and Houston.
For the sake of the league’s future it would be beneficial if Memphis, Wichita State, SMU, Tulsa and Temple could start to establish themselves as the class of the new-look league by displaying the basketball acumen that has defined their programs in the past. If that group can collectively make progress in the 2021-22 season, then perhaps the AAC can position itself to retain “major conference” status among college basketball’s punditry even after the Cougars and Bearcats are gone.
For now, though, Houston remains the league’s most steady program, and the Cougars will try to fend off ultra-talented Memphis this season with defending regular-season champion Wichita State lurking nearby as a threat to return to the NCAA Tournament.
CBS Sports AAC Preseason Player of the Year Tyson Etienne, Wichita State
Tyson Etienne won the AAC’s Player of the Year award last season while keying an improbable regular-season league title for Wichita State during a breakout sophomore year. The 6-foot-2 long-range gunner caught fire during the Shockers’ eight-game winning streak that spanned six weeks late in the season, as he averaged 18.1 points on 42.6% 3-point shooting during the span. He also turned in performance of 25, 29 and 25 points against quality foes Oral Roberts, Ole Miss and Houston earlier in the season. For such a high-usage player, Etienne takes great care of the basketball, and if Wichita State makes a return trip the NCAA Tournament, he’ll be a big reason why.
CBS Sports AAC Preseason Coach of the Year Penny Hardaway, Memphis
Early in his tenure, Penny Hardaway seemed hellbent on playing a villainous role in college basketball and sticking it to the sport’s power establishment. He wanted “all the smoke,” he said and has gotten plenty of it through three seasons on the job. But as Hardaway enters Year Four, the former Tigers’ great and NBA All-Star is poised for a breakthrough. With the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class joining an impressive nucleus of returning talent, the Tigers should make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his tenure and advance beyond the first weekend. Perhaps the only thing that can derail him now are the repercussions from his initial brashness. The Tigers are awaiting a ruling from the IARP amid the fallout of the James Wiseman saga, and that looming decision looks far more capable of derailing this season than anything the Tigers will encounter in the AAC.
CBS Sports AAC Preseason Freshman of the Year Emoni Bates, Memphis
Once regarded by some as the greatest high school prospect since LeBron James, Bates enters the AAC as a well-known name across the basketball landscape. The hype subsided when he stopped growing before reaching Kevin Durant’s bodily dimensions, but Bates will still be an excellent college player and likely a future lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Listed at 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds, he is projected to play a point guard type role much in the way that his coach, Hardaway, once did. His chief competition for the top freshman honors will likely be teammate Jalen Duren. Together, the duo is expected to help lead Memphis to its first NCAA Tournament during Hardaway’s tenure.
CBS Sports AAC predicted order of finish
The consensus order as voted by our experts with how they voted below
Most overrated teamTulsa
It’s not a huge discrepancy, but two colleagues project Tulsa to finish sixth in the league, as you’ll see below. By contrast, the league’s coaches project the Golden Hurricane to finish seventh. The latter seems more likely, and guard play is the reason why. The AAC is filled with high-quality lead guards. Tulsa may find one during the season, but there’s not one jumping off the page yet. With Brandon Rachal and Elijah Joiner departed, the pressure will be on returning guards Darien Jackson, Keyshawn Embery-Simpson and Curtis Haywood II to step up offensively. Transfers Sam Griffin (UT-Arlington) and Ladavius Draine are candidates to bring buckets as well. But, on the whole, Tulsa’s guard situation looks bleaker than anyone else’s in the league aside, perhaps, from South Florida.
Most underrated teamTemple
Temple’s start and stop 2020-21 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic was an incoherent mess further convoluted by injuries. The Owls finished just 5-11 (4-10 AAC), with their final six losses all coming by single digits as the roster became competitive but struggled to close tight games. Now, the Owls are a seasoned group that should be able to compete with almost anyone in the league, aside from maybe Memphis and Houston. Though lean up front, their backcourt looks solid, and there is a chance for third-year coach Aaron McKie to guide the Owls to a .500 or better mark in the AAC.
How our experts voted