Prior to the conference's inagural season, I thought the American Athletic would be a run to the title for Louisville. The Cardinals shared the regular season title with Cincinnati and won the conference tournament before absconding to the ACC. Last year, coach Rick Pitino's team was outdone by Connecticut, who won their second national championship in the last four years. Because of the Huskies' surprising run in the NCAA tournament, the American Athletic gets top billing this year. In other words, the conference's preview is first.
The Cardinals are joined in leaving the AAC by Rutgers, which somehow left for the Big Ten. They are replaced by East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa from Conference USA. While no one with Pitino's pedigree is left, there are some interesting new coaches. Frank Haith left Missouri for Tulsa, while Kelvin Sampson returns to college basketball at Houston after being exiled to the NBA the last six seasons. In each conference, we'll look at the top three players, a freshman and transfer of note and a couple of sleepers.
Ryan Boatright, guard, Connecticut Huskies - After spending three years as an understudy to Shabazz Napier (LeBron James' favorite non-teammate), Boatright gets the spotlight in his senior season. He has been a dependable scorer over his career and averaged 15.4 points as a sophomore and 12.1 points last year. He hit only 39.1 percent of his field goals, but bumped up to 37.6 percent on 3-pointers. Boatright should have the ball in his hands and have the green light to shoot with Napier and DeAndre Daniels out of the picture. Expect big bumps in point production and assists as coach Kevin Ollie leans on his 6-foot senior.
Shaq Goodwin, forward, Memphis Tigers - While Austin Nichols may be the safer choice since he has playing time upside, I am going with the 6-9 Goodwin to produce the best numbers for the Tigers. (Nichols did not play during Memphis' summer trip to Canada because of an ankle injury.) Goodwin averaged 11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.8 blocks in 29.8 minutes as a sophomore. Just as he was a freshman, Goodwin was foul prone: he fouled out of three games and accrued four fouls in seven other games. If the Atlanta native can curb his aggressiveness just a touch, he could stay on the court longer and put up some sweet counting numbers.
James Woodard, guard, Tulsa Golden Hurricane - At Missouri, Haith had a nice run with some of coach Mike Anderson's players. Now he has inherited a decent roster from Danny Manning, who left for Wake Forest. After a rough start to the season, Manning had the Golden Hurricane flying, and the team won its last 11 games to make the NCAA Tournament. Woodard, a 6-3 junior, was the team's featured scorer and averaged 15.5 points. Like the team, Woodard started a bit inconsistently. He finished with strength, including a season-high 27 points in the Conference USA championship win over Louisiana Tech. Woodard could lead the conference in scoring.
Dominic Magee, guard, Memphis Tigers - During summer, the conference had an easy choice for top freshman: Emmanuel Mudiay who was headed to SMU before concerns about his amateur status had him flee for China before heading to the NBA. Magee may get some run as the Tigers' point guard, though the arrival of former-Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson may block that path. Magee, a 6-3 native of Louisiana, averaged 7.0 points and 2.5 assists in four games in the summer trip to Canada. The freshman has the quickness and handle to penetrate to the basket and should be able to set up his Tiger teammates on his forays to the basket. Keep an eye on UConn's Daniel Hamilton, who is the top-rated freshmen in the conference.
Torian Graham, guard, Houston Cougars - It won't take Sampson long to turn Houston around. Even though the Cougars were in the bottom half of the AAC and lost their top two scorers (TaShawn Thomas to Oklahoma and Danuel House to Texas A&M), Sampson has history at Oklahoma and Indiana on his side. Plus, the NCAA has relaxed its texting rules. Look for the 6-4 Graham, who once committed to North Carolina State, to lead the team in scoring. He averaged 12.9 points for Chipola Junior College in 2013-14 and has a nice 3-point stroke.
Pair of Sleepers
Shaq Thomas, forward, Cincinnati Bearcats - It is a bit weird to know that Shaquille O'Neal is old enough to have collegians likely named after him since I am a couple of days older than the original Shaq. The Bearcats are starting anew with starters including Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson gone. Thomas is a 6-7 junior forward who saw a nice bump in minutes and production in his sophomore season. He averaged 6.8 points on 45.4 percent from the field in 22.9 minutes. The New Jersey native should slot into the starting lineup and be able to use his athleticism to take another step in the right direction.
Daniel Dingle, forward, Temple Owls - Dingle, the brother of former UMass player Dana Dingle, tore his MCL after 10 games in 2013-14, so he might be off some people's radar. The 6-7 sophomore had played two of his better games before getting hurt. He scored 13 points in a loss to Texas Southern and 12 points in a win over LIU Brooklyn. The Owls proceeded to lose the next eight games, which may or may now have had anything to do with Dingle's injury. He's back for 2014-15 and should be ready to slide into the vacancy that Anthony Lee's departure to Ohio State created.