The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
Here’s our look at the AAC.
Here’s what you need to know about the AAC in 2015-16:
It was bonkers. The Huskies would go on to beat the Bearcats in four overtimes, and UConn won the AAC tournament crown. Connecticut-Cincinnati is a budding college basketball rivalry, and their matchups will be must-see television this season.
However, last year wasn’t all about Kevin Ollie’s squad in the AAC. In fact, it finished sixth in the regular season standings. Temple went 14-4 in regular season conference play, while three teams (Houston, Cincinnati and Tulsa) each went 12-6. Four AAC schools received NCAA tournament bids, and its second place finisher, SMU, was operating under a postseason ban.
Best Player: F Dedric Lawson, Memphis
There was doubt as to whether or not Lawson would return for his sophomore year at Memphis, but here he is. New head coach Tubby Smith has one of the premier talents in college basketball to mold this season.
In an era of positionless basketball, Lawson fits like a glove. He’s a 6-9, 230 pounder that can shoot, score, rebound, pass and defend. The jury is out on Memphis’ NCAA tournament hopes this season, but at the very least, its stud sophomore should have a huge season.
As a freshman, Lawson averaged 15.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. There might not be another player in the country that can stuff a stat sheet like him.
But will it translate to wins? Time will tell. Lawson has his warts – he barely cracked 40 percent shooting last season and turned the ball over 3.2 times per game; that number is too high for a point guard, let alone a small forward. But on the whole, the talent and production is clear; if Smith can maximize the Tigers’ potential like he did with the Red Raiders at Texas Tech last season, Lawson will become a superstar.
Best Team: UConn Huskies
Despite winning the AAC tournament, last season was a down year by UConn’s standards. That speaks more to how high the bar is in Storrs than anything else.
Daniel Hamilton, Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs are gone, but the Huskies look strong in pretty much every area going into this season.
From Ray Allen to Kemba Walker, from Ben Gordon to Shabazz Napier, UConn has always churned out incredible guards. Sophomore floor general Jalen Adams could be the next in line.
Gibbs was a good player, but he was always a scorer playing in a point guard’s body. Adams showed leadership, poise and smarts last season, and he should make everyone around him better.
Adams assisted on almost 20 percent of UConn’s field goals when he was in the game last season, per Sports Reference. By comparison, Gibbs’ assist rate was 12.9 percent. Ollie’s offense runs much more smoothly with Adams in the driver’s seat, and he’s going to have some help. Freshman Alterique Gilbert is capable of playing both guard spots, and UConn will have the flexibility to play two-point guard lineups that were all the rage in college basketball last season.
With Adams and Gilbert in the backcourt, senior Rodney Purvis can play the bulk of his minutes at small forward, where he is a more natural fit. Amida Brimah, the best shot-blocker in college basketball, returns as well. This team is comparable to 2015-16 UConn from a talent standpoint, but its puzzle pieces appear to be a much cleaner fit.
Sleeper Team: Houston Cougars
For diehard AAC fans, Houston might not feel like much of a sleeper at all. The Cougars finished last season 22-9 (12-6 in the AAC) and notched several quality wins in 2015-16.
But if you’re a mainstream college basketball fan, Houston probably isn’t on your radar. And that’s perfectly understandable. With that said, the Coogs could challenge for an NCAA tournament spot this season.
Last year, Houston quietly had one of the best trios in the country in Devonta Pollard, Damyean Dotson and Robert Gray. The latter two are back in 2016-17, and they combined to average 29.9 points per game last year.
The Cougars finished 17th in the nation in offensive efficiency last season, and if they can maintain that level of potency, Houston merely needs to be mediocre defensively in order to have a really good basketball team.
Freshman to Watch: G Alterique Gilbert, UConn
He was mentioned earlier, but fans are going to learn who Alterique Gilbert is quite quickly.
Last season, every Final Four team had some variation of a two-point guard lineup (admittedly, to varying degrees. Syracuse might not have loved using Trevor Cooney at the point for extended minutes, but he was a better ball-handler than most shooting guards).
Ollie is a smart coach, and he likely took notice. Instead of burying Gilbert behind Adams on the depth chart, he’ll use the duo together quite a bit, and the Huskies will be extremely difficult to keep out of the lane.
Gilbert is a lightning-quick guard with a wiry build, and given Adams’ size, the 6-0 freshman should be able to hound opposing AAC point guards on the defensive end. Look for him to have a Devonte' Graham-like effect for the Huskies this season, which would be a boon towards UConn’s AAC title hopes.