UConn basketball: How will the Huskies fare in stronger AAC this season?
With the addition of Wichita State and the return of numerous high-level players around the league, the American Athletic Conference will be better this season.
The question is, will UConn be better?
The Huskies almost have to be better than last year's 16-17, injury-riddled disaster. Still, there's no guarantee they'll finish any better than last year's tie for fifth place in the league standings, or secure an NCAA tournament bid.
"We learned a lot," coach Kevin Ollie said of last season. "I know I learned a lot. I had never been through anything like that in my career, as a head coach or an assistant."
Taking a midsummer's look at the AAC, there's no doubt the top two teams are Wichita State and Cincinnati. The Shockers, moving over from the Missouri Valley Conference, will be a near-consensus top-10 team who will almost certainly be the preseason pick to win the league. They've got 95 percent of their scoring back from last year's 31-5 MVC champs, led by Landry Shamet, a versatile guard whose move from shooting guard to point midway through last season precipitated a 14-game win streak.
Markus McDuffie is a tough forward from now-defunct St. Anthony's High, Conner Frankamp may be the league's best shooter and Zach Brown its best on-the-ball defender.
This could be a special season in Wichita.
"It certainly has the ability to be that way," said coach Gregg Marshall. "We've got to prove it on the court."
Don't sleep on Cincinnati, however. The Bearcats have their top three scorers back from last year's 30-win bunch, along with Jarron Cumberland and a strong slew of newcomers led by Sacred Heart transfer/East Hartford product Cane Broome. The nation's top overall scorer over his first two years at SHU, Broome will take over for graduated Troy Caupain at point guard.
"He had to score at Sacred Heart," Cincy coach Mick Cronin noted, "but he's much more comfortable playing point guard. He gives us a weapon we haven't had, as far as getting teammates easy shots."
Book an eighth straight tourney bid for Cincy, which will be a near-consensus preseason Top 20 team.
"We're usually underrated," Cronin added, "so we're not gonna pay attention to it now, either. Like John Wooden said, 'You've got to ignore criticism and deflect praise.'"
After that, it'll be a real scrum as the league's middle class is much stronger. SMU lost three players to the NBA from last year's league champions but still has Shake Milton, along with talented transfers Jimmy Whitt and ex-USF shooter Jahmal McMurray, to go with league coach of the year Tim Jankovich.
UCF has 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, high-scoring guard B.J. Taylor and an exciting newcomer in coach Johnny Dawkins' son, Aubrey, who probably would have started at Michigan this year had he not transferred to play for pop.
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Even Tulane, coached by Mike Dunleavy, Sr., and ECU have talented returnees and should improve. The only two teams that could be in for a very long winter are the two that suffered mass exoduses that made even UConn's look tame. USF loses just about everybody (including fired coach Orlando Antigua) from a team that went 1-17 in the league, while Memphis lost eight players, including the Lawson brothers (Dedric, the league's top rebounder and second-leading scorer, and K.J., its Rookie of the Year) to transfer or graduation.
Which brings us back to UConn. Exactly where do the Huskies fit? Most prognosticators will likely pick them somewhere between fourth and sixth in the league -- and let's face it, UConn has never exceeded regular-season expectations in the four years of the AAC.
"I don't care if we're eighth or 10th in the preseason," said Ollie. "In Connecticut, they expect us to win. That's the expectation that we come into each and every year, and that's how we're evaluated. I understand that pressure. I played here, I coached here. I like that pressure. I think that's a privilege."
The Huskies certainly have great talent in the backcourt -- Jalen Adams, Alterique Gilbert, swingman Terry Larrier and Christian Vital. Of course, Gilbert missed all but three games last year with a shoulder injury, while Larrier missed all but four after tearing his ACL.
The graduations of Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey, not to mention the transfers of Steve Enoch and Juwan Durham, leave gaping holes in the frontcourt. Filling them in will either be freshmen (redshirt Mamadou Diarra, who missed all of last season with knee issues, Josh Carlton, a classic back-to-the-basket big, or wiry Isaiah Whaley), JUCO transfers (285-pound Eric Cobb or Kwintin Williams and his 44-inch vertical leap) or grad transfer David Onuorah, a rim protector who missed all but one game at Cornell last year for personal reasons.
The Huskies must remain healthy, which is certainly not a given considering the injury histories of Gilbert, Diarra and Larrier. They must have at least a couple of players step up in the frontcourt. If all that happens, UConn should be among the top three or four teams in the league and be in the NCAA tournament conversation.
If not, the Huskies could be looking at another sixth-place (or worse) finish in the American, miss the tourney for the third time in four years and raise a lot of questions about Ollie's future.
"We have to win," the coach acknowledged. "I can't keep going 16-17. We all know that."
This article is written by David Borges from New Haven Register, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.