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Andy Katz | NCAA.com Correspondent | July 25, 2018

Don't sleep on Tulsa in the American Athletic Conference this season

The college basketball season will be here faster than you know it. And it's never too early to be thinking about your March Madness bracket. To help you out, we are going to break down each conference with storylines to know, predictions and power rankings you should know ahead of the upcoming season. 

Here is our preview of the American Athletic Conference. 

Here are 12 storylines to watch in the American American Athletic Conference this season:

1. The health of the Knights: This is the most important story to chart. UCF coach Johnny Dawkins told March Madness 365 that B.J. Taylor, Tacko Fall and his son Aubrey Dawkins were all going to be good to go for the fall play at the latest, with all but Fall cleared for contact now. If this team is healthy then there’s no reason why the Knights can’t compete for the league title and a decent seed in the NCAA tournament. Dawkins landed well from Stanford. He is all class and character and it would be great to see this program rise. For years the Knights have been referred to as a sleeping giant and getting all of their pieces on the court together would certainly make winning a reality.

2. Jarron Cumberland could be the next Cincinnati star: Mick Cronin has built as consistent a program as there is in the country. He wins and he produces talent that develops from the first day to the last. He told NCAA.com that Cumberland could be the player of the year in the league and the next one to step up on campus. The Bearcats are also re-opening their new arena with Ohio State. This should be another banner season for Cronin.

MORE: Dawkins talks UCF's tournament hopes with return of Tacko Fall | Podcast 

3. Penny Hardaway’s impact in Memphis: Hardaway has a team that is ready to make a jump toward the top of the AAC. He’s also having a major impression on recruits. Seeing Hardaway on the sidelines for Memphis fans will be/should be a huge boost for the program’s self-esteem. This is not a reach. Hardaway earned this gig by working as a high school coach. He didn’t just have his hand out for this gig. If Hardaway can get the Tigers in the NCAA tournament in year one it will be a major coup for the university/city to revitalize a program that has always been a player in any league it has participated.

4. Dan Hurley’s imprint on UConn: The Huskies may be a year or two away from fully being back chasing a league title. But doubting Hurley would be a mistake. His intensity and passion for this job, any job is apparent. Jalen Adams came back to UConn to finish his Huskies’ career on a high. Taking them to the postseason, any postseason tournament, would allow him to leave with his head high. This team under Kevin Ollie wasn’t healthy recently. If Hurley can benefit from a healthy team then the Huskies should make huge strides.

5. Houston was no fluke: The Cougars have been building up toward being a consistent player for the title the past few seasons. Last season was the break through campaign. If it weren’t for Jordan Poole’s 3-pointer at the buzzer for Michigan then Houston could have made a serious run to the Final Four. Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Fabian White give the Cougars plenty to work with for another top four finish. Don’t expect scoring to be an issue or being a lock-down defensive team. Not having the go-to Rob Gray to bail them out of tough situations will be an issue. But playing back in a refurbished arena should create even more juice in the building.

RELATED: The ultimate A-Z guide to college basketball's non-conference schedule

6. Fran’s last stand: Temple made the decision that this would be Fran Dunphy’s last season with the Owls. Dunphy has handled this with class and will help aid the transition to assistant Aaron McKie. But this team still could be in the tournament with Shizz Alston, Nate Pierre-Louis and Quinton Rose all back along the perimeter. This team will be tough to get by and can get to the rack. How the post develops and whether Temple can navigate the usual tough non-conference slate will determine if Dunphy goes out with an NCAA berth.

7. No way Wichita State should be this low: I know. I know. This is based on returning talent. And it’s probably wrong because Gregg Marshall doesn’t ever finish in or near the bottom. Markis McDuffie will be beast for the Shockers. This team will remain one of the more athletic in the conference, but will be inexperienced. The homecourt advantage for Wichita State will do wonders for keeping the Shockers in every game and in the mix within the AAC.

8. The sleeper: Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane could be the team that sneaks up and earns a bid toward the end of the season. Of course how Tulsa handles its non-conference could help the cause. But Frank Haith may have his most talented team with Daquan Jeffries, who could be an all-league, player of the year type candidate. Sterling Taplin and Martins Igbanu give Tulsa another 1-2 punch outside and in. Jeriah Horne will be a huge addition for Tulsa. This program doesn’t get the national love it deserves sometimes but will be a late bloomer that will deserve attention.

9. Don’t dismiss SMU: The Mustangs were battling injuries and a transition last season. That shouldn’t be an issue this season. Jahmal McMurray, Jarrey Foster will be studs for the Mustangs and Jimmy Whitt, Ethan Chargois and transfer Isiaha Mike will provide plenty of productivity on the offensive end. Tim Jankovich is one of the under appreciated coaches who maximizes talent.

10. The hire of Joe Dooley at East Carolina: This should give ECU a jolt — in a good way. Dooley had a previous stint at ECU and is familiar with how this program works. He flirted with a number of jobs out of Florida Gulf Coast and he goes to ECU. He has his work cut out for him, but if he can bring the excitement back to ECU in some of the manner in which he did at Gulf Coast then this will be a home run hire.

11. The next star at Tulane: Melvin Frazier was a sleeper NBA draft player out of Tulane, going in the second round to Orlando. Now enter Ray Ona Embo. He’s going to be a stud for the Green Wave. He averaged 10 a game but expect that to sky rocket this season. Mike Dunleavy Sr. knows how to maximize talent and prepare players for the league.

12. Fresh faces at USF: Brian Gregory is in his second season with the Bulls and will lean heaving on T.J. Lang, Laquincy Rideau and Alexis Yetna as well as returnee David Collins. If they can produce early and often then the turnaround could come sooner for the Bulls.

Early predictions

Cincinnati, UCF will be locks for the NCAA touranment; Memphis, Houston, Temple, Tulsa and Wichita State will be bubble teams. I could see three of the five getting bids. SMU and UConn are the outliers who could surprise.

Here are our summer power rankings for the American Athletic Conference:

  1. Cincinnati
  2. UCF
  3. Memphis
  4. Houston
  5. Temple
  6. Tulsa
  7. SMU
  8. UConn
  9. Wichita State
  10. USF
  11. Tulane
  12. ECU

 

Here's our list for the first team:

Jalen Adams, UConn

Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati

BJ Taylor, UCF

Tacko Fall, UCF

Markis McDuffie, Wichita State