AAC preview: New contenders emerge in post-UConn era

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 07 AAC Women’s Tournament - Tulane v South Florida
Jose Fernandez and the South Florida Bulls are sitting pretty entering the 2020-21 AAC season. | Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the UConn Huskies now in the Big East, the AAC projects to be more competitive than it has in quite some time. South Florida, Central Florida and Cincinnati are among the conference’s preseason favorites.

The AAC enters the 2020-21 season with one notable omission: the UConn Huskies.

UConn, who left the AAC to rejoin the Big East last summer (sans football, ice hockey and rowing), will likely not be missed by its former conference rivals. From 2013-2020, the Huskies went a perfect 118-0 in regular-season conference play, running the table and winning the AAC Tournament in every season.

With the country’s biggest women’s basketball powerhouse no longer reigning over the AAC, the conference will have a new champion. The air of UConn inevitability has blown out the door, while one of uncertainty and excitement has rushed in; which program will step up and become the new class of AAC women’s basketball?

According to the AAC preseason coach’s poll, most believe it will be the University of South Florida (USF), which received eight of 11 first-place votes. Also receiving votes were the University of Central Florida (UCF) (one vote) and Cincinnati (two votes). Tulane, meanwhile, did not receive any first-place votes, but finished third overall in the preseason poll.

While the AAC has yet to announce its 2020-21 women’s basketball conference schedule, we know that each team will play 20 games in double round-robin fashion, according to an AAC release from October. The release hints at four “windows” in December for a conference start date, though times and matchups are still uncertain.

Rewind: A look at where the AAC left off

The Huskies finished their last run in the AAC strong, finishing with a perfect 16-0 conference record (29-3 overall) and winning their seventh AAC Tournament in as many seasons. UConn forward Megan Walker was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after a 26-point effort in the championship game.

Walker joined teammates Crystal Dangerfield and Christyn Williams, as well as Kay Kay Wright (UCF), IImar’I Thomas (Cincinnati) and Mia Davis (Temple) on the AAC’s All-Conference First Team. The Second Team consisted of Antoinette Miller (Cincinnati), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (UConn), Lashonda Monk (East Carolina), Ashley Jones (Temple) and Krystal Freeman (Tulane). Monk was also named the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Jones its Newcomer of the Year. USF’s Elena Tsineke was named the AAC’s Freshman of the Year, while Cincinnati’s Angel Rizor took home Most Improved honors and Tulane’s Dynah Jones earned Sixth Player of the Year. UConn’s Geno Auriemma was named the AAC Coach of the Year.

Unsurprisingly, UConn ranked highly in Swish Appeal’s hypothetical 2019-20 NCAA bracket, earning a No. 4 seed as the bracket’s 16th-ranked team. The Huskies were the only AAC team to make the bracket.

AAC Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each AAC team stands entering the 2020-21 season, in order of the conference’s preseason poll:

1) South Florida Bulls

USF has historically been one of the AAC’s stronger teams, winning no fewer than 19 games in every season dating back to 2013-14 and making four NCAA Tournament appearances in that span, so it’s little surprise that it’s the favorite to win the new-look AAC. Guards Elisa Pinzan and Elena Tsineke were both named to the preseason All-AAC Second Team, while forward Bethy Mununga returns after nearly averaging a double-double (9.2 points and 10.1 rebounds) last season.

2) Central Florida Knights

UCF forward Brittney Smith took an impressive leap in her sophomore campaign, averaging 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and the Knights will need her to continue producing if they’re to live up to their preseason ranking — as well as overcome the loss of guard Korneila Wright (17.4 points per game in 2019-20). The Knights have played somewhat slow-paced basketball in recent seasons, however, so they’ll likely lean on their team defense before they do any one player.

3) Tulane Green Wave

Tulane is just one of two AAC schools to land a top-100 recruit (according to ESPN) for the 2020-21 season: Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year Jerkaila Jordan, who was the 10th-ranked guard in her class. Versatile forward Krystal Freeman, who has averaged at least 14 points and 7 rebounds per game in each of her last two seasons for the Green Wave, will be leading the team, which is projected to improve greatly upon last season’s 14-17 overall record.

4) Cincinnati Bearcats

The Bearcats went 11-5 in conference play last season and made it all the way to the AAC Tournament finals. IImar’I Thomas (18.6 points, 7.8 rebounds) is one of the top players in the conference. She’ll need help, however; Angel Rizor (12 points per game in 2019-20), Antoinette Miller (15.6) and Sam Rodgers (8.8) have all since graduated. Perhaps redshirt junior Addaya Moore is ready to step into a larger role, or maybe redshirt senior Arame Niang can provide additional frontcourt production after sitting out last season.

5) Temple Owls

Like Cincinnati, Temple boasts one of the most productive players in the conference, but will need to quickly find talent to surround her with if it’s going to compete. Mia Davis was named the AAC Preseason Co-Player of the Year (along with Cincinnati’s Thomas), but she lost lots of help from 2019-20. In particular, Temple will be looking to fill the void of guard Marissa Mackins, who scored 12.3 points per game and hit 76 3-pointers last season but has since transferred to North Florida.

6) Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State will be bringing back most of its impact players from 2019-20, so there’s room for improvement upon the team’s 7-9 conference record. Sophomore guard Mariah McCully will get most of the accolades after averaging 12.6 points and 2.2 steals per game last season, but players like Seraphine Bastin and Carla Bremaud are more than capable of filling out the roster and having breakout seasons.

7) Houston Cougars

The Cougars hung their hats on rebounding in 2019-20, ranking among the country’s best in offensive rebounds per game, and with both Tatyana Hill and Julia Blackshell-Fair (5.6 offensive rebounds per game combined) returning, chances are Houston will once again be strong on the offensive glass. For whatever reason, though, that didn’t translate to rebounding at the other end. Houston will also need stronger guard play in 2020-21; last season’s assist/turnover ratio of 0.67 was hard to overcome.

8) Memphis Tigers

Big things are expected from Memphis forward Dulcy Mendjiadeu Fankam, who led the team in rebounding and blocked shots last season and was chosen to the AAC’s All-Conference Second Team in the preseason poll. The Tigers will also return guard Jamirah Shutes, who scored 15.2 points per game for them last season. We’ll see if these individual efforts can translate into team success; Memphis went just 4-12 in conference play in 2019-20.

9) East Carolina Pirates

East Carolina finished ninth in the AAC in 2019-20, and that’s exactly where the coaches have them ranked heading into 2020-21. Lashonda Monk returns as one of the most feared defensive players in the country — she averaged a ridiculous 4.2 steals per game last season — so we’ll see if she and sophomore Taniyah Thompson (13.7 points per game in 2019-20) can carry the Pirates above their projected finish.

10) Southern Methodist Mustangs

SMU went a mediocre 7-9 in AAC play last season, but will be returning three of its four leading scorers (Reagan Bradley, Amber Bacon and Kayla White), as well as welcoming top-100 recruit Rhyle McKinney. The problem: High-octane rebounder and defensive playmaker Johnasia Cash has transferred to Penn State after criticizing SMU’s approach to player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. One must wonder how that situation factored into the AAC coaches’ ranking of SMU in their preseason poll.

11) Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Those polled for the AAC preseason rankings were incredibly low on Tulsa — the Golden Hurricane garnered just 10 total points in the poll, meaning that every single voter picked them to finish last in the conference — and it’s easy to see why. The Golden Hurricane finished just 4-12 in conference play last season and lost leading scorer (12.8 points) and rebounder (8.5) Kendrian Elliott to graduation. Things may very well get worse for Tulsa before they get any better.

Preseason nods

Players of the Year: IImar’I Thomas (Cincinnati), Mia Davis (Temple)

First Team All-AAC: Brittney Smith (UCF), IImar’I Thomas (Cincinnati), Lashonda Monk (East Carolina), Mia Davis (Temple), Krystal Freeman (Tulane)

Second Team All-AAC: Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (Memphis), Elisa Pinzan (USF), Elena Tsineke (USF), Arsula Clark (Tulane), Mariah McCully (Wichita State)

Key conference dates

November 25, 2020: AAC season start*

*Non-conference play only; AAC intra-conference women’s basketball schedule has yet to be announced