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How Will UConn Fare in the AAC?

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As the dog days of summer roll on through July, UConn men’s basketball head coach Kevin Ollie is prepping his team for another run at the NCAA title.

At this time last year, there was a whirlwind of uncertainty surrounding the team as they prepped for a season unlike any other. Poor APR scores from past UConn teams caused the Huskies to be suspended from post-season play for the 2013-2013 basketball season.

By the end of the summer of 2012, former head coach Jim Calhoun was once again dealing with health issues, (this time hurting his hip after a biking accident at his charity ride,) and a new head coach was soon to be born in Ollie. Also going on during this time were discussions for other teams in the then Big East conference to undergo conference realignment and change leagues.

We sit here looking at our computer screens a year later, with the program boasting of a strong 20-10 finish, a head coach in Ollie locked up for the foreseeable future, and a new basketball development center being constructed as part of the future of UConn basketball.

However, conference realignment caused some big shifts in the college basketball world. The Big East is referred to now with the word ‘old’ in front of it, as new teams and former catholic schools of the ‘old’ Big East joined together to create a ‘new’ Big East. Where does this leave UConn?

Well, UConn will begin its first season as a member of the American Athletic Conference, the AAC for short, or the American for fun.  Returning to conference play with the Huskies will be former Big East rivals Cincinnati, South Florida, and the national champion Louisville Cardinals. Joining these marquee members will be Memphis, Houston, Southern Methodist, Central Florida, and Temple. East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa will join in 2014, and Navy will bring football to the conference in 2015.

The makeup of the AAC has brought mixed results from fans, with the new slate of teams being under scrutiny. For one thing, Louisville will only be a member of the AAC for one season before taking their talents to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC),  a spot UConn desperately fought for.

Some of the teams added to the AAC are not considered top of the line opponents like UConn fans are used to seeing from the old Big East. With uncertainty as to how this season will pan out, let’s take a look at how things might go down for this years’ crop of Huskies.

Conference Play

UConn will have its hands full with some of the opponents that will come to Storrs this year. Let’s breakdown some of UConn’s biggest potential matchups.

 Louisville- UConn expects to play a home and away game with a familiar foe in Louisville. The Cardinals are fresh off a National Championship in which they were also the number one overall seed. They have a terrific coach in Rick Pitino and are a hot topic on the recruiting trail. In order to fare well against the raging bull that is Louisville, they’ll have to play like they did in the first half against Louisville last season at the XL Center.

That means they’ll have to keep rising senior Russ Smith (18.7 PPG, 2.9 AST, 2.1 STL in 2013) out of the paint, as well as keeping sharpshooter and the Most Outstanding Player of the National Championship game Luke Hancock (8.1 PPG, .399 3P% in 2013) away from the 3-pt line. The Cardinals will likely be the toughest out for the Huskies in the upcoming season, but the veteran leadership of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will match up well with the Cardinal guards, so I say they will split the series, each getting a win at home.

Memphis- Young coach Josh Pastner brings in a great recruiting class along with senior point guard Joe Jackson (13.6 PPG.)  They lost three of their starters, but don’t quit on this young Tigers team. Memphis arrives from Conference USA, a league that they went unbeaten in this past year.

A big part of UConn’s success will be based on how forwards DeAndre Daniels, Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey, and incoming freshman Kentan Facey and Amida Bridah will handle the post offensively and defensively. Memphis brings tough players to the frontcourt, and they’ve added a whopping five players on the ESPN Top 100 recruits list. If these UConn players can all improve on their rebounding struggles from the past, they’ll put up quite a fight to this Tigers team. I’ll take UConn’s experience over Memphis’ youth here.

Cincinnati- Mick Cronin has done some wonderful things for the Bearcats program. Growing up watching his father coach the team taught him a lot about the Bearcat way, and it shows through the success he’s had leading his team in the past few seasons. UConn and Cincy split their two games last season in the old Big East, each team winning at home and each game going into overtime.

Senior Cashmere Wright (12.7 PPG, 3.2 APG) and junior Sean Kilpatrick (17.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 34.4 minutes per game)  lead a veteran attack for the bearcats, an attack that gave UConn fits last season. Cincy adds a blue chip prospect in Jermaine Lawrence and brings a big frontcourt. However, I think UConn holds the upper hand here if they manage to stay healthy. Both times UConn played Cincy last season, they were dealing with injuries to key players, so it was hard to judge what a matchup between two healthy teams may have brought. I think UConn can take both games against the Bearcats, but don’t be surprised if Cincy ends up winning their home game due to strong play from Wright and Kilpatrick.

Houston  Houston- I think the Houston Cougars bring the most intriguing matchup because there is very little history between the two programs. The Huskies last played the Cougars in Houston on December 30, 1999 and won the game 82-76 after holding off a 26-4 run by the Cougars. They met again the following year at Gampel on November 30, with UConn ranked #16 nationally, and the Huskies beat the Cougars 72-62 at Gampel Pavillion.

Houston’s program has become notable as they are on the rise recruiting wise and are starting to win a respectable amount of games each season. They finished with a record of 20-13 in the Conference USA, and they have a long list of talented players, including junior star forward TaShawn Thomas, who put up very impressive numbers in his sophomore season (16.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.7 BPG, .552 FG%.) Add blue chip prospect gone sophomore forward Danuel House (12.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG,) and Houston puts out a strong front court. Houston only loses one senior, and returns a team largely composed of juniors. We haven’t seen enough of the Cougars to know what they will truly bring to the table, but it will certainly be fun to watch this year.

UConn’s experience holds a lot of merit in this new conference, as they are widely believed to the league’s elite team going forward. They have multiple championships and will be looking to compete for more in the AAC. On paper it looks like UConn and Louisville will be the teams to beat, but that doesn’t mean a team like Cincy or Memphis or even Houston can’t sneak up the ranks and make the tourney. No matter who comes out on top, this upcoming season for UConn should be one to remember.