Conference Preview: American Athletic Conference

Conference Preview: American Athletic Conference

This article is part of our Conference Preview series.

Many in the fantasy college basketball community have put the American in the "power conference" conversation for quite some time, despite not being traditionally mentioned with other Power-5 schools. That point of view was vindicated in 2020-21, when Kelvin Sampson took Houston all the way to the Final Four, only to fall to the eventual national champions. The arrival of Penny Hardaway to Memphis only furthers that notion, as the Tigers check in with the top overall recruiting class for 2021 according to both 24/7 Sports and Rivals.

We'll touch more on the other contenders in the team rankings below, but with many leagues grouping the AAC into their player pool, let's jump right in to discussing the top fantasy assets.

Top Players

Overall: Kendric Davis, G, SMU

If you have the first overall pick in an AAC draft and wish to play it safe, Kendric Davis is the easiest choice. The TCU transfer is one of few players who legitimately can reach 20 ppg, plus he finished fifth in the entire nation last season with 7.4 assists per contest. Granted, the Mustangs only played 17 games last season due to COVID protocol, but that should be less of a worry in 2021-22. SMU has also retooled via the transfer market, bringing in three scorers in Zach Nutall (Sam Houston), Michael Weathers (Texas Southern) and Marcus Weathers (Duquesne) who each averaged 15 ppg or greater at their previous destinations. Still, it will be tougher sledding in the scoring

Many in the fantasy college basketball community have put the American in the "power conference" conversation for quite some time, despite not being traditionally mentioned with other Power-5 schools. That point of view was vindicated in 2020-21, when Kelvin Sampson took Houston all the way to the Final Four, only to fall to the eventual national champions. The arrival of Penny Hardaway to Memphis only furthers that notion, as the Tigers check in with the top overall recruiting class for 2021 according to both 24/7 Sports and Rivals.

We'll touch more on the other contenders in the team rankings below, but with many leagues grouping the AAC into their player pool, let's jump right in to discussing the top fantasy assets.

Top Players

Overall: Kendric Davis, G, SMU

If you have the first overall pick in an AAC draft and wish to play it safe, Kendric Davis is the easiest choice. The TCU transfer is one of few players who legitimately can reach 20 ppg, plus he finished fifth in the entire nation last season with 7.4 assists per contest. Granted, the Mustangs only played 17 games last season due to COVID protocol, but that should be less of a worry in 2021-22. SMU has also retooled via the transfer market, bringing in three scorers in Zach Nutall (Sam Houston), Michael Weathers (Texas Southern) and Marcus Weathers (Duquesne) who each averaged 15 ppg or greater at their previous destinations. Still, it will be tougher sledding in the scoring department for each of those players with the move to the AAC, while Davis has already proven himself. The 5-foot-11 senior also helps in other categories, racking up 4.2 rpg and 1.6 spg while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from distance. He's as close to a complete fantasy player as it gets in the conference and should flirt with national recognition this year.

Also Considered: Ty Etienne, G, Wichita State; Emoni Bates, F, Memphis, Marcus Sasser, G, SMU

Scoring: Ty Etienne, G, Wichita State

Etienne cruised to a career-best 16.3 ppg for the Shockers last season, good for third among players returning to the league in 2021-22. Wichita State does return backcourt scorers such as Dexter Dennis (9.6 ppg) and Ricky Council (7.1 ppg), but Isaac Brown's squad also took a big loss in the form of second-leading scorer Alterique Gilbert (10.3 ppg, 4.1 apg), who left due to personal reasons. That departure should open up bonus assists for Etienne, however, further adding to his fantasy value. Etienne's ability should make him immune to what's normally a deep rotation, and his progression will be key to the Shockers locking up a third or fourth-place finish – where most national outlets are predicting them to land.  

Also Considered: Wynston Tabbs, G, ECU; Khalif Battle, G, Temple; Michael Weathers, G, SMU; Jaylen Forbes, G, Tulane; Landers Nolley, G, Memphis

Rebounding: Cheikh Mbacke Diong, C, Central Florida

Not much is returning to the AAC in terms of rebounding, as the entire top-5 from 2020-21 has either transferred or gone pro. In comes a 6-11 UNLV transfer in Diong, who has already logged four seasons with the Rebels and posted 6.8 rpg, 7.9 rpg and 7.3 rpg over the last three. He may see some competition down low from the likes of Jamille Reynolds (2.9 rpg) and Sean Mobley (2.1 rpg), but Diong is the projected starter that might fall under the radar on draft day. He has pro aspirations – he did get his draft stock tested this offseason – but needs an extra collegiate season to solidify his status with NBA scouts.

Also Considered: Jeremiah Davenport, F, Cincinnati; Jeriah Horne, F, Tulsa; Fabian White, F, Houston

Assists: David DeJulius, G, Cincinnati

Kendric Davis is the clear-cut choice here, but we'll dive a little deeper since he's already featured as the top overall player. DeJulius is a senior who elected to return for a second and final season with the Bearcats, and he brings high-major experience with him after serving as a reserve at Michigan in his first two seasons. He was No. 5 in the conference last year at 4.2 apg, and Cincinnati brings back three key rotation pieces in Mike Saunders, Mika Adams-Woods and Jeremiah Davenport to give him plenty of options. DeJulius also has a reliable big man down low in the form of Abdul Ado, not to mention Wake Forest transfer Ody Oguama. Also worth noting is the Bearcats no longer carry the reputation as one of the slowest-paced teams in all of college basketball, as they checked in at No. 66 in KenPom's overall tempo rating last season under second-year head coach John Brannen. There should be plenty of counting stats to go around.

Also Considered: Kendric Davis, G, SMU; Darius Perry, G, UCF; Jeremiah Williams, G, Temple; 

Center: Jalen Duren, C, Memphis

The American might be a tough conference to find true centers in, as multiple teams play more versatile forwards at the five in a small-ball lineup, which could cloud eligibility. Duren checks both the center and freshman boxes, however, while giving fantasy players a potential NBA lottery candidate on their rosters. Despite an early reclassification and the fact he won't turn 18 until November 18, Duren's body is NBA-ready, as he stands at 6-10 with a ridiculous 7-5 wingspan. He still has some work to do in terms of shooting from distance, but the mid-range game is there, and he could be one of the best natural rebounders in the class. Heavy competition for minutes due to the Tigers' overall depth is the only real concern.

Also Considered: Abdul Ado, C, Cincinnati; Cheikh Mbacke Diong, C, Central Florida; Jake Forrester, C, Temple; 

Freshman: Emoni Bates, F, Memphis

The likely one-and-done Bates elected to join Penny Hardaway and the Tigers over schools like Michigan State and Duke. He's a perfect candidate to benefit from the new NIL rules, ultimately electing college over going straight to the professional ranks. The raw skills are absolutely here to work his way into the NBA Draft Lottery and potentially be a sleeper Wooden Award candidate. While often listed as a forward, Bates is essentially a 6-9 guard that can distribute and light it up from distance, often drawing Kevin Durant-type comparisons. There is a little risk – he still has some physical development to do, and Memphis has an absolutely loaded roster, built with solid returning talent and the nation's best recruiting class. But even if can carve out just 25 mpg, Bates could quickly evolve into a go-to option and potential league-winning fantasy pick. It might be wise to use an early pick on a freshman in AAC leagues regardless, as this is a conference characterized by upperclassmen and transfers, leaving few fantasy-relevant options after the first tier.

Also Considered: Josh Minott, F, Memphis; Stefan Todorovic, F, SMU; Ramon Walker, G, Houston; Darius Johnson, G, Central Florida; Sam Onu, C, Memphis

Sleepers

Marcus Sasser, G, Houston

Sure, he might not be a traditional "sleeper," but I couldn't preview the American conference without touching on arguably the top returning talent from last year's Final Four team. The Cougars lost DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes and Justin Gorham to the pro ranks this offseason, but Sasser still managed averages of 13.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists with the aforementioned trio gobbling up offensive touches. He's the leading candidate to take over at point guard with Jarreau moving on, so expect the assists to jump while at least sustaining last year's scoring marks. A little bit more efficiency could go a long way, as there's room to improve upon a field-goal percentage of 38.0 (33.5 percent from distance). Another Houston player that could make a jump for the same reason is Tramon Mark, who probably fits the more traditional "sleeper" definition after averaging 7.8 ppg last season, primarily as a reserve. Both should be in for big years.

Morris Udeze, F, Wichita State

Udeze started all 22 games for the Shockers last season and again projects to be the primary center with few traditional big men outside of incoming freshman Kenny Pohto on the roster (though forwards Clarence Jackson and Joe Pleasant have manned the five at times). A deep rotation is a risk once again, but there's room for Udeze to build on his 23.8 mpg average from last season, especially if he can cut down on his 3.2 personal fouls per contest. Udeze was on the court when it mattered most last season, averaging 31.3 mpg over the final six contests. He also had four double-digit scoring and two double-digit rebounding efforts over that stretch. Perhaps most impressively, the Montverde Academy product improved his free-throw shooting nearly a full 20 percent to 68.0 last season, only furthering his ceiling.

Kevin Cross, F, Tulane

There aren't many prospective fantasy assets that jump off the page for Tulane (beyond Jaylen Forbes, at least), but Cross has plenty of room to grow. Originally recruited at Nebraska, Cross arrived and started 20 of 23 games for the Green Wave last season. He put up respectable numbers of 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds despite seeing just 22.1 minutes. On a per-40 minute basis, that translates to 12.5 points and 8.4 boards. Cross did that despite shooting only 36.1 percent from the field and 21.7 percent from distance. He'll need to keep fouls under control for this prediction to hold true, but if both his efficiency and playing time progress, there's a lot of sleeper potential.

Also Considered: Ricky Council, G, Wichita State; Mike Saunders, G, Cincinnati;

Transfers

Abdul Ado, C, Cincinnati

Ado was a four-year starter at Mississippi State, where he compiled 130 total starts for the Bulldogs. He never dominated from a fantasy perspective but was incredibly consistent, posting 6.4 rebounds or greater in three of fours seasons. Even in down years, his worst block average was 1.8 rejections per contest. Ado will now face less five-star talent down low after moving from the SEC, which sets the stage for a career-year in his fifth season. Just watch out for Wake Forest transfer Ody Oguama – his presumed backup after averaging 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds with the Demon Deacons last year.

Josh Carlton, C, Houston

Carlton's usage late in his career at UConn was a bit of a mystery, as his production dropped off to the point where it was fair to suspect an undisclosed injury was in play. When at his best, however, Carlton is a force on the inside, as he averaged 9.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks as a sophomore with the Huskies. Houston may end up starting a less traditional big in the form of the returning Fabian White, but there will undoubtedly be matchups where more size is needed. Look for Carlton to fill that void and perhaps rack up a few double-doubles along the way.

Wynston Tabbs, G, ECU

Tabbs was a scoring machine at Boston College, but has a bit of a complicated off-the-court history. He missed the entire 2019-20 season after knee surgery, and while he returned last year and opened as a starter, he was ultimately dismissed from the squad after violating COVID protocols. Now with a fresh start and (hopefully) less protocol to worry about this season, Tabbs fills a much-needed scoring void for the Pirates. ECU lacks starpower after losing leading scorer Jayden Gardner (18.3 ppg) to the transfer market, and needs a player to get up shots. It's a situation right up Tabbs' alley.

Marcus Weathers, G, SMU

Weathers heads to the Mustangs following three consecutive double-digit scoring seasons at Duquesne, joining his brother Michael, who comes in from Texas Southern. What makes Marcus presumably the better fantasy asset is that he brings much more rebounding prowess to the table, averaging 7.5 and 8.1 rpg in the last two seasons. He also plays on the wings, while Michael is more of a backcourt player, and there's simply a lot more competition for shots there, with returnee Kendric Davis (19.0 ppg) and Sam Houston transfer Zach Nutall (19.3 ppg) both set to have a role. SMU could certainly make all four viable fantasy assets, but beyond Davis, I'll put my chips with Marcus.

Also Considered: Kyler Edwards, G, Houston; Michael Weathers, G, SMU; Jeriah Horne, F, Tulsa; Zach Nutall, G, SMU; Earl Timberlake, F, Memphis; Abdul Ado, C, Cincinnati; John Newman, G, Cincinnati

Top-10 Players*

  1. Kendric Davis, G, SMU
  2. Emoni Bates, F, Memphis
  3. Ty Etienne, G, Wichita State
  4. Marcus Sasser, G, Houston
  5. Brandon Mahan, G, UCF
  6. DeAndre Williams, F, Memphis
  7. Jalen Duren, C, Memphis
  8. Darius Perry, G, UCF
  9. Khalif Battle, G, Temple
  10. Wynston Tabbs, G, ECU

*Note: These rankings are at the discretion of the article author, and may not necessarily correspond with RotoWire's official 2021-22 player rankings.

Projected Team Standings

  1. Houston
  2. Memphis
  3. Cincinnati
  4. Wichita State
  5. SMU
  6. Temple
  7. Central Florida
  8. Tulsa
  9. Tulane
  10. South Florida
  11. East Carolina

Memphis gets all the hype in the world, but Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars have been the most consistent producers of late. Like seemingly all of college basketball, Houston endured some significant losses, but the Cougars have backups ready to step into starting roles, in addition to revamping the frontcourt via the transfer portal. They may not have the raw talent of Memphis, but Sampson's squad would surprise few if it returned to the Final Four.

After that, any of the teams in the 3-7 range could step up and challenge the top two down the stretch. I elected to rank the Bearcats highest, as four players with plenty of starting experience return, while transfers Ody Oguama and Abdul Ado solidify the center position. The Shockers return four of their top-5 scorers, while SMU has the best player in the conference mixed with a flood of dangerous transfers. Temple and UCF bring back studs in the form of Khalif Battle and Darius Perry, respectively. 

Overall, it wouldn't be shocking to see the American end up with more NCAA Tournament teams than multiple more traditional "power" conferences. It's also a conference more than worthy of working its way into your league's player pool.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jake Letarski
RotoWire Editor for College Basketball and MMA. Frequent podcaster, plus radio and video guest. Follow Jake on Twitter at @RotoJake.
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