As the 2022-23 men's college basketball season draws closer, ESPN.com's panel of experts is predicting the order of finish for the nation's top conferences. Having already looked at Gonzaga and Division I's top mid-majors, the focus now shifts to the American Athletic Conference (AAC).
The Houston Cougars will welcome back Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark after they missed significant time in 2021-22 due to injuries. The Memphis Tigers still have DeAndre Williams and Alex Lomax and have added SMU transfer Kendric Davis.
Houston and Memphis were the only AAAC teams to reach the 2022 NCAA tournament. Perhaps in 2023 it will be Cincinnati or Temple or Tulane or another team entirely that also hears its name on Selection Sunday. Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, Joe Lunardi and John Gasaway made their predictions and offered their thoughts on all the league's big questions.
Find more preseason analysis here.
AAC 2022-23 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
AAC 2022-23 roundtable
After back-to-back Elite Eight appearances and a Final Four run in 2021, what is Houston's ceiling in 2022-23? Are they Final Four-good again?
Tramon Mark gets the hoop and the harm
Borzello: Houston's ceiling is a national championship. We know what to expect from Kelvin Sampson-coached teams: elite defense and elite offensive rebounding. I don't expect that to change. What this team has that the previous two editions lacked is explosiveness offensively. Marcus Sasser might be the best guard in the country. Jamal Shead emerged as a terrific playmaker down the stretch of last season. Incoming freshman Jarace Walker is a first-rounder. Another freshman, Terrance Arceneaux, is a scoring machine who will provide instant offense off the bench. Double-figure scorer Tramon Mark is also back healthy. There aren't many weaknesses on this roster.
Medcalf: I agree. Sampson's ability to regroup after losing Sasser and Mark before New Year's Day and still win 32 games was the most remarkable coaching effort of the 2021-22 season. Sasser could be a first team All-American on every reputable list by this season's end. Sampson has done more with less in his career. But this group has the talent pool to compete with the best teams in America. This could be the year Sampson gets his first national championship.
Gasaway: It bears repeating that the Cougars were short-handed last season: Marcus Sasser was out for 26 games and Tramon Mark missed 31. Both are back, and joined by some talent. If there is any concern with this otherwise stellar rotation it's that Sampson did lose a good deal of size in the offseason. This is the time for J'Wan Roberts to step forward and maintain that robust offensive rebound percentage as a newly minted starter and across many more minutes.
Lunardi: Everyone remembers the Gordon Hayward shot that nearly propelled Butler past Duke in the 2010 national championship game. Many forget that game was played in Indianapolis, a very short trip from the Butler campus.
We could very well be looking at a repeat in 2023. The Final Four is set for NRG Stadium in Houston, where it just so happens the hometown Cougars will open the season as a consensus top-five team. The Cougars followed up their 2021 Final Four berth with an Elite Eight appearance last season. The best player (and many others) is back. Houston really is that good, and it should surprise no one if it is playing "home games" in April.
Memphis hasn't lacked for talent or headlines in the Penny Hardaway era. What's your forecast for the Tigers in 2022-23?
Lunardi: The Tigers turned a bit of a corner last year. Memphis beat Houston twice in the final month of the season, took out a good Boise State team in its NCAA opener and then extended Gonzaga to a four-point game in the second round. For perhaps the first time in the Penny Hardaway era, the Tigers came close to meeting expectations. The 2022-23 squad may not be as individually talented as in other recent seasons, but it has a chance to build on its 2022 stretch run. Hardaway has an older group, plenty of incoming talent and a chip on his shoulder after what he believed was an unfair No. 9 seed (it wasn't). I see more of the same for Memphis in 2023. Second in the American and a first-round NCAA tourney win.
Gasaway: I'm with Joe: Memphis looks like the American's No. 2 team. Granted, there could be a large gap between No. 1 (presumably Houston) and No. 3. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked to find the Tigers in Bubble Watch yet again. Certainly, this team is capable of making the 2023 tournament. SMU transfer Kendric Davis will be in the conversation for American player of the year, Alex Lomax is back for a fifth year and 26-year-old DeAndre Williams is, well, 26. Replacing Jalen Duren, Lester Quinones and Landers Nolley II will be challenging, but Hardaway's accustomed to seismic shifts in personnel.
Medcalf: I think the Tigers have a shot to make another run to the NCAA tournament, which would be Penny Hardaway's second trip as head coach of Memphis. With the NCAA drama now behind the program, Memphis can focus on a season that will be led by Davis, who averaged 19.4 PPG last season. With Williams (11.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and the bouncy players around them, this group looks a lot like last year's SMU squad -- but with superior defensive capabilities. That SMU team won 24 games. Memphis' postseason ceiling, however, is lower than it was last season, I think.
Borzello: This is a group more in line with the older, tougher teams Hardaway molded into top-five defenses nationally. We've talked about Davis and Williams already, and Hardaway has surrounded those two with high-scoring mid-major transfers. Although UT-Arlington transfer Kaodirichi Akobundu-Ehiogu isn't Duren, he's a truly elite shot-blocker who will allow Memphis to be more aggressive defensively. They might not have the same fear factor they had last season, but they're the clear No. 2 in the AAC -- which should result in a comfortable NCAA tournament appearance.
The conference will see major changes after this season, with Cincinnati, Houston and UCF leaving for the Big 12, and Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA joining. What is the near-term outlook for the league moving forward?
The UAB Blazers defeat the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs to win the Conference USA title.
Medcalf: It just won't be the same conference. I'm sure the league's dream is to somehow evolve into a WCC-like assembly, with Memphis as its Gonzaga and perhaps Wichita State or SMU as its Saint Mary's. A few problems: Memphis ain't Gonzaga, a national title contender for the last decade, and Saint Mary's has made as many NCAA tournament appearances (four) since 2017 as Memphis and Wichita State combined. I expect things to change for the worse for the American after this season, unfortunately.
Borzello: The American has been considered to be on the border of the high-major/mid-major discussion. That dramatically changes with the departures. Houston won't be around to prop up the league. So the American's reputation essentially depends on Memphis, and either SMU or Wichita State to be an NCAA tournament team.
It also will need Andy Kennedy and Grant McCasland to stick around at the incoming UAB and North Texas, respectively, and hopefully continue their winning ways. There's a strong case to be made the American will drop behind the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and WCC in the pecking order.
Gasaway: The league's basketball appears poised to take a hit. Losing Houston is the headline, of course, but even looking past that, the outlook is unsettling. At first glance, for example, it may appear that the outgoing Cincinnati and UCF haven't done much for the league the past two seasons. Maybe not, but outside of stalwarts North Texas and UAB, none of the incoming C-USA programs have posted a KenPom ranking in the last decade as good as what the Bearcats (No. 101) or the Knights (104) recorded last year.
Lunardi: Near-term, the American needs to ride the current Houston wave to another Final Four (or more). It would be somewhat akin to UConn winning the 2014 national championship while always eyeing a power conference berth.
After that, the league's best-case scenario may be for Memphis to revert to its John Calipari days. From 2006 through 2009, the Tigers landed as No. 1 or No. 2 seeds on Selection Sunday, elevating an often one-bid Conference USA. Can the American's next wave of C-USA alums pull off a similar feat? Probably not.
Who or what are we not talking nearly enough about across the AAC?
Tulane wins a tight game and coach Ron Hunter is having the time of his life after the game.
Gasaway: Cincinnati hasn't reached an NCAA tournament with a coach other than Mick Cronin since 2005. (That coach was Bob Huggins.) This could be the season that incredible streak comes to an end. The Bearcats return four starters and are adding Nolley II from Memphis]. Also keep in mind, the numbers suggest David DeJulius is long overdue for some 3s to start falling. If those tea leaves are correct, Cincy could look like a much different team in 2023.
Lunardi: Tulane has produced exactly three winning seasons -- and nothing close to a post-season tournament -- since the turn of the century. Yet Ron Hunter has the Green Wave on the fringe of the NCAA bubble heading into just his fourth year. For a program that has endured way more "downs" than "ups," any positive mojo is a major step forward. Look for Tulane to have its best season in at least two decades, maybe even good enough for Hunter to fall off a chair on national television.
Borzello: I'm with Lunardi. Hunter took over a program in disarray back in 2019, with the Green Wave coming off an 0-18 AAC campaign. He's turned things around in three years, and Tulane now brings all five starters back from a team that finished 10-8 in conference play. Going 10-8 might not seem like a huge feat, but it's the first time since 2007 the program finished above .500 in the league. Jalen Cook, Jaylen Forbes and Kevin Cross all earned all-conference honors last season, and Hunter landed Georgetown transfer Collin Holloway, who averaged 9.2 points last season. Tulane will make some waves this season. (Sorry, I had to do it.)
Medcalf: After finishing 58-70 in four years at Siena (2001-05), new SMU head coach Rob Lanier had to wait 14 years to get another shot as a head coach. A successful run at Georgia State (53-30 in three years, one conference title and an NCAA tournament appearance) then led to his current post with the Mustangs. SMU lost a lot of talent, but that's not abnormal for Lanier, who had to weather similar challenges in Atlanta. He's a good example of a head coach who's making the most of another opportunity. Lanier is proof a good coach will always be a good coach under the right circumstances.