2013-14 American Athletic Conference Preview: Big East leftovers, newcomers make up an unexciting "new" league

November 22, 2013 - 3:09am
Based on her virtuoso performance in last season's Final Four, UConn sophomore forward Breanna Stewart was named the American Athletic Conference's Preseason Player of the Year. (Photo by Stephen Slade)

Based on her virtuoso performance in last season's Final Four, UConn sophomore forward Breanna Stewart was named the American Athletic Conference's Preseason Player of the Year. (Photo by Stephen Slade)

The once dominant Big East is no more. Its name having left along with the 10 defectors, what is left is the newly-minted and boringly-named American Athletic Conference. At the top, the new conference boasts both of  2013's NCAA Tournament national finalists in Connecticut and Louisville. After that, however, the 10-team league drops off quickly, with just one other tournament squad, USF, among its members.

The AAC is made up of Big East leftovers (UConn, Louisville, USF, Rutgers, Cincinnati), a big chunk of Conference USA (SMU, Memphis, Houston, Central Florida), and Temple, a newcomer from the Atlantic 10. Rutgers will depart for the Big 10 and Louisville for the ACC next season, to be “replaced” by East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa (all from CUSA). When the dust settles in 2015, UConn and Temple will essentially have joined the ever-changing CUSA. The AAC will lose its BCS standing, and the league will become a mid-major. I hate football.

The national interest in this new league will not be high. With Notre Dame now out of the picture, Connecticut is all but certain to win the league. The Huskies, absent injury, should be undefeated. Two games against Louisville will be a challenge, but no more so than the 93-60 result in last season's national final. South Florida is likely to win a bunch of games, and talented SMU could be in the mix in the conference tournament. Maybe Rutgers will play up to its potential for a change.

Everyone else has to play each of these teams twice. While those teams' undistinguished RPIs should improve from last season just because they play ranked UConn (No. 1 in preseason polls and still the consensus No. 1 two weeks into the season) and Louisville (No. 5), the result is likely to be half a league with ugly losing records.

Connecticut (35-4; 14-2 Big East; National Champion)
Location: Storrs, Connecticut
Team name: Huskies
Coach: Geno Auriemma -- 27th year, all at UConn; 839-133 (.863)

Once again, there is no shortage of talent in Storrs. The Huskies feature, hands down, the best front court in the nation. UConn has arguably the nation's best center in senior Stephanie Dolson (unless Elizabeth Williams of Duke is your favorite). The 6-4 Dolson, already superlative last season, has extended her range beyond the arc. Her first two buckets (and first two shots) this season were threes. Her frontcourt mate, sophomore Breanna Stewart, gets about half the preseason National Player of the Year votes (the others go to Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike). Also 6-4, Stewart has an all-around game that looks a lot like Elena DellaDonne's. And Stewart is just getting started.

“They both get better every year,” said Hartford Coach Jen Rizzotti, whose got to see Dolson, Stewart & Co. up close and personal when her Hawks were treated to their annual early season drubbing (89-34) by the Huskies. “They refuse to be content with how good they were. There’s not one way you can defend them, because they do so many things so well.”

These two are so good that the conversation only belatedly gets around to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, a junior who is the best outside shooter in the nation, hitting 49.5 percent of her threes last year. Mosqueda-Lewis, however, is another player not content to be that good. She has become an excellent defender and a good rebounder. Her size, quickness, and accuracy are a matchup nightmare. Mosqueda-Lewis's status is a question mark at the moment; she has missed the last three games after suffering a nerve contusion to her elbow during UConn's 76-57 beat-down of Stanford on Veteran's Day.

So that must mean the guards are the weakness of this team, right? Not really. Bria Hartley is an All-American senior whose 2012-13 season was tempered by a nagging ankle sprain. She is healthy now and interchangeably handling the two or the point depending on the player mix. Her shot and confidence seem to have returned. Rising quickly to fill the point position is sophomore Moriah Jefferson, whose quickness in the lane and ability to finish will open up the other shooters to do their thing.

Connecticut is among the best defensive teams each year, and this year will not be a let-down. Although their best defender, Kelly Faris, graduated to the WNBA, this team may be among the quickest defensively in many years.

Only injuries will derail Connecticut on the road to a seventh straight Final Four. Like last season, only a handful of teams are likely to have a chance of beating these Huskies if the starting five can play. But going beyond forward Morgan Tuck on the bench changes the dynamic of the team dramatically. With just nine scholarship players and two walk-ons, an injury or two could give a really good team a chance to beat UConn. If the starters stay healthy, though, an fifth undefeated season is possible.

Louisville (29-9; 11-5 Big East; lost National Final to UConn, 93-60)
Location: Louisville, KY.
Team Name: Cardinals
Coach: Jeff Walz -- 7th year at Louisville, 148-65 (.705)

Louisville literally fought its way to the national final on very aggressive defense and great outside shooting. The Cardinals return all the key players from that tournament run, and bring back a player they have missed for a long time. Their number five preseaon ranking may well be too low.

Senior point guard Shoni Schimmel is the focus of conversation about Louisville because she is an intense, flashy leader. While she led the team with 14.2 points per game last season and is a good and timely three-point shooter (.330, 95 made threes), her statistics are not outstanding. She makes fewer than forty percent of her field-goal attempts, and had just nine fewer turnovers than assists. But what she does is win. She is this season’s Skylar Diggins, a player who drives her team to success and is at her best when it matters the most.

Schimmel shoots over Griner Fiesty guard Shoni Schimmel, the heart of the Cardinals, led her team of underdogs to the national championship game last season, and Louisville appears ready to repeat a deep run into the postseason this year. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Supporting her is a deep team with a lot of experience. Coach Jeff Walz plays 10 deep into his bench, and all of his players share his focus and intensity. Junior Sara Hammond is a solid force in the paint, averaging 10.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, while Antonita Slaughter (.358) and Shoni’s younger sister Jude Schimmel (.356) add to the team's potent three-point production. If redshirt senior Tia Gibbs returns to form after two lost seasons, then the Cardinals should be a much better team. Gibbs led the team in steals as a sophomore, and also adds yet another reliable outside shooter to a team that already excels from beyond the arc. Also returning from injury is redshirt senior forward Asia Taylor, who may replace all the offense and boards lost to Monique Reid’s graduation.

The experienced Cardinals should go deep into the tournament again, and are nearly a lock for second in this weak conference. With a little bit of luck, they might even beat UConn. With a lot of luck, that win could be the last game of the season.


South Florida (22-11; 9-7 Big East; lost to California, 2nd round NCAA)
Location: Naples, Florida
Team name: Bulls
Coach: Jose Fernandez -- 14th year, all at USF; 211-195 (.507)

USF is one of the Big East holdovers, and like UConn and Louisville, the team played in the NCAA tournament last season, upsetting Texas Tech on its home court before losing in the second round to California, a Final Four team. USF is known for its hard-nosed play and its international players. The Bulls are led by senior guard Inge Orekhova, a 6-2 native of the Ukraine, who has been a consistent 12+ point scorer for her entire career at USF. Her size makes her a tough matchup from beyond the arc, where she shot .342 last season, but she is too often content to sit out on the perimeter rather than using her height to post up smaller defenders close to the basket. Two-thirds of all her shots were three-point attempts in 2012-2013, and her overall shooting percentage was also .342. Her defense, however improved last year, and she averaged a block and nearly two steals per game. Fellow senior Akila McDonald is solid in the post, but will need to become more aggressive on offense. Sophomore forward Alisia Jenkins made the All-Big East team and led the Bulls in rebounds last year.

Jenkins Action Six-one forward Alisia Jenkins added rebounding punch to the Bulls' frontcourt as a freshman last season, and can help take USF further if she can add offensive firepower to her game this year. (Photo by Dan Antonucci)

USF’s biggest challenge is replacing the high-scoring Smith twins, particularly Andrell, who played point for the last several years. In the early going this year, Courtney Williams has stepped into the point role while also leading the team in scoring. If that performance continues, Coach Jose Fernandez can rest easy that his team will be among the leaders in the AAC. The rest of the cast is USF’s regular mix of transfers and foreign players, including Andrea Pujol, a 6-1 guard from Spain’s U17 team, which finished second in the 2012 U17 Women's World Championships.  


Southern Methodist (21-10; 12-4 CUSA; regular season champion; lost to Bowling Green, 1st round WNIT)
Location: Dallas, TX
Team Name: Mustangs
Coach: Rhonda Rompola -- 23rd year, all at SMU; 401-263 (.604)

We pick SMU to finish fourth based largely on the coaching history of Rhonda Rompola and the skills of senior guard Keena Mays, CUSA Player of the Year last season. The Mustangs were the best of CUSA last year and return four starters this season. With Temple in disarray and with little reason to expect significant improvement from Cincinnati, it’s only logical to pick SMU to be the best of the CUSA imports.

Mays, a 5-7 transfer from Kansas, averaged 18.4 points, 3.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. Senior forward Akil Simpson is the other stalwart of the team, averaging of 10.7 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds last year.

Rompola has an experienced team with just one freshman. What SMU does not have is any height. The tallest player is little used and ineffective Mallory Singleton at 6-2. The Mustangs start three guards -- Mays, freshman Kiara Perry and senior transfer Korinna Baker. The frontcourt consists of Simpson and junior Destynee Hives-McCray, both just six-feet tall. SMU makes up for this vertical challenge by sending everyone to the boards, a strategy made easier by the ability of all the starters to score.


Rutgers (16-14; 7-9 Big East; no post-season)
Location: Piscataway, NJ
Team Name: Scarlet Knights
Coach: C. Vivian Stringer -- 18th year at Rutgers; 901-332 (.731)

In 43 years as a head coach, C. Vivian Stringer has had just five losing seasons. Last year’s Scarlet Knights just managed to avoid one, but their poor conference record kept them out of the NCAA Tournament for just the second time since Rutgers joined the Big East. Last year's only double-digit scorers, Monique Oliver and Erica Wheeler, graduated. Junior forward Betnijah Laney, who averaged 9.7 points and five rebounds per game, will be the core player for a team with no seniors.

Laney Action Betnijah Laney, the leading scorer among Rutgers' returnees, has shown the potential to post numbers well in excess of the 9.7 points she averaged last season. (Photo courtesy Rutgers Athletics Communications)

The Scarlet Knights have to hope for a great season from junior transfer (Illinois) Alexis Burke (6.9 ppg) and a very quick transition to college ball from top recruit Tyler Scaife. The two-time Arkansas Girls Basketball Player of the Year averaged 23.7 points, 4.2 assists and 3.1 steals as a senior at Hall High School.

The Scarlet Knights will play tough defense, as Stringer teams always do. But nobody has a history of decent outside shooting, and the post players, while tall, have shown very little offensive talent thus far in their careers. Without significant contributions from several players other than Laney, Burke and Scaife, though, Rutgers once again will be unable to score enough points to defeat good teams. In the weak field of the American Athletic Conference, however, Rutgers will probably be good enough for fifth place.


The Bottom Half: Anybody’s Guess


The remaining AAC teams were just not very good last season, regardless of the conference in which they played. It’s anybody’s guess which teams will beat each other to approach a .500 record. It is likely that none will beat any of the top five teams, each of which they play twice during the conference season. Here's how the AAC coaches ranked them in their preseason poll:


Memphis (17-15; 8-8 CUSA; lost first round WNIT)
Location: Memphis, TN
Team Name: Tigers
Coach: Melissa McFerrin -- 6th year at Memphis; 83-48 (.636)

Sophomore guard Ariel Hearn will be the key to this team that returns just two starters. As a freshman, Hearn averaged 13.8 points and more than three assists per game, making the CUSA All-Freshman team. She will be supported by a frontcourt of sophomore forward Asianna Fuqua-Bey and senior forward Pa’Sonna Hope, both decent rebounders who need to learn to score this season. Coach Melissa McFerrin is hoping that guard Mooriah Rowser, a redshirt freshman, is in full form after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Rowser averaged 10 points in three games before her injury. Memphis will be one of the youngest teams in the league, and hope that their core of sophomore players can all improve. Three accomplished freshmen will also compete for playing time.


Cincinnati (12-18; 4-12 Big East; no post-season)
Location: Cincinnati, OH
Team Name: Bearcats
Coach: Jamelle Elliott -- 5th season; 49-72 (.405)

A senior-rich team with some decent freshman input provides Cincinnati with a chance to outperform its past mediocre play. But with the core of a poor team as the leaders, what can Coach Jamelle Elliott realistically expect to be different? Senior guard Dayeesha Hollins has had a solid career, averaging a team-high 15.4 points per game last season. She can be expected to perform up to that standard. She is joined by point guard Kayla Cook, the only Bearcat with more assists than turnovers, but not much of a scorer.

Hollins Action Dayeesha Hollins, the Bearcats' leading scorer, made the All-Big-East Second Team last year and was named to this year's preseason All-AAC Team.

The Bearcats don't field a true center. Senior forward Tiffany Turner posted a respectable seven points and six boards in 2012-13, but she is just 6-1 and could struggle if left alone in the paint. Help could be on the way from four freshmen, two standing 6-3 and two 6-2. None were rated among the top posts in recruiting rankings, but Cleveland’s Marley Hill is a scorer and decent rebounder who is the most likely to lend immediate help in the frontcourt. The top freshman is guard Bianca Quisenberry, who once scored 44 points in a game.

Coach Elliott has four full years under her belt, now. This team is all hers. This would be a good year to show her coaching merit.


University of Central Florida (16-18; 7-9 CUSA; no post-season)
Location: Orlando, FL
Team Name: Knights
Coach: Joi Williams -- 6th season at UCF; 130-142 (.477)

UCF returns four of five starters from last year, and hopes to extend a run of excellent play that took them to the CUSA final which they lost to Tulsa last season. Sophomore guard Brihanna Jackson will have to be a leader this year, playing off her 15 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.1 steals as a freshman. Coach Joi Williams hopes for strong post play from 6-3 Virginia Tech transfer Brittini Montgomery, and a good season off the bench for freshman guard Zykira Lewis. Although picked to finish in the bottom of the pack, the Knights could beat up on the other second-tier AAC teams and surprise a team or two in the top half of the league.


Temple (14-18; 5-9 Atlantic 10; no post-season)
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Team Name: Owls
Coach: Tonya Cardoza -- 6th season; 107-57 (.652)

The question for Coach Tonya Cardoza coming into this season is: “Was it recruiting, or just an off year?” After four seasons of success and postseason play behind many players recruited by predecessor Dawn Staley, Cardoza’s first team of players all her own was miserable last year, posting the Owls’ first losing season since Staley took over in 2000-01.

Things did not start well this year, as junior guard Rateska Brown, expected to be the team leader, was suspended indefinitely before the season even began. That shifts the focus to junior guard Tyonna Williams, who has been lighting it up in the new season, including a 29-point outburst against Auburn last Saturday. Freshman Feyonda Fitzgerald has also shown promise at the start of the year. Temple’s young team could easily surpass the lowly expectations of their preseason conference ranking.

Tyonna Williams Action Tyonna Williams, who led the Owls in assists last season with six per game, is leading the team in scoring in the early going this year, averaging 16.7 points while still handing out five dimes per outing. (Photo by Mitchell Leff)


 Houston (13-17; 7-9 CUSA; no post-season)
Location: Houston, TX
Team Name: Cougars
Coach: Todd Buchanan -- 3rd year at Houston; 141-153 (.479)

Picked to finish last by the AAC coaches, Houston literally has nowhere to go but up. The team returns four starters and nine players overall. Marche´ Amerson should be a leader, with support from a broad range of players. Amerson’s 9.1 points per game leads the returning players, but Amerson required a lot of shots to reach even that total. Her field-goal percentage of .330 is not the stuff of greatness.

Sophomore wing Jesseika Palmer has played well in three games, averaging 16.6 points. But futility from three-point range seems to have carried over from last year for the whole team.

Seniors Te’onna Campbell and Yasmeen Thompson anchor an undersized front court, rebounding with energy rather than size. Coach Todd Buchanan has limited the minutes largely to seven players. If the rest of the bench does not improve, Houston may, unfortunately, match expectations.


Preseason Player of the Year

Breanna Stewart, UConn, So., F


Preseason Freshman of the Year

Tyler Scaife, Rutgers, Fr., G


Preseason All-Conference Team

Briahanna Jackson, UCF, So., G

Dayeesha Hollins, Cincinnati, R-Sr., G

Stefanie Dolson, UConn, Sr., C

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, UConn, Jr., F

Breanna Stewart, UConn, So., F

Keena Mays, SMU, Sr., G

Sara Hammond, Louisville, Jr., F

Shoni Schimmel, Louisville, Sr., G

Antonita Slaughter, Louisville, Sr., G

Inga Orekhova, USF, Sr., G