As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation's top leagues. We begin with the American Athletic Conference, in which the Memphis Tigers are trying to recover from a disappointing and tumultuous 2020-21, while the Wichita State Shockers are facing uncertainty around the status of coach Gregg Marshall.
American 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Landers Nolley II, Memphis
Borzello: Landers Nolley II, Memphis
Gasaway: Landers Nolley II, Memphis
Lunardi: Landers Nolley II, Memphis
American 2020-21 writer roundtable
Last year at this time we were talking about Memphis as a lowkey national title contender. The Tigers ultimately finished tied for 5th in the league and were probably headed to the NIT. Do you expect this Memphis team to be better, worse, or about the same?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: The Tigers should be significantly better. Memphis didn't live up to the hype last season, but it was one issue after another for Penny Hardaway's team. James Wiseman barely played, D.J. Jeffries played only 19 games because of a knee injury and there were a couple of other injuries to key players. And remember, it was the youngest team in Division I last season.
There were a few departures, but the returnees are all a year older and more experienced, and Hardaway is adding one of the best transfers in the country in former Virginia Tech wing Landers Nolley II and a potential one-and-done freshman in Moussa Cisse, who will be one of the best defensive players in the league from day one.
Even when they were struggling last season, coaches in the league talked about how Memphis was developing an identity; the Tigers play hard, they play fast and they defend as well as anyone in the conference. If Nolley and Cisse make the expected impact, the Tigers should compete for an AAC title.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think Memphis will get better. Memphis has a crew that can emerge after finishing last in league play in offensive efficiency per KenPom and committing turnovers on 22% of its possessions. You add a rebounder and shot-blocker in Cisse and it's clear the Tigers have a shot at the American Athletic Conference title. Memphis had a multitude of missteps last season but it held AAC opponents to a 42% clip inside the arc without Wiseman, and now they add Cisse to the mix. The only question is whether Memphis can put together a stretch of consistent basketball -- a struggle last year.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Memphis will improve on its performance from a season ago. The Tigers were actually outscored last season in American play, and that's not going to happen again. Coach Hardaway's main challenge in 2019-20 was the offense, and the problem there was that his team simply gave away the ball far too often. The good news for Memphis is that this is possibly the easiest fundamental shortcoming to fix (easier than making perimeter shots go in, anyway). Nolley will provide a welcomed high-usage boost on offense, and Lester Quinones, Jeffries and Boogie Ellis will all be a year older and more polished. The Tigers are heading in the right direction.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: This is the year we find out if Hardaway can coach. We know he can recruit, we know his recruiting generates endless hype, and we also know he couldn't stop the bleeding the first time everything went wrong. This season he has more of a basketball team than an all-star team, which has to help. My guess is that everyone in the program, in particular the returning players, found their slice of humble pie distasteful. (And it doesn't taste much worse than that 40-point loss to Tulsa.) Memphis will be better -- perhaps much better -- and a second-weekend NCAA tournament run is by no means out of the question.
What is your expectation that Gregg Marshall will be coaching Wichita State from start to finish of the 2020-21 season? In your view, should Wichita State be coached by Marshall in 2020-21?
Medcalf: Marshall should be suspended indefinitely right now, pending the results of the school's internal investigation. When you're dealing with allegations of physical assault against a player and a coach, a school can't risk putting someone out there without knowing if the reports are true. A player facing similar accusations wouldn't be out there right now. Marshall should not be with his team. And if he were a lesser coach, he would have been sidelined by now.
Marshall carries a lot of power at Wichita State, and the school hasn't completed its investigation, but I actually believe Marshall has coached his final game with the Shockers. He has coached some influential players and they've been mostly silent. He has the support of wealthy backers, but I'm not convinced that's enough.
Lunardi: Never underestimate the ability of colleges and universities to avoid doing the right thing in the name of "process." Look no further than the current gymnastics of the college football season with respect to the pandemic (and there but for the grace of God goes college basketball...). Specific to Gregg Marshall, my opinion is that the allegations are credible and that he should be separated from the program until a determination is made on the facts of the case. My prediction is that said determination will not come in time to impact his active coaching status. Again, how many times do we need to see hypocrisy before it is cast aside as normal behavior?
Borzello: If it turns out that Marshall punched a player and choked an assistant coach -- and there have been several reports featuring multiple independent confirmations of both situations, as well as an on-the-record account from Shaq Morris -- then how can Marshall possibly coach Wichita State this season? The personal insults and profanity-laced tirades are horrible, of course, but we've seen coaches get away with that before. But punching a player and choking an assistant coach? That's simply over the line and can't be tolerated.
So, should Wichita State be coached by Marshall? If the allegations are true, absolutely not. Will he coach them this season? That's an entirely different question. The school has, for whatever reason, not even suspended Marshall pending the results of the investigation, which should tell you something. Marshall's connections in the community are well-documented, and he has obviously led the program to heights it has never seen before, so there are plenty of variables at play here. But none of that should matter if the allegations are true.
Gasaway: My expectation is that Marshall will coach the year from start to finish. As Jeff rightly indicates, it speaks volumes -- screams volumes, actually -- that Wichita State hasn't placed Marshall on leave with full pay while investigating these charges. Instead, the university is continuing to put its coach in direct contact with players despite multiple individuals alleging that Marshall punched one of the student-athletes in his program. Imagine the legal exposure Wichita State would face if an incident were to occur at practice in the coming weeks? It is, to say the least, a high-risk path, and the fact that the school is choosing this course of action suggests that Marshall might well remain where he is for the foreseeable future.
And, no, assuming the threshold of due diligence is met and these allegations are confirmed in their essentials, the Shockers should not be coached by Marshall in 2020-21.
Who's the team in this league not nearly enough people are talking about heading into 2020-21?
Gasaway: Houston! The Cougars keep getting robbed of their moment in the sun. There was no NCAA tournament to provide any kind of affirmation last spring, but Kelvin Sampson really outdid himself in 2019-20. These guys couldn't even make 45% of their 2s in American play, yet UH still had the second-best offense in the league. Expect better shooting this season, as DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes and Caleb Mills play alongside each other for a second year. Meanwhile, the defense is already outstanding (though the Cougars were somewhat fortunate last year as conference opponents missed a metric ton of 3s). Houston has a solid shot at winning its third consecutive American title.
Medcalf: I'll take Cincinnati. The Bearcats are losing key pieces in a tough league, but how many times have we heard that about a Cincinnati team that still found a way to compete for a league title and reach the NCAA tournament? This is another grimy Bearcats squad under John Brannen. They have Keith Williams and Chris Vogt and a bunch of guys ready to step up after the loss of Jarron Cumberland and Tre Scott. Rapolas Ivanauskas, a grad transfer from Colgate, averaged 13.1 PPG and 7.6 RPG last year. Only two players from the all-AAC first and second teams return this season so the entire league is searching for new stars to emerge. I won't be surprised if Cincy is good enough to compete for a spot in the league's top tier.
Borzello: I think it has to be SMU. Tim Jankovich has a legitimate NCAA tournament team on his hands. The Mustangs completely collapsed down the stretch, losing five of their final six games, but they were 18-6 overall and 8-4 in the league entering that final stretch. Six players who started at least 12 games are back from that team, including one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league in Tyson Jolly (14.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and Kendric Davis (14.2 PPG, 6.7 APG). Jankovich also adds California transfer Darius McNeill to that group. The key for SMU will be on the defensive end of the floor. The Mustangs were last in defensive efficiency last season and held just three of their final 18 opponents to fewer than one point per possession. That can't happen again if SMU wants to hear its name on Selection Sunday.
Lunardi: Houston had been to one NCAA tournament in 24 years before Kelvin Sampson took over. Since laying his foundation, Sampson has won 83 games the past three years and was on his way to a third straight single-digit NCAA seed (the last one in a rebuilding year). Two years ago, Sampson led the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 since Phi Slama Jama and it won't be a surprise if they find their way back to the second weekend in 2021. With the loss of UConn to the Big East, Houston and Cincinnati are the only programs left in the American that have won a national championship. And only the Cougars can be certain of seeing their name on the board when the next Selection Sunday rolls around.
Anonymous AAC coaches size up The American
Jeff Borzello spoke to AAC coaches about their expectations for the league in 2020-21.
"We had four NCAA tournament teams in 2019, UCF should've beat Duke in the second round, Houston had a chance to beat Kentucky. I think we're a four-NCAA tournament team league again this season. "
"Losing UConn hurts. One of the things UConn did was play an awesome nonconference schedule, so they always walked into conference play with a really good NET. They obviously weren't dominant, but it always helped your computer numbers. You played at UConn, regardless of win-loss record, it was going to be a Quad 1 game. Play them at home, Quad 2 game. That's the biggest fistfight for our league, keeping up with the Power 5s and the Big East with Quad 1/Quad 2 games. That's probably the biggest tangible hit to our league."
"Houston is going to be more interchangeable. Last year, they had a legitimate 4-man, a legitimate 5-man, then three guards. You knew Fabian White was playing 30 minutes a game. They had Nate Hinton. Their fastball was good enough most nights last year, but they lost a lot of close games. They'll have to be more creative. Caleb Mills is a dude, Quentin Grimes should be better. He tried to prove too much last season, should be more comfortable."
"Memphis' biggest problem last year was just, offensively, they had turnovers. Turnover shots or actual turnovers. They gift-wrapped so many possessions to the other team. Defensively, they were a juggernaut. There's a reason they had the No. 1 field goal percentage defense in the country. If they could clean up some of their offensive possessions and force you to play against their halfcourt defense more, it's like going to the dentist. Penny gets those dudes to play so hard and they're organized."
"SMU's whole deal is gonna be about stops. Can they consistently stop people? Offensively, they are really, really hard to guard. But in the same way, if you play SMU, the game is never over. They got up 20 something on Wichita, but because they struggle to defend, Wichita was still in the game. You can get up 20 something on SMU, but because of the way they can score, they're never out of it."
"Cincinnati has earned the benefit of the doubt. They've had a death-grip on this league and they've done it for nine years. Now there's no Jarron Cumberland, and from an outside perspective, I don't think John Brannen is too upset about that. But you're taking off two all-conference guys. Tre Scott got votes for Player of the Year. They'll be hard to play at home. They've got David DeJulius, Michigan was high on him; Keith Williams; the Patriot League Player of the Year [Rapolas Ivanauskas]; Chris Vogt. "
"If Alexis Yetna has some health, South Florida could be a dark horse. David Collins, night in, night out, produces. Justin Brown is a good piece, Yetna is a good piece, Mike Durr is a two-year starter, gives them legit size at the center spot. The trump card for South Florida is they have so much size. They are as big as anybody. When they walk out of the locker room, their size is impressive. "
"I don't think the Gregg Marshall situation has an effect until Wichita State does something. Until the Wichita powers-that-be make a decision, it's just a bunch of noise."