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Penny Hardaway and his top-ranked recruiting class have received a fair amount of attention entering the coach’s second year at the helm. However, in the ever-so competitive American Athletic Conference, there will be no shortage of quality veterans looking to quiet some of the hype surrounding the Tigers.
Look no further than the reigning conference player of the year. Coming off a stellar junior campaign, some expected Cumberland to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NBA draft. However, now that he’s decided to return, the 6’5” guard will surely be a key cog in new coach John Brannen’s system.
Memphis fans may be familiar with Cumberland after his late-game heroics sealed a tough 69-64 road win for the Bearcats inside FedExForum last season. He’s tough as hell, shoots the three at a 38% clip and boasts an NBA-ready frame.
Coming off a POTY run where he averaged nearly 19 points and 4.5 boards per contest, count on Cumberland to make an impact every time he takes the floor.
Kelvin Sampson’s program proved their doubters wrong after not skipping a beat last season despite losing Rob Gray, their leading scorer from 2017. Now, with Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks both gone, Tiger fans should begin to familiarize themselves with DeJon Jarreau.
The winner of the conference sixth man of the year award in 2018, Jarreau is a silky guard who facilitates with ease and uses his length to create havoc on the defensive end. He finished top 15 in the league in both assists and field goal percentage while coming off the bench, so a breakout year for the redshirt junior may be on the horizon.
The value of Jarreau’s efficiency cannot be understated in terms of Houston’s tendencies as a team. The Cougars like to get after it on defense, and they’re at their best when using their length to make the opponent as uneasy as possible. Jarreau’s lanky 6’5” build makes him a key component of that aggressive style, and his willingness as a passer plays a vital role in ensuring that all those knockdown shooters get their looks.
After winning the CBI tourney back in March, South Florida now has its sights set on returning to the NCAA tournament. Those aspirations don’t seem too unrealistic, thanks in large part due to the play of sophomore forward Alexis Yetna, a 6-8 athletic wing who, like Jarreau, could be primed for a breakout campaign on a young, hungry South Florida squad.
As a redshirt freshman, Yetna broke the AAC record for both rebounds in a season (346) and rebound average per game (9.6), recorded a league-high 15 double-doubles and took home freshman of the year honors for his troubles. As he continues to develop and get more comfortable with the physicality of college basketball, Yetna seems poised to lead this Bulls program back to prominence.
Whether it be Precious Achiuwa, Lance Thomas, DJ Jeffries or even James Wiseman, Hardaway and his staff will be hard-pressed to figure out who they want to guard the dynamic French forward.
When Alterique Gilbert decided on UConn, he became the 12th Mcdonald’s All-American ever to choose the program. Since then, the 2016 Gatorade Georgia player of the year has struggled to stay healthy. A pair of shoulder injuries cut his first two seasons short while nagging shoulder and eye ailments only allowed him to compete in 20 contests in 2018.
Now, with an injury-free offseason under his belt, Gilbert may finally be ready to deliver on the promise that he was so full of when he first arrived in Storrs. He’s long been praised by Huskies coach Dan Hurley for his toughness and willingness to help the team.
With Hurley working to revitalize one of the nation’s most historically rich programs, players like Gilbert will play key roles in making progress towards that goal. While he may not have had an ideal start to his college career, the do-it-all point guard cannot be taken lightly by anyone in the AAC. If Gilbert can stay healthy, UConn will make some noise in an already crowded conference picture.
Temple may look like a much different team by the time league play rolls around. Legendary coach Fran Dunphy has retired and top scorer and starting point guard Shizz Alston has graduated. However, they will be led by senior guard Quinton Rose, a long guard who can catch fire quickly.
Rose finished in the top 10 in scoring average in the AAC in 2018, and with Alston now gone, his 16.3 points per contest looks like it will only increase as he takes on a bigger role. While his three-point numbers did take a considerable dip compared to the 35% he drained in 2017, he still shoots the trey at a near 31% clip for his career. Last season against the Tigers, he displayed his heat-check ability when connecting on five tries from deep.
Although he is certainly capable of filling it up on the offensive end, what makes Rose such an interesting player is the impact he makes on defense. During his junior campaign, he averaging over 2 steals per game. Standing at 6’7” with a 6’8” wingspan, his length helps him anticipate passing lanes and make the smaller guards he’s matching up with uncomfortable all game long.
Another freshman who filled up the box score last year, Gardner figures to be the driving force behind an ECU team that always plays hard and is well-coached. In his only season on campus, Gardner led the Pirates in scoring, rebounds, free throws, and field goal percentage.
On top of leading his team in almost all major statistical categories, Gardner led all division one freshmen in free throws made and set the AAC record for 30-point outings in a season by a first-year player with three. In his best performance, Gardner torched UCF to the tune of a 35-point, 20 rebound double-double.
The only glaring hole in Gardner’s game is his jumper. He only shot ten threes in 2018 and connected on just two of them. At 6’7” and 235 lbs, he’ll need to start connecting on the long ball more if he wants to carve a role out for himself in the modern NBA, but the good news for Pirates fans is that he isn’t even old enough to drink yet. Regardless of how he projects at the next level, Pirates supporters can count on Jayden Gardner putting up big numbers in the AAC for seasons to come.