American Athletic Basketball Has A Bright Future


Before delving into today’s #content, a PSA for all you college hoop heads reading this: Be sure to check out Publisher Joseph Nardone is one of the most knowledgeable college basketball journos out there — some of his work’s appeared here at The Open Man, including this feature on Cal coach Wyking Jones — and he always approaches the game with thoughtfulness and energy.

With that noted, let’s jump in off a point another friend of mine in the college basketball media landscape, Aaron Torres, presented at Kentucky Sports Radio:

The Tubby Smith experiment was short-lived and fell well short of my expectations, given Tubby’s illustrious track record. He’s led more programs to the NCAA Tournament than any coach in history, and I assumed he would add another university to the list at Memphis.

Smith’s failure begat a complete change in philosophical approach; customary when a program parts with a coach. Memphis also needed a coach with knowledge of and clout in the area, which Josh Pastner lacked and ultimately led to the program slipping from the solid foundation John Calipari reestablished.

Penny Hardaway checks both boxes, but his hire is innovative for other reasons. There are obvious similarities to glean to Georgetown in Memphis bringing aboard a legendary alum. And, as I am with Patrick Ewing and Georgetown, I am bullish on Memphis with Penny Hardaway. However, Patrick Ewing spent a decade-and-a-half as an assistant in the NBA; Penny’s brief coaching career has been spent entirely at East High in Memphis.

The strategic differences between high school and college might vex Hardaway. It’s different sports, but North Texas football’s hiring of Todd Dodge a decade ago was a similarly bold move that ended in disaster.

But Penny takes over a program in a much different position; one that, with the right infusion of excitement and local talent, can win immediately. Flipping a recruit from John Calipari, the last coach to win at Memphis with consistency, is a huge step in that direction.

Memphis is one of those college basketball programs with the pieces necessary to be a regular power. Fitting the pieces together isn’t always easy, as recent history suggests. But fans will pack the Pyramid when the Tigers are winning, and the local recruiting scene is good enough and deep enough to perpetuate success. And a strong Memphis is a good thing for the American Athletic Conference as a whole, which has a bright future in the not-too-distant horizon.

The American hosts some sleeping giants of college basketball, one of which stirred this season. Kelvin Sampson’s work at Houston in short order is the best-case scenario for Memphis under Penny Hardaway, in part because there are noticeable similarities in the two programs.

Houston has an impressive history — even more impressive than that of Memphis — and one of the deepest local recruiting pools in the country. Building momentum can create self-perpetuating success at a program like Houston or Memphis with the right leadership in place to see it happen.

The same is true for the current standard-bearer of the American, Cincinnati.

Another metropolitan program, Cincinnati also boasts its own historic resume. The Bearcats have avoided one of the primary pitfalls for a program of its type, transitioning from the departure of an excellent coach. Bob Huggins‘ dismissal from Cincinnati in 2005 could have doomed the program to a period of regression akin to Memphis post-Calipari, or previously for a spell post-Gene Bartow.

But Mick Cronin’s maintained Cincinnati as a consistent winner. The 2018-19 Bearcats are an intriguing bunch, losing some noteworthy names from last year’s American championship-winning bunch, but Jarron Cumberland has breakout star potential.

Cincinnati completed its regular-season title last season with a dramatic win over Wichita State. The Bearcats and Shockers battled in two of the best games of 2017-18, regardless of conference. Wichita State — a mid-major darling last decade that blossomed into a powerhouse in the 2010s — proved its status immediately in the American. 

The program now proving its longevity is the next challenge for Gregg Marshall. 

Wichita State’s an intriguing X-factor in this equation. The Shockers have been the best March team of late among the American Athletic’s programs, albeit with most of that coming under the Missouri Valley umbrella. Wichita isn’t exactly a recruiting hotbed, and what elite prospective talent there is to be found in Kansas, the Shockers are up against perennial power Kansas. 

Nevertheless, Marshall has found a formula, landing gems on the recruiting and helping cultivate their skill sets. Wichita State’s move to the American also presents huge potential to score greater inroads in recruiting, giving the Shockers a physical presence in metropolitan areas. 

How sustainable Wichita State’s success is long-term, we’ll see. Non-traditional programs emerging as powers often do so under the vision of one particular regime. When that ends, things can fall apart quickly, as UConn stumbling from national champions in 2014 — the Huskies’ fourth in 15 years — to punching bags last season establishes. 

The hire of Dan Hurley inspires confidence in a potentially quick turnaround. Hurley’s blueprint for success at Rhode Island should apply to UConn, much in the same way Jim Calhoun transitioned his winning formula for Northeastern into program-defining success at UConn. 

Hurley isn’t stepping into a bare cupboard, either: Jalen Adams’ decision to return to Storrs for one more year provides a building block in 2018-19. If nothing else, the Huskies can play spoiler for what should be an entertaining year in the American. 

Football-motivated conference realignment fundamentally altered the Big East Conference forever, erasing rivalries like Georgetown-Syracuse and fun series like those UConn had with its old league mates. A positive from the aftermath is that the restructured Big East remains a damn good basketball conference, boasting two of the last three national championships and a healthy contingent of Tournament teams every March; while the American looks poised to position itself as a truly upper-tier conference.