NEW YORK — The American Athletic Conference may not have the cachet of the old Big East, but it still has UConn and on Wednesday made sure the defending national champions were again on the top of their marquee.
The Huskies were picked by the AAC’s coaches as a preseason favorite to win the league title. The team’s senior point guard, Ryan Boatright, was chosen as the preseason player of the year and UConn freshman swingman Daniel Hamilton was named the league’s preseason rookie of the year.
The poll was released Wednesday in conjunction with the conference’s annual media day in New York.
“The magnitude of UConn’s men’s and women’s accomplishments last year and over the past two decades is nothing short of remarkable,” said Mike Aresco, the AAC’s commissioner. “Four men’s championships in 16 years. Nine women’s titles in 20 years. One of the supreme accomplishments in not only college sports, but sports, period. We offer our congratulations; I am in awe of what they have done.”
But with the departure of Louisville for the ACC and Rutgers for the Big Ten, the league is looking for another program to step up this season and join UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati as household names among college basketball fans.
The coaches believe SMU, a finalist in last season’s NIT, may be poised to do just that. The Huskies received six first-place votes in the preseason poll, but Larry Brown’s Mustangs, with eight players who saw significant playing time a year ago, claimed the other five. UConn edged SMU in the voting 96 points to 94, even after losing top recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to a Chinese pro league.
Perennial power Memphis was picked to finish third followed by Cincinnati, Tulsa, Temple, Houston, South Florida, UCF, East Carolina and Tulane. Coaches were not allowed to vote for their own teams.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie said he’s not worried about a lack of competition.
“I think this is a great league; it helped us get prepared for that run in March,” he said. “We lost six games in our league. It wasn’t like we just blew through the league and won every game.”
The league has its share of big-name coaches with Ollie, Brown and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson. It also has some top-flight talent. Boatright was joined on the conference preseason first team by SMU guard Nic Moore and forward Markus Kennedy; Memphis forwards Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols and Tulsa guard James Woodard.
But clearly, the league is still looking at UConn to again carry its banner. The Huskies return six players who saw playing time on their championship team, including Boatright and 7-foot center Amida Brimah. Their newcomers include Hamilton, highly-touted junior college recruit Sam Cassell Jr. and Rodney Purvis, a transfer from North Carolina State whom Ollie last year referred to as his “Ferrari in the garage.”
The other coaches know just being in a conference with the Huskies can help raise their own stock.
“Our bell-cow school won the national championship,” said Sampson. “For every member institution in this conference and men’s basketball coach, that’s huge for us. And we sell that.”