Can Memphis basketball dethrone Houston in AAC? Brace for photo finish, media survey says

Jason Munz
Memphis Commercial Appeal

The American Athletic Conference basketball landscape has maintained a status quo in recent years. 

Houston. Wash. Cincinnati. Rinse. Wichita State. Repeat. 

They have achieved such a consistent level of success within the relatively young league that either two or all three have finished inside the top 3 in each of the past five seasons. Last season's third-place finish is the only time Memphis has cracked the top 3 since joining the AAC. 

But Penny Hardaway's Tigers might have disrupted that balance of power this offseason. They landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the second time in three years. They hired Hall of Famer Larry Brown and four-time NBA All-Star Rasheed Wallace to the coaching staff. They brought back a stout nucleus that includes their two leading scorers and two of their top three rebounders.

Will it be enough for the Tigers to crash the AAC party? While many Memphis fans already are dreaming of a Final Four run, a far-too-early poll of media members from across the league suggests the race could culminate in a photo finish. 

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The Commercial Appeal conducted a survey this week that included one independent media member from each of the AAC's 11 markets predicting the league's order of finish. Houston, coming off a Final Four run, is the favorite. Kelvin Sampson's Cougars received seven first-place votes and four second-place. 

Memphis received four first-place votes and seven second-place votes. Wichita State, which won the AAC regular-season title , is ranked third. The Shockers appeared third on 10 of 11 ballots. 

Second-leading scorer Marcus Sasser headlines Houston's group of returners, and Sampson plugged the departures of Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau, Justin Gorham and others with a mix of transfers (Texas Tech's Kyler Edwards and UConn's Josh Carlton, among them) and incoming freshmen. 

"Wichita State may have won the regular season last year, but Houston is still the top dog in this conference and, until someone knocks them off, it’s hard to pick against Kelvin Sampson," said Stephen Igoe, who covers East Carolina for 247Sports' Hoist The Colours. "Memphis is once again loaded with talent, but Penny Hardaway has to prove he can put a consistent team on the court from the start of the season to the finish. The Tigers are certainly capable of winning the league if it all comes together."

Local 24 Memphis sports reporter Clayton Collier is among those convinced the Tigers will unseat Houston. 

"Memphis' offseason speaks for itself," Collier said. "The talent is unmatched. The key will be getting all of that talent to buy in. But with the coaching staff Penny has assembled, the Tigers should easily return to the NCAA Tournament and then some. Wichita State has all the ingredients of being a dangerous team again. After leading the Shockers to a regular-season conference title as interim head coach, I'm interested to see what an Isaac Brown team does with a full year of preparation." 

SMU, which was in contention for the AAC title before COVID-19 forced it to cancel its last seven games of the regular season, received two third-place votes and is picked to finish fourth. The Mustangs welcome star guard Kendric Davis back to lead a team that signed five transfers and four freshmen. 

AAC basketball media poll

Survey of independent media members from each of the AAC's 11 markets on how the conference standings will play out in 2021-22, as conducted by The Commercial Appeal.

1. Houston — 117 points (seven first-place votes)

2. Memphis — 114 (four first-place votes)

3. Wichita State — 97

4. SMU — 82

5. UCF — 74

6. Cincinnati — 68

7. Tulsa — 56

8. Temple — 38

9. Tulane — 34

10. USF — 29

11. East Carolina — 17

Note: 11 points awarded for first-place vote, 10 for second, nine for third, etc.  

Reach sports writer Jason Munz at jason.munz@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @munzly.