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AAC Preview: Is South Florida headed for an assist frenzy?

With two of the best distributors in the country (Elisa Pinzan and Aerial Wilson) and one of the best rebounders in the country (Bethy Mununga), the No. 21 South Florida Bulls are poised to make noise nationally. Bulls Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and Elena Tsineke join Mununga on the preseason All-AAC First Team and another Bull, Sydni Harvey, joins Pinzan on the Second Team.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 09 American Athletic Conference Women’s Championship - Houston v USF
Elisa Pinzan (with ball)
Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Our conference previews continue with a look at the AAC:

Rewind: A look at where the AAC left off

South Florida and Central Florida shared the AAC regular season crown last year and the Bulls defeated the Knights in the conference tournament championship game, 64-54, with Sydni Harvey winning MVP. Ilmar’l Thomas of Cincinnati, who has since transferred to UCLA, won Player of the Year. Tulane’s JerKaila Jordan won Freshman of the Year, South Florida’s Jose Fernandez won Coach of the Year, East Carolina’s Lashonda Monk won Defensive Player of the Year, USF’s Elisa Pinzan won Most Improved Player and UCF’s Alisha Lewis won Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Syracuse. Lewis and USF’s Maria Alvarez were co-sixth players of the year.

Both the Bulls (8-seed) and Knights (10-seed) made it to the NCAA Tournament. The Bulls defeated a scrappy Pac-12 team in Washington State in the first round and gave NC State a good game in the second round. The Knights fell to a very good Northwestern team in the first round.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2021-22 season, in order of the preseason standings predicted by the AAC’s head coaches:

1) No. 21 South Florida Bulls

The Bulls return all five starters and the Co-Sixth Woman of the Year in Alvarez. They have one of the best rebounders in the country in Bethy Mununga, return their leading scorer in Elena Tsineke and have added Memphis’ leading scorer from a year ago in Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. They also return their second-leading scorer in Harvey and an assist machine in Pinzan to go along with another Memphis transfer who also averaged north of six assists per game in Aerial Wilson. Pinzan and Wilson were seventh and ninth in the nation in assists per game last year. Expect distributing to be a strength for Jose Fernandez’s squad.

2) Central Florida Knights

The Knights return their top 10 scorers, who all played at least 9.9 minutes per game last year. The bulk of UCF’s scoring in 2020-21 came from its starting five: Tay Sanders (leading scorer), Diamond Battles (leading distributor), Masseny Kaba (leading rebounder), Brittney Smith and Lewis. They all averaged at least nine points and Sanders led the way with 10.4. That core should once again make them competitive against USF, but the Knights are in desperate need of a sixth scorer who can average more than 2.9 points per game.

3) Houston Cougars

The Cougars finished third in the conference last year at 12-5. They lost Miya Crump, who was tied for their scoring lead with 10.5 points per game, via transfer to Jackson State, but return their six best scorers besides her and bring in two key Power 5 transfers: Fatou Diagne from Purdue and Tiara Young from LSU. Diagne, a 6-foot-4 center, started all 23 games for the Boilermakers in 2020-21, averaging 8.5 points and eight rebounds. Young also averaged north of eight points per game last year while playing for the Tigers. Sophomore guard Laila Blair tied Crump with 10.5 points per game last year at Houston. Look for her, redshirt junior guard Britney Onyeje and senior guard Dymond Gladney to be key contributors along with Diagne and Young.

4) Tulane Green Wave

The Green Wave finished fourth in the conference last year at 12-6. This year they bring in a big-name transfer in Moon Ursin, who is well known in the women’s college basketball world from her time at Baylor. Ursin was a role player for three years in Waco before having a breakout senior year in 2020-21. She became a star with 11.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Ursin keeps Tulane’s hopes of competing in the AAC alive despite the team losing leading scorer and AAC Freshman of the Year JerKaila Jordan via transfer to Mississippi State. The Green Wave return their other four starters.

5) Temple Owls

Temple was the last of the big five in the AAC last year with a record of 11-7, good for three games behind USF and UCF. Sixth-place East Carolina was four games behind the Owls at 6-10. Look for Temple to make a run at first place this year with AAC preseason Player of the Year Mia Davis returning along with fellow double-digit scorers Jasha Clinton and Alexa Williamson. The Owls have also added transfers Jiselle Thomas and Jalynn Holmes, who starred for FIU and Norfolk State, respectively, last year. And they bring in No. 65 Hoop Gurlz recruit Tiarra East.

6) Cincinnati Bearcats

The Bearcats (6-12 in 2020-21) lost 23.7 points per game and their only double-figure scorer in Ilmar’l Thomas via transfer to UCLA. Three other players who averaged over 26 minutes per game are no longer on the team. The team’s second-leading scorer Caitlyn Wilson, a junior guard, and a handful of unproven DI transfers will try to pick up the pieces. Taziah Jenks comes from West Virginia along with Nevaeh Dean (Virginia Tech), Akira Levy (Vanderbilt) and Malea Williams (Louisville).

7) East Carolina Pirates

The Pirates lost leading scorer and AAC Defensive Player of the Year Lashonda Monk to graduation. Second-leading scorer Taniyah Thompson (12 points per game) is the only returner of the team’s top four scorers. East Carolina may look to Virginia Tech graduate transfer Da’Ja Green for a lot of offense alongside Thompson. Green led Wofford in scoring twice and in assists once during her three years there before becoming a Hokie last year. The Pirates also feature two Clemson transfers (Tylar Bennett and Danae McNeal) and Kansas transfer Brittany Franklin.

8) Wichita State Shockers

The Shockers came in ninth in the AAC at 2-9 last year, so eighth would be a slight improvement. They return more than Cincinnati and East Carolina, so an even higher spot isn’t out of sight. Leading scorer Asia Strong (15.2 points per game in 2020-21) is back for her senior campaign along with most of the team’s rotation. Junior guard Seraphine Bastin is only 5-foot-8 but led the team in rebounding last year with 7.7 boards per game to go along with 10.2 points and a team-high 5.1 assists.

9) Tulsa Golden Hurricane

The Golden Hurricane were 4-13 in the conference last year, but return their top four scorers, including senior guard Maya Mayberry who led the team with 14.3 points per game. Mayberry’s young sister, sophomore guard Wyvette, is also back after averaging 12.3 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists. Fifth-year guard Rebecca Lescay (7.9 points per game in 2020-21) and sophomore forward Jessika Evans (team-leading 6.3 rebounds) should also be key players for first-year head coach Angie Nelp.

10) SMU Mustangs

The Mustangs opted out of the remainder of last season after going 0-6 (0-2 AAC). Their core group of returners is comprised of junior guard Reagan Bradley and senior guards Kayla White and Amber Bacon. That trio was solid in 2019-20 and the three of them got off to good starts last year. Bradley did a good job stuffing the stat sheet two years ago, averaging 9.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.9 steals. A number of transfers will be around to help SMU as well, including Rice’s top two distributors from a year ago in Jasmine Smith and Sydne Wiggins. Former Canisius star Danielle Sanderlin joins the team via UMass and Power 5 transfers Keyanna Warthen (Indiana), Savannah Wilkinson (Florida State) and Amirah Abdur-Rahim (Notre Dame) have been welcomed to Dallas too. SMU has a new head coach in Toyelle Wilson.

11) Memphis Tigers

Memphis will need to fill the void left behind by Fankam Mendjiadeu, who averaged 14.1 points per game as the Tigers went 2-11 in the AAC in 2020-21. The Tigers do return their next six-best scorers, but their eighth-leading scorer in Wilson — also their top distributor — left for South Florida along with Fankam Mendjiadeu. Fifth-year forward Alana Davis will need to step up along with Tyler Frierson and Emani Jefferson, who were both key contributors for Wright State last year. Frierson and Jefferson come over from Wright State along with first-year Memphis head coach Katrina Merriweather.

Preseason nods

As voted on by the AAC’s head coaches:

Player of the Year: Mia Davis (Temple)

All-AAC First Team: Tay Sanders (UCF), Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu (South Florida), Bethy Mununga (South Florida), Elena Tsineke (South Florida), Mia Davis (Temple), Asia Strong (Wichita State)

All-AAC Second Team: Laila Blair (Houston), Sydni Harvey (South Florida), Elisa Pinzan (South Florida), Krystal Freeman (Tulane), Maya Mayberry (Tulsa)

Key conference dates

Jan. 1: AAC season start (Cincinnati vs. Tulsa and East Carolina vs. SMU)

Must-see AAC matchups

Jan. 16: South Florida vs. Central Florida. Our first look at the two frontrunners going against each other.

Jan. 22: Temple vs. South Florida. See preseason Player of the Year Mia Davis go up against the array of stars featured on South Florida’s roster.

Feb. 13: Central Florida vs. South Florida. Could have major first-place race implications. Plus, see the teams battle for bracketology position.