Most coaches would envy Rick Pitino. Louisville won the national championship and returns every key player other than Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. Those are major losses, for sure, but the Cardinals may start the season ranked in the top three.
The determining factor in Louisville’s ability to repeat may be a handful of new key players. Junior college transfer Chris Jones takes over Siva’s point guard spot. Freshman Terry Rozier will bolster backcourt depth. Redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang isn’t the veteran Dieng was, but he could be a solid shotblocker.
The Cardinals will be the overwhelming favorite in the first season of the American, but how newcomers perform elsewhere in the conference may determine how much the other teams in the league challenge Louisville. Memphis, as usual, has highly touted freshmen. So does Connecticut. SMU has a slew of transfers ready to make the Mustangs relevant.
Our series on new faces started earlier this week with the ACC. We continue today with the American.
Chris Jones, Louisville
Junior college transfer
Few newcomers have bigger shoes to fill. Point guard Peyton Siva is one of the few departures from the national title winners, and more than that, he was one of Rick Pitino’s all-time favorite players. Jones was a junior college All-American who committed to Tennessee out of high school but took a detour since then. He’s a relentless defender who will be a good fit in the Cardinals’ press.
Terry Rozier, Louisville
Freshman (Hargrave Military Academy)
Another addition to the Louisville backcourt, Rozier adds a scoring touch with his ability to attack the rim. That was pretty evident in January when Rozier scored a Hargrave-record 68 points in a double-overtime game on 19-of-37 shooting and 22-of-24 free throws.
Jermaine Lawrence, Cincinnati
Cincinnati scored fewer than half its points from 2-point range last season (49.6 percent, ranked 247th nationally). Adding the 6-9 power forward Lawrence, a top-25 recruit, should help the Bearcats in the low post. From Sparta, N.J., Lawrence is another big-time prospect Mick Cronin has pulled from the New York/New Jersey area, joining Lance Stephenson and Sean Kilpatrick.
Austin Nichols, Memphis
With Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and Shaq Goodwin, Memphis has a strong backcourt despite a pair of player transfers and an NBA Draft early entry. Memphis needs Nichols, the Tigers’ top recruit and a local product from Briarcrest Christian, to step into the frontcourt right away. The Tigers also signed two other 6-9 top-50 forwards Kuran Iverson and Dominic Woodson.
Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah, Connecticut
The Huskies got little production out of their frontcourt last season, so this pair of freshman will have the opportunity to push veterans DeAndre Daniels and Tyler Olander. Facey is a good rebounder while Brimah is a lanky shot-blocker.
Lasan Kromah, Connecticut
George Washington transfer
Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright return to lead the UConn backcourt, but adding Kromah gives the Huskies some nice depth on the perimeter. Kromah averaged 11 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists in three seasons at George Washington.
Keith Frazier, SMU
SMU has decided it’s serious about basketball, hiring Larry Brown, renovating its arena and signing a local McDonald’s All-American in Frazier. On a team that returns all five starters, the 6-5 shooting guard Frazier could end up the top scorer on a team that hopes to make a splash in its first season in the American Athletic Conference.
Nic Moore, SMU
Illinois State transfer
Moore followed his coach at Illinois State, SMU’s head coach-in-waiting Tim Jankovich, to Dallas. The Mustangs didn’t have a true point guard last season — SMU ranked 11th in Conference USA in assist-to-turnover ratio — so Moore will have a chance to take over point guard duties immediately. Moore had a 1.71 assist-to-turnover ratio and 135 assists as a freshman at Illinois State in 2011-12.
Danrad “Chicken” Knowles, Houston
Ineligible last season
Knowles was the rare top-100 recruit to sign at Houston, but the 6-10 power forward was ineligible last season. Houston is also hoping former Baylor guard L.J. Rose will receive a waiver to be eligible immediately. If both are ready to play this season, Houston will be competitive in its new league. Without them, Houston went 7-9 in a bad Conference USA — and that was before leading scorer Joseph Young transferred.
Josh Brown, Temple
Brown, a graduate of the St. Anthony program coached by the legendary Bob Hurley, committed twice to Temple, both before and after his junior season breakout. He could be the Owls' best perimeter scorer only a year after Temple lost the backcourt duo of Khalif Wyatt and T.J. DiLeo.
Greg Lewis, Rutgers
Rutgers has brought in a handful of transfers to help ease the roster turnover from the Mike Rice era, but Kerwin Okoro (Iowa State) and J.J. Moore (Pittsburgh) are still seeking immediate eligibility. Lewis is a big body at 6-9, 240 pounds who missed last season with a knee injury.
Others of Note
John Egbunu, USF
The Bulls signed Egbunu, a top-100 center, but coach Stan Heath may sweat a bit. USF is pushing back his enrollment a semester as an academic precaution.
Yanic Moreira and Markus Kennedy, SMU
Moreira transferred from junior college and Kennedy transferred from Villanova to bolster SMU’s frontcourt.
Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
Cashmere Wright was a fixture at point guard for Cincinnati, and now the Bearcats turn to a freshman to run the position. He’ll have every chance to take over there to set up Sean Kilpatrick.
Mangok Mathiang, Louisville
The 6-10 center still needs to develop offensively, but he’s ready to contribute now as a shotblocker.
Mark Williams, Temple
The Owls are doing some major rebuilding in the frontcourt, so the 6-8, 230-pound Williams will play immediately. He’ll be a big body inside.