NCAA Basketball

A Look at the AAC Contenders for 2013-14

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the 2013-14 NCAA basketball season still over four months away, it is never too early for the fanatics of the world to start thinking about next season. This year's college basketball landscape will sport a much different look, as teams have been playing musical conferences for much of the past few seasons with likely more moves to follow.

Making its debut after virtually having a full-on makeover, the AAC, formerly the Big East, welcomes a handfull of teams ready to hit the ground running. With the reigning NCAA Champion Louisville Cardinals returning with the majority of their core group, it comes as no surprise that the Cardinals will be favored to repeat as conference and national champions. But, behind the Cardinals will be a group of programs challenging to snag the AAC title in its inaugural season.

Joining the conference as first-year members are the Central Florida Knights, Houston Cougars, Memphis Tigers, Southern Methodist Mustangs and Temple Owls. The new programs will join the old members in the Cincinnati Bearcats, Connecticut Huskies, Louisville, Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the South Florida Bulls.

This year's AAC look will undergo further change at the conclusion of the academic calender year next summer, as Louisville will bolt for the ACC, while Rutgers will take their chances in the power-laden Big Ten. Until then, here is a breakdown of the serious contenders for the AAC men's basketball title for the upcoming season, as well as teams that have an outside shot to make some noise if everything goes just right.

Bryan Heater is an AAC columnist for Follow him on Twitter, Like him on Facebook or add him on you Google network.

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Louisville Cardinals

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason: Won National Championship

Notable Players Gone: Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva

Notable Players Returning: Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell, Russ Smith, Stephan Van Treese, Kevin Ware

Notable Newcomers: Chris Jones, Anton Gill, Terry Rozier, Akoy Agau

There are no surprises with the first contender in a Louisville squad that is coming off their first national title in 27 years and returns the bulk of their core. With the surprise return of guard Russ Smith and the addition of four four-star recruits, the Cardinals are the favorite, once again, to take the AAC title and repeat as national champions. Head coach Rick Pitino will have arguably his most talented bunch since he arrived at Louisville, making this team the one every other program will be gunning for.

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Memphis Tigers

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason: Lost in third round to Michigan State

Notable Players Gone: Antonio Barton, Tarik Black, Ferrakohn Hall, Stan Simpson, D.J. Stephens, Adonis Thomas

Notable Players Returning: Chris Crawford, Shaq Goodwin, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Damien Wilson

Notable Newcomers: Markel Crawford, Michael Dixon (pending NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility), Kuran Iverson, Nick King, Austin Nichols, David Pellom, RaShawn "Pookie" Powell, Dominic Woodson

The Tigers lost a number of players that contributed heavily for last year's Memphis squad that finished the season with a 31-5 record, including a perfect 16-0 mark in C-USA. However, recruiting guru Josh Pastner reeled in a top-five class that included one five-star recruit in Nichols and five four-star recruits, not to mention two big-time transfers in Dixon and Pellom. With three returning seniors and an overhaul of talented newcomers, the Tigers will have a chance to not only challenge Louisville for the AAC title, but to also make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

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Connecticut Huskies

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason: Ineligible for the NCAA Tournament in 2012-13

Notable Players Gone: R.J. Evans

Notable Players Returning: Ryan Boatright, Omar Calhoun, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey, Shabazz Napier, Phillip Nolan, Enosch Wolf

Notable Newcomers: Amida Brimah, Kentan Facey, Terrence Samuel

After not being eligible for the postseason in Kevin Ollie's first season as the Huskies head coach, Connecticut losses just one player and returns all of their key guys in what should be a deep team. Ollie added four players in the 2013 class to shore up the frontcourt after the Huskies lacked a dominant big man for the first time in a while. With Connecticut returning almost every key player from last year's team, Ollie's Huskies will look to have a legitimate shot at the AAC title and a return to March Madness.

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Cincinnati Bearcats

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason: Lost in second round to Creighton

Notable Players Gone: Alex Eppensteiner, Cheikh Mbodj, Jaquon Parker, Cashmere Wright

Notable Players Returning: Jeremiah Davis III, Ge'Lawn Guyn, Justin Jackson, Sean Kilpatrick, David Nyarsuk, Titus Rubles, Jermaine Sanders, Shaquille Thomas

Notable Newcomers: Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson, Jermaine Lawrence, Deshaun Morman, Jamaree Strckland

After a disappointing second round exit to Creighton in the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati and head coach Mitch Cronin lost two of their top-three scorers. However, the Bearcats got good news in April when leading scorer Kilpatrick decided to return for his senior season. Add four three-star recruits and five-star Lawrence, and the Bearcats have a chance to make some noise in the AAC's first season.

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Temple Owls

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason: Lost in third round to Indiana

Notable Players Gone: T.J. DiLeo, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, Jake O'Brien, Scootie Randall, Khalif Wyatt

Notable Players Returning: Will Cummings, Quenton DeCosey, Anthony Lee

Notable Newcomers: Josh Brown, Mark Williams

The Temple Owls came within six points of knocking off No. 1 seed Indiana in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. However, the Owls lose five of their top-seven scorers, including Wyatt, who averaged over 20 points per game. Temple adds two three-star recruits to try and ease the loss of so many contributors and could be in for a rough first season in the AAC. But, they make this list because of the job head coach Fran Dunphy has done, leading the program back to relevance and six-straight NCAA Tournament appearances. Though it could be a down season compared to recent years, the Owls have been consistent and if other players step up, they could turn some heads.

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Central Florida Knights

Central Florida
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason: None

Notable Players Gone: Keith Clanton, Rod Days

Notable Players Returning: Staphon Blair, Calvin Newell, Tristan Spurlock, Isaiah Sykes, Daiquan Walker, Matt Williams

Notable Newcomers: Brandon Goodwin, Steven Haney, Justin McBride, Eugene McCrory

Central Florida did not make the NCAA Tournament this past season, and they can thank it largely due to the fact they played in the underwhelming C-USA. But, the Knights gave head coach Donnie Jones a contract extension after his team completed their third-straight 20-win season. The departure of former C-USA Player of the Year Clanton hurts, but the Knights return five of their top-six scorers, including the do-it-all Sykes who recorded two triple-doubles last season. With the addition of one two-star and three solid three-star recruits, Central Florida and Jones contend for an AAC title if everything falls into place.