American Athletic Conference Preview: Welcome, Wichita State!

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the American Athletic Conference.

The American gains a huge new program with the addition of Wichita State this season as head coach Gregg Marshall brings his highly-successful outfit into a bigger league.

Expected to compete for the league title right away, even after the leap in conference levels, the Shockers addition into the American gives the league a unique storyline that isn’t often seen in any level of sports.

Although Wichita State will be a big national focus, don’t sleep on teams like Cincinnati, UCF and SMU as those three teams are also making a push for the Big Dance.

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Markis McDuffie (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. The American welcomes (a very good) Wichita State

Now we’ll finally get to see how good Wichita State will look playing in a multi-bid league. No disrespect to a tough Missouri Valley Conference but the American is going to be a much harder game-by-game league for the Shockers than anything they’ve dealt with over the past few years.

Luckily for Wichita State, they have the perfect roster loaded with depth and experience to make this leap upwards at this very moment. Following last season’s close Round of 32 loss to Kentucky, Wichita State only loses guard Daishon Smith as they bring back plenty of talented pieces.

The key for Wichita State’s season will be health of their stars, sophomore point guard Landry Shamet and junior wing Markis McDuffie. An All-American candidate if he is healthy and ready to play, Shamet suffered a stress fracture in his foot and had surgery in July, leaving his status slightly up in the air at the beginning of the season. Shamet is expected to make a full recovery and return by mid-November but his health is definitely something to monitor, especially since the Shockers have some unproven depth behind him at point.

Forward Markis McDuffie is coming off of a strong sophomore season that saw him lead the Shockers in scoring and rebounding, but he could miss a month of the season – if not more – recovering from a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his left foot. That’s the same bone that has derailed many basketball careers, including Joel Embiid. As versatile as any frontcourt player in the country, it wouldn’t at all surprise if McDuffie took an additional leap as a junior and was an all-conference performer once again.

Returning in the backcourt with Shamet is experienced shooter Conner Frankamp, who spent a season in the Big 12 at Kansas and shouldn’t be at all intimidated by the move up the American. Rugged three-year starter Zach Brown also returns as the team’s premier wing defender while another senior, Rashard Kelly, is also back to provide more depth. The team’s big men are also experienced as senior center Shaquille Morris has two solid season backups in Rauno Nurger and Darral Willis Jr.

Expectations are very high for Wichita State as many projections place them high in preseason top-25 rankings. Many have even picked the Shockers to win the American in their very first season in the league. Seeing how this entire team adapts to a new league is going to be one of the best early conference storylines to follow.

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2. Cincinnati remains a major title contender

Very quietly, Cincinnati has become one of the most consistent programs in the country. Coming off of a 30-win season and a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the Bearcats and head coach Mick Cronin have a very good thing going right now.

Losing the backcourt of seniors Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson is going to hurt. Two of the winningest guards in program history, it will be tough for Cincinnati to move on without their consistent presence. The Bearcats are hoping that Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome can be an adequate replacement. The nation’s sixth-leading scorer at 23.1 points per game two seasons ago as a sophomore, Broome will play a new role at point for Cincinnati. If Broome can maintain his double-figure scoring status while getting others good looks then Cincinnati actually might have a better offense than last year. Junior Justin Jenifer is a solid security blanket should Broome struggle as he’s also provided minutes at point backing up Caupain.

After a breakout sophomore campaign, Jacob Evans returns on the wing after putting up numbers across the board while shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Evans is an all-league threat who might be a Player of the Year candidate if he can make another leap in the scoring column. Johnson’s spot in the lineup will be filled by sophomore Jarron Cumberland, a tough bucket-getter who could also be a potential upgrade from an offensive perspective.

Cincinnati’s frontcourt is perhaps the league’s best as versatile senior forwards Gary Clark and Kyle Washington return. A former league Defensive Player of the Year, Clark is a huge presence on the floor for Cincinnati at both ends while Washington is springy enough to block shots on defense while being skilled enough to stretch the floor a bit on offense.

Besides replacing a point guard, depth is going to be a question for Cincinnati. The frontcourt depth is there, but many of the pieces like sophomores Nysier Brooks and Tre Scott and freshmen Mamoudou Diarra and Eliel Nsoseme are inexperienced. Besides for Jennifer, Cincinnati doesn’t have many proven perimeter players who can come in and give a lift.

We know that Mick Cronin teams always have a chip on their shoulders and they’ll play physical and defend. Despite a 30-win season, nobody from the Bearcats was first-team All-AAC last season. Wichita State is getting all of this positive buzz now as the new guy. You think that doesn’t make Cincinnati angry? If the Bearcats can stay healthy then they have the offensive pop to be a really scary team this season.

Mick Cronin (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

3. SMU can still be a factor despite losing so much

Coming off of a 30-win season of their own, SMU has to replace a lot of proven scoring from Semi Ojeleye, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown. Losing three NBA-level dudes is pretty much impossible to replace if you’re not a blueblood. While those three veterans are a huge loss, the return of juniors Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster should help.

Milton is one of the league’s most productive players and a lethal three-point threat who can also run the team’s offense. Now that the roster is more depleted, Milton could see his scoring numbers rise this season as the Mustangs don’t have nearly as many weapons around him. For SMU to have a great season, Milton has to have a big year.

The underrated Foster is a versatile defender who could be asked to play the small-ball four this season as he is also a strong perimeter shooter. Inconsistent at times on the offensive end, SMU needs Foster to also take a leap in scoring this season as he’ll need to shoot a lot more. Valuable role guy Ben Emelogu II is also back for his senior season as he’s a plus defender on the wing.

The Mustangs aren’t going to replace Moore and Ojeleye in the frontcourt very easily but Georgetown graduate transfer Akoy Agau is at least an experienced plug for this season who should give some decent minutes. Arkansas transfer Jimmy Whitt should also be a factor for SMU as he could provide a scoring lift while also playing a bit on the ball. If Jahmal McMurray returns to the team as expected in December then he’ll be another guard to watch on this roster.

Frontcourt depth is going to be the major concern for the Mustangs. Agau is experienced, but he only played 15 minutes for a mediocre Georgetown team last season and hasn’t logged big minutes very often during his injury-filled college career. Behind Agau, freshmen like Everett Ray and Ethan Chargois are unproven as they could be asked to give a lift. Those are the only three players who are 6-foot-7 or taller on the SMU roster.

This SMU team will likely have go small and try to space the floor as much as possible this season. Foster is a solid rebounder and defender who would be giving up some size to bigger lineups, but he’s also the type of floor spacer that would make for a tough cover on the other end. Foster’s ability to man that spot could be the key to SMU’s season.

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4. Watch out for UCF

UCF hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since they were in the Atlantic Sun 12 years ago. But they’re coming off of a 24-win season and solid NIT semifinal run despite only playing seven scholarship players last season. With injuries that number sometimes dwindled to five. Double-figure scorer and sharpshooter Matt Williams is a notable loss but the Knights have a lot of talent returning this season to go along with transfer additions to fill out the bench.

Junior B.J. Taylor is one of the most slept-on players in college basketball as he put up 17.4 points per game as a sophomore. If Taylor improves his efficiency then he could easily be a Player of the Year candidate. Center Tacko Fall returns for his junior season. The 7-foot-6 big man is a double-double threat who shot 71 percent from the field. The league’s returning Defensive Player of the Year, Fall could see his scoring numbers rise as he continues to learn post moves. Senior A.J. Davis can maintain multiple positions while filling up the box score in a number of ways. Junior Chad Brown is another frontcourt returner who could make a leap this season.

The returnees at UCF will get a huge boost from transfers who sat out last season. Michigan transfer Aubrey Dawkins, son of head coach Johnny Dawkins, joins the rotation as he should help offset the loss of Williams’ scoring. Big man Rokas Ulvydas (Texas Tech) and guards Dayon Griffin (Louisiana Tech) and Terrell Allen (Drexel) also should play a factor for minutes as the Knights have options this season.

Again, this is a roster that already tasted some postseason success last season despite having a heavily-depleted roster. Taylor is a potential star, Fall is as unique a weapon as there is in college basketball and now this group adds reinforcements who are already familiar with the program after practicing with them last season. Watch out for the Knights.

5. UConn is hoping to make a push back into national prominence

Last season saw UConn struggle to its first losing season since Jim Calhoun’s first year on the job in 1986-87. Gutted with injuries that led to a depleted and inexperienced lineup, the Huskies are hoping for a turnaround in 2017-18.

After only combining for about seven total games due to season-ending injuries last season, junior forward Terry Larrier and point guard Alterique Gilbert both return to the UConn rotation and should provide a huge lift. UConn needs the 6-foot-8 Larrier to make an impact on both ends of the floor while Gilbert, a former McDonald’s All-American, can be electric with the ball in his hands.

Those two will have help from AAC Player of the Year candidate Jalen Adams as the junior guard is coming off of a strong season. The league’s leader in assists while scoring 14.1 points per game last season, Adams could see his scoring numbers rise if Gilbert allows him to play some off the ball. Sophomore Christian Vital is also back after providing some scoring pop last season. Vital’s presence gives UConn some three-guard lineup options or Vital can also be effective as a bench scorer. Fordham graduate transfer Antwoine Anderson gives the Huskies the luxury of a solid scorer who can run point.

Besides for the health of Gilbert and Larrier, the frontcourt remains a big question for the Huskies. While the perimeter rotation has some solid options, UConn needs new pieces to step up inside. Cornell graduate transfer David Onuorah is a proven rim protector but he’s also making a significant leap into a new league. The Huskies also hit the juco ranks for bigs as Eric Cobb (who was at South Carolina as a freshman) and Kwintin Williams (an absurd athlete and elite dunker) could both play a factor.  Mamadou Diarra is also returning from a season lost to injury as he’s a solid rebounder and defender.

It’s hard to say if UConn can overcome last season’s disjointed effort but they have a lot of intriguing perimeter options and Larrier could be one of the league’s better players if he’s healthy.

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Landry Shamet (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

PRESEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Landry Shamet, Wichita State

Health is obviously the big question for the 6-foot-4 Shamet but it will also be interesting to see him play a full season at point guard. Inserted into that role in mid-January of last season after playing shooting guard, Shamet and the Shockers didn’t lose when he became the team’s full-time point guard until their loss in the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE AMERICAN FIRST TEAM

  • Rob Gray Jr., Houston: The league’s returning leading scorer at 20.6 points per game, Gray is one of the biggest perimeter scoring threats in college basketball. Gray could be in line for a monster senior year.
  • Shake Milton, SMU: Shooting the ball at a high level last season, Milton led the American at 42 percent three-point shooting while putting up 13.0 points and 4.5 assists per game.
  • Gary Clark, Cincinnati: A former Defensive Player of the Year in the American, if this senior forward can improve his woeful perimeter shooting then he becomes a major threat at both ends of the floor.
  • Jacob Evans, Cincinnati: The do-it-all junior wing is capable of scoring, helping on the glass, knocking down a perimeter shot or playing aggressively in passing lanes.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Jalen Adams, UConn
  • Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
  • B.J. Taylor, UCF
  • Tacko Fall, UCF
  • Obi Enechionyia, Temple

BREAKOUT STAR: UCF’s B.J. Taylor

Okay, so Taylor is probably too established to consider him a true “breakout” player, but he has a chance to have a huge season on a bigger national stage. An absolute warrior who carried the Knights down the stretch, Taylor helped a team with seven scholarship players reach the NIT semifinals as he played nearly every minute of every game. And this was Taylor logging heavy minutes after missing the previous season when he redshirted with a lower leg injury. Taylor dropped 27 on Cincinnati in an upset win and also averaged 21 points a game in two losses to SMU, only missing one minute between all three games. Now with more weapons around him this season, the 6-foot-4 Taylor can improve upon his solid 3.5 assists per game average as he has a chance to be a top-ten scorer and assist man in the conference once again.

COACH UNDER PRESSUREEast Carolina’s Jeff Lebo

East Carolina still hasn’t made an NCAA tournament appearance in Lebo’s seven seasons as they’ve been a decidedly mediocre 114-118 in that span. The program is only 21-49 in conference play the past four seasons as East Carolina has never found its footing since moving into the American. Finishing ninth place last season, the Pirates will likely have to win some games in order for Lebo to feel secure. Thankfully for East Carolina, Lebo is fully healthy after missing the last 14 games of last season after a hip replacement.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The American is looking strong in this season’s field as Wichita State and Cincinnati are both major threats.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

Seeing Wichita State in a conference that is much more competitive should be a lot of fun, especially for this battle-tested group that is hungry to prove itself after the close NCAA tournament loss to Kentucky.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 12/2, Wichita State at Baylor
  • 12/2, Cincinnati at Xavier
  • 12/2, USC at SMU
  • 12/3, UCF at Alabama
  • 12/9, Cincinnati vs. Florida (Newark, NJ)
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Tacko Fall (Dan Forcella/UCF Athletics)

POWER RANKINGS

1. Cincinnati: Cincinnati has the experience and talent to win the league this season as the Bearcats should have more scoring pop than a typical Mick Cronin group. Broome’s addition in the backcourt is one to watch. It’s also noteworthy that Cincinnati will play its home games at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena this season as their own arena undergoes renovations.
2. Wichita State: The Shockers finally get a call to the big leagues as they can immediately win this league if Shamet is healthy. Among the league’s deepest teams, Wichita State can wear anybody down by coming in waves as they’ll have the league’s best bench.
3. SMU: A severe lack of size could ultimately hurt the Mustangs this season but they’ll have some fun lineups with a lot of floor spacing. Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster are both proven AAC performers and as long as the transfers can step up, the Mustangs should be back in the Big Dance.
4. UCF: This could be a major year for the Knights as they advanced to the NIT semis with only seven scholarship players last season. Armed now with a complete roster that includes a big-time scorer and an elite rim protector, UCF could be a surprise nationally this season.
5. Temple: After a disappointing season, the Owls could make an NCAA tournament run if they are back at full strength. Senior Obi Enechionyia is one of the league’s best bigs while junior guard Shizz Alston is a proven scorer. If senior point guard Josh Brown looks like his old self after an Achilles’ injury then the Owls should bounce back.
6. UConn: The Huskies need to stay healthy in order to reach their ceiling but the roster still has plenty of talent. As long as the new frontcourt can hold its own during most games, UConn will have a chance to make it back to the postseason.
7. Houston: Besides for their unbelievable charity work in assisting after Hurricane Harvey, Houston is coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons. Senior scorer Rob Gray, junior point guard Galen Robinson Jr. and senior forward Devin Davis are all back but they’ll need help from eight newcomers.
8. Tulsa: Last season, Tulsa had to integrate 10 new players into the roster so the Golden Hurricane should be more cohesive this season after only losing two this offseason. Senior forward Junior Etou is an all-league candidate while junior Sterling Taphorn is a solid floor leader.
9. East Carolina: The Pirates return a strong core trio in Kentrell Barkley, B.J. Tyson and Jeremy Sheppard but East Carolina is still lacking proven size. Having Lebo back on the sidelines will help but East Carolina still has too many question marks.
10. Tulane: Last season’s six-win effort was ugly for the Green Wave but there is some returning talent to keep an eye on. Junior guard Cameron Reynolds is a sleeper all-league candidate while Melvin Fraser and Ray Ona Embo showed flashes of strong play last season. Transfers Jordan Cornish (UNLV) and Samir Sehic (Vanderbilt) will help.
11. Memphis: Things got ugly for the Memphis roster when the Lawson brothers transferred to Kansas this offseason. Junior guard Jeremiah Martin finished last season in strong fashion but he doesn’t have a lot of proven help around him. JUCO all-americans Kareem Brewton and Kyvon Davenport need to contribute immediately.
12. USF: New head coach Brian Gregory brings in nearly an entirely new roster after seven players transferred this offseason. Returnees Troy Holston and Tulio Da Silva are both solid and the Bulls have a lot of help from grad transfers.