AAC Preview: Wichita State has powerhouse potential, but faces tough competition


Brian Hayes

Wichita State fans holds up the shockers during the exhibition opener against Henderson State in Koch Arena.

The new kids on the block in the American are also probably the best on the block. The Shockers return basically everybody off a team that dominated the Missouri Valley and gave perennial-power Kentucky a battle in the second round of the NCAA tournament last March.

This team has two stars in Landry Shamet and Markis McDuffie, lots of depth, and Final Four talent. Sound familiar?

Wichita State has the potential to be a powerhouse this year, but there’s another top-10-caliber team in the American that’s ready to make a splash this season. Cincinnati is a team coming into this season with every intention of winning the conference, and they’re considered a favorite by many people.

The Bearcats beat the Shockers by one measly point in the preseason poll. Underrated coach Mick Cronin’s team is one of the best and most balanced he has had with the program. The reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year, Gary Clark, who is returning for his senior season, will be a formidable presence in the paint.

He will be joined down low by senior Kyle Washington, who finished second on the team in points and rebounds last year. There will be no shortage of depth in a strong frontcourt. The backcourt isn’t as deep as the front, but Cronin has junior transfer Cane Broome, who ranked eighth nationally in scoring two years ago, taking over as his starting point guard.

An elite defense and solid offense will make the Bearcats competitive throughout the season. Cincinnati makes a trip to Wichita to close out the regular season, and the conference champion could likely hang in the balance.

Wichita State and Cincinnati are far and away the best two teams in the AAC, but after them, it’s a log jam of talented teams. Central Florida, SMU, UCONN, Houston and Temple should all be competitive.

Central Florida was picked to finish third in the conference, just two points ahead of SMU. UCF will be led by star point guard B.J. Taylor and 7’6”-center Tacko Fall. Taylor and Fall could take UCF to the top of the conference on their talent alone. Throw in two more returning players and four Division-I transfers, and this will be a force to be reckoned with.

The conference champions from a year ago are no slouch either. SMU lost the majority of their top minutes-getters from last year, but their top returner is Preseason Player of the Year Shake Milton. Milton is one of the best players in college basketball, and will be relied on heavily with just two other returners. Three transfers and multiple freshmen will play a lot of minutes for the Mustangs.

UCONN is one of the most unpredictable teams in the American. A year after winning the national championship in 2014, the Huskies barely made the NIT. The year after that, they rebounded, making it back to the tournament just to follow it up with a sub-.500 record last season.

This year, first-team all-conference guard Jalen Adams should spark another bounce-back season.

Houston is a sneaky team that no one is talking about, with the best player you’ve probably never heard of. Rob Gray was the leading scorer in the conference last year, but still managed to fly under the radar.

Houston has a full roster, but deciding who to surround Gray with could be a challenge. Nonetheless, the Cougars will get their fair share of wins, and could possibly make a run in the conference tournament.

The Temple Owls are the last team to round out a top-heavy American. Obi Enechionyia is another talented player you probably haven’t heard of, and he’ll be one of Temple’s few options in the paint. Enechionyia will lead from down low on a perimeter-oriented team.

The Owls make up for their lack or frontcourt depth with perimeter players and a team that nobody would want to get into a high-scoring shootout with.

WSU and Cincinatti are far from the only teams in the AAC who could hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

Tulsa and Memphis won’t be tournament teams this year, but they should be expected to pull off a couple upsets throughout conference play.

East Carolina, Tulane, and South Florida will be the league’s three bottom dwellers. East Carolina and Tulane at least have some talent, but South Florida will be in for a long year.

Wichita State and Cincinnati will run away with the AAC. Both of them will be highly-ranked all season and earn high seeds for March Madness. The middle pack will be what separates the American from every other conference.

Anywhere from two to seven teams have the ability to earn a bid from the American. This should be an eventful season.