In AAC, it's Wichita, Cincinnati and a big sleeper

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 16, 2017 01:47 AM
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall moves to a new league after receiving some bad luck with NCAA Tournament matchups in recent years.
© USA Today Sports

In the offseason, the American Athletic Conference got a huge addition as Wichita State joined the conference, which means the NCAA selection committee will have to get more creative if it wants to disrespect the Shockers in March. It also gives the top contenders in the conference extra chances at signature wins, meaning everyone except the Missouri Valley Conference is happy about this move.

Wichita State, Cincinnati and Southern Methodist are grabbing the headlines as the top teams in the conference, but the nation’s most underrated team might be residing in the AAC.

In the preseason college basketball polls, Central Florida received a total of one vote for the Top 25. Those voters are sleeping on a team that has four transfers from other D-I schools eligible this year and a 7-foot-6 center in Tacko Fall.

Fall has surprisingly good conditioning and avoids fouls better than most guys who are over 7 feet tall, and it allowed him to play more than 26 minutes per game as a sophomore last season. He had 10.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. He also made 71.5 percent of his field goals, which ranked in the top five of qualified players in D-I basketball. His size helped UCF outrebound its foes by 8.2 er game, which was ranked sixth among the 351 teams.

Knights coach Johnny Dawkins' team also held opponents to a 36.5 field-goal percentage, which was the lowest conversion rate allowed by any team in the nation. Fall does not need a lot of help in the paint, but Dawkins has former 6-foot-11 Texas Tech forward Rokas Ulvydas eligible after sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules. He saw close to zero playing time at the Big 12 school and will likely have something to prove with Tubby Smith, the coach who recruited him to Texas Tech, coaching in the conference at Memphis.

The team also has three guards eligible after they transferred from other D-I schools during the spring of 2016, headlined by Aubrey Dawkins. The 6-foot-6 son of the coach spent two years at Michigan, averaging 6.7 points and 2.3 rebounds at the Big Ten school. He hit 43.9 percent of his 3-point shots. Unfortunately, he will not be on the court this season as he suffered a shoulder injury in late October.

The point guard and leading scorer from a year ago, B.J. Taylor, is back. The 6-foot-2 junior had 17.4 points, four rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He also took a team-high six free throws per game, as UCF averaged 7.6 more free throw attempts than its foes.

Dawkins also brought in 6-foot-5 Louisiana Tech transfer Dayon Griffin and former Drexel point guard Terrell Allen, who will likely see a bunch of minutes due to the injury to Dawkins. If 6-foot-8 freshman Myles Douglas can give the team solid minutes off the bench, UCF will have the depth to make a charge at 25 regular-season wins.

UCF has a talented guard rotation and a 7-foot-6 center who has good conditioning. This is a scary Knights team that not only can sneak into the NCAA Tournament, but has the type of roster that can make a run to the second week if they get the right draw. The injury to Dawkins stings, but this team's strength is interior defense and UCF still has Fall to lock down the paint.

Wichita State is the conference newcomer and should step in and immediately have success. The team is led by a talented guard in Landry Shamet, who is just a sophomore. The Shockers also have very good team rebounding as they had the second-best rebound margin in the nation, pulling down nine more rebounds per game than their opponents.

Shamet made 43.9 percent of the 4.6 3s per game he took in his first year of college basketball and averaged 11.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Sharp shooting guard Conner Frankamp nailed 44 percent of his 3s as he posted 8.9 points and 2.7 assists per game as a junior.

Surprisingly, the team's top rebounder last year had just 5.7 per game despite Wichita State destroying teams on the glass. That player was 6-foot-8 Markis McDuffie, who had 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a massive stat-stuffer.

Big men Darral Willis Jr. and Shaquille Morris both chipped in 5.1 rebounds per game apiece and added 9.8 and 9.6 points per game, respectively, along with a combined 1.8 blocks. Also, 6-foot-6 Zach Brown was used as a wing for the most part last year as he averaged 7.4 points and 3.2 rebounds as a junior.

Rashad Kelly, a 6-foot-7 reserve forward, also gave the team quality minutes with 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds. Another solid big man coming off the bench is 6-foot-10 Rauno Nurger. What makes Nurger and Kelly so dangerous is that both shot over 43.5 percent from 3-point range last year, giving this team height and sharp shooting off the pine.

Shockers coach Gregg Marshall adds to that backcourt one of the best junior-college transfers in the nation in Samajae Haynes-Jones. He led Hutchinson College to the national title last season while averaging 16.1 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He was also one of the best free-throw shooters in the nation at any level last year, knocking down 89.4 percent of his free-throws.

If the team can get ESPN-rated four-star center recruit Isaiah Chandler in the rotation as well, it makes Wichita State one of the nation’s deepest teams. The battle will be between the Shockers and Cincinnati for the conference crown as both are tremendous on defense and have great overall roster depth.

Wichita State has received some bad luck with NCAA Tournament matchups in recent years. This should be a team that gets a top-three seed in the field of 68 and makes a charge into the second week of the tournament.

Cincinnati counters with a roster loaded with experience, though coach Mick Cronin must adjust to life without gritty point guard Troy Caupain.

The 6-foot-3 Caupain was a stalwart who led the team in minutes played last season and averaged 10.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals as a senior. He allowed Cronin to run a hard-nosed defensive style that he has always liked as Cincinnati allowed 61.3 points per game. That figure was good for eighth in college basketball last season.

Now this team will be led by Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington, who both led Cincinnati in scoring last season. The 6-foot-6 Evans converted 41.8 percent of his 3s while averaging 13.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals. Washington, who came to the program after transferring from N.C. State, had 12.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward is also improving his jump shot, as he made 35.7 percent of the 1.2 3s per game he attempted.

The team also returns leading rebounder Gary Clark, who at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds averaged 10.8 points and 7.9 rebounds as a junior. Low-post players Tra Scott and Nysier Brooks should both see more minutes off the bench after not seeing a lot of playing time as freshmen. Brooks provides a 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame and averaged 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes last year.

Cronin could go nine or 10 men deep on a regular basis. Cincinnati does not have quite the roster that Wichita State does, but the Bearcats play some of the toughest defense of any team in the nation. The battle for AAC supremacy is going to be a good one, though the early edge has to go with Wichita given that it did not lose a single player from last year and can get 3-point shooting from a bevy of different sources.

SMU had a magical 30-5 season, winning 26 of its last 27 games before the NCAA Tournament. The Mustangs were bounced in the round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament and must replace three players from their six-man rotation, including Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown and Ben Moore.

ESPN-rated three-star center Ethan Chargois will be pressed into action immediately. He is a bit of a poor man's Ojeleye as he is 6-foot-8, has a good mid-range jumper and is muscular enough to be successful when pounding the glass. Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich will also get the help of 6-foot-8 Georgetown transfer Akoy Agau, who had 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game on a downtrodden Hoyas squad.

Junior point guard Shake Milton will have to put the team on his back as he is coming off a season in which he had 13 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game, all while converting 42.3 percent of his 3s.

Arkansas transfer Jimmy Whitt will join him in the backcourt after he sat out the 2016-17 season while transferring, and 6-foot-5 junior Jarrey Foster will be an important offensive cog after he shot 44.4 percent from 3 as a sophomore last season. He had 9.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Ben Emelogu, a 6-foot-5 combo guard, figures to to go from the team's sixth man to a crucial starter. He had 4.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game.

SMU will get a shot in the arm during the second semester of the season from former South Florida guard Jahmal McMurray. He left the USF program three games into the 2016-17 season, averaging 15.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game while making 35.9 percent of his 3s during his one-plus year at the school.

SMU has a very good backcourt and guys who can hit 3s, but with a fairly weak bunch of big guys and the team still lacking depth, it's hard to see this team making the NCAA Tournament. An NIT appearance and a finish in the top half of the AAC does seem attainable, though.

Connecticut had a disastrous season in 2016-17, going 16-17 after being ranked No. 18 in the AP preseason poll. The team was destroyed by injuries.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie has enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament, though the key players must stay healthy for this team to reach its peak. The Huskies have good chance to make the AAC a four-bid league.

For the second time in 10 seasons, Temple failed to break 20 wins during the 2016-17 campaign. Three of the Owls’ top four guards were freshman last year, which should give coach Fran Dunphy a good nucleus to build around.

Levan Shawn Alston led the team in points per game with 13.9 as well as assists with 4.1. He added 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game and was an 86.8 percent free-throw shooter. Temple should see an uptick in wins and has the potential to surprise some people.

The AAC has two teams that many believe can make the second week of the tournament in Wichita State and Cincinnati, and perhaps the most under-the-radar team in America in UCF. This conference should be able to get at least three teams into the tournament and can max out at five if everything goes right for the bubble teams.

Greg Peterson’s American Athletic Conference forecast:

1. Wichita State

2. Cincinnati

3. Central Florida

4. Connecticut

5 Temple

6. SMU

7. Houston

8. Memphis

9. Tulsa

10. South Florida

11. Tulane

12. East Carolina

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