Wichita State boosts AAC, but league needs UConn to improve
When Wichita State officially joined the American Athletic Conference last week, the league’s profile in men’s basketball took a significant step up.
The Shockers have been perhaps the best “mid-major” program in the nation over the past five years. They made a run to the Final Four in 2013 and were 35-0 and a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in 2014 before falling to Kentucky in the second round. Last year, they went 31-5 and rolled to a Missouri Valley Conference title before again being bounced in the second round by Kentucky.
And with every key player back from last year’s team, the Shockers will be a consensus preseason national Top 10 pick this season and the favorites to win the AAC.
“If I had my druthers, I’d rather be picked as a very good team,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said by phone last week. “If people don’t expect much from you, you probably haven’t been very good.”
Of course, football is where the money is in college sports. Money from bowl games, media rights and ticket sales is what separates the “Power Five” conferences from the rest. And since Wichita State doesn’t even have a football program, the league wasn’t helped at all in that regard.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie may refer to the American as “Power Six,” and the league’s #AmericanPower6 hash tag on Twitter is nice and all, but is it realistic?
“I don’t care,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, bluntly. “And you can quote me on that.”
No, Cronin is just happy to see the men’s basketball profile raised in his league — heck, in any league.
“It’s great to see somebody cared enough about basketball to do the right thing for basketball in our league,” the 12th-year Cincinnati head man said in a phone conversation on Monday. “Everything’s done for football. But when you sit in the chair I sit in, (people say) ‘Oh, but we need basketball to win and win big.’ It’s beyond refreshing to see something done for the betterment of basketball in our conference — or any conference.”
Marshall, who’s entering his 12th season as Wichita State’s head coach, is predictably excited about joining the American, as well.
“I think we’ve got some nationally known brands for college basketball, we’ve got nationally-known coaches that have had national championship and coach-of-the- year-type success,” Marshall said. “We feel like this will be a very, very good opportunity for us to join a conference that should be a multi-bid conference every year and has teams that can go deep in the tournament.”
That has been an issue for the league in its first four years of existence. Since 2014, when UConn rolled to a national title and Louisville advanced to the regional semifinals, the AAC has yet to have a team advance beyond the Round of 32. In fact, although Marshall is one of just five D-1 coaches to reach the Round of 32 each of the last five seasons, the Shockers have yet to win a game past that level.
One sure way to improve the AAC’s profile even more? Make sure its marquee teams are consistently good.
And that, of course, means UConn.
“Absolutely,” said Cronin. “Throw Memphis in, too.”
UConn is coming off an abysmal (if injury-plagued) 16-17 season, the program’s first losing season since Jim Calhoun’s first year at the helm, 1986-87. The Huskies have missed the tournament two of the past three seasons. Memphis has only reached the NCAA tournament once in the past four seasons, and none of the last three.
“Eight (combined) years, eight possible tournaments, what are the odds of them going 3-for-8?” Cronin asked, rhetorically. “No doubt, it’s important for your traditional schools to be good, in any conference. Whether it’s North Carolina and Duke, or UCLA and Arizona out west, it’s no different.”
This season, the Huskies will likely be picked to finish around fourth or fifth in the league. SMU lost Semi Ojeleye to the NBA, but has dynamic guard Shake Milton and some talented transfers in the fold. UCF has high-scoring B.J. Taylor and 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall. Houston and Temple are well coached and can never be fully counted out.
Wichita State and Cincinnati are clearly the cream of the crop, of course. And while the Shockers will be preseason favorites, don’t sleep on Cincinnati. The Bearcats have their top three scorers (Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington and Gary Clark) back and welcome some nice new talent, including East Hartford native and Sacred Heart transfer Caine Broome, who’ll help take over the point-guard duties from graduated standout Troy Caupain.
“He gives us a weapon we haven’t had, as far as getting teammates easy shots and being able to get in the paint really at will,” Cronin said.
Don’t be shocked if the Bearcats give Wichita State a run for its money at the top of the standings. For now, Cronin and his fellow AAC coaches are just happy to have the Shockers join the league.
“We need anything to help our profile,” Cronin said. “Wichita State does have the respect. Cincinnati and UConn have the names because of our history and past. Wichita State, because of its run to the Final Four, people know who they are. That’s just how it is.
“But we have another team that’s just as perennial in SMU. The future is bright in our league.”
BACK TO MEMPHIS
The AAC announced on Monday that its conference championship tournament will return to FedExForum in Memphis in 2019. The city hosted the inaugural league tournament in 2014.
The 2018 AAC tournament will be held at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida for the second time in three years. The tournament has also been held in Hartford twice (2015, 2017). The sites for the 2020-22 AAC tournaments will be announced in upcoming weeks, according to the league.
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