Today officially marks the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. College basketball teams embark on their five-month-long journey to hopefully punch their ticket into the most exciting tournament in sports. Fans, coaches and players alike all put on their team’s colors and emotionally invest themselves in one of the least predictable spectacles in sports. So here I am, predicting who will be the contenders to win the American Athletic Conference.
Wichita State: The Wichita State Shockers are going to have the best shot at running away with the conference, without looking back, on their way into the tournament come March.
The Shockers are going to have the privilege of having pretty much any player you can name from last season (in which they went 31-5) return to play this year.
On top of boasting a roster deeper than the Mariana Trench, AAC Player of the Year candidate Landry Shamet and versatile two-way wing Markis McDuffie add the star power necessary to take them not only to the top of the American, but also deep into March.
Shamet, a sophomore point guard, will be the Shockers’ most important player this season. After averaging 11.4 points and 3.3 assists per game last season, Shamet will have total control of the offense. Those stats don’t sound like much to brag about, but when you consider it came along with a 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting 44 percent from deep on 72 makes (about two per game), you realize efficiency is the defining quality of Shamet’s game.
Junior forward McDuffie will also play a major role in Wichita State’s success. As the team’s leading scorer (11.5 ppg) and rebounder (5.7 rpg) last season, the Shockers will look to him to contribute from the wing. McDuffie’s versatility to switch onto nearly anybody in college basketball will also help them on the defensive end.
Head coach Gregg Marshall is no stranger to the top of the conference standings. He has finished first or second in the Missouri Valley Conference every season since 2009-10, including four straight bids at first place.
Marshall also has valuable tournament experience, as he’s taken the Shockers to the NCAA Tournament each of the past six seasons, including one Final Four. Marshall and the Shockers’ winning ways shouldn’t change in the American.
Cincinnati: Besides Wichita State, the Bearcats have the next-best chance to win the conference. In fact, they actually beat out the Shockers in the Coaches’ Poll, securing 116 points to Wichita State’s 115.
Even with Troy Caupain gone, Cincinnati boasts a deadly big three with junior guard Jacob Evans and senior forwards Gary Clark and Kyle Washington. The three of them were the Bearcats’ three leading scorers last season, all with over 10 points per game. Last year’s AAC co-sixth man of the year Jarron Cumberland and four-star sharpshooting recruit Keith Williams will also look to make contributions.
Evans will be relied on to be a team leader and the x-factor. After leading the team with 13.5 ppg last season, he found a way to turn it up a notch in the AAC Championship. Evans scored 17.0 ppg on 57.1 percent shooting and was eight of 10 from three-point-land through the three games. Evans was named to the American Championship All-Tournament Team.
However, the most important name in Cincinnati basketball still remains Mick Cronin. Entering his 12th season as the Bearcats’ head coach, Cronin will be going for his eighth straight NCAA Tournament trip. Though Cronin has only taken Cincinnati to the Sweet Sixteen once, this could be their year to make a deep run because it is arguably the most talented squad he’s ever had.
SMU: Third year (second full season) head coach Tim Jankovich may not have as impressive of a resume as Marshall or Cronin. Nor does he have the privilege of returning most of last season’s impact players like the aforementioned teams. In fact, SMU will only be returning three players from last year’s squad. What the Mustangs DO have is Shake Milton, and he ain’t shook
Junior guard Malik “Shake” Milton was voted the American Preseason Player of the Year by the coaches, and with good reason. Milton averaged 13.0 points, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game last season while shooting 42.3 percent from deep. Along with great court vision and a sweet shooting stroke, Milton seems to crave contact when driving and finishing around the basket. If there’s one individual player to watch in the American this season, it’s got to be Shake.
The Mustangs are going to be without last season’s AAC Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye, along with key contributors Sterling Brown and Ben Moore. But the players they have added aren’t scrubs. Transfers Jimmy Whitt from Arkansas and Akoy Agau from Georgetown will be able to contribute quality minutes. The two returners besides Milton, junior guards Jarrey Foster and Ben Emelogu II, will take some of the ball handling and scoring responsibilities off Milton’s shoulders.
There’s bad news and there’s good news for SMU fans. The bad news is, this SMU team will only go as far as Shake takes them. The good news is, Shake looks like he can take them pretty far.
Sean Janos is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.