SMU has won two of the last three American Athletic Conference men’s basketball titles, but does that mean the Mustangs are a lock to earn the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament in 2017-18?
Not at all.
They’ll have to replace the production of former standouts Semi Ojeleye (19 ppg, 6.9 rpg), now with the Boston Celtics, and Sterling Brown, now with the Milwaukee Bucks. With lights-out shooter Shake Milton still in the fold, SMU will definitely be in the mix. However, the Mustangs should expect stiff competition in the form of Big Dance frequenters Cincinnati and Wichita State, both who are fielding formidable squads this season. There’ll also several less heralded squads looking to crash the party and shake things up in the The American.
MORE: College basketball’s biggest non-conference games for 2017-18
Before the season tips, Sporting News will take a look at the favorites to win the league, sleepers, MVP candidates and at least one coach whose job might not be so safe.
American Athletic Conference predictions
1. Wichita State
Champion: Wichita State
The Shockers have shook up the college basketball world before. Who doesn’t remember their historic run to the Final Four in 2013, when they were narrowly eliminated by eventual champoin Louisville in the national semifinals. A longtime giant among mid-major programs as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference since 1945, Wichita State is set to play its first season in the American. With Gregg Marshall, his .744 career winning percentage and $3.3 annual salary, the Shockers have the kind of pedigree that will make them a contender from Day 1. Ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll, Wichita State returns all five starters from a team that won 31 games last season. The Shockers will depend on a balanced roster, anchor by junior Markis McDuffie (11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and sophomore Landry Shamet (11.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) to guide them. One thing’s for certain, they’ll be more than up for the challenge.
X-Factor: Houston’s supporting cast
Last season, the Cougars won 20-plus games for the second-straight season in a row under coach Kelvin Sampson. But that success came with former forward Damyean Dotson (17.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) combining with guard Robert Gray (20.6 ppg) to account for more than 50 percent of the Houston’s scoring output. With Dotson gone to the NBA, opposing defenses will be able to focus the brunt of their defensive efforts on bottling up Gray. It’ll be on the likes of seniors Devin Davis (8.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Wes VanBeck (7.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.6 apg) and junior Galen Robinson Jr. (6.5 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.3 rpg) to step up and fill the void if Houston wants to be anything better than a middle-of the-pack team and take their program back to NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2009-2010 season.
The Knights logged their best record in more than 35 years, going 24-12 in their first season under coach Johnny Dawkins last year. The mark also included an 11-7 record in the American, their first winning campaign in the league since its inception four years ago. Now, with B.J Taylor, the league’s fifth-leading scorer at 17.4 ppg in 2016-17 and 7-5 center Tacko Fall, second in the league in rebounds (9.6) and third in blocks (2.5), returning UCF will have its eyes on the big prize.
Three biggest regular season-games
1. Cincinnati at Memphis, Dec. 31: The coaches and the names on the backs of the jerseys change, but this is one of college basketball’s most underrated rivalries. Its history dates back to both teams’ time in Conference USA. A New Year’s Eve showdown between the Bearcats and Tigers isn’t a bad way jump off the conference slate and head into 2018.
2. SMU at UConn, Jan. 25: A trip from Dallas to Storrs, Conn. in the dead of winter for its lone meeting against the Huskies will be an opportunity for second-year Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich to see if his squad is contender or pretender. For the UConn, the matchup will come up after a meeting with Big East power Villanova and precede back-to-back road games Temple and UCF.
3. Wichita State at UCF, March 1: Consider this late-season matchup between two of the American’s preseason favorites the unofficial beginning of March Madness. There will likely be plenty on the line when the Shockers and Knights get it on during the last week of conference play. It’s no wonder the matchup is slotted to air in ESPN’s primetime slot.
Player of the Year hopefuls
Shake Milton, G, SMU: The 6-6 guard averaged 13 points per game while shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point range, the seventh best clip in the league in 2016-17 while playing alongside a pair of eventual NBA Draft picks. Expect even bigger numbers this season.
B.J. Taylor, G, Central Florida: Taylor went from standout to stud from his freshman to sophomore seasons with significant upticks in field-goal percentage (37.4 to 41.4) and rebounding (3.0 to 4.0). He also played 36.4 minutes per game. He may never leave the floor in 2017-18.
Rob Gray, G, Houston: Gray led the American in scoring as a sophomore and junior. Don’t expect that to change his senior year as he’ll be expected to carry even more of the load for the Cougars, especially early on.
Coach on the hot seat: Jeff Lebo, ECU
Lebo came to ECU in 2010, following a six-year stint at Auburn. In his first four seasons in Greenville, N.C., he went a combined 73-61, including 23-12 mark in 2012-13 when the Pirates won the CIT. Since, he’s posted three-straight losing seasons, going 16-38 in the American.
Stat that matters
Cincinnati reached the NCAA tournament for the seventh season in a row last year, making it one of just eight schools ever to have done so.