As Wichita State prepares for its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference, it’s a good time to start prepping for the new opponents.
Gone are the road trips to little towns across the Midwest. They’ve been replaced with trips to New Orleans, Memphis, Philadelphia, Orlando, and Dallas. There’s no question the American is a step-up for the Shockers, as they will have to up their consistency if they plan on competing for a conference title.
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Here are five things in five categories to know in the American before No. 8 WSU begins conference play this Saturday at Connecticut.
5 teams to know
1. Cincinnati Bearcats (11-2)
According to KenPom.com, a website that tracks advanced college basketball statistics, Cincinnati has the same chance to win a share of the AAC title as Wichita State — 45 percent. The Bearcats have a pair of top-100 KenPom victories, and have moved up one spot from their preseason ranking on KenPom to No. 10. Cincinnati’s identity is one that Gregg Marshall would adore — defense and rebounding. The Bearcats have the nation’s fifth-most efficient defense, as they force a lot of turnovers and bad shots. They are also one of the best rebounding teams in the country, ranking 10th nationally in tracking down their own misses (nearly 38 percent). They appear to be the most equipped team to knock off WSU in its inaugural season.
2. SMU Mustangs (10-3)
SMU plays at one of the slowest paces in the country, ranking in the bottom-50 of the country in KenPom’s Adjusted Pace. But the Mustangs are the only other team outside of WSU to own a top-30 offense and defense. The Mustangs excel at finding great shots (31st in effective field goal percentage) and then rebounding the ones they do miss (31st in OR%). On defense, SMU forces a lot of turnovers (20th in the country). SMU went 3-3 against KenPom Top-100 teams, including a win over No. 14 Arizona.
3. Houston Cougars (10-2)
Houston may have the best player in the conference in 6-foot-1 guard Rob Gray, who is leading the conference in scoring at 20.7 points and shooting nearly 42 percent from beyond the arc. That’s going to give them a chance in every game, as their offense is operating at a high level. The Cougars’ offense ranks 31st on KenPom, thanks to 56-percent effective field goal percentage and tracking down nearly 36 percent of their own misses. They also are shooting nearly 42 percent as a team from beyond the arc, the 11th-best accuracy in the country. Houston went 3-1 against KenPom Top-100 competition with a win over No. 25 Arkansas.
4. Temple Owls (7-4)
Temple scheduled the most aggressively of any team in the conference, playing seven KenPom Top-100 opponents. The Owls fared well against that competition, finishing 5-2 and owning a win over No. 22 Clemson, but is weighed down by a pair of sub-100 losses to No. 141 La Salle and No. 158 George Washington. The Owls force their opponents to work through their options, as opponents are taking nearly 19 seconds to find a shot (fifth-slowest time in the country). Temple’s biggest concern entering conference play will be rebounding, as it ranks dead-last in conference in offensive rebound and preventing offensive rebounds.
5. Central Florida Knights (9-3)
There’s one reason why the Knights are included in this five: their defense. Central Florida played six KenPom Top-100 teams and came out with the 14th-most efficient defense in the country. Why? Because it has a 7-foot-6 monster patrolling the lane in Tacko Fall. He has single-handedly put UCF in the top-50 of block percentage, which has led to opponents shooting less than 40 percent on two-pointers for the third-best two-point defense in the country. Opponents are simply struggling to score against the Knights, which has masked their own deficiencies on the offensive end. UCF isn’t shooting very well and turns the ball over too much, which has led to its offense being ranked 228th in efficiency.
5 players to know
1. Rob Gray, Houston
Gray, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, is the conference’s leading scorer at 20.7 points per game, canning nearly two three-pointers per game on 41.7 percent accuracy. His KenPom offensive rating of 128.1 ranks him in the top-100 in the country.
2. Gary Clark, Cincinnati
Clark is a 6-8 senior forward who averages 12.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. Those numbers may not seem gaudy, but consider Clark’s offensive rating is 128.5 and that ranks top-100 nationally. He’s also one of the best rebounders in the country, ranking top-50 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.
3. Shake Milton, SMU
Milton, a 6-6 junior guard, was the preseason pick to be the AAC Player of the Year. So far he’s averaging 17.2 points and 4.8 assists, and connecting on 2.5 three-pointers per game on 39-percent accuracy. His assist rate of 25 percent ranks in the top-250 nationally.
4. Tacko Fall, Central Florida
He’s 7-6 and that gives him an obvious advantage. He ranks top-50 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, 37th in the country in block percentage, and sixth in the country in two-point field goal percentage (he’s shooting 78 percent). Also, UCF ranks third in the country in two-point defense with opponents shooting less than 40 percent.
5. Junior Etou, Tulsa
Etou is the fourth-leading scorer in the conference at 18.1 points per game on 56-percent shooting and adds 6.4 rebounds. He’s an extremely efficient scorer, ranking 117th in the country in effective field goal percentage. He also is an expert at drawing fouls, as he has the 11th-best foul rate in the country.
5 coaches to know
1. Mick Cronin, Cincinnati
Cincinnati has taken on the demeanor of its fiery leader on the sidelines. Cronin has made headlines for a spat with crosstown rival Xavier, but the Cincinnati native has returned the Bearcats to national prominence. Since 2010, Cincinnati has won 72 percent of its games under Cronin. Cronin has led Cincinnati to seven straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 run in 2012, and a total of five victories in the tournament. In 12 seasons, Cronin is 248-137 for a 64-percent winning percentage.
2. Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Sampson is better known for his time at Oklahoma, a 12-year run where he won 72 percent of his games and led the Sooners to a Final Four run in 2002 and an Elite Eight in 2003, and a brief stint at Indiana, where he won 43 games in two years but was forced to resign due to serious NCAA violations. After a six-year hiatus, Sampson returned to the sidelines at Houston in 2015 and has compiled a 60-41 record in three-plus seasons. Houston is pushing for its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Sampson after making the NIT the last two seasons.
3. Fran Dunphy, Temple
Dunphy, a Pennsylvania native, is a Philadelphia legend. He’s spent his entire career in Philly, as he coached at Penn for 17 seasons and made the NCAA Tournament nine times, then took over Temple for John Chaney in 2006 and has led the Owls to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 11 seasons. Temple has won 63 percent of its game under Dunphy and has only had one losing season in the last decade.
4. Tubby Smith, Memphis
Smith is best known for his time at Kentucky from 1997-07, where he won the NCAA championship in 1998 and led the Wildcats to three Elite Eight appearances. Since, Smith had a somewhat successful stint at Minnesota, where he won 61 percent of his games in six seasons and made the NCAA Tournament three times, and lasted three seasons at Texas Tech from 2013-16. He was hired at Memphis last season and led the Tigers to a 19-13 record.
5. Tim Jankovich, SMU
Jankovich should be a familiar name for Kansans, as he played for Kansas State from 1979-82 and was an assistant coach at K-State, Hutchinson Community College, and KU. He was also a former Valley foe for the Shockers when he was the coach at Illinois State from 2007-12 and won 62 percent of his games. Last season was Jankovich’s first full season at SMU, as he guided the Mustangs to 30 wins and a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed.
5 units to know
1. Cincinnati’s defense
The Bearcats own the fifth-most efficient defense in the country, per KenPom. They hold teams to 44-percent eFG%, the 17th-best mark, force a lot of turnovers (the 13th-most), and keep opponents off the offensive glass and the free-throw line. Cincinnati holds opponents to 39-percent two-point shooting, the second-best mark in the country, and blocks shots (eighth) and steals (12th) at top-15 rates. There’s no questioning that Cincinnati has the best defense in the AAC entering conference play.
2. SMU’s offense
SMU operates at the 23rd-most efficient level, according to KenPom, in large part because it’s making more than 43 percent of its three-pointers. Even though the Mustangs aren’t attempting a ton of threes, the high percentage has propped up SMU’s offense. Despite SMU playing at a bottom-50 pace, its offense has been super efficient because of the accurate shooting from the perimeter and the team’s ability to track down their misses (SMU ranks 31st in offensive rebounding percentage).
3. Central Florida’s defense
UCF is off to a 9-3 start despite a below-average offense, thanks to a defense that ranks No. 14 by KenPom’s metrics. That’s in large part due to its 7-6 center, Tacko Fall, who patrols the lane and deters opponents from scoring near the rim. Opponents are shooting less than 40 percent on two-pointers, which ranks third in the nation, and the Knights do a good job of sucking up defensive rebounds and keeping opponents off the glass. UCF is holding opponents to 0.90 points per possessions, a top-30 mark in the country.
4. Houston’s offense
Houston has the 31st-most efficient offense, per KenPom, propped up by nearly 42-percent three-point shooting. Even though the Cougars take fewer threes than the NCAA average, the high shooting percentage has helped the offense churn out 1.12 points per possession and shoot 56 percent on eFG% (a top-40 mark). Houston also crashes the glass extremely well, pulling down nearly 36 percent of its misses for a top-30 mark.
5. Temple’s offense
Temple has faced the toughest schedule of any team in the AAC and has come through with the 52nd-rated offense by KenPom’s metrics. The Owls don’t shoot extremely well and they’re a well below-average rebounding team, but they rarely turn the ball over and shoot a decent percentage (nearly 52 percent eFG%) to pump out 1.04 points per possession.
5 sharpshooters to know
1. Ben Emelogu, SMU
It’s hard to argue Emelogu, a 6-5 senior guard, is the best sharpshooter in the conference. He’s making nearly three three-pointers per game and is shooting an outrageous 62.5 percent from beyond the arc.
2. Armoni Brooks, Houston
Brooks, a 6-3 sophomore guard, is tied for the third-most three-pointers in the AAC right now with 2.5 per contest and is tied with WSU’s Landry Shamet for the second-best accuracy from beyond the arc at 50 percent.
3. Cameron Reynolds, Tulane
Reynolds, a 6-8 senior forward, is making better than two three-pointers per game and shooting nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc.
4. Shizz Alston, Temple
Alston, a 6-4 junior guard, is making 2.3 three-pointers per game and is shooting nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc.
5. Corey Davis, Houston
Davis, a 6-1 junior guard, is shooting nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc and is drilling 2.3 three-pointers per game.