Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State fans, get to know your new AAC neighbors

Jonathan, the Husky, is the official live mascot of the UConn Huskies.
Jonathan, the Husky, is the official live mascot of the UConn Huskies. Associated Press

We asked someone from each American Athletic Conference member to introduce their school to Wichita State fans. Some are students, some are bloggers, others are fans. A look at the folks who Shocker fans will now call rivals.

East Carolina, by Josh Graham, sports director at Inner Banks Media

East Carolina has gained much of its fame in football and as a result, in a state known for its college basketball, the atmosphere around Greenville, N.C., on Saturdays in the fall has been often compared to SEC environments.

The Pirates do not have much basketball tradition and haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993. Coach Jeff Lebo, who was a standout for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the 1980s, arrived in 2010 and ended a streak of losing seasons that spanned over a decade in his first season.

ECU left Conference USA for the American Athletic Conference in 2014, a little over a year after the men’s basketball program won its first postseason tournament in the CIT.

This is enough information to sound bright when talking about ECU to your friends, but just remember, it’s East Carolina. Not Eastern Carolina.

SMU, by Patrick Engel, SMU Daily Campus

Despite the name, it’s not actually heavily Methodist.

Among SMU students who stated a religious preference, 16 percent identify as Methodist. Catholics, meanwhile, account for 25 percent of SMU students who say they are religious. SMU is owned by the United Methodist Church, but the affiliation stops there. The school requires no religion classes for students.

It also strikes you as a place that wouldn’t care much for basketball. For a while, it didn’t.

SMU went 22 years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. It’s also in Texas, where football reigns supreme. Even so, this is a school where the football pregame tailgate – known as The Boulevard – is the highlight of game day, rather than the game itself.

But SMU basketball just completed most successful four-year stretch in program history. The Mustangs won at least 25 games in four straight seasons and are one of 14 teams to be ranked in the AP Top 25 in each of the last four years. They drew at least 100,000 fans to Moody Coliseum in each of those seasons. In 2016-17, SMU won a program-best 30 games.

SMU basketball even has a few Kansas connections. Coach Tim Jankovich grew up in Kansas and played for Kansas State. Semi Ojeleye, the team’s leading scorer last season, is an Ottawa native. SMU associate head coach K.T. Turner was an assistant on Wichita State’s 2013 Final Four team. Jahmal McMurray, a transfer guard who will begin his SMU career in December, once starred for Topeka’s Highland Park.

The next task for SMU is winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1988. The Mustangs came close in 2015 and 2017, but gave up the lead in the final minute each time.

South Florida, by Ryan T. Smith, The Daily Stampede

USF, by all measures, is still a youngster in the college sports world.

The university didn’t field NCAA teams until 1968, and the school started football in 1997.

With that said, it’s admirable how quickly the Bulls rocketed into relevance, boasting Top 25-caliber programs in football, baseball, women’s basketball, softball, men’s soccer, golf, and tennis. USF did well to earn an invitation to the Big East in 2005. When the conference imploded, USF, Cincinnati and UConn, failed to find a home in a power conference.

This originally gave the young Bulls fan base a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude in regards to the rest of the AAC, but they’ve largely accepted their new conference mates by this point.

That said, this is still a program that expects to compete at the highest level of college athletics, and administrators, fans and athletes would love a lifeline into a power conference again.

This is a football-first school, and there’s a limit on how successful the Bulls can be at football when they’re in the AAC. Still, they’ve done well for themselves: USF went 11-2 and finished 19th in the nation in 2016, and under new coach Charlie Strong, they’re a good bet to start next season in the Top 25.

The Bulls’ rapid rise in football created some odd juxtapositions within the athletic department, including fans that considered the program worthy of a rivalry with one of the “Big Three” Florida schools (Florida, Florida State, Miami) but had to settle for Central Florida (which only made that rivalry even more bitter — it’s not a pretty one).

The Bulls’ men’s basketball team is horrendous. The program has strung together consecutive 20-loss seasons and have only won two NCAA Tournament games. There’s hope that the program might be able to show some life under new coach and ex-Georgia Tech head man Brian Gregory, but any progress probably won’t be evident for a few seasons.  

Central Florida, by Chas Short, Underdog Dynasty

UCF is huge, young, and boasts athletic programs on the rise.

If you’ve ever watched a Knights broadcast, you have no doubt heard that UCF is one of the largest universities in the country – around 64,000 students. Enrollment surged from 33,453 in 2000 to 64,335 by this past fall. It’s no surprise that the UCF alumni base and fan base skews toward the young side.

In terms of fan passion, UCF is a football-first school. But with Johnny Dawkins’s success in his first year as coach, enthusiasm for the men’s basketball team is on the rise. The Knights had their best season in school history this past year, going 24-12 (11-7 AAC) and advancing to the final four of the NIT (UCF had never previously won a game in either the NIT or the NCAA Division I tournament).

You only have to go a few more years back to find UCF’s greatest gridiron achievements. In 2013, the Knights went undefeated in the AAC to win the inaugural conference title. With an 11-1 record after the regular season, UCF went on to smash Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and become the youngest university to win a BCS bowl. The Knights finished the season ranked No. 10, the highest ranking in program history.

This is one of the great upsides to being a UCF fan: there’s a reasonable chance you could have personally watched the school’s most prominent sports milestones. No longing for bygone days over here. The peaks are in recent memories and there’s optimism that the zenith is yet to come.

Houston, by Jimmy Schofield, CoogFans.com

Located in downtown Houston’s famed Third Ward, the University of Houston was founded in 1927 and is home to more than 43,000 students.

It is the third largest in Texas, behind Texas A&M and the University of Texas.

The Cougar became the official school mascot in 1946. Student Joe Randol won a contest to name her and “Shasta” was born from the following submission: “Shasta (she has to). Shasta have a cage. Shasta have a keeper. Shasta have a winning ballclub. Shasta have the best.” A live Cougar lived on campus from 1947 through 1989. The Houston zoo now keeps a live Cougar as the mascot in partnership with UH.

The athletic programs are thriving in the American Athletic conference as the football program has been labeled one of the best “Group of Five” programs in America and the basketball program has won 20-plus games in the past two seasons under coach Kelvin Sampson.

Kerry Davidson (class of 1968) sums up what most alumni feel: “I love that we are not a blue blood like UT. We earned our way up the food chain with hard work and commitment, created a diverse student alumni body by opening doors to everyone in our great city. We persevere despite minimal state support while UT and A&M look down their noses at us with their coffers overflowing.”

Tulane, by JP Gooderham, Fear the Wave Blog

The Tulane Green Wave joined the American in 2014 after being targeted for its high academic standing, desirable location in New Orleans, and potential for growth.

Now with a new athletic director in place and hires in football, basketball, and baseball since 2016, the Green Wave is looking to rebuild its athletic program.

While the 2000s were generally a dark age for the program, Tulane fans have enjoyed spurts of success, from winning three SEC football titles in the early days (before voluntarily leaving the league out of academic concerns) to an undefeated football season in 1998.

While football and basketball struggled to get a foothold, Tulane baseball emerged as a favorite for fans, reaching Omaha twice and the NCAAs 10 times from 2000-2016. The prospect of Wichita State baseball, for this reason, has been a plus for Tulane fans who would like to see the surprisingly strong AAC league deepen even further with the Shockers.

In short, Tulane has a proud tradition behind its academics and New Orleans-influenced “good times” culture — complete with a Mardi Gras break for its student body — and now is investing the resources and time to re-energize the fan base and bring Green Wave athletics up to speed.  

Memphis, by Abigail Warren, Daily Helmsman

Memphis is a city that loves basketball.

Having said that, we still remember the John Calipari days/daze and have a high expectation of basketball to rise back to that level.

However, if in Memphis, be careful when you mention Coach Cal. Many Memphians still hold a grudge — not because he left. We hold that grudge because after he left the best season in the history of Memphis basketball (2007-08) was vacated and we all agree he knew about (NCAA violations).

The last three years have been tough as Memphis has seen no postseason play. To Memphis fans, that’s unacceptable.

Now Tubby Smith has just finished a year of coaching at Memphis. He walked into a mess and there has been a “learning curve” (Tubby’s words) this year.

Tulsa, by Damon Lewis, Inside Tulsa Sports

Tulsa’s recent success in basketball started with Coach Nolan Richardson and 1980-81 NIT championship.

Tulsa advanced to three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. Their last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2016, a 67-62 First Four loss to Michigan.

The graduation of eight players from that team turned 2016-17 into a rebuilding season.

Frank Haith has been TU’s coach since the 2014-15 season.

Most TU fans have a lot of respect to Wichita State and look forward to once again being conference rivals. Tulsa was in the Missouri Valley Conference from 1955-96.

Temple, by Evan Easterling, The Temple News

Temple cut five Division I sports in the 2013-14 academic year but has made improvements for the facilities for its remaining 18 sports.

The school opened a new sports complex in August, which resulted in increased attendance for the men’s soccer team that had previously played its home games at a campus in the suburbs.

The men’s basketball team reached the NCAA Tournament in the 2015-16 but finished .500 last season. The team will add four recruits with four-star ratings from ESPN.

The women’s basketball team reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and will add a Top 100 recruit next season.

Cincinnati, by J. Scott Sewell, Down the Drive

The Cincinnati Bearcats are no strangers to switching conferences. They’ve been a member of five different conferences since 1990, and are likely headed for a sixth in the not so distant future. 

The AP recently released a list of the top college basketball teams, and ranked Cincinnati as the 10th-best team all-time.  That’s the highest ranking for a team outside of the power-five conferences. 

Cincinnati and Connecticut were the two highest-profile teams to be left on the outside when massive conference re-alignment began around 2010, and Cincinnati has been aggressively looking for a way back in. 

The Bearcats are in the midst of an identity change. They’ve been known as a bruising, brawling, defensive-minded program since the mid-’90s, but have recently become nearly as effective offensively as they are defensively. KenPom.com ranks them as the 14th-best defensive team in the country and 34th-best offensive team. They have even more offensive firepower on the way for the 2017-18 in transfer Cane Broome (2015-16 NEC Player of the Year), and freshmen Keith Williams and Trevor Moore. They’ll be joining a team that won 30 games and led the AAC in scoring in 2016-17.

UConn, by Aman Kidwai, The UConn Blog

UConn is definitely a basketball-first school, with so much success on the men’s (five Final Fours, titles in 1999, 2004, 2011, 2014) and women’s side, thanks to the trailblazing efforts of Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma.

The Big East years were the glory days and even the football team experienced moderate success in the conference after moving up to FBS in the early 2000s.

Conference realignment in the early part of this decade was extremely disappointing for Husky fans. UConn was most likely the school which suffered the most as a result of the restructuring.

Going from annual games with deeply entrenched regional rivals such as Syracuse, Pitt and Villanova to a wide range of less-prestigious schools from all over the country caused a drop in overall attendance, impacted recruiting in football and men’s basketball, and had massive financial ramifications.

Understandably, the most important thing for UConn and its fans is the discussion of if or when it can get into a power conference. There was a hope with the ACC when Maryland left, but they chose Louisville. There was the Big 12 flirtation this past year and even though it wasn’t an ideal fit, just about every UConn fan was all for it.

For a school that had a long run of success in a power conference, it is baffling to most that UConn isn’t in one already.

We also have an adorable live Husky dog mascot who is loved by the entire state, possibly the world.

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