Wichita State Shockers

American Athletic basketball’s spring outlook puts Wichita State on top

Central Florida center Tacko Fall towers over Cincinnati’s Gary Clark during a game in February. Fall will be back at UCF after testing the NBA waters this spring.
Central Florida center Tacko Fall towers over Cincinnati’s Gary Clark during a game in February. Fall will be back at UCF after testing the NBA waters this spring. AP

The NBA Draft deadline passed with the American Athletic Conference getting a split.

SMU lost AAC Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye, who kept his name in the draft and is projected to go early in the second round. Central Florida center Tacko Fall, the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, elected to return to school.

Wichita State’s Markis McDuffie and Shaq Morris also withdrew their names and will return to school.

That makes it time to look at American rosters for 2017-18, with the warning that things can change during the summer with transfers and open scholarships altering a roster.

ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi projects three American teams in his NCAA Tournament bracket. He sees Wichita State as a No. 3 seed, Cincinnati a No. 4 and SMU a No. 5.

The American would take that — it placed a mere two teams in the field in 2015 and 2017. It will hope the Central Florida, coming off an NIT semifinal berth, and Temple, with a strong recruiting class, can add to that number.

Those seeding projections are also encouraging. An American team hasn’t advanced past the first weekend of the NCAAs since 2014.

Central Florida

(24-12, 11-7), NIT

Coach: Johnny Dawkins (2nd season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 64-219-258

Key losses: The Knights lost seniors G Matt Williams, F Nick Banyard (who played one season at Illinois State) and G Tank Efianayi. Williams started 36 games and averaged 15.1 points.

Key returners: C Tacko Fall, the American’s Defensive Player of the Year, withdrew from the NBA Draft and the Knights can continue thinking about improvement. Fall averaged 10.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. Leading scorer G B.J. Taylor averaged 17.4 points.

Key newcomers: The Knights add four transfers who sat out 2016-17, including guard Dayon Griffin, who averaged 11.3 points at Louisiana Tech as a sophomore. Aubrey Dawkins, Johnny’s son, started nine games at Michigan as a sophomore.

What to expect: Central Florida led the American in field goal defense by holding opponents to 35.6 percent shooting. While the Knights played a patient tempo, turnovers hurt them. They averaged turnovers on 22 percent of their possessions. Taylor runs the team and is a good passer, driver and defender.

Cincinnati

(30-6, 16-2), NCAA Tournament

Coach: Mick Cronin (11th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 12-55-36

Key losses: G Troy Caupain, a second-team All-AAC pick, averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 assists. He led the American in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.4. G Kevin Johnson started all 36 games and averaged 7.9 points and 1.2 steals.

Key returners: F Kyle Washington, second-team All-AAC, averaged 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds. He does most of his damage with his left hand and employs a dangerous lefty hook. F Gary Clark led the Bearcats with an average of 7.9 rebounds. G Jacob Evans made 41.8 percent of his threes and averaged 13.5 points. G Jarron Cumberland shared the AAC’s Sixth Man honor and was named to the All-Rookie team.

Key newcomers: G Cane Broome is expected to boost an experienced team with high expectations. Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart, was the Northeast Conference Player of the Year in 2016. He averaged 23.1 points and 4.9 rebounds. F Mamoudou Diarra signed with Washington before changing after a coaching change. He chose Cincinnati after also considering Connecticut.

What to expect: The Bearcats are the AAC’s longest-running bully, with seven straight NCAA appearances to their credit. They play a tough, physical style, dominate with defense and aren’t afraid to yap at opponents. If Wichita State wants to perform as the AAC’s best defensive unit, this is the opponent who wears that crown. Mark games with the Bearcats as appointment viewing.

Connecticut

(16-17, 9-9)

Coach: Kevin Ollie (6th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 121-33-82

Key losses: G Rodney Purvis averaged 13.8 points. F Vance Jackson transferred after his freshman season in which he started 21 games and averaged 8.1 points.

Key returners: G Jalen Adams, an All-AAC pick as a sophomore, averaged 14.4 points and 6 assists. Injuries played a large role in UConn’s disappointing season. F Terry Larrier, G Alterique Gilbert and F Mamadou Diarra missed all or most of the season. All three are expected to play in 2017-18.

Key newcomers: Ollie is bringing in five newcomers to replace losses by graduation and transfer. G Antwoine Anderson, a graduate transfer, averaged 11.1 points at Fordham as a junior. F Eric Cobb averaged 10.9 points and 8.2 rebounds at Chipola (Fla.) College. He played in 24 games at South Carolina as a freshman.

What to expect: The Huskies are trying to rebound from their first losing season since 1987. Three front-court players transferred and a top recruit backed out of his commitment and switched to Providence.

East Carolina

(15-18, 6-12)

Coach: Jeff Lebo (8th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 214-220-220

Key losses: G Caleb White averaged 11.8 points and made 35.5 percent of his three-pointers. C Andre Washington led the American with an average of 2.9 blocks, ranking sixth nationally.

Key returners: G Kentrell Barkley led the Pirates with an average of 13.2 points. He shot 188 foul shots (making 128), 73 more than anyone else on the team. G Jeremy Sheppard earned a spot on the AAC’s All-Rookie team after starting 13 games and averaging 9.2 points. He led the Pirates with averages of 3.5 assists and 1.1 steals.

Key newcomers: G Isaac Fleming averaged 9.5 points and 2.8 rebounds in two seasons at Hawaii. He scored 17 points, making 7 of 9 shots, for Hawaii in a 2014 overtime loss to WSU in the Diamond Head Classic.

What to expect: ECU ranked last in the American in scoring (63.3 points), shooting (39.8 percent) and foul shooting (65.7 percent). Lebo underwent hip surgery in January and missed the season’s final 14 games.

Houston

(21-11, 12-6), NIT

Coach: Kelvin Sampson (4th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 62-90-242

Key losses: G Damyean Dotson, an All-AAC selection, averaged 17.4 points and 6.9 rebounds.

Key returners: G Rob Gray led the conference in scoring at 20.6 points to earn all-conference honors. He made 47.3 percent of his shots (38.2 percent behind the arc) and 81.3 percent of his foul shots. G Galen Robinson averaged 4.8 assists, second in the AAC.

Key newcomers: Three Rivers Community College F Gabe Grant, who considered Wichita State, averaged 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. C Breaon Brady, from Saddleback (Calif.) Community College, averaged 12.2 points and 6.8 rebounds.

What to expect: Sampson is one of the American’s top coaches and he has the program moving in the right direction. All that is missing is a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars are smart and unselfish with ball – their rate of turnovers on 14.9 percent of their possessions ranks No. 7 nationally, according to kenpom.com. They are also well-school on defense, good at communicating and working as a unit.

Memphis

(19-13, 9-9)

Coach: Tubby Smith (2nd season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 119-140-89

Key losses: All-AAC F Dedric Lawson and F K.J. Lawson, the AAC’s Rookie of the Year, took their brother act to Kansas. Six Tigers, in all, transferred and set off a stressful spring for fans and Smith. Also gone is G Markel Crawford, who averaged 12.8 points.

Key returners: G Jeremiah Martin averaged 10.3 points, 4.4 assists and 1.8 steals. F Jimario Rivers started 19 games and averaged 6.4 points.

Key newcomers: Smith brought in seven new faces and 247Sports ranks the class as the American’s best incoming group. Freshman G Jamal Johnson is ranked No. 106 nationally by Rivals.com. F Kyvon Davenport (Georgia Highlands College) and G Kareem Brewton (Eastern Florida State College) earned NJCAA All-America honors.

What to expect: The turnovers means the Tigers are unpredictable. Last season’s team played at one of the fastest tempos in the AAC and shot poorly. This should be one of the AAC’s premier programs. It last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2014.

South Florida

(7-23, 1-17)

Coach: Brian Gregory (1st season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 317-230-277

Key losses: Six players transferred out after the departure of former coach Orlando Antigua and a miserable season. G Geno Thorpe averaged 15.1 points and 4.6 assists. C Ruben Guerrero averaged 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.

Key returners: F Tulio Da Silva and G Tory Holston are the only returners who started a game last season. Da Silva averaged 9.8 points and a team-leading 6.8 rebounds. Holston averaged 9.7 points

Key newcomers: G Stephan Jiggetts averaged 13 points and earned All-Northeast Conference honors at Fairleigh Dickinson. F Payton Banks, also a graduate transfer, started 44 games over three seasons at Penn State. He averaged 10.4 points last season. G Terrence Samuel played two seasons at Connecticut and one at Penn State before landing at USF as a graduate transfer.

What to expect: Gregory, who coached eight seasons at Dayton and five at Georgia Tech, takes over a major project. He is leaning on transfers to rebuild the roster and wants to make local recruiting a priority.

SMU

(30-5, 17-1), NCAA Tournament

Coach: Tim Jankovich (2nd season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 16-14-18

Key losses: F Semi Ojeleye, the American Player of the Year, stayed in the NBA Draft. F Ben Moore and G Sterling Brown earned second-team All-AAC honors. Brown made 44.9 percent of his three-pointers to lead the American.

Key returners: G Shake Milton averaged 13 points and 4.5 assists. G Jarrey Foster averaged 9.9 points and made 44.4 percent of his threes.

Key newcomers: G Jahmal McMurray, a transfer from South Florida, is eligible in December. He is from Topeka and played one season at Sunrise Christian Academy. McMurray averaged 15.2 points as a freshman at South Florida. G Jimmy Whitt sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas. He started 10 games as a freshman at Arkansas and averaged 6.1 points. The Mustangs bring in four freshmen, including G Elijah Landrum, who averaged 27.9 points and 7.9 rebounds at Tulsa Central.

What to expect: The Mustangs face a rebuild after losing three starters from a team that went seven deep. Milton and Foster are good shooters who will take on larger roles. Last season’s team played an unselfish style of offense, relying on high ball screens and drive-and-kick motions. SMU led the AAC in shooting (47.2 percent) and three-point shooting (40.6). It’s tough scoring against a roster of rangy athletes and Jankovich maximizes their skills by playing full-court man defense and switching screens. Moody Coliseum can be a tough place to play and don’t be surprised to see a former president sitting courtside.

Temple

(16-16, 7-11)

Coach: Fran Dunphy (12th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 134-69-33

Key losses: F Daniel Dingle averaged 12.8 points and played 35.6 minutes.

Key returners: G Shizz Alston, Jr. averaged 13.9 points and led the AAC by making 86.8 percent of his foul shots. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.7 ranked second in the conference. G Quinton Rose averaged 10.1 points and earned a spot on the AAC’s All-Rookie team. F Obi Enechionyia averaged 13.1 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Key newcomers: The Owls signed four freshmen, led by G Nate Pierre-Louis, who is ranked No. 146 nationally by Rivals.com.

What to expect: The Owls were the American’s mystery team last season, defeating West Virginia and Florida State before slumping in conference play. They shot 807 threes, most in the AAC.

Tulane

(6-25, 3-15)

Coach: Mike Dunleavy (2nd season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 292-232-214

Key losses: G Malik Morgan and C Ryan Smith started every game as seniors. G Kain Harris transferred after averaging 9.1 points off the bench.

Key returners: G Cameron Reynolds earned American Most Improved Player of the Year honors after averaging 17 points and 6.8 rebounds. G Melvin Frazier led the American with an average of 1.9 steals.

Key newcomers: G Jordan Cornish started seven games at UNLV and averaged 6.2 points in 2015-16. As a freshman, he made 38 of 78 three-pointers (48.7 percent). F Samir Sehic transferred from Vanderbilt, where he played in 22 games in 2015-16 as a freshman.

What to expect: Loyola flashback. The Green Wave plays in 3,600-seat Fogelman Arena and attracted average crowds of 1,398.

Tulsa

(15-17, 8-10)

Coach: Frank Haith (4th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 140-70-50

Key losses: G Pat Birt averaged 8.8 points and led the Hurricane with 38 steals.

Key returners: The Hurricane return five of their top six scorers, led by F Junior Etou, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds and made 42.7 percent of his threes. G Jaleel Wheeler, who did not play in last season’s loss to Wichita State, averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds. Former Shocker G Corey Henderson started four games and averaged 8.7 points.

Key newcomers: G Curran Scott started 18 games as a freshman at Charlotte in 2015-16. He averaged 10.5 points and made 42.9 percent of his threes. F DaQuan Jeffries, who spent his freshman season at Oral Roberts, averaged 15.2 points and 7.6 rebounds at Western Texas College last season.

What to expect: Tulsa should make a jump with so much experience returning. That opens the possibility to play a more free-flowing offense and run fewer plays, similar to how the 2016 NCAA Tournament team played. Keeping Etou out of foul trouble is key. G Sterling Taplin, who runs the offense, can afford to play more aggressively. Keep an eye on C Martins Igbanu, who started the final 13 games and averaged 9.4 points in that stretch.

Wichita State

(31-5, 17-1 MVC), NCAA

Coach: Gregg Marshall (11th season)

RPI rank in 2017, 2016, 2015: 29-41-12

Key losses: G Daishon Smith started 12 games and averaged 4.8 points. He transferred (still no word on the destination) after his playing time dropped during Missouri Valley Conference play.

Key returners: Everybody. G Landry Shamet grabbed the point guard duties and will be one of the nation’s top returning players. F Markis McDuffie worked out with four NBA teams before pulling his name from the draft list. C Shaq Morris, F Zach Brown and G Conner Frankamp complete the starting unit that will take the Shockers into the American.

Key newcomers: G Samajae Haynes-Jones needs to replace some of Smith’s production or else the backcourt looks thin. There is no hurry on C Asbjorn Midtgaard, a freshman from Denmark.

What to expect: Spring rankings by national media outlets put the Shockers in the top 10-15, some in the top 5. Wichita State enters the American as the favorite. It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati and SMU view the attention given to the new guy.

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop

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