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Bob Lutz: Shockers traveling far to make basketball history

Bob Lutz
December 29, 2017 - 3:17 pm

Wichita State, you’re probably aware, will play its first-ever American Athletic Conference game Saturday at 11 a.m. against Connecticut in Hartford.

WSU and UConn as conference rivals? Believe it. Embrace it.

After many decades as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, the Shockers are on to bigger and, we presume, better things.

What can WSU do for the American? Plenty, starting with raising the profile of the conference, which likes to think of itself as on par with any other conference, football and basketball.

The American probably isn’t quite there, yet, but acquiring Wichita State for basketball gives the American something to brag about.

What can the American do for Wichita State? Well, first off, perhaps the Shockers won’t be walking a tightrope into the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win their conference tournament, which was too often the case in the Valley.

The American is a deeper and significantly better basketball conference than the MVC with tradition-rich members like Cincinnati, UConn, Memphis, Temple and Houston and up-and-comers SMU, Central Florida and perhaps Tulane.

Wichita State’s national exposure will get a huge boost from playing in the American. Saturday’s game will be televised on CBS and all 18 conference games will be on either CBS, the CBS Sports Network or one of the ESPN channels.

If Landry Shamet and other Shockers have mostly been a secret to the nation so far, that’s about to change. WSU will undoubtedly play some of the most anticipated games in the country this season, including a pair with former Missouri Valley rival Cincinnati. The season finale, in fact, has Cincy visiting Wichita State for an 11 a.m. start on Sunday, March 4.

The American has had a solid non-conference season with, as expected, the Shockers and Cincinnati rising to the top. The Bearcats received the slightest edge to become the AAC’s preseason favorite, but it’s a toss-up.

SMU looks dangerous and so does Houston. Central Florida hasn’t been quite as good as expected, nor has Temple. Tulsa, Memphis, UConn, South Florida and East Carolina probably don’t have the goods to strongly push the contenders, although it’s never wise to take UConn lightly.

The surprise team in the AAC, undoubtedly, has been Tulane. The Green Wave, coming off a 6-25 season in 2016-17, was picked to finish 10th in the 12-team conference before the season.

But Tulane has been solid at 10-3 with losses to North Carolina, Florida State and Georgia State. The Green Wave plucked a road win Thursday night at Temple, which is no easy chore.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s national rankings, based on a set of mathematical criteria far too involved for me to understand, the American has six teams in the country’s top 80: Cincinnati (9), Wichita State (11), SMU (26), Houston (37), Temple (72) and Central Florida (80).

Tulsa (109), UConn (115), Tulane (134) and Memphis (171) are lagging. And South Florida (283) and East Carolina (309) are down and out, ranked far below any of the 10 Missouri Valley Conference teams. Thankfully, Wichita State plays South Florida and East Carolina only once in conference play.

The average ranking of the top 10 AAC teams is 76.4, compared to 134.7 for the Missouri Valley.

The athletes are better in the AAC. The coaches are better. The arenas are better. And that’s why Wichita State viewed making this switch as a no-brainer. It’s a win-win-win-win. And the wins don’t stop there.

However, the AAC does have work to do to become an elite basketball conference.

The Big 12’s average ranking for its 10 teams is 29.6, with seven teams in the top 32.

That makes the Big 12, at least according to the Pomeroy rankings, the No. 1 conference in the country – for now. The ACC (38.3 average ranking) is second, followed by the Big East (48.3), SEC (49.3), Big 10 (66.0), AAC (76.4 for its top 10) and Pac-12 (90.4).

Throw South Florida and East Carolina into the mix and the AAC’s average rank-per-team falls drastically, to 135.6. Which is actually just below the Valley.

So, for the purpose of this exercise, we’ll ignore South Florida and East Carolina until those teams can fall into line with the rest of the conference.

The Shockers, clearly, have upped the ante and will be playing in a conference with teams that have produced six national champions (UConn 4, Cincinnati 2) and 22 Final Four appearances (Cincinnati 6, UConn 5, Houston 5, Wichita State 2, Temple 2, Memphis 1, SMU 1).

There is rich history and a long list of great players who have played for the teams in the AAC. Those teams have produced 24 first-team All-Americans since 1947-48.

It’s a great time to be a Shocker basketball fan and a big chunk of history will be made Saturday morning in Hartford. It’s a long way to go to make history, but it’ll be worth the trip.


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