Adding Wichita State means the AAC must now be counted as a 'Major 7' conference
The Shockers put the AAC into college basketball's exclusive club of powerful leagues
A rash of injuries has twisted the start of a highly-anticipated season for Wichita State which, wounds be damned, still carries a lot of excitement.
It's not just that the Shockers are moving up to the American Athletic Conference, it's doing so after they finished 31-5 in the 2016-17 season that ended in a 65-62 loss to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament that was one of the best games in the Big Dance. Wichita State's season was good enough for a top-10 finish in KenPom.com's rankings and with the Shockers bringing back their top eight scorers, the table is set for another successful run.
College basketball got better and more interesting with Wichita State,, bailing on the Missouri Valley for the American this summer.
The Shockers enter 2017-18 at No. 7 in the AP Top 25, their highest preseason ranking. In doing so, start-of-season expectations have never been loftier for a school that's done the remarkable in the past half decade-plus.
Consider that Wichita State's recent success includes:
- Making a school-record six consecutive NCAA Tournaments
- A Final Four appearance
- An undefeated in the regular season
- Recruiting and development of multiple NBA players
- An average of 30 wins over the last seven seasons.
Joining the American should ideally boost Wichita State's seeding situation come Selection Sunday in 2018 and beyond. By nature of playing in a weakened Missouri Valley Conference, the Shockers have been shortsightedly punished by the selection committee in recent seasons. They lacked the opportunity to land big wins in January, February and early March and so they dropped in the bracket. Despite multiple accepted mainstream metrics highly ranking the Shockers, the committee opted to slot Wichita State -- which from 2015-17 had an average of 27 wins by Selection Sunday -- with an average No. 9 seed.
The Shockers responded to the slights (coach Gregg Marshall's frequently been outspoken on this) by winning five NCAA Tournament games vs. Indiana, Kansas, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Dayton -- and nearly knocked off second-seeded Kentucky. Now, landing in a perennial multi-bid league boosts the profile of one of the most discussed programs in college basketball. It's a boon for Marshall and company, and it's a guarantee that if Wichita State has 27 wins come Selection Sunday 2018, it won't be a No. 9 seed or worse.
And yet, for all the good this marriage brings to Wichita State, I'd argue it's even more prosperous for the American. It's a league in need of some oomph, and it's a conference that's also had trouble earning respect from the selection committee. So you fight that off by adding the best member possible. The American is in its fifth year of existence. It's averaged three tourney bids per season in its history and no current member has ever received better than a No. 5 seed. SMU and Cincinnati last season (30 and 29 wins, respectively) both took No. 6 seeds despite strong non-conference performance and good rankings in Sagarin, KenPom, LRMC, etc.
The American was already sitting at the table (albeit the far end) with the other big basketball conferences, but Wichita State's inclusion seals the deal. In college football we have the Power 5, but in college basketball there is now a Major 7: The ACC, the American, the Big 12, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the SEC. All are not just multi-bid leagues that objectively have at least one top 25 job or program, but all are now set to separate from other leagues in terms of recruiting and computer rankings.
If there was doubt about the American before, there can't be any longer. Not with Cincinnati (UConn (more titles since 1999 than any other school) ready to pounce back, not with SMU charging for a fifth consecutive 25-win season. Houston, UCF and Temple all will be above, on or near the bubble this season, and Memphis (traditionally/historically one of the three best programs in the conference) won't stay down for too long. The American has never finished better than seventh in KenPom's conference rankings, but this should be the year it breaks through that wall.) having its strongest team since the peak Huggins years, not with
Circling back to Wichita State, more evidence of the conference upgrade can be found in non-conference scheduling and on the recruiting trail. Marshall said more coaches are willing to play him now vs. a few years ago. Oklahoma's already signed up for a four-year series with Wichita State. That doesn't happen if the Shockers are still in the Valley.
"Now it seems to be easier," Marshall said. "We're invited to play in several of these neutral games as well."
Plus, Marshall's recruiting radius has increased.
"Is it beneficial? Yeah," Marshall said. "I think being able to say 'We're in the American Conference, we're preseason top 10, those things help in recruiting and help you get in the front door, but they don't close it."
From a public relations and marketing standpoint, the American also gets this blend of a nationally recognizable program that still has a credible claim to play with a chip on its shoulder given how it's been seeded in recent years. The AAC is the "Big Little Guy," in a way. It's a power program with an elite coach and is going to be a team that sells tickets in road venues in the American. But there's still this sniff of mid-major on Wichita State, and even if that's the wrong label, it will contribute to the interest in the team and the league.
"We are a team maybe like Gonzaga was and still is, as they came on the scene, people really like that team," Marshall said. "They want to root for us."
I mentioned to Marshall that there is -- just as Gonzaga has -- a contingent of counterculture fans that root against the Shockers and Zags.
"What I think you'll find is those are fans of a BCS program that's not very successful," Marshall said. "There's a lot of schools, and I'm not going to name names, that are fortunate their university was placed in a certain conference so many years ago. Otherwise, they would be viewed very differently. A lot of this is just the conference. 'We're a big-time school, we're a big-time program,' when that's not the case. It's just the league you're in."
If the Shockers can get healthy, this will be among the most well-timed expansion decision by any league in college basketball in the past decade at least. Often times a continental conference shift causes schools in flux to need a year or two to adapt and thrive. But the Shockers are ready to win big now, and if Marshall winds up closing out his career there then this team is always going to be a factor.
Expansion isn't always the answer to fix a league's problems, but with Wichita State and the American we seem to have the trifecta nailed.
- The school is unquestionably bettered by joining the league.
- The league is strengthened competitively and marketing-wise by inviting the Shockers.
- College basketball, from a national viewpoint, is improved by having another conference bolstered to objectively clearing the bar for "major" status.
Welcome to the era of the Major 7.
In the short term, however, there is a catch. Wichita State's planned grand opening as a card-carrying member of the American Athletic Conference has hit a few painful snags.
The Shockers are in the midst of an injury-besetting preseason. Marshall, in his 20th season as a head coach, told CBS Sports this week that it's the most hampered team he's had in the lead-up to a season-opener. Wichita State's two best players, 6-foot-5 point guard Landry Shamet and 6-8 wing Markis McDuffie, are recovering from stress fracture surgeries. McDuffie's return is unknown, but it's looking like mid-to-late December at best. (His foot is still in a cast.) Marshall said he doesn't know when McDuffie will be out of the cast and that it's "hard to project" when his leading scorer and rebounder from a season ago will take the next step toward definitive recovery.
"It's been a tough fall," Marshall said.
Shamet, who had surgery in July, is hopeful to return for the Shockers' season opener at home vs. UMKC on Friday, Nov. 10.
"If things continue this way, he could play in the opener," Marshall said. "He was on the practice floor for the first time yesterday (Monday), on a limited deal. Mostly non-contact. Every day we practice he'll do a little more. It's looking good that he'll back unless there's setback."
It's not just those two guys who are out. Sophomore guard Austin Reaves, who's had three shoulder surgeries and beaten mono in recent years, now has tendon discomfort in his foot. The curiosity/fear was that he could be the third player with a stress reaction in his foot, but the X-Rays and MRIs came back negative on that. Other players are dealing with "dings and scrapes" -- senior center Rauno Nurger had two teeth accidentally chipped in practice -- and it's led to having a grad assistant run point guard on the scout team.
If Wichita State had to put a starting five on the floor right now, it would have three projected/returning starters -- Shaq Morris at center, Zach Brown at small forward and Conner Frankamp at shooting guard -- plus Darral Willis at power forward and third string point guard Samajae Haynes-Jones running the offense. The injuries have Wichita State looking a lot different now than it should come March.
"We're getting guys ready to play that ultimately will not be core guys, more like the eighth, ninth men," Marshall said.
With this injury-catalyzed roster evolution, Marshall expects 10 guys to average double-digit minutes. If that happens, though it's hard to envision now even with such a high preseason position, the Shockers could wind up even better than predicted. That is the dream scenario for Marshall and the American.
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