The RTC Interview Series: AAC Preview with Dom Amore and Jason SmithPosted by Walker Carey on November 8th, 2013
Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the offseason. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at email@example.com.
With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. To read through the entire 2013-14 preseason interview series, click here. As part of our national preview with the AAC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey recently had the pleasure of speaking with two AAC experts in Hartford Courant reporter Dom Amore and Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Jason Smith. (Ed. note – we spoke to each individual separately, but for the sake of expediency, combining their answers into a round table format made the most sense.)
Rush the Court: Even with the departures of Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng from last season’s national championship team, Louisville is still highly ranked and viewed as a contender for another national title. In the past few weeks, news broke that starting forward Chane Behanan is suspended indefinitely. How will Behanan’s banishment affect Louisville in the conference race and what impact will it have on the team when looking at the national landscape?
Dom Amore: Chane Behanan is obviously one of the best players on the team. Along with Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell, he is one of the reasons that Louisville is ranked as high as it is. With the way that Rick Pitino has recruited, though, there are a lot of great players on that team, so it is going to have some depth. Due to that depth, Louisville is going to be able to handle Behanan’s suspension better than most teams would. Still, experience is going to be a huge factor in this league, and Behanan has a lot of that. Losing a guy as good as Chane Behanan and with the experience of Chane Behanan is going to be a problem, but with Louisville’s depth and amount of talent, it should be able to weather the storm until Behanan is able to return.
Jason Smith: I think it all comes down to how long Rick Pitino decides to hold Chane Behanan out for. It sounds to me that Behanan is going to be back. Everything you read says he is doing the right things to get back on the team. I expect him to be back at least by the time conference play begins. You add Behanan to the group Louisville already has with Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell, and you see why Louisville is so highly ranked. Louisville is also adding Chris Jones, who is the reigning national junior college player of the year. Jones and Russ Smith are going to make quite the formidable backcourt. This team is clearly the favorite in the conference and is definitely among the contenders for the national title. There will still be some challenges. It is going to have to figure out who is going to be the big rebounder. Losing Gorgui Dieng created a hole in the frontcourt, so some things still have to be figured out. Still, top-to-bottom, you can see why Louisville is considered one of the best teams in the country.
RTC: Josh Pastner probably has his most talented team since has been the head coach at Memphis. What do you expect from the Tigers in their first season away from Conference USA?
Amore: It is really a great thing for Memphis to be in this conference. There are other teams in this conference – namely, Connecticut and Cincinnati – that might not be too thrilled to be in it. For Memphis, this is a huge and a great step up in class. Memphis won 27 games in a row to finish its tenure in Conference USA. While it really dominated that conference, Memphis has not really been rewarded with high seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Being in this conference where it will play Louisville, Connecticut, and Cincinnati twice will really help with its RPI and those other things that are looked at when determining NCAA Tournament seeding. It is going to be a bigger challenge for Memphis, but it does have a lot of talent and it should be able to do more with that talent in the new league.
Smith: It is going to be interesting. It is going to be an all new experience for Memphis in terms of the challenging level of play that it will face. Memphis has obviously owned Conference USA over the past few years with everyone else kind of playing in its shadow. This is a step up for Memphis, obviously. This is going to be a four- or five-bid league and Memphis will have to be ready for that level of competition. This roster is as talented or more talented than any team Josh Pastner has ever had. The key for the team is going to be to stay in the rankings. The last three years, it has begun the season in the rankings and eventually fell out. Last season, it was able to get back in towards the end of the season, but it is going to have to be more consistent. Winning big games is going to be something this team is going to need to do. Everyone in Memphis is kind of sitting back right now and wondering if this is going to be the year where Josh Pastner is finally going to be able to win a big game. He certainly has the roster to do it. I think the roster is talented enough to challenge Louisville for the conference title, but it is going to have to prove it can on the court. Everything with this team starts with the backcourt. They have four senior guards in Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Missouri transfer Michael Dixon. It might be the best backcourt in the country. Still, the frontcourt is a bit inexperienced and it is definitely going to have to prove itself.
RTC: Connecticut enters this season with a much greater degree of stability in the program, as Kevin Ollie now has a long-term contract and the Huskies are now free of the APR sanctions that prevented them from playing in the postseason last spring. Armed with a great backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, do you believe the Huskies will return to national relevance this season?
Amore: I think Connecticut is already back to being nationally relevant. Finishing 20-10 last season was unexpected and it caused a lot of people to notice the Huskies. Napier and Boatright were productive last season and you have to expect both of them to take another step forward this season. Kevin Ollie showed last season that he is an astute head coach who is very good at spotting good match-ups and exploiting them. With more experience and depth up front this season, all the ingredients are really in place for the Huskies to contend for the league crown and be ranked throughout the season. What makes this season different than the past, though, is they are really going to have to dominate this conference. They are not going to be able to go 9-9 and make the NCAA Tournament – this league is just not as strong as the Big East was. I do think they have the talent to avoid those trap games – like when they go to SMU, or when they go to Houston, or when they go to South Florida – where teams will be gunning for them. The bar is raised for Connecticut this season. Last year, it was just about getting stability in the program and obviously, this season it is much different. They have to take that stability and raise it to another degree. Stakes are higher and expectations are higher – and I think this team is good enough to accept that and use it to its advantage.
Smith: I do. Much like Memphis, Connecticut has a backcourt that is right up there as the best in the country – with Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun. It has all five starters returning and its six leading scorers. I think the key for Connecticut will be how its frontcourt will shape up. Tyler Olander is going to be a guy who is going to need to rebound. DeAndre Daniels needs to be able to play inside and make some plays in the post. The backcourt is going to be very fast and up-tempo, which is a style that fits in with a conference that is loaded with guards. I think the success that these guys had in the Big East last year is going to carry over into this season. Another thing about this team is that it is hungry. Shabazz Napier told me at the conference media day that they are a hungry team that wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. Certainly, it is talented enough to get to the NCAA Tournament.
RTC: Outside of senior guard Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati is a bit of an unknown commodity entering the season. Do you believe the Bearcats have a supporting cast that will be able to emerge and help lead them back to another NCAA Tournament appearance?
Amore: Cincinnati is one of those teams that really became one of those classic, physical Big East teams. It always had the roster to play that style. I have a sense that the style of this league is going to be different. The teams are different, the officiating is different, and the rules are different. It is going to be interesting to see how Cincinnati adjusts to the new style. Sean Kilpatrick is going to be able to play in any style because he is talented enough, but the team’s success is probably going to depend on how everyone else makes that transition.
Smith: Sean Kilpatrick is the guy for Cincinnati and it is going to have to build around him. The x-factor for Cincinnati is freshman Troy Caupain. He is going to run the point for the Bearcats. Besides those two guys, things are a bit unknown for this team. An inside presence is going to need to step up, Mick Cronin’s teams are always defensive-minded. They are always going to pressure you and force you to shoot a low percentage. Cincinnati has been to three straight NCAA Tournaments and I think it is going to find the pieces in the frontcourt to be a top four team in the league and contend for another trip.
RTC: Temple has been to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments, but it lost a lot of its scoring from last season’s squad that nearly knocked off Indiana in the Round of 32. Do you believe Fran Dunphy has enough pieces in place to lead the Owls to their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament bid?
Amore: When you look at Temple’s roster, you cannot help but notice all the guys it lost from last year’s team. There is some talent coming in, but those guys are going to be young and inexperienced. When you look at this conference as a whole, you see a lot of teams that have a good deal of experience coming back. Due to that, I believe Temple will struggle to begin the season. With Fran Dunphy being Fran Dunphy, I believe he will have the team playing a lot better as the season progresses. I think he can have Temple challenging for an NCAA Tournament bid. I could definitely see the Owls being a bubble team.
Smith: It is going to be tough. I love Fran Dunphy to death and I would never say that he could not lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. As you said, this team lost a lot from last season. It has to replace 73 percent of its scoring. Anthony Lee does return and Temple is going to have to build around him. A lot of people have projected Temple to finish fifth or sixth in the league because of what the program has accomplished in the past, but I think this season is going to be tough. I think Temple is going to finish either eighth or ninth in the league, but you can never count out Fran Dunphy and the team does have a good piece to build around in Anthony Lee.
RTC: Houston and SMU are two interesting programs entering the season that may have more talent now than they have had in many years. Could you see either making an impact in the league race and possibly challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth?
Amore: You have to believe that having Larry Brown on the bench is going to make SMU a team that will earn some attention. You know Larry Brown has the ability to take what he has and make the most of it. SMU has a lot of experience and Brown now has a year in the program under his belt. The team also brings in a McDonald’s All-American in AAC Preseason Newcomer of the Year, Keith Frazier. SMU is certainly going to be better than it was a year ago. I could see it being in the 20-win range and definitely being a bubble team if it reaches that mark. Houston has a bit more work to do than SMU. It also has a very experienced coach in James Dickey. The Cougars have a bit of work to do with their roster though as there are still some question marks. If I had to choose between SMU and Houston, I would certainly go with SMU.
Smith: I do, actually. I do not think either SMU or Houston can challenge for the league title, but I do think both teams could challenge for NCAA Tournament bids. When you look at SMU, it has five starters coming back. You start with Jalen Jones, who I think is a heck of a guard. The Mustangs also brought in a solid recruiting haul with McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier and Yannick Moreira, who was the best junior college big man in the country. Add a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown to the mix and this team certainly has some pieces to compete in this league. Houston is much in the same mold. I think forward TaShawn Thomas is one of the most underrated players in the country. He is a walking double-double. You also add Danuel House to that mix. House was the best freshman in Conference USA last season. I think a key piece to Houston was getting the Baylor transfer L.J. Rose, who will run the point. The biggest factor for Houston though will be if Chicken Knowles will be eligible. He is a 6’10″ guy who can make an impact inside. The NCAA has yet to rule on his eligibility for this season. He was a non-qualifer who sat out all of last season. If Houston can get him eligible, I think this team could be one that shocks some people nationally.
RTC: There probably was not a program in the country that experienced more offseason turmoil than Rutgers. With veteran players such as Myles Mack, Jerome Seagears, Wally Judge and Kadeem Jack returning, do you believe Eddie Jordan has enough talent at his disposal to lead the Scarlet Knights to a successful season and what do you believe will constitute a successful season for what has previously been a very tumultuous program?
Amore: Rutgers just needs to end the tumult and really get the primary focus back on basketball. The focus needs to get away from the administration, the athletic department, and those who did what and who did when questions. Eddie Jordan certainly brings the credibility to do that and it would be best for the program, if he can do it quickly. To me, a successful season for Rutgers will be to just think solely about basketball again and put all the offseason stuff in the past. As a team, it is in a league now where it can win a few more games with the talent it has. Winning a few more games will help create that stability and that stability is going to be needed when it makes the move to the Big Ten in 2014-15.
Smith: For Eddie Jordan, this is going to be a challenge. I think a good season for Rutgers in this league will be a .500 finish. It does have a player like Myles Mack coming back, who is a proven winner. I think the biggest thing for Rutgers will be getting away from all the distractions. It does not need anything else to take away from the program. It is going to be about getting to go smoothly. Success for Rutgers is going to be getting things back on track because things have been so tumultuous up there for the past few seasons.
RTC: There is not a ton of hot seat chatter when it comes to the programs in this league, as most coaches are either proven or have their teams headed in the right direction. Stan Heath at South Florida though saw his team take a big step backwards last season after making the NCAA Tournament in 2012. Do you believe there is pressure on Heath as the Bulls begin their first season in AAC play?
Amore: I am sure there is. There is the expectation that South Florida should do better in this conference than it did in the Big East. Last season’s struggles are also not really going to give Stan Heath the benefit of the doubt going forward. This team does have some talent with point guard Anthony Collins returning and if he is healthy, he is certainly one of the very good guards in the league. Much like Cincinnati, I believe South Florida is a team that is very conditioned to play the style of the old Big East. It is obviously going to have to adjust to the new league, but if it can get that figured out, I could see the Bulls contending to play in a postseason tournament.
Smith: I do think there is pressure on Stan Heath. At least on paper, his team does have the firepower to improve on last season and get back to respectability. Victor Rudd and Anthony Collins are both proven players for South Florida. An interesting thing about this team this year is that it is going to be huge. The size on its frontline is probably the best in the conference. The size that South Florida has might be the key for it to matching up with other teams int he league. If it can slow teams down and be physical, Stan Heath has a chance to have a really good team this year that can bounce back from last season’s disappointing campaign.
RTC: When looking at the conference race, Louisville, Memphis, and Connecticut appear to be the clear-cut top three teams, if you had to name a team that might be a bit of a sleeper and could challenge those three squads, who would it be?
Amore: I will give you two. I think SMU and South Florida are strong candidates to be sleeper teams. I like SMU because of Larry Brown, the team’s experience, and the fact that a player like Keith Frazier is coming into the fold. I like South Florida because of Anthony Collins and also the recruiting class it has coming in. When I look at South Florida, I just see a team that could sneak up on some opponents – especially in games played at home.
Smith: I think Cincinnati just because of Mick Cronin and the style that his teams play. I would also mention SMU and Houston because those squads look so good on paper. All three of those teams have the ability to get some wins and possibly finish fourth in the league.
RTC: Lastly, the league has several high quality players and coaches. Who do you believe will take home the conference player of the year and the conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?
Amore: I think the player of the year is going to be Russ Smith. If it is not Russ Smith, something is going to have to go wrong. Shabazz Napier will be right behind Smith, but the edge there has to go to Smith. I could see Russ Smith being a hungrier player this year because he will want to prove that he is an NBA player. I think he would have liked to have entered this past NBA Draft, but his stock was not considered high enough. I think Kevin Ollie will be the coach of the year. After seeing what he accomplished last season, I think he is a very good coach. I think he can coach with anybody. If he get the most out of this season’s team like he did last season, I think the award is his.
Smith: I have a hard time going against Russ Smith for player of the year. He just gets it done. It is wild, it is crazy, but Russ Smith just finds a way to get it done. With Louisville being as good as it is, it is hard to see it being someone other than Russ Smith. If I had to pick a sleeper in the race, I would go with Joe Jackson. He was the Conference USA Player of the Year for Memphis last season. He is at a point in his career, as a senior, where things are slowing down for him. He is shooting the ball well and he has learned how to be a floor general. If Memphis can somehow win this league, you would have to think Joe Jackson has a good shot at being player of the year. When it comes to coach of the year, Rick Pitino has to be the guy you think of first – especially with Louisville being projected to have another great year. Just like with Joe Jackson and player of the year, if Memphis can somehow win the league, Josh Pastner has a shot at winning coach of the year.