Monday AAC Roundtable: Five Questions From Around the AAC

Posted by Ross Schulz on November 25th, 2013

Every week the four AAC microsite writers will come together in an effort to make sense of and answering questions about what happened in the AAC over the course of the previous week. In the future, we hope these thoughts will post on Monday and the questions will get more interesting as the schedule does. 

1. Does Connecticut’s win over Indiana coupled with Louisville’s loss to North Carolina mean the Huskies are the team to beat in the conference?

shabazz napier uconn

Shabazz Napier Has Been Outstanding This Season

Mike —Connecticut’s win over Indiana was unexpected and Louisville looked terrible in its loss to North Carolina, but I still think the Cardinals are the better overall team. They struggled with foul trouble, didn’t find a lot of quality looks against the Tar Heels’ zone defense, and ran into the Marcus Paige buzzsaw, yet they still only lost by nine points. The game proved that Louisville has plenty of flaws and a lot of work to do before it can repeat as national champions, but they are the deeper team and will get it sorted out by the end of the regular season. The Huskies impressed a lot of folks by beating the Hoosiers, but they were lucky that Shabazz Napier is unstoppable right now because otherwise things could get ugly. The team proved that it can play with anyone and will always be in contention with Napier at the helm of the offense, but their secondary players did not show up, and they can’t let Napier carry them and expect to win the conference.

C.D. —Probably not, even though it seems a more reasonable query than before the Cardinals’ miserable weekend in Connecticut. However, the Huskies lack the one thing that allowed North Carolina such success Sunday — talented bigs. Without being able to expose Louisville on the interior, UConn’s still in second — but gaining.

Will —It’s hard to deny that the Huskies have clawed their way into the AAC driver’s seat. Although their wins over Maryland, Boston College and Indiana have come by a combined four points, the Huskies have taken care of business and become the team to beat, on paper. But looking further down the line, I can’t predict that they’ll stay there for long. Louisville’s experience and frontcourt talent still give the Cardinals a much higher ceiling. Even if we’ve overestimated how quickly the revamped lineup would mesh, it’s easier to convince Montrezl Harrell and Chris Jones to learn the defensive schemes and guard with discipline than it is to fill the holes in UConn’s roster. We’ll have a better sense of the pecking order at the top of the league by the end of December, after UConn hosts Florida and Louisville enters Rupp Arena.

Ross — Louisville is still the team to beat in the AAC, but it definitely has some issues to address if it wants to stay there. The loss of Gorgui Dieng may be much more difficult to cope with than the Cardinals originally thought. North Carolina scored basically at will in the paint against them on Sunday. While undefeated and playing a stronger schedule than Louisville, Connecticut has problems of their own by winning three games against unranked foes by a total of five points. Outside of Shabazz Napier and an occasional Niels Giffey three, the Huskies are struggling to put the ball in the basket when it matters.

2. Houston is off to its first 5-0 start in more than a decade but the schedule has been easy. How much do you believe in the Cougars after the fast start?

Mike — In a word, no. They haven’t been particularly efficient on either end of the floor, which is troubling, because they have played the seventh-easiest schedule in the country through five games. TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House have been an impressive duo this far, but their stats have been undoubtedly inflated by the fact that they have already played three of the worst 35 teams in the country. I think they have the talent to beat Stanford, but they have a long way to go in all facets of the game before the Cougars can be considered a top-five team in the conference.

C.D. —Not very much. If they manage to beat Stanford, I’ll be impressed, but so far their numbers suggest about what we all expected: a pretty mediocre D-I team near the bottom of the conference. A .500 record still seems like the goal here, rather than an NCAA Tournament berth.

Will —I had picked Houston to finish seventh in the conference this season, and despite their auspicious start I still think they’ll end up near the bottom of the league. As Mike points out, only six D-I teams have played worse schedules than Houston this season, and consequently their undefeated record is meaningless. As much as I like Danuel House, TaShawn Thomas and L.J. Rose, the supporting cast around them is too thin to sustain a winning campaign once the competition quotient increases during conference play. The recently announced eligibility of promising forward Chicken Knowles helps build for the program’s future, but the sophomore doesn’t appear ready to make an immediate contribution.

Ross — Very little. Houston still has a long way to go before we can start talking NCAA Tournament prospects, but a win against Stanford would be a step in the right direction. So far, they’ve beaten up on basically nobody to get to their spotless win-loss record.

3. Temple has already lost three of its first five games and barely beat a bad Georgia team on Friday. Does Fran Dunphy have enough magic in him to get the Owls turned around or is the team’s season already over?

Mike — I do think the Owls will be a much-improved team in February and March, but I also think those picked Temple to finish fifth in the preseason conference standings may have underestimated how much production Temple lost and put a bit too much faith in Dunphy to rebuild overnight. They have played a more difficult schedule than most of the conference, but they have been a bad defensive team and aren’t good enough offensively to make up for it. They have the pieces to rebuild and it may even be done by next season, but the Owls are playing a more difficult conference slate than they ever have in the Atlantic 10 and they just don’t have the same pieces they did last year. They aren’t going to make the NCAA Tournament this season.

C.D. — It’s not over, but it’s on life support. Their win over UAB Sunday was their best of the season by far. After a holiday break, they host St. Joseph’s and Texas during the first week in December. If the Owls want to play past the second weekend in March, those are two games they need to win. Even then, it’s going to be tough.

Fran Dunphy Needs to Find His Magic Touch Somewhere

Fran Dunphy Needs to Find His Magic Touch Somewhere

Will — The Owls have dug themselves into a serious hole before Thanksgiving, and as early as it is, I don’t think they have the experience or poise needed to salvage their NCAA Tournament hopes. After consecutive late-game collapses against to Kent State, Towson and Clemson, it became obvious that we could abandon the idea that Temple had reloaded despite losing senior starters Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. While Dunphy’s team has rebounded at the Charleston Classic with a 21-point win over a pretty good UAB team and point guard Will Cummings has gotten his turnovers under control, I question whether the Owls can win consistently.

Ross — As far as making the NCAA Tournament, while still very early, yes, Temple’s season is over. But that was a long shot to begin with. Temple has some solid pieces to turn it around and make a run in the AAC regular season race, but these early losses, especially to Towson, will weigh heavily on the Owls’ resume. Look for the Owls to fight for the fifth spot in the standings and be a tough out in the conference tournament, though.

4. With Preseason Freshman of the Year Keith Frazier playing limited minutes for SMU, is there a new front-runner to win the award? Has any other freshman distinguished himself enough to deserve consideration?

Mike — I wouldn’t even begin to count Frazier out of the race considering how much he will develop over the course of this season and how unpredictable SMU coach Larry Brown can be with his rotation, but Frazier’s slow start has opened the door for other freshmen in the conference, it’s just that only one player has thus far been able to step through that door and announce his candidacy — Memphis forward Nick King. King is averaging 15.6 points and and 6.3 rebounds per game including 23 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes of the team’s blowout loss to Oklahoma State. King is both physically and athletically ready for college basketball and should only see his role expand as he continues to be efficient for coach Josh Pastner. I wouldn’t go as far as to declare him the early favorite for the award, but he is certainly in the running now.

C.D. —It’s far too early, but I would think Nick King of Memphis has to get a look. He’s averaging 16 points and 6.3 boards in 16 minutes per game. Granted, a lot of that has been in garbage time, but one would think it’s the kind of production that has to earn more minutes, right?

Will — I also like Nick King as an early candidate. The freshman has already shown a knack for getting to the charity stripe – he actually leads the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes – but hasn’t been able to cash in, shooting 3-of-12 against Nicholls State and 48 percent on the year. But given the number of high-quality transfers playing major roles on AAC rosters this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rookie of the Year honor is ultimately awarded to South Florida’s Corey Allen Jr. (16.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.2 APG), SMU’s Nic Moore (14.2 PPG, 5.6 APG), or Louisville’s Chris Jones (14.5 PPG, 3.2 APG). Among AAC players, Moore and Allen Jr. are second and third in assists per game, respectively, while Jones is currently averaging a second-best 2.7 steals per game.

Ross — There’s no front-runner for the award yet, and I’d expect Frazier’s playing time to continue to increase as the season wears on. In limited time, I have been impressed with the shot-blocking ability of Connecticut’s Amida Brimah. He still is quite raw and has a hard time catching the ball, but if he develops an inkling of an offensive game and continues to dominate the paint defensively, he could make a splash in conference play. He blocked several Indiana shot attempts not only in the paint, but also out near the perimeter.

5. Who is the better guard, Russ Smith or Shabazz Napier?

Mike — Napier has always been the better NBA prospect because of his size and shooting advantages, but last season you could make the argument that Smith was the better college player. Through five games this season however, it is pretty clear that Napier is the better all-around player. There may not be a better pure scorer in college basketball in Smith and he is not too shabby defensively either, but Napier’s progression from Kemba Walker complement to legitimate All-American candidate has made him perhaps the best guard in all of college basketball outside of Marcus Smart. Napier is not quite the impact defender that Smith is, but he is the more efficient offensive player, a better playmaker and one of the best rebounding guards in the entire game thus far and he has done it against a much more difficult schedule.

Russ Smith (AP Photo).

Could Russ Smith Win NPOY But Not AAC POY?  (AP Photo).

C.D. —I still think it’s Russ, but Napier is off to a hell of a start. Averaging 17 PPG/8 RPG/6 APG is nice at any level, and scoring 27 points (including UConn’s last four) in the Friday night win over Indiana was huge. But Russ is the defending KenPom Player of the Year for a reason. He’s scoring more points than Shabazz in many fewer minutes, and with a much lower turnover percentage. It’s also pretty unlikely that Napier is going to continue shooting over 60 percent from three. If Napier maintains this level of play, though, it will be hard to deny him AAC POY.

Will —As impressive as Napier continues to be – and against superior competition – I think Smith is the best player in college basketball this year. Through six games, Smith is posting 20 points and 3.5 assists per game as well as career bests in field goal, three-point and free-throw percentages. The loss notwithstanding, his 36-point game against UNC was the best individual performance either guard has produced thus far, and his second time scoring 30-plus points this year. And while UConn is often portrayed as more reliant on Napier and Ryan Boatright because of their fewer weapons in the paint, early statistics indicate that the Cardinals are even more dependent on Smith. He’s one of only five AAC players to use at least 28 percent of his team’s possessions so far, clocking in at a staggering 32.4 percent, whereas Napier uses 26.6 percent in similar minutes.

Ross — Russ Smith, but it’s extremely close. Napier and Smith have had excellent starts to the season, but Smith’s quickness on the Louisville press puts him ahead defensively. It’s evident from his play that Smith worked on his shot all summer, but so far he hasn’t been as effective going to the rim as he was a year ago. He’s still a better attacking guard than Napier, though. On the other hand, Napier’s step-back jumper, whether from deep or just inside the arc, has been deadly. Just ask Indiana. It sure is going to be fun to watch these two, not to mention Chris Jones and Ryan Boatright, go at it several times this winter.

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