One on One: An AAC Preview With Jason Smith

Posted by Walker Carey on November 6th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

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. As part of our national preview with the AAC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an AAC expert in Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith), the Memphis Tigers beat reporter for The Commercial Appeal.

Rush the Court: Defending national champion Connecticut obviously lost a lot from last season’s team with dynamic guard Shabazz Napier now a member of the Miami Heat. Nevertheless, the Huskies are still expected to contend for the league title. What is it about Kevin Ollie’s squad that has the unit in position to contend in the first year of the post-Shabazz era?

Jason Smith: It starts with Ryan Boatright, who was a great complementary player to Shabazz Napier last season. They are expecting him to be a Shabazz-type as their go-to-guy this season. I am not sure if Boatright is a guy who can shoulder the entire load like Shabazz or like Kemba Walker did in 2011, but Connecticut does bring back some other pieces that should help with things. They have one of the best rim protectors in the country in Amida Brimah, the sophomore seven-footer. A lot of people are excited about Daniel Hamilton, the five-star freshman who was named conference Newcomer of the Year. People are expecting a lot from him. At this point last year, I do not think a lot of people thought Connecticut was a team that could win a national title and they obviously proved us all wrong. A lot of the credit has to go to Kevin Ollie, and with him back in the fold, Connecticut has to be a team that you should expect to compete for the league title.

Who Will Step Up For the Huskies This Season?

Who Will Step Up For the Huskies This Season?

RTC: SMU clearly took a hit when it lost blue-chip recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to eligibility issues. Despite this loss, the Mustangs figure to be a contender in the conference. With Keith Frazier, Nic Moore, and Markus Kennedy returning to the fold, what is the ceiling for SMU in year three of the Larry Brown era?

Smith: I think that SMU is the team to beat in the conference. I really do. SMU got five first place votes from the coaches in the preseason poll, while Connecticut received six. As you mentioned, SMU did take a hit by not being able to get Emmanuel Mudiay on the court this fall. However, what they bring back should have them in a great position. Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy are two returning starters who were huge for them last year. They are both preseason first-team all-conference picks. I also do not think people are talking enough about the fact that SMU has three transfers coming in that are eligible this year. These are guys who averaged double-digit minutes at their previous schools. Among those guys is sophomore guard Ben Emelogu, who was a team captain at Virginia Tech last year as a freshman. When you add these newcomers with what they bring back, that is why I think SMU is the team to beat in the conference. They beefed up their non-conference schedule – which is what hurt them last year and why they received the NIT bid – so that will not be an issue this season. SMU has a strong, strong team and that is why I picked them to win the league.

RTC: Memphis enters the season with very little in-terms of backcourt experience. Will the immediate eligibility of former Vanderbilt guard Kedren Johnson and the long-awaited debut of Pookie Powell be enough for the Tigers to compete with some of the better backcourts in the conference?

Kedren Johnson is a Huge Addition for Memphis (AP)

Kedren Johnson is a Huge Addition for Memphis (AP)

Smith: Kedren Johnson was huge. There is no question about it. Before they added Kedren Johnson in August and found out that he can play recently, Memphis was a team that literally had no Division I experience in the backcourt. That, however, is offset by the frontcourt. The Memphis frontline is talented and experienced, led by junior Shaq Goodwin and reigning AAC Rookie of the Year, Austin Nichols. Even with that, Memphis’s success is going to go back to how that backcourt is going to shake out. Johnson gives the Tigers a legitimate point guard. He is the floor leader that the team did not previously have. Pookie Powell had been in line to be the starting point guard, but when Johnson became eligible, he became a reserve – and I think that is the best thing for him. Powell is a kid who can play. He is a scoring point guard and I think now in a reserve role, there will not be a lot of pressure on him to be the leader. Much like SMU, Memphis has added some other pieces that not many people know about. Memphis’ guys come from the junior college level. Trahson Burrell ranked third in the nation in junior college scoring last year. He is a guy who may creep up on some people. He could be a starter at the shooting guard spot and is a guy who could be up there in the AAC leaders in scoring. To answer your question, I think if the backcourt gels right and if Kedren Johnson is the player Memphis expects him to be, I think Memphis will be right there with Connecticut and SMU fighting it out at the top of the league.

RTC: Temple struggled to an unusually bad 9-22 record last season. The Owls figure to be better this season, as high-scoring guard Will Cummings returns and Fran Dunphy remains one of the game’s best tacticians. What would be considered a successful season for Temple in the 2014-15 season?

Smith: I think Temple could finish fourth or fifth in the league. I am a guy who is real high on Temple’s bounceback potential and I think it could contend for an NCAA Tournament bid. I love Will Cummings and I really like Quenton DeCosey, the 6’5″ swingman who averaged 16 points per game last year. He and Cummings found a way to produce last season when there was really not much of anything around them. When you couple that with Fran Dunphy – who I think is one of the best coaches in the country – you can see why this Temple team is going to be a lot better than last year’s 9-22 mark. Before last year’s injury-ravaged season, Temple had been to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and I think there is a definite possibility that it will get back there this season.

RTC: Cincinnati has a well-earned reputation for being an extremely fundamental and physical team. The Bearcats have the unenviable task of replacing standouts Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson from last season’s squad. Does Mick Cronin have enough at his disposal to have Cincinnati once again competing for an NCAA Tournament bid?

Mick Cronin Will Need to Find Some Offense This Season

Mick Cronin Will Need to Find Some Offense This Season

Smith: While last year was a senior-laden team, it came down to guys emerging from supporting roles to help Sean Kilpatrick. At this time last year, I did not think Cincinnati had a shot at competing for the conference title. I knew Cincinnati was going to be a physical team, but I did not think there was going to be enough scoring. As it turned out, the Bearcats ended up tied for the regular season title. Again, the question for Cincinnati is where is the scoring going to come from? That is an even bigger question with Sean Kilpatrick gone. Obviously guys like Shaquille Thomas are going to need to step up. They are going to need three or four different guys to step up into bigger roles. That does not mean going from six to 10 points a night; that means guys are going to need to step up and lead this team offensively. You can never count out Mick Cronin. I think he has proved that over the year. I do not think Cincinnati is a Tournament team this year, but Mick Cronin has proved me wrong before, and he could do it again this year.

RTC: The middle of the league is highlighted by two old faces in new places with Frank Haith taking over at Tulsa and Kelvin Sampson taking over at Houston. What do you believe are reasonable expectations for both in their first seasons and what do you think the long-term prospects look like at both Tulsa and Houston?

Smith: I think you have to like the long-term prospects at Houston with Kelvin Sampson back at the college level. You obviously know what he did at Oklahoma and you know what he did at Indiana. He has the making of a good foundation there. It starts at point guard with L.J. Rose, who had a really good year there last season. Chicken Knowles is a good interior player for them and gives them a true center. They also brought in a bunch of new guys. I think the future is bright for Houston. When it comes to this season, I think Houston finishes behind Tulsa. A lot of AAC fans do not know much about Tulsa because it is coming over from Conference USA. Tulsa was an NCAA Tournament team last season and it brings four starters back this season. James Woodard is a standout player. I do not care what league you put him in, I think he is going to be great in this league as well. He averaged over 15 points per game last season and I expect that number to increase this season. We obviously know about Frank Haith and what he can do. He has been a good coach wherever he has been. Tulsa is a team that can potentially finish in the top four in this league.

RTC: Donnie Jones enters his fifth season at UCF with some urgency to get results. The Knights had some success in Conference USA before struggling through a bit of a lost season in their first year in the AAC. Does UCF have enough talent or depth to rise in the AAC or is it going to be another long season in Orlando?

Smith: I fear it will be another long season for Donnie Jones. UCF lost its do-everything guy from last year in Isaiah Sykes. Sykes was a legitimate triple-double threat for a very bad team last year. He is gone now. UCF will now look at a guy like senior forward Kasey Wilson to lead the team. I just do not think UCF has enough talent on the perimeter for the team to be a legitimate threat in this league. UCF wants to see Donnie Jones produce, and I just do not think this is going to be a year where he is able to do that.

RTC: East Carolina and Tulane enter the conference this season with very little fanfare. Is it possible for either of these teams to make any noise during their first year in the league?

Smith: It is possible and the reason I think it is possible is that both of those teams are returning four starters from last year. There is experience there. I know both East Carolina and Tulane have been picked at the bottom of the league, but there is enough experience back for both of those teams to potentially be more competitive than UCF or South Florida. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is going to be a step up for both those teams for Conference USA. The top of this league is strong with Connecticut, SMU, Memphis and Cincinnati. There is a chance for these teams to finish in the middle of the pack and be better than their preseason projections. Experience is going to help both these squads.

RTC: Orlando Antigua takes over at South Florida following a successful stint as a well-respected John Calipari aide. The cupboard is a bit bare in Tampa right now, but do you envision Antigua being a long-term solution for the Bulls?

Orlando Antigua will try to bring a bit of his UK success to the top job at USF.

Orlando Antigua will try to bring a bit of his UK success to the top job at USF.

Smith: I think Orlando Antigua will be good. That is a tough job, but I think he is the right guy for it. He does have some pieces to start with Anthony Collins coming back off an injury. It really hurt South Florida when he hurt his knee last season. Having a floor leader like Collins will really help this team under a new coach and a new system. Collins will be that guy his teammates will look to lead them this season. They also return Chris Perry and he is a guy I really like. Perry won AAC Rookie of the Week several times last season. He is not the best athlete, but he is a space-eater that is productive. It is probably going to be a slow transition for South Florida, but Orland Antigua does have some pieces to start out with at least.

RTC: Lastly, who do you believe will take home conference player of the year and conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?

Smith: That is a good question. Just because I think SMU is so strong, I am going to go with Larry Brown for conference Coach of the Year. SMU has the players back and the schedule for this to be Larry Brown’s year. This should be SMU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993, so the fans there are in for what should be a very good season. Ryan Boatright was the preseason Player of the Year. I do not know if he will be that Shabazz Napier-type for Connecticut, but he should still be a very good player. When you look at Memphis, you have to consider Shaq Goodwin or Austin Nichols. Memphis has said it is going to run its offense through the post, so one of those two guys could definitely be candidates. SMU has two possible candidates in Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy. I suppose you have to give the edge right now to Ryan Boatright because he has that title belt around his waist and he is going to lead what should be a very good Connecticut team.

WCarey (279 Posts)


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