Posted by Will Tucker on October 17th, 2013
- AAC media day came and went yesterday without any notable drama in the FedEx Forum, as coaches identified Louisville as the unanimous favorite to win the conference and Russ Smith as the preseason AAC player of the year. Praising his “little psycho all-American,” coach Rick Pitino called Smith “the closest thing at the collegiate level to Allen Iverson that I’ve seen,” adding, “I don’t think you’re ever out of a game because of his abilities.” Second-year SMU coach Larry Brown, who coached Iverson in the NBA, was hesitant to draw the analogy to A.I., whom he said was truly unique, but did praise Smith for returning for his senior year. “I think it’s pretty neat that he came back to school,” said Brown, “That’s not an easy decision. It speaks volumes for the kid and the relationship that he has and the respect he has for the program.”
- UConn coach Kevin Ollie seemed neither flattered nor complacent after his team improved from ninth place in last year’s preseason Big East rankings to second in yesterday’s AAC coaches’ poll. “That’s respect,” he acknowledged, “but it doesn’t mean anything because everybody starts the season zero and zero. I want to be first at the end of the American Conference tournament. It’s just a number right now.” Nonetheless, respect was flowing liberally in the Huskies’ direction yesterday, as guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were first- and second-team all-AAC selections, respectively, and Rick Pitino and Larry Brown heaped praise on their former player Ollie. Napier, for his part, took issue with the absence of teammate DeAndre Daniels from either all-AAC list, remarking boldly that the junior forward “should have been preseason player of the year.”
- The Orlando Sentinel’s Paul Tenorio observes that whereas UCF senior Isaiah Sykes would have been the center of attention at the Conference USA media day, yesterday in Memphis he was overshadowed by the presence of Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier and the AAC’s other elite guards. Despite averaging 16 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.5 APG and 2.3 SPG for the Knights, while earning the distinction of being the only player to register multiple triple-doubles last season, the 6’6” guard remains a relative unknown in his new environment. Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who encountered Sykes twice in conference play last year, said, “I know how good he is. I don’t know if the other schools and the national media know how good he is, but I think they’ll see it this year.” Memphis guard Geron Johnson added, “We know he belongs… He’s going to be alright in this league.”
- Although Rutgers placed last in the preseason poll at AAC media day, several coaches insisted that the ranking spoke to the strength and depth of the conference rather than the limitations of Eddie Jordan’s team. Memphis coach Josh Pastner asserted that the AAC and ACC would be the nation’s best conferences this season, and said “there’s no question in my mind that six teams will come out of this league to play in the NCAA Tournament.” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin speculated that this Rutgers squad would not have been picked last in the former Big East, and cautioned, “If Rutgers is picked 10th — with Myles Mack and Wally Judge and Kadeem Jack and Jerome Seagears –– if they’re picked 10th, that tells me this league is going to be a problem.”
- On the heels of its list of the top-100 college basketball players, CBS Sports released the first part in a series of position rankings yesterday, in which six AAC guards were listed among the nation’s 30 best ball-handlers. Louisville’s Russ Smith (#2) and Chris Jones (#20), Memphis players Joe Jackson (#11) and Michael Dixon (#13), and UConn tandem Shabazz Napier (#7) and Ryan Boatright (#27) all made the cut. The fact that each pair is likely to log most of their minutes on the court together simply underscores how entertaining it will be to watch the top three backcourts compete in the AAC this year. It’s also interesting to note that a third of the league’s elite ball handlers are transfers, as Jones spent 2012-13 in junior college while Dixon went on hiatus after leaving Missouri last fall.
Posted by Will Tucker on October 16th, 2013
- On the eve of today’s AAC media day in Memphis, Tampa Bay Times writer Joey Knight contends that media predictions pegging USF at or near the bottom of the league have proven “more galvanizing than toxic” for the Bulls. According to senior Victor Rudd, some dismissive predictions are stapled to player lockers, and junior point guard Anthony Collins said that they instill some motivational indignation in returning players and newcomers alike. The Tampa Tribune’s Joey Johnston notes that Stan Heath’s AAC media day delegation of Collins and Rudd represent the only remaining players from USF’s 2012 NCAA Tournament team. Heath admitted, “I can understand how people might look at our team and say, ‘Well, they lost Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, they lost Shaun Noriega, they lost Jawanza Poland… and they couldn’t score anyway.’” The former Big East Coach of the Year downplayed the low expectations, noting “we’ve proven to be pretty good in the underdog role in the past. We’re fine with it.”
- We can count (Newark) Star-Ledger writer Brendan Prunty among those who aren’t buying into Stan Heath’s squad, after he pegged the Bulls last in his AAC preseason predictions yesterday. While acknowledging USF’s stingy defense, Prunty points out that the Bulls only scored an average of 58.8 points last season, while every other AAC squad managed at least 64.5 per contest. Beyond echoing the popular top three of Louisville, Memphis and UConn, Prunty takes a more generous stance on UCF than some other pundits, projecting Donnie Jones’ senior-laden group to finish sixth. He cautions that the bottom half of the conference remains, for the time being, an undifferentiated monolith of teams surrounded by question marks.
- The AAC acquitted itself well in a list of the top-100 college players released yesterday by the knowledgeable folks at CBS Sports, as the league’s players accounted for 10% of the list. Louisville led the way with four players, two of whom captured the highest rankings of any of their peers (Russ Smith, #4; Montrezl Harrell, #16), while Memphis and UConn placed three and two of their talented guards into the group, respectively. Outside of those three rosters, Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick was the only other AAC player to make the list, which raises the question of whether the rest of the conference has enough elite talent to compete with the league’s upper echelon in 2013-14.
- In light of news that the AAC has elected to host its women’s basketball tournament at the Mohegan Sun casino, Mike DiMauro at The New London (CT) Day asks, “Has Hartford, specifically the XL Center, ever been more irrelevant?” The aging downtown arena, which hosts some UConn men’s basketball games as the alternate venue to the smaller, on-campus Gampel Pavilion, has now lost bids for both the men’s and women’s AAC basketball tournaments, and one women’s coach at media day described it as “a dump.” On its surface, this most recent development is of little consequence to men’s basketball, but the underlying issues of general dissatisfaction with and mismanagement of UConn’s off-campus athletic facilities should raise red flags for state and university officials.
- Louisville guard Terry Rozier is especially eager to play his first college game –– even more so than a typical freshman –– after spending an interim year at Hargrave Military Academy between signing with the Cardinals in high school and suiting up for them this fall. Rozier averaged 29.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 5.6 APG while playing alongside fellow Louisville freshman Anton Gill, and said the rigors of the pressing defense his coach employed there have helped him adjust to Rick Pitino’s system. He’s also apparently arrived with the maturity to take Pitino’s intensity in stride: “He can say anything to me. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. I can accept that, I accept the coaching and that’s what will get me far and what makes our relationship off the court great.”