AAC M5: 03.24.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on March 24th, 2014

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  1. For the second time in three NCAA Tournaments, in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville will square off. This time, the setting will be Indianapolis in a regional semifinal and the match-up was almost inevitable, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. All of the angst from both fan bases about seedings that were too low can be thrown out the window — there are more important things to worry about. The writer says that this rivalry, which will pit the last two national champions against each other, is the best in college basketball right now. Considering the only other option is Duke and North Carolina, and that neither of them have reached the Final Four since Duke’s 2010 national title while one or both of the Commonwealth’s programs have played in the last three, it’s a fair point. This season’s game will be even more passionate and intense than the Final Four battle in 2012. Louisville, at the time making a surprise run to the Final Four, knew it had nothing to lose against the best team in the country. The game was more of a celebration of basketball in the Commonwealth. Not this time. Either team will view the season as a disappointment if its run ends Friday night.
  2. Louisville knows that it is in for an intense game on Friday night, but a meeting with No. 1 seed Wichita State may have been a better match-up for the Cardinals because of Kentucky’s size. The Wildcats muscled their way to a 73-66 win in the teams’ first meeting at Rupp Arena in December. Both teams, however, have changed significantly since then. Chane Behanan was still with the Cardinals, although it would prove to be his last game in cardinal red. Luke Hancock is now fully healthy and Chris Jones has adjusted to his role alongside Russ Smith in the backcourt. And although the Harrison twins had a strong game against Louisville in the first meeting, they haven’t played consistently well until the postseason.
  3. Shabazz Napier made sure Connecticut wasn’t going to lose on Saturday night against Villanova. The do-everything guard poured in 21 of his 25 points in the second half while battling a shin injury. The senior has seen a lot of things in his four-year career. He was a freshman on the national championship and Big East Tournament championship teams of 2011, and also worked through a 2013 season of no postseason hope for the Huskies. Now he’s got his team back in the Sweet Sixteen, playing in a familiar venue at Madison Square Garden with what should be a strong home crowd on hand. When many of Connecticut’s past greats were no doubt looking ahead to NBA stardom, Napier has played fully for the “UConn” on the front of his jersey. Other than the Louisville-Kentucky game, the best story of the Sweet Sixteen might be the senior guard’s refusal to let his team go home for good.
  4. A number of strong potential candidate names have surfaced for the South Florida head coaching job after Stan Heath was fired on Friday. One name at the top of the list is former UCLA coach Ben Howland (also reportedly interested in the Marquette job). Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy has also shown interest as did former Marquette coach Buzz Williams before opting to take the vacancy at Virginia Tech. Athletic Director Mark Harlan said the job has reached a desirable status because of a renovated Sun Dome, a new practice facility and the rising status of the American Athletic Conference. Two freshman big men, John Egbunu and Chris Perry, made the AAC All-Rookie Team, so there’s also some talent waiting in the wings.
  5. Even though it might be seen as the most successful Cincinnati team in 10 years, the Bearcats’ postseason finish will be a tough pill to swallow. Still, Mick Cronin said that he’s never had a team achieve their potential more than this group — they gave every ounce they could give. It was the fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament for Cincinnati and Cronin, but a fifth may prove to be difficult to achieve. The senior core of Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson will all depart. No double-figure scorers return, although two starters, Shaquille Thomas and Ge’Lawn Guyn, are expected to. No matter the roster, though, do not count Cronin out of anything.
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AAC M5: 03.07.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on March 7th, 2014

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  1. Reflecting on the “sorely tested patience” of Rick Pitino, 2014 edition, Mark Coomes of Insider Louisville writes that Kentucky-era Pitino would have quashed a Russ Smith/Chris Jones backcourt long before it had an opportunity to flourish. Enduring the improvisational tendencies of Smith and Jones, including shots that in another lifetime “would’ve led to the summary executions of Travis Ford and Tony Delk,” would have been unfathomable to the Pitino of yore. But this season, even after many fans began clamoring for Jones to relinquish the car keys to Terry Rozier, the coach elected to stick with “Chrisdiculous.” It paid off on Wednesday night, when Smith and Jones exploded for a combined 47 points, eight rebounds, eight steals, and seven assists in Louisville’s come-from-behind win over SMU. It’s still premature to declare that the duo has turned the corner for good: As Coomes points out, the two didn’t “mesh” on Wednesday so much as they “shared the floor (and the ball) for most of both periods and rarely got in each other’s way.”
  2. Not everyone has bought into Russ Smith as a pro prospect, though. Three unnamed NBA executives interviewed by SI.com described Smith in languid terms as a second rounder with little hope of thriving in the league. One went further, remarking “when I watch him, I don’t see a guy who makes his teammates better. It’s all about him getting shots and scoring.” It seems like an unusual criticism, given the significant strides Smith has made this season as a distributor, improvements borne out by statistics and manifested in the record-breaking number of dunks Montrezl Harrell has thundered home this season, many courtesy of Smith’s passes. His assist rate of 31.1 percent is third in the AAC; his 4.5 assists per game ranks fifth in the league, and his assist to turnover ratio has improved from 1.1 to a respectable 1.7 since 2012-13. But then again, how many times have you seen the “selfish” label applied to Smith in the past three years in spite of any statistical or qualitative evidence to the contrary? His most intractable critics will always find Smith’s game aesthetically unappealing for many of the same reasons that others find it so endearing.
  3. Two special guests are traveling from Michigan to attend Isaiah Sykes’ senior night this evening: his two-year-old daughter, Makayla, and mother, Dominique, who will get to watch her son play college basketball in person for the first time. Family and basketball are permanently intertwined for the UCF guard. Growing up in Detroit, he found safety and guidance on basketball courts after his father died when he was three, and as an adult aspiring to play in the NBA, Sykes hopes his basketball career can provide better opportunities for his own daughter. “Usually people working hard on basketball, it’d be for yourself,” Sykes said. “When you have a daughter or a son or a child, you’re not just working for yourself, you’re working for your family […] It’s not just about you. I put them before me, and this is what I’ve got to do in order for her to have the life I want for her.”
  4. Mike DeCourcy writes that folks in Cincinnati won’t stress over the distinction between outright and co-champions of the AAC, as either would earn the program its first conference championship of any kind since 2004. Should the Bearcats take care of business on the road against Rutgers tomorrow, they’ll have to wait approximately two hours for the end of the Louisville-UConn game before they know for sure. As for yesterday’s senior night festivities, the evening couldn’t have gone any better for departing upperclassmen Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles, and Justin Jackson, who scored a combined 71 points in the Bearcats’ 97-84 win over Memphis. Racking up an efficient 34 points, Kilpatrick even outshone big performances from Shabazz Napier and Russ Smith earlier this week, firing the “latest salvo in the war for the AAC Player of the Year.”
  5. The Hartford Courant’s Jeff Jacobs wrote an excellent piece in which he grapples to accurately place Shabazz Napier in the UConn hoops pantheon. It’s also full of adorable moms-at-senior-night anecdotes, and I’m a total sucker for those. UConn’s assistant director of athletic communications, Phil Chardis, who covered the Huskies in the Connecticut press for more than 30 years, told Jacobs, “In my opinion, no UConn player has meant any more to his particular team than Shabazz.” Apart from his impressive career statistics and memorable single-game accomplishments, Napier’s legacy may most be defined by his decision to remain at UConn despite impending NCAA sanctions, a transfer exodus and lingering uncertainty. Kevin Ollie showered Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander with effusive gratitude for that very reason Wednesday night, thanking his seniors for “providing me with loyalty and providing this program with faith.” “They kept this program alive. I owe them a lot,” added Ollie. “I can never repay them for what they gave me.”
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AAC M5: 02.28.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on February 28th, 2014

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  1. One of the main reasons Louisville has been successful this season, specifically lately, is its ability to take care of the basketball. Before the season began, Rick Pitino was worried about the team’s ball handling with the departure of stalwart point guard Peyton Siva. So, every time a player turned the ball over his name was taped on the wall at the practice facility. Everyone’s name is on the wall. The gimmick must have worked, because the Cards are on pace to set a school record for fewest turnovers per game (averaging 10.2 per game). How far back do you have to go to find the record holders? Not very. It was set last year with the national championship team, who averaged just 12.4. Louisville ranks second in the country in turnover margin at plus 6.8. Freshman Terry Rozier is leading the way with 3.4 assists for every turnover and Chris Jones’ number is close to 3. Solid work for two first-year Division 1 players.
  2. SMU could be a scary opponent for someone in the NCAA Tournament, assuming they do what they have to and earn a bid. ESPN’s John Gassaway said the Mustangs should be thought of as lil’ Ohio State because second-year coach Larry Brown has his team playing some of the best defense in the conference. That’s high praise when the AAC is home to Cincinnati and Louisville. No team has allowed more attempts from three-point land in all of the seven top conferences than SMU so if a team does not get hot from beyond the arc, the Mustangs should have a very good chance to win a game or two in the tournament. Down low SMU has rim protectors in Markus Kennedy and Cannen Cunningham. SMU could probably wind up anywhere between a six and 11 seed, depending on how it finishes the regular season and in the AAC tournament.
  3. Trying to keep Cincinnati forward Justin Jackson out of foul trouble is nothing new, coach Mick Cronin said. That, however, doesn’t make it any less of a pressing issue. Jackson averages 11.3 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots per game and is essentially the only other consistent offensive threat for the Bearcats outside of superstar Sean Kilpatrick. Jackson is quick and athletic and tries to block every shot and snag every rebound, which often gets him in foul trouble. Cronin said anyone that is an aggressive rebounder (Jackson no doubt qualifies) is always in risk of foul trouble. Against Louisville, Jackson picked up two fouls in just more than two minutes, sending him to the bench for the reminder of the half. Cronin said he’s actually done a better job with fouls this year, and the Louisville game was a glaring exception. He said no one was more upset than Jackson about spending so much time on the bench. Starting tomorrow at Connecticut, Jackson will need to stay on the floor for Cincinnati to reach its lofty goals of an AAC championship (or two) and a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
  4. At this point in the season it’s all about execution. Sunday against SMU, Connecticut simply didn’t do it. And until they had a second-half surge to get past South Florida Wednesday night, the Huskies weren’t very impressive again. “It’s always frustrating not when you’re broke yourself, but your whole team is broke,” Ryan Boatright said. “We’ve got to get better, man, at all aspects of the game.” Kevin Ollie continues to preach trust and ball movement to his group and not to bog down if the first or second offensive option is unavailable.
  5. Rick Pitino is not worried about his team letting up — it hasn’t all season — because he has a great group of seniors. Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Stephan Van Treese, and Tim Henderson have all been to two Final Fours but have not let up a bit. Pitino said the greatest sign of maturity from his team was after Smith’s shot went in against Cincinnati, all five guys got right back into defensive position and it was a tipped pass that officially sealed the game.
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AAC M5: 02.25.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on February 25th, 2014

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  1. It was easy to see Saturday that Cincinnati needs a third offensive threat behind Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson. Jackson found himself in early foul trouble and the Bearcats struggled to keep up with Louisville in the first half. In the second half, Kilpatrick played the role of superman and nearly pulled off a single-handed comeback with 22 second half points. He was the only Bearcat to reach double figures. The three starters not named Jackson or Kilpatrick combined for just seven points Saturday. Shaquille Thomas or Jermaine Sanders will have to be the ones to step up if Cincinnati wants to hold on to first place in the AAC or make a significant postseason run. Cincinnati not only has to worry about finding production offensive outside of Kilpatrick, they also need to be mindful of the possibility that he could wear down. Playing so many minutes and doing so much for the team may be too much for him to continue on the torrid pace he’s on. Will the Bearcats be able to survive in a one and done situation if Kilpatrick has an off night?
  2. If the defending national champion plans to make a serious run at defending their crown, free throw shooting is priority number one. Louisville is shooting just 65 percent from the line, good enough for 300th in the nation. “We’ve got a nice basketball team,” Pitino said. “If we make our free throws we’ve got a hell of a basketball team.” Of likely NCAA tournament teams, there’s less than a handful worse at the line than Louisville. Louisville’s woes are most evident with forward Montrezl Harrell. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin made a point to foul Harrell and make him earn his points at the line. He’s only shooting 38 percent form the line in conference play. Louisville is flat-out not a contender to do much of anything if Harrell isn’t on the floor. From this point forward, look for teams to utilize Cronin’s philosophy and make Harrell toe-the-line.
  3. Larry Brown’s SMU team secured a statement win on the road Sunday beating Connecticut to most likely move on the right side of the bubble for good, as long as they take care of business in the games they should win from here on out. SMU has a couple of chances to boost their resume and potential seed even further with Louisville (home) and Memphis ( road) still on the schedule. SMU is firmly planted in the 10 slot in the majority of the national bracket predictions and are left out of only three out of 82 projections.
  4. Connecticut’s troubles begin early and never really stopped Sunday afternoon in the ugly loss at home to SMU. It took the Huskies more than six minutes to finally get on the scoreboard. Connecticut never led. Coach Kevin Ollie said his team just has to get tougher and even though it’s late in the season, he said his team can still learn from it. He also said his players have to get to a point where they trust each other, like SMU. With just four games remaining before the postseason, time is running out for the Huskies to figure it out.
  5. While the final result of the game Sunday didn’t go the way Connecticut fans hoped, the fans still had some good vibes coming out of Gampel Pavilion because the 1999 national championship team was honored. The team and guard Khalid El-Amin were inducted into the Huskies of Honor. It was also Richard Hamilton’s first stop back to a Connecticut game in the on-campus facility since his playing days. Hamilton was able to see the coach that led him to a national title, Jim Calhoun, and the head man from his NBA championship Detroit Pistons team, Larry Brown. Hamilton and El-Amin say they remind former Duke players and fans of the night they “shocked the world.”
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Who’s Got Next? Theo Pinson Ends HS Career on a High Note

Posted by Sean Moran on February 24th, 2014

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Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitments of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: Scout.com used for all player rankings.

Theo Pinson is Ready For Chapel Hill

Some players make the McDonald’s All-American game based on their summer AAU play. Other players, like four-star (and soon to be five-star) Theo Pinson earn their invitation through fabulous senior seasons. Pinson, a 6’6” small forward headed to North Carolina next year, is currently ranked No. 10 in the country by ESPN. His high ranking is largely due to an extremely impressive senior year at Wesleyan Christian Academy (NC), a school which just won its second straight state championship over their weekend.

Over the summer, Pinson led his CP3 All-Stars team to the championship game of the famed Nike Peach Jam. Despite the loss, Pinson was solid in averaging 15.0 points and 5.6 rebounds per game over the course of the event. With his slashing and athletic style of play, Pinson lived at the free throw line at times, with games where he went 16-of-18 and 17-of-18 from the line. The one weakness in Pinson’s game has been his outside shooting. Known for his “chicken-wing” form, Pinson shot a chilly 31 percent from behind the arc. Knowing his faults allowed him to focus on improving his outside shot with high school coach and former Maryland player, Keith Gatlin, who talked with InsideCarolina about his star. “I think now his shooting is his most underrated skill,” Gatlin said. “He’s been knocking them down while playing heavy minutes. He’s doing it all right now… he’s getting to the cup, finishing and making his free throws. You can’t really play him one way. A lot of teams say ‘let’s make him shoot.’ You can’t do that with him. “

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AAC M5: 02.06.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 6th, 2014

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  1. Two AAC veterans made Rob Dauster’s latest Player of the Year Power Rankings, and neither one is Russ Smith. Topped by consensus national frontrunner Doug McDermott, the list includes UConn’s Shabazz Napier at number two and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick at number eight. Dauster writes of Napier, “I’m not sure there is a player in the country that is more influential in regards to his team’s success,” and stresses that the senior puts up huge stats despite UConn’s dearth of interior scoring threats. Likewise, he describes Kilpatrick as the only prolific scorer on Mick Cronin’s defense-oriented roster, but says “I could make a strong argument that teammate Justin Jackson is more deserving of this ranking. That’s a good sign for the Bearcats.” Smith was listed among other candidates outside of the top 10.
  2. Having already held Louisville and Memphis to 66 and 53 points, respectively, The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bill Koch writes that Cincinnati has an opportunity to shut down the third-best offense in the AAC as well when they take on Connecticut tonight. In addition to averaging 76 points per game, the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense leads the league in free throw shooting (77.4 percent) and three-point percentage (41.5). Their rotation also includes three of the AAC’s top outside shooters in Napier (43.4 percent), DeAndre Daniels (47.8 percent) and Niels Giffey (55.6 percent). Koch says the Huskies “might be the most fearsome” of the offenses that Cincinnati has faced, and senior Justin Jackson did not disagree: “I still have nightmares about Napier, man […] He does some things that have you sitting there like, ‘Did he really do that?’” One factor that could tip the balance in the Bearcats’ favor is the expected return of 6’9” freshman Jermaine Lawrence, who’s been out since early January.
  3. After being annihilated in Memphis 101-69 this week, Rutgers is 0-7 on the road and 0-5 in AAC road games, losing those contests by an average margin of 19 points. Tuesday’s defeat was the first time the Scarlet Knights had given up 100 points since 2006. “It was just total domination from every aspect of the game,” coach Eddie Jordan said during a postgame interview, adding, “We just weren’t ready for their physicality and for their expertise at playing the game.” Jordan said his team would regroup and set their sights on getting to sixth place in the conference standings in order to earn a bye in the AAC Tournament.
  4. On the other side of the blowout, their blistering offensive performance gives Memphis some much-needed confidence heading into a College GameDay showdown with a 21-3 Gonzaga team on Saturday. Rediscovering their outside shot, Josh Pastner’s team hit 12 of 19 threes (63 percent) and shot 59 percent from the field. Six Tigers scored in double digits, including every starting and Michael Dixon Jr. off the bench, in a balanced scoring attack that encountered little resistance against Rutgers. “The open man is the go-to-man and that’s what we did tonight.” said Chris Crawford, who finished with a 12-point, 11-rebounds double-double that atoned for his disappointing performance in the previous loss to SMU.
  5. Temple begins its four-day tour of Texas tonight. It marks the Owls’ longest road trip since playing exhibition games in Europe last summer. A challenging weekend on the road for any East Coast team (looking at you, UConn), it’s exacerbated by the Owl’s youthful inexperience and SMU’s dominant home court advantage in Moody Coliseum this season. “It’s a far trip,” admitted coach Fran Dunphy. “SMU is a really tough team that will cause matchup problems for us, Houston has had its ups and downs like us but two really difficult games to prepare for, again, it’s a long way to go.” Dunphy will have to lean on the leadership of upperclassmen Dalton Pepper, Anthony Lee and Will Cummings, the latter of whom observed, “there’s not too many Temple alumni or fans in Texas.”
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AAC M5: 02.04.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 4th, 2014

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  1. Rutgers junior Myles Mack is finally embracing the point guard role that Eddie Jordan wants him to play, according to Brendan Prunty of the Newark Star-Ledger. The 5’9″ guard has been tasked with transforming his game this season, making the adjustment from playing off the ball under former coach Mike Rice to becoming the primary distributor and decision-maker in Eddie Jordan’s system. He may have turned the corner last Saturday during a 93-70 win against Houston, turning in a “near-complete performance” that included 25 points, six assists and just one turnover. “I tell our team, ‘You’re the first building blocks of a new regime. A new program,’ Jordan said. “We’re rebuilding. So yeah, there’s going to be some uncomfortable times out there, but we think it’s going to be best for the long run.” Jordan stressed that making the move to the one-guard spot would also improve Mack’s chances of a successful basketball career after college.
  2. People might have to start taking the AAC more seriously after the conference placed a season-high four teams in the Associated Press Top 25 yesterday. Cincinnati (#7), Louisville (#14), UConn (#22), and Memphis (#24), all made the cut for the American, which was surpassed only by the Big 12 and its five teams in the poll. SMU also received votes after its big win over Memphis. Over in the Coaches’ Poll, the league was actually the only one in the country with two teams represented in the top 10. The bottom half continues to look pretty bleak, and KenPom only ranks the AAC seventh among all conferences, but the AAC has quietly upgraded itself from what momentarily looked like a three-bid league to one likely to claim five.
  3. Yesterday’s AP poll was historic for Cincinnati too, as the Bearcats earned their highest ranking in the Mick Cronin era. Not since 2003-04 under Bob Huggins have they come so close to the Top 25 summit. Incidentally, that same year Cincinnati went 3-1 against Memphis and Louisville on its way to a Conference USA championship, a model it will try to replicate this season. “We’re not done yet,” senior Justin Jackson said after his team beat USF to move to 10-0 in league play, adding that the goal now is to secure a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Cronin echoed those comments, reflecting, “We understand the importance of seeding in the NCAA tournament. The last three years, we’ve had terrible draws.” The Bearcats are certainly on pace to earn a much more favorable situation this season, with Jerry Palm now projecting them as a two-seed in the East Region.
  4. A 50-45 loss at Cincinnati last Sunday has left Joey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times wondering what could have been were USF not the second-worst three-point shooting team in country. The Bulls bested the Bearcats in several statistical categories, including a defensive rebounding advantage, and held the league leader to 33 percent shooting and its lowest scoring total in AAC play. But despite connecting on 47 percent of their shots inside the arc, USF made only 1-of-9 threes, and missed all five of their attempts in the closing minutes of the game. That fact isn’t lost on Stan Heath, who admitted that opponents would continue to run compact zone defenses against his team until forced to respect the Bulls’ outside shooting. “Down the stretch if we had been a little bit better against the zone, come up with some of those loose balls, it’s our game,” he said.
  5. UConn forward DeAndre Daniels returned to limited practice yesterday after sustaining a high ankle sprain on January 25 against Rutgers, and is expected to test his ankle further in practices today and tomorrow. His team’s chances of winning at Cincinnati on Thursday greatly improve if Daniels is on the floor, and senior Shabazz Napier described his return as “super important. DeAndre is our X-factor.” Prior to his injury, the 6’9” junior bookended a dud against Louisville with huge double-doubles against Memphis and Temple, including a 31-point, 12-rebound performance versus the Owls. Daniels’ production seemed to be catching up with his talent this season, and his status on Thursday could have a big impact on UConn’s hopes of remaining within striking distance in the AAC race.
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Award Tour: Doug McDermott Blowing Away the NPOY Competition

Posted by Jameson Fleming on January 31st, 2014

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Jameson Fleming is an RTC columnist who also works for CBSSports.com as the site’s social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesonFleming.

Michigan State was so close to landing a player in this week’s Award Tour rankings, but Gary Harris struggled in a loss to Michigan. His day will come… eventually. Providence’s Bryce Cotton and Ed Cooley are also very close to making their debuts on the watch lists as well. Cotton is an ironman who has carried the Friars after taking over as the point guard, while Cooley has kept the team moving forward after a rough start to conference play. Andrew Wiggins is quickly turning into the player everyone expected before the season — he was never bad or mediocre, just not a stud – until now. After 27 points against TCU and 29 more against Iowa State, Maple Jordan is rounding into form as Kansas’ second Big 12 Player of the Year candidate. Pitt’s Lamar Patterson struggled against Duke, but he’ll have several more chances in the coming weeks to prove he’s an ACC Player of the Year candidate.

Player of the Year

Thanks to some outstanding play of late, Justin Jackson (left), Xavier Thames, and Nick Stauskas are all in the POY discussion.

Thanks to some outstanding play of late, Justin Jackson (left), Xavier Thames, and Nick Stauskas are all in the POY discussion.

10. Justin Jackson – Cincinnati. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats: 11.1 PPG, 7 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 107.5 oRTG

Justin Jackson isn’t going to wow anyone offensively. He can score a few buckets here and there, be a playmaker occasionally, and draw a lot of fouls. So why did he make the Player of the Year rankings? He’s a dominant defender and rebounder. Jackson is arguably the best player on a Cincinnati team that is now 20-2 with wins at Louisville, at Memphis, Pittsburgh and SMU. He’s the only player in the top 50 in the country in block AND steal rate according to KenPom, and his late steal against Louisville helped seal an impressive victory in the KFCYum! Center against the Cardinals.

9. Xavier Thames – San Diego State. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats: 17.5 PPG, 2.7 APG, 121.6 oRTG

Xavier Thames has emerged as San Diego State’s top player after spending three years toiling in mediocrity thanks to poor shooting and turnovers. But as a senior, Thames has become a much more efficient scorer and distributor. He’s the main reason why the Aztecs could overcome huge personnel losses and improve from last year’s NCAA round of 32 squad.

8. Joel Embiid – Kansas. Last Week: 9
2013-14 stats: 11.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 113.6 oRTG

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Three Keys in Tonight’s Louisville vs. Cincinnati Game

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 30th, 2014

The conference’s biggest game to date is upon us as conference leader Cincinnati travels to the KFC Yum! Center to butt heads with conference favorite Louisville. The Bearcats have won 12 straight games and are undefeated in the conference entering tonight’s action. The Cardinals have a home loss to Memphis earlier this month that they can’t wash away but have won their last four games including an easy win on the road over Connecticut. The two teams are similar in that they both rely on their defense, both have potential All-American candidates spearheading their offense, and both have questions about whether or not they have the complementary pieces in place to make a deep run in March. Needless to say, tonight should be an exciting night for college basketball fans, especially those who are partial to the AAC. Let’s take a look at three keys to success for each team.

Cincinnati

Sean Kilpatrick Has Been Unstoppable Through 8 Games, But Red Flags Remain

Sean Kilpatrick could use some help offensively tonight

  1. Get production from Justin Jackson – The senior sprained his ankle and only played six minutes in Sunday’s win over Temple but the Bearcats’ defensive lynchpin was cleared to play as of this morning and that’s really good news because without him, Cincinnati would be facing a steep uphill battle. After consistency questions during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Jackson has been crucial to Cincinnati’s recent success, especially on the defensive end where his versatility and ability to play much larger than his listed height have plugged a major hole in the frontcourt. It is probably wishful thinking to expect Jackson to be 100 percent, but the team needs him to play well on both ends of the floor if they are going to compete with the deeper, more experienced, and more talented Cardinals.
  2. Don’t allow second-chance opportunities – The Bearcats are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country but ironically, they also struggle mightily to keep opponents off the offensive glass as well. In the team’s closer than expected win against lowly Temple, the Bearcats allowed the Owls — perhaps the conference’s worst rebounding team — to snatch 12 offensive rebounds and out-rebound them overall 32-31. They survived because they tightened up when they needed to and because Temple’s defense is terrible, but the Cardinals are a different animal. Louisville is 20th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and they are a far more efficient offensive outfit, which means they will be able to do more with their second-chance opportunities than Temple was able to do. Jackson’s availability should help in this area, but the Bearcats will still be at a disadvantage in terms of size, so they will need to execute for 40 minutes on the boards.
  3. Someone not named Sean Kilpatrick needs to step up offensively – Short of dressing Kilpatrick up as teammate Jermaine Sanders, it will be tough for coach Mick Cronin to find a game plan that will consistently free Kilpatrick up offensively. Kilpatrick will get his looks and Cincinnati will make a concerted effort to get the ball in his hands, but Louisville isn’t stupid and they know if they can shut down Kilpatrick, their chances of winning will rise exponentially. Ideally the Bearcats would count on Jackson to shoulder some of the scoring load but with lingering questions about his health, Shaquille Thomas or Titus Rubles or Troy Caupain will need to step up and keep the Cardinals’ defense honest. Thomas’ athleticism presents intriguing matchup issues and he was great against the Owls but this is a much bigger game on the road and the redshirt sophomore will find the sledding much tougher this time around. The Bearcats don’t need a breakout offensive performance, but they do need someone or a combination of players to step up and give Kilpatrick some help.

Louisville

Luke Hancock (left) played his best game since the Final Four, but it wasn't enough for Louisville to beat Memphis. (Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports)

Luke Hancock needs to have a big game tonight (Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Get out to a quick start – The KFC Yum! Center will be a raucous environment tonight and the Bearcats simply do not have the firepower to come from behind against good teams, especially on the road. If the Cardinals can play within themselves to start the game, get easy buckets, and open up an early lead, it could be game over quickly. A fast start will give them momentum, it will get the noisy crowd involved, and it will force an offensively handicapped outfit to get out of their preferred pace of play and start pushing the tempo. Make a few early three-pointers, find easy buckets in transition, and force some turnovers and the Cardinals will be able to relax. But allow Cincinnati to hang around and folks could be in for a nail-biting finish.
  2. Luke Hancock needs to stay hot – The popular “What in the world has happened to Luke Hancock?” question has been asked less and less recently as the senior has scored in double-figures in the team’s last seven games, but now is not the time for him to rest on his laurels. The Bearcats are easily the best and most physical defensive team the Cardinals have played thus far and he will need to assert himself offensively if Louisville wants to take control of this game. He still hasn’t quite regained his shooting touch but if he can get to the free-throw line and even just keep the Bearcats’ defense honest from behind the three-point-arc he will free up the team’s guards to penetrate easier and give the team’s big men more room to operate on the low block.
  3. Steady play from whoever is handling the point guard duties – Regular starter Chris Jones will be in uniform tonight for the first time since injury his oblique in the team’s win over SMU, but he will be coming off the bench and freshman Terry Rozier will get to make his fourth straight start. Rozier has been steady in Jones’ absence, especially when it comes to taking care of the ball, and that will be especially important for the Cardinals tonight. The Bearcats’ offense uses the turnovers created by its defense to get easy baskets. Jones and Rozier don’t need to combine for 30 points and 22 assists tonight. They need to take care of the basketball, manage the offense, and prevent Cincinnati’s defense from wreaking havoc. If they can do that, Louisville should prevail.
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AAC M5: 01.29.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on January 29th, 2014

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  1. When the Connecticut Huskies find themselves in trouble, they look to senior guard Shabazz Napier to bail them out. Tell us something we don’t know, right? Well, even in games where Napier appears to be struggling, such as the team’s last game at Rutgers, he almost always finds a way to put his team on his back. He scored 20 second half points in the 82-71 victory. Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said Napier is a unique star because he’s so unselfish and is a great passer while still being an assassin from the outside. Napier’s coach, Kevin Ollie, said he doesn’t get discouraged and guys know when to get him the ball so he can take over. His teammates also know to be prepared to knock down an open shot, because Napier will find them.
  2. Everyone knew Memphis would have a good, if not great, backcourt coming into the 2013-14 season, but it’s the play of forward Shaq Goodwin that has turned heads so far. Goodwin nearly had a double-double in the first half Sunday against South Florida, scoring 8 points and pulling down 8 boards. Senior sharpshooter Geron Johnson said not only can the Tiger guards play with anyone in the country, but their big men, led by Goodwin, can too. The play of Goodwin and fellow big man Austin Nichols helped open up the outside shot for the guards, who buried 10 threes against the Bulls. No one in the country seems to have more fun on the court than the ever-smiling Atlanta native. Johnson said when Goodwin is leading the way playing the way he did Sunday, the Tigers are hard to beat.
  3. Much of the talk around Louisville this season centered on its strength of schedule, or lack thereof, after the Cardinals squandered their early chances at good wins against North Carolina and Kentucky. The schedule has received a boost lately, however minimal, by the good play of Cincinnati, Southern Methodist and Southern Miss. Louisville has already played seven teams in the top 51 of the RPI. All of these means quite a bit, according to a Louisville beat writer, as far as NCAA tournament seeding is concerned. Either way, a win against Cincinnati tomorrow night would represent the best win of the season to date, and would set Louisville up for making a run at a strong seed on Selection Sunday.
  4. One of Cincinnati’s key players, Justin Jackson, is day-to-day with an ankle injury. The senior forward’s injury came after just six minutes of action in the Bearcats’ victory at Temple Sunday. The injury could loom large with a road trip to Louisville up next for the conference leaders. Jackson is a defensive force on one of the best defensive teams in the country. He averages 3.5 blocks per game to go with his 11.6 points and 7.3 rebounds. Outside of Sean Kilpatrick, Jackson is the one player the Bearcats can not afford to lose.
  5. If Justin Jackson’s injury lingers, sophomore Shaquille Thomas will have to be the one to step up, just as he did in the victory against Temple. Thomas scored a career high 15 points (nine above his average) on 7-of-9 shooting and also pulled down four rebounds. He’ll have to find a way to stay out of foul trouble, however, if added minutes are coming his way. He fouled out with 1:15 remaining with the game still in the balance. Thomas said the difference was his aggressiveness on the offensive end, after Temple went to a box-and-one defense on Sean Kilpatrick.
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AAC M5: 01.07.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on January 7th, 2014

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  1. Temple is experiencing a “Murphy’s Law season” after dropping another close loss,78-76, to UCF over the weekend. Discounting a 14-point loss to Clemson, the Owls have been competitive in every game they’ve played this season, as their other six losses have been decided by an average of 3.2 points. On the road against the Knights last Saturday, not even an explosive 31-point performance from junior point guard Will Cummings could put Temple over the top. Philadelphia Daily News writer Dick Jerardi points out that Fran Dunphy’s team is “a play here and a play there away from maybe 10 wins.” Instead, the Owls are stuck at 5-7 and winless in the AAC, facing a January schedule that includes a home-and-home with Cincinnati, a trip to UConn and a home game against Memphis.
  2. With a road trip to Louisville looming on Thursday, Memphis coach Josh Pastner says there’s no time for his team to have a “pity party” over its 16-point loss to Cincinnati in the FedEx Forum. His players seem to be absorbing that message, as veterans from Joe Jackson to David Pellom to Chris Crawford reiterated the sense that they “can’t let it soak in on us.” Following their marquee match-up in the Yum! Center and a night spent in Louisville, the Tigers fly straight to Philadelphia for a game at Temple on Saturday afternoon. Returning from that road trip with a 1-3 AAC record is by no means out of the question right now, and would place Memphis in a deep hole just one week into league play.
  3. Adding to the excitement of UCF’s first league win as members of the American, Isaiah Sykes entertained the home crowd with a near-triple-double stat line during the Knights’ close win over Temple last Saturday. The 6’6″, 220-pound senior logged a double-double before halftime, and finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists, matching a career-high for scoring. Sykes also helped contain Temple point guard Will Cummings in the second half, limiting him to 11 of his 31 total points after halftime. “Coach Jones asked me to step up and check [Cummings],” Sykes recalled. “My focus was just to slow him down and contain him and my teammates did a good job being there on the help side and putting me in good position to stay in front of him.” It’s the type of game Donnie Jones needs to see this season from the big, versatile guard in order for his team to finish in the top two-thirds of the league.
  4. Heading into tonight’s road game against Houston, Cincinnati players aren’t overlooking the Cougars after watching them knock off UConn on New Year’s Eve. “If you beat Connecticut, that’s a good quality win. That obviously makes you a pretty good team,” said three-time reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Week, Justin Jackson. Though Houston star TaShawn Thomas poses a particular challenge for Cincinnati given that freshman Jermaine Lawrence is doubtful for the game, Mick Cronin expressed total confidence in his senior Jackson: “If you’re going to compete for a league championship, you need two all-league players, not one… Right now we’ve got two guys playing at that level in Justin and Sean Kilpatrick.” Both teams sit atop the AAC at 2-0, alongside Louisville, and the Bearcats look to earn a 3-0 start in league play for the first time since 2004-05, their Conference USA farewell campaign.
  5. College Basketball Talk’s Scott Phillips picked out some interesting quotes from a New York Daily News piece on Larry Brown, in which the 73-year-old coach related the rebuilding project at SMU to what John Thompson encountered at Georgetown in the early 1970s. “[Though] I know I am not John Thompson, I see there’s potential for the same thing here. We’ve got a good city. It’s a fine school in an improving (conference). There’s a lot of talent in the area.” Brown also noted that when he first arrived, he had been “stunned” by the apathy with which the local community seemed to regard the SMU program. That problem seems like it’s taking care of itself now that the Mustangs are improving their facilities, recruiting, and on-court performance.
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AAC M5: 01.06.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on January 6th, 2014

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  1. Cincinnati remains undefeated through two conference games after overwhelming 18th-ranked Memphis, 69-53, and the Bearcats have developed a winning, if not altogether sexy, identity characterized by stifling defensive effort. CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish contends that their surprisingly dominant win in the FedEx Forum on Saturday was “one of the best true road victories any college basketball team has recorded this season.” Mick Cronin’s squad held the robust Memphis offense to an icy 33 percent shooting overall and 12 percent shooting from beyond the arc, while blocking 10 shots and limiting the Tigers to 11 assists. The Bearcats, Parrish notes, have embraced the same characteristics that distinguished Bob Huggins-coached Cincinnati teams: namely by being “tough, physical, terrific defensively and opportunistic offensively.” Justin Jackson endorsed that aesthetic after the game when he declared, “an ugly win is a win.”
  2. USA Today’s Eric Prisbell writes that things are falling into place for SMU coach Larry Brown following his team’s watershed victory over UConn this past weekend. Bolstered by blue-chip Texas recruits, the recent $47 million renovation of Moody Coliseum, and the program’s first victory over a ranked team in more than a decade, Brown told reporters, “We have everything now… I don’t look at any other program and think they have more than us.” Prisbell cites the transition from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference as another major factor of Brown’s success, noting that the UConn game was SMU’s first home sellout since 2001 and that the school has added 2,000 season ticketholders since hiring him.
  3. Rick Pitino praised Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan after the Scarlet Knights challenged his heavily favored Cardinals in the RAC on Saturday, before ultimately falling, 83-76. Pitino described the first-year coach and former player as “almost the perfect hire,” and predicted, “Rutgers will turn around with him at the helm because they’ll take great pride in their program.” Writer Jerry Carino points out that although this was Rutgers’ eighth consecutive loss to Louisville, Saturday’s contest was the first in that time frame decided by fewer than 12 points. Rutgers fans should feel encouraged that their team remained competitive with the league favorite despite Jerome Seagears only logging 16 minutes, and that the Scarlet Knights managed to string together their first three-game winning streak of the season prior to the loss. Jordan and his team will face another major test next Saturday when traveling to take on a resurgent Cincinnati team.
  4. UConn has gotten off to a historically poor start in conference play following consecutive losses to Texas foes, Houston and SMU. After granting SMU its first win over a ranked team since 2003, the Huskies are now 0-2 in league play for the first time since the 1989-90 season, and reside in last place in a thus-far unexceptional American Athletic Conference. Head coach Kevin Ollie continued to criticize his team’s lack of toughness, particularly on defense, and said “the last two games all our principles have gone out the window.” Alluding to the Huskies’ minus-eight rebounding margin, guard Ryan Boatright attributed the loss to a “lack of intensity and a lack of effort.” UConn allowed SMU to shoot 47 percent from the field and collect 15 offensive boards, leading Ollie to reiterate, “If we can’t score, we’re definitely going to play some defense. That’s what I hang my hat on and we’re not doing it the last two games.” After the loss, RTC’s C.D. Bradley offered some insights into the Huskies’ swift decline from Final Four contender to AAC basement dweller.
  5. USF joined UConn at the bottom of the AAC standings after falling to Houston on Saturday in a contest that continued to expose the Bulls’ poor outside shooting. South Florida entered the game having shot 26 percent from beyond the arc during the season, and missed all 10 of its three-point attempts of the first half while trying to exploit Houston’s collapsed zone defense. Allowing the Cougars to pack the paint negated the Bulls’ size advantage in the post, and freshman forward Chris Perry commented after the game, “We just need three-point shooters so teams won’t zone us,” admitting “it’s real frustrating, but it’s nothing I can really control.” The loss followed a dismal three-point shooting display against Memphis in which the Bulls missed all nine attempts, and through two conference games, USF is shooting a league-worst 16.7 percent from outside. At this point, the scouting report on Stan Heath’s team is rather well-known around the league.
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