ACC Stock Watch – Week One

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 21st, 2014

Each week here at the microsite we’ll take a look at which ACC teams and players are trending up, down, or remaining flat. It’s still very early in the season, but there are some trends to be gleaned from the first week of opening games. Let’s take a look below:

Trending Up

  • Duke. Despite all of the preseason hype placed on Duke’s freshmen (Jahlil Okafor in particular) and speculative questions about overall team chemistry, the Blue Devils have looked the part of a title contender thus far. Their blowouts over Presbyterian and Fairfield may not have convinced anyone, but their wire-to-wire victory over Michigan State showed that Duke is already in top form.
  • Miami. The Hurricanes’ early returns on their big-name transfers have been outstanding. Sheldon McClellan (from Texas) is putting up 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game through two contests, and former Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez is not only averaging a team-high 18.3 points per contest, but he also hit the game-winning three over rival Florida that ended the Gators’ 33-game home winning streak. Pretty solid start for Jim Larranaga’s newcomers.
Angel Rodriguez has brought pleasant early returns for Miami (USA Today Sports)

Angel Rodriguez has produced pleasant early returns for Miami (USA Today Sports)

  • Virginia Tech. Why are the Hokies trending up when they only have wins over Maryland-Eastern Shore and Liberty? Well, go back in time one year ago and Virginia Tech had just lost its season opener to South Carolina Upstate. At a minimum, Buzz Williams has his team beating the teams it should beat, something last year’s group couldn’t boast. Freshman Justin Bibbs’ solid start to the season has been a pleasant surprise as well.

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North Carolina Shows Off Its Depth on Opening Weekend

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 17th, 2014

After having to answer questions all preseason dealing with the school’s “paper class” scandal, there’s little doubt that North Carolina’s players and coaches were even more excited than usual to tip off the 2014-15 season over the weekend. The program needs something positive to rally around, and with two games now under the team’s belt, there’s something to be excited about. On Friday night at the Smith Center, North Carolina defeated North Carolina Central by a score of 76-60, in a game that Roy Williams described as “not the prettiest in the world.” Things came much easier for the Tar Heels in Sunday afternoon’s 103-59 beatdown of Robert Morris. It should be noted that each of North Carolina’s first two opponents were not the traditional cupcakes that some may believe — in fact, both schools won their respective conference regular season championships last season.

Kennedy Meeks (left) and Brice Johnson (#11) give North Carolina a Powerful Inside Game. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Kennedy Meeks (with ball) and Brice Johnson (#11) give North Carolina a Powerful Inside Game. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So let’s look at some of the takeaways from the Tar Heel’s first two games.

  • North Carolina has a dynamic duo in the post. In the opener, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson were solid (combining for 22 points and 17 rebounds), but they were dominant against Robert Morris, combining for 44/20. We had heard reports in the preseason that each player had undergone a physical transformation, and we can confirm that the change in both is striking. The sophomore Meeks has lost approximately 50 pounds and is now listed at a solid 270, while the junior Johnson has done the opposite, gaining about 20 pounds to get to his current listed weight of 228. The result is that Meeks is able to run up and down the court much easier and is more explosive around the basket, and undoubtedly will be able to log heavier minutes. Johnson, on the other hand, will no longer be so easily knocked off-balance on the blocks, capable of holding his position defensively without having to foul.

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The Freshman 15: Preseason Freshman of the Year Watch List

Posted by Alex Joseph on November 12th, 2014

The 2013-14 NCAA freshman class was packed with stars. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh were all top 10 picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. Not far behind that group were Zach LaVine (No. 13), James Young (No. 17) and Tyler Ennis (No. 18). Will the 2014-15 NCAA freshman class deliver nine first-round draft picks? While it’s doubtful, it’s certainly possible. This is a deep class full of talented players with completely different skill sets. RTC has compiled a list of 15 hopeful freshmen that have a solid shot at winning this upcoming season’s INTEGRIS Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year award.

Let’s start with the player most pundits believe will hold up the trophy at the end of the season.

The Favorite

Duke's Jahlil Okafor is the favorite (left) but the guys on the right (Arizona's Stanley Johnson,

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is the favorite (left) but the guys on the right (Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Kansas’ Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre and UNLV’s Rashad Vaughn) will also be right in the mix.

Jahlil Okafor, Duke – 6’11”, 272 pounds: If it weren’t for Emmanuel Mudiay (who chose to play overseas in lieu of a year of college), Okafor might be the consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick in 2015. Okafor has the size and length (7’5” wingspan) to not only be an interior force on offense, but he’s going to be a solid rim-protector on defense. Don’t be fooled by his weight, either. At 272 pounds, Okafor has surprisingly great mobility and athleticism. His ability to run the floor and his soft hands will make him a prime candidate to receive transition lobs on the fast break. As of now, Okafor is strictly a back-to-the-basket player who needs to develop a consistent mid-range jumper to round out his game. He also needs to work on his free throw shooting, as he figures to spend a lot of time there this season.

In the Discussion

  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona – 6’7”, 235 pounds: Johnson might actually be the most complete player in this class. He is a polished, two-way player and an above-average ball-handler for his size. He uses his high motor skills and never-ending energy to produce in transition, absorbing any and all contact as he makes his way to the rim. The knock on Johnson right now is that he needs to become a more consistent shooter and develop more range. Depending on what Arizona head coach Sean Miller wants to do with him, Johnson could find himself as the starting shooting guard in the Wildcats’ lineup. His versatility allows him to play multiple positions, but if he starts at the two, then he is going to need to become a floor-spacer with consistency. It will be interesting to see how Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play next to each other, as they have very similar size and playing styles.

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RTC’s ACC Preseason Awards

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 11th, 2014

With the 2014-15 ACC season just about to tip off, our esteemed panel of micrositers has come together to release our preseason individual superlatives. It was a close race for most of these positions, but those who were close to making the cut will earn honorable mention below. Feel free to comment on where we went horribly awry or how accurately you think we’ve nailed it.

Player of the Year: Marcus Paige, PG, North Carolina. It might be a good thing if Paige’s scoring numbers drop this year, as that would probably mean more offensive production from his peers. North Carolina has a promising group of freshmen in the backcourt and on the wing, but a more mature and seasoned frontcourt could help Paige excel as the team’s primary ball-handler. Jahlil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell are two others who could easily claim this award by season’s end.

Marcus Paige is RTC's pre-season ACC Player of the Year (newsobserver.com)

Marcus Paige is RTC’s preseason ACC Player of the Year (newsobserver.com)

Freshman of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke. We didn’t stray far from public opinion on this one. Okafor gives Duke its most formidable post player in many years, and his exhibition performances have done little to dampen the enthusiasm for his talent in Durham. Justin Jackson (North Carolina), Shaqquan Aaron (Louisville) and Kaleb Joseph (Syracuse) are dark horse candidates worth keeping an eye on.

Coach of the Year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski were the others we considered, but the potential for Florida State to make some noise in the ACC race this year means Hamilton is the preseason choice. Florida State will continue to play its trademark smothering defense, but we think that the offense will be vastly improved. It says here that the Seminoles will improve on their 9-9 ACC record and return to the Big Dance after an NIT semifinals appearance a year ago.

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ACC Preview: North Carolina’s Burning Question

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 10th, 2014

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage. You will find a list with links to all the team previews on the ACC Microsite Preview Page, located here.

Can North Carolina’s frontcourt live up to its potential?

North Carolina underwent a major roster re-shuffling last season due to the dismissal of P.J. Hairston and the late insertion of Leslie McDonald into the lineup. The team was all over the place in the season’s first half, notching impressive wins over highly-ranked teams while suffering several head-scratching losses to lesser opponents. The Tar Heels finally found their footing come conference play, however, and finished 24-10 overall (13-5 ACC) en route to the NCAA Tournament’s Third Round, where they lost to Iowa State. This year’s edition is projected as a better team, but the Tar Heels’ chances of making a deep run in March will directly tie to the success of its deep but sometimes inconsistent frontcourt.

Johnson will need to use his added bulk to help him bang with the bigs in the ACC this year (gettyimages)

Johnson will need to use his added bulk to help him bang with the bigs in the ACC this year (gettyimages)

Brice Johnson was a sort of super-sub for North Carolina last year, spelling enigmatic James Michael McAdoo at power forward and occasionally filling in at the center position. He averaged 10.3 points per game, largely on transition baskets and buckets around the rim. Johnson’s biggest weaknesses were his lack of bulk, causing him to struggle playing against bigger, stronger opponents, and his propensity for foul trouble. He has reportedly added about 20 pounds to his frame, so the Heels hope that his improved strength will allow him to handle the night-in, night-out pounding in the paint. If he can also become a more well-rounded defender by tempering the tendency to send every opponent’s shot into the fifth row, Johnson can better remain on the floor and become a very dependable contributor on both ends of the court.

Johnson’s running mate in the paint, Kennedy Meeks, was a polar opposite of Johnson. Meeks came into Chapel Hill as a freshman needing to lose weight, and he has done so to the tune of a whopping 50 pounds in the last year-plus. Meeks is not a prototypical center at 6’8″, but he has excellent offensive moves around the basket and understands his limitations in playing below the rim. He is also an exceptional passer, helping to ignite fast breaks and finding open men from the post. Like Johnson, Meeks needs to stay on the floor with McAdoo no longer in the mix, but if his conditioning has greatly improved that will prove much easier for the sophomore. Meeks and Johnson also showed great chemistry in executing the high-low game when they shared court time last year, which bodes very well for the team when they are operating together in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup.

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ACC M5: 11.10.14 Exhibition II Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 10th, 2014

morning5_ACC

  1. North Carolina: North Carolina wrapped up its exhibition season with another rout, this time thrashing Belmont Abbey by a score of 112-34 on Friday night. Once again, it was freshman Justin Jackson who led the way, efficiently scoring 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. Even against Division II competition, Roy Williams has to be pleased with the pace at which the Tar Heels are scoring and how well they are sharing the ball. In their two exhibition games, the Heels have scored a total of 223 points and tallied 54 assists. Another encouraging sign is that North Carolina has made 73 percent (38-of-52) of its attempts from the stripe in its two preseason contests, after struggling mightily from the foul line last year (62.6%).
  2. Wake Forest: Wake Forest held its only preseason exhibition game in the Joel Coliseum on Friday night,  besting Young Harris by a 96-71 score. New head coach Danny Manning arrived in Winston-Salem with a reputation for developing big men while he was an assistant at Kansas, and he might already be illustrating that impact as junior center/power forward Devin Thomas went for 26 points and 12 boards on perfect 12-for-12 shooting. Two lingering concerns for the Deacs, though, were the 20 turnovers committed and the 25 fouls whistled on them.
  3. Duke: Duke won its second and final exhibition game over the defending NCAA Division II champs, Central Missouri, on Saturday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Mules actually took it to the Blue Devils early, grabbing a 13-7 lead before Duke answered with 17 consecutive points to methodically take control of the game. With their size and talent advantage, Duke racked up a huge edge in free throw attempts (+28), and while center Jahlil Okafor has received most of the preseason hype, fellow freshman Justise Winslow has been the team’s leading scorer in each preseason game.
  4. NC State: The Wolfpack played their lone exhibition game of the preseason as well on Saturday, beating Queens by a score of 78-47. NC State only led by two at the half but dominated afterwards, holding Queens to 24 percent shooting from the field in the second half. The Wolfpack also forced 30 turnovers in the game, and even though the competition wasn’t ACC-caliber, anything close to that mark in the regular season would be a pleasant surprise for a program not known for pressure defense. Two freshmen forwards, Caleb Martin and Abdul-Malik Abu, led the scoring column with 16 and 14 points, respectively, making their bids to replace some of the departed T.J. Warren’s offensive firepower.
  5. Clemson: It looks like more of the same for Clemson this year, and that means defense will once again be the Tigers’ calling card. Brad Brownell’s team harassed Anderson into a colder-than-ice 15.7 percent shooting night in a 62-36 victory Saturday in Littlejohn Coliseum. Unfortunately it might be more of the same for the Tigers’ offense as well. Clemson shot a dismal 31.7 percent from the field and only connected on 9-of-31 three-pointers. Let’s hope Clemson’s regular season games won’t all be as ugly as this one. Each team experienced horrendous scoring droughts, with Anderson in one stretch missing 19 straight shots and Clemson misfiring on its first 15 second half attempts. That couldn’t have been very easy on the eyes.
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One on One: An ACC Preview With Bret Strelow

Posted by Walker Carey on November 5th, 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 ACC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an ACC expert in Bret Strelow (@bretstrelow), the ACC basketball reporter for The Fayetteville Observer.

Rush the Court: Duke was an extremely talented unit last season, but it was ultimately done in by its defensive deficiencies in its stunning NCAA Tournament loss to Mercer. The Blue Devils once again have a talented roster and are widely projected to win the league. Will this season be any different than last when it comes to the defensive end of the floor?

Bret Strelow: It would be hard to get much worse. The Blue Devils ranked in the 100s in defensive efficiency, which is a far cry from what a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team usually is. With Jabari Parker, defense was not his calling card. Rodney Hood took on some tough assignments and struggled at times. The current thought around the Duke camp is that Jahlil Okafor at 6’11” and 270 pounds is a legitimate rim-protector. Duke can clean up some of its mistakes and pressure the ball a little bit more with Okafor back there. I think Duke should ultimately be a better defensive team, but we will see how much of a difference that will make.

Marcus Paige could be NPOY This Sesason. (credit: Ethan Hyman / Raleigh News & Observer)

Marcus Paige could be NPOY This Sesason. (credit: Ethan Hyman / Raleigh News & Observer)

RTC: Marcus Paige alone can probably keep North Carolina competitive in the ACC, but if the Tar Heels want to compete for the league crown, they are going to need a supporting cast to step forward. What Tar Heels can you see breaking out this season?

Strelow: It really might be a little bit of everybody. If Marcus Paige has to carry the load like he did for much of last season, North Carolina is probably not going to reach the goal that it has of contending for a Final Four and a national title. I think you can expect a little bit from everybody. Brice Johnson was extremely efficient last season in a secondary role behind James Michael McAdoo. If Johnson can stay out of foul trouble and guard well enough, I think his offense will be there. Kennedy Meeks has slimmed down. His offense has never been a problem. With Johnson and Meeks, you have two solid front line guys. When you look at the North Carolina freshmen class, Justin Jackson is a guy who has the uncanny ability to score. He has a way of scoring quickly and scoring in a way that does not require a lot of dribbles. I think he can really have a big year. He is probably more of an offensive threat than fellow freshmen Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II. I think outside shooting might still be an issue for North Carolina outside of Paige and if Jackson can hit a few. When you look at a guy like J.P. Tokoto, outside shooting is not his game. I think the Tar Heels have enough inside and with Jackson coming along, they are going to have enough to help Paige carry the load this season.

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Five Coaches to Watch in the AAC: Pastner, Brown, Sampson, Haith & Cronin

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 31st, 2014

In the coming week or two, we will be posting as much preview content as possible. We are continuing today with coaches to watch. There is still plenty more to come.

There are only 11 teams in this league so, in theory, you should be able to watch all of them closely without too much difficulty. But what makes coaching such a difficult and unique experience is that no two seasons are alike. Sure, old hats like Jim Boeheim and John Calipari probably know what to expect because they have seen so much in their careers. But even for those guys, every new year presents new challenges, and the same can be said for the coaches of the AAC. Some of this group are dealing with disgruntled fan bases; some are dealing with large rebuilds; and some are trying to replace key players with inexperienced ones. We tried here to choose the five coaches who are dealing with the most interesting problems this year. Bonus points were awarded for coaches who are dealing with more than one problem.

Josh Pastner, Memphis

 Josh Pastner has Memphis in the Third round for the Second Straight Year. (Photo: Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports)

This Could Be A Make Or Break Year for Memphis Coach Josh Pastner
(Photo: Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s safe to say that the no other coach in the conference has as much going on a national stage than Pastner. The sixth-year coach is not only trying to satisfy a restless fan base by finding some success in the NCAA Tournament, but he is also trying to replace his entire backcourt this season and is of course still trying to reel in what is currently a top-ranked recruiting class for next. It’s tough to say whether Pastner deserves to be on the hot seat after winning at least 24 games in each of his five seasons, but when you flame out early in the NCAA Tournament as often as the Tigers have, the fans are going to grumble. That’s especially true when those fans had gotten used to watching yearly national title contenders under previous head coach John Calipari.

The talk of his job status remains just whispers at this point. But if Pastner can’t deliver another successful season, it will be tough to prevent those hushed conversations from growing louder. The good news is that the cupboard is hardly bare here. The frontcourt is stacked with experience and depth, led by returning starters Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols; throw in some incoming junior college talent as well as rising sophomores Nick King and Kuran Iverson, and Pastner has plenty of options up front. Pastner also got the veteran backcourt presence he so desperately needed when Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson became eligible to play this season.

The last thing that may save his job is that – thanks in no small part to Pastner’s “nothing to see here” assistant coaching hire – the Tigers have some game-changing talent committed to the program. Whoever coaches at Memphis probably won’t struggle to recruit talent, but it’s always nice for job security to basically ensure that the top local kids stay home.

Larry Brown, SMU

Larry Brown has received a bunch of kudos from Internet denizens since taking over as the head coach at SMU, and now he needs to start making good on all of that hype. In fairness to Brown, he deserves much of the praise he has received for rebuilding the Mustangs. The program had finished above .500 just three times from 2002-12, but he led the Mustangs to a 27-10 record in just his second year at the helm. Before his arrival, the program was an afterthought on the college basketball landscape, but now it has become an appealing program to much of the area’s top talent.

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How Important Will Three-Point Shooting be for North Carolina?

Posted by @bradjenk on October 20th, 2014

If you read any preview on North Carolina this season, perimeter shooting is universally cited as the key to the success of the team. We know that, barring injury, All-America candidate Marcus Paige is set to be one of the primary three-point marksman in the nation, but beyond that, this team lacks proven perimeter shooters to support the star junior. The situation in Chapel Hill raises some interesting questions, which we will look at one at a time below.

North Carolina's Marcus Paige Was On Fire - Making 5 Threes Versus Pittsburgh. (Photo: Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige Will Need Some 3-Pt Shooting Help in 2014-15.
(Photo: Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)

1. How important has three-point shooting been at North Carolina under Roy Williams historically? The answer to this question is that it has not been very important. One could reasonably argue that Williams does not hold three-point shooting in very high esteem on either end of the court. Defensively, last year’s Tar Heel squad allowed opponents to attempt 34.1 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc, a mark that ranked fairly high (#222) in the NCAA. But as a matter of fact, that ranking matches the team’s average over the last five years. On the offensive end, Williams’ teams have not made three-point shooting much of a priority either. Only once in the last eight years have the Tar Heels ranked among the top 299 teams in the country in frequency of shots launched from deep. That outlier group, of course, was the 2012-13 team, when Williams by necessity switched to a perimeter-based lineup in early February with good results. That Tar Heels squad still did not finish high nationally in three-point attempts taken (#237), but it profited greatly from improved accuracy (37.2%). It’s safe to say that whenever Williams has a team with capable post scoring ability (every year except 2012-13), three-point shooting will not be a huge part of the offensive game plan. And for those who worry that opposing defenses will pack it in and force more long-range bombs from the Tar Heels, don’t count on it. Williams has stated multiple times that his philosophy is not to take “what the defense gives us,” but rather to be persistent enough to “take the shots we want to take.”

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AAC M5: 03.24.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on March 24th, 2014

AAC_morning5_header

  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

AAC_morning5_header

  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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