Four Teams in the Preseason Top 10: Banner Year for the ACC?

Posted by Brett Thompson on November 12th, 2014

The Atlantic Coast Conference looks poised to have a dominant season among basketball’s top conferences, boasting four of the nation’s preseason top 10 teams in Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville. After a short one-year stint in the American Athletic Conference, Louisville is the latest former Big East team to join the ACC, while the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Cavaliers are ACC mainstays — each hopes to carry the conference banner to the finish line in March. Virginia wants to defend its conference title and prove last season wasn’t a fluke; Louisville hopes to send a message in its ACC debut; and the Tobacco Road teams are hoping to make it back to their rightful place in the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Simply put, the ACC is going to be a war at the top of the standings, and each team has a major driver pushing it this year.

Virginia's ascendance will only help the ACC's argument that it's the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

Virginia’s ascendance will only help the ACC’s argument that it’s the premier basketball conference (USA Today Sports)

This season marks the third time since 2002 that a conference has had four teams in the preseason top 10. Ironically, both of these instances came courtesy of the Big East. In 2011, the conference placed Connecticut and current ACC members Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville within the top 10; and in 2008, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and another current ACC member, Notre Dame, topped the list. In each of those years, the ACC’s only two representatives were — who else? — Duke and North Carolina. This definitely speaks to the prestige of the basketball programs that the ACC has added in recent years, and it’s not implausible to think the ACC could place even more than four squads in the top 10 in coming seasons.

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Who Won The Week? Louisville, Marcus Smart, Michigan and The Citadel…

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 28th, 2014

wonweekWho Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

We’ve got more to get to here than usual, so we’ve got a special extended-yet-abbreviated edition of WWTW on tap today.

WINNER: Louisville

Russ Smith won Louisville's game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Russ Smith won Louisville’s game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Your defending national champions – remember them? – are rolling at just the right time in the season. They went into Cincinnati and handed the Bearcats their first home loss of the season Saturday, 58-57, with a Russ Smith dagger – remember him? – then followed that up by blowing out woebegone Temple 88-66 on Thursday.

Sophomore Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell thrived this past week, as he has since the dismissal of Chane Behanan, scoring 21 points in both games. Going forward, the Cardinals have games left at Memphis and SMU, followed by a home game against Connecticut. Though they’re tied with Cincinnati at the top of the American and on a seven-game winning streak, we’ll know much more about Louisville by the time the conference tournament rolls around.

(Related winners: Smith; Harrell. Related losers: Cincinnati, which squandered its chance at an outright AAC championship by losing at home; Temple, which had its first 20-loss season in school history thanks to Louisville.)

LOSER: Saint Louis

The Billikens, which had been one of America’s last four teams undefeated in conference, took one of the most befuddling losses of the whole season, falling 71-64 on Thursday to a Duquesne team that had won four Atlantic 10 games in Jim Ferry’s two seasons in Pittsburgh. What had been one of the nation’s top 10 shooting defenses gave up an effective field goal rate of 50.7 percent, including 14-0f-18 shooting and 7-of-9 three-pointers by Dukes guards Micah Mason and Jerry Jones. And against one of the nation’s 10 worst defenses vs. three-point shooting, Saint Louis only made 4-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. The Billikens have a top-five defense nationally according to KenPom.com, but their offense ranks 169th in efficiency. Then again, defense wins championships, right?

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Let’s Make Some Room Atop the American for Cincinnati

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 9th, 2014

It seemed like the AAC’s first season of existence would be a banner year with defending champion Louisville joining, a talented UConn team shut out of the tournament in 2012-13, and a Memphis club armed with one of the best backcourts in America. Yet most forgot about the arrival of Cincinnati. The Bearcats aren’t exactly a big name in college basketball (well, not anymore). Highly-touted freshmen? Not here. Legendary coach? With time maybe, but not now. A rabid fan base that travels to road games well? There weren’t any more than 30 fans sitting behind the Bearcats’ bench on Tuesday night in Houston.

Mick Cronin has his Bearcats off to a 3-0 start in AAC play. (AP photo)

Mick Cronin has his Bearcats off to a 3-0 start in AAC play. (AP photo)

Still, Mick Cronin has perhaps his best team since being named head coach in 2006. And the Bearcats played like it in the first half against the Houston Cougars. The active hands and moving feet of Cincinnati’s defense frustrated Houston, forcing nine turnovers, blocking seven shots and forcing the Cougars to shoot 8-of-24 from the field. Cincinnati took a 16-point lead into the locker room. But the Cougars went on a 23-10 run to start the second, capped by a three-pointer from Brandon Morris to cut Cincinnati’s lead to 50-47 with 9:56 to play. It was Morris’ fourth three of the half on his way to a career-high 17 points. The Bearcats stopped playing their hard-nosed defense, which prompted Cronin to call a 30 second timeout to regroup. And regroup they did.

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Evaluating AAC Non-Conference Schedules: The Bad and the Ugly…

Posted by CD Bradley on October 30th, 2013

We looked at the best of the AAC non-conference schedules in Part I, after explaining a bit of what makes for a good non-conference schedule. This season, there’s quite a bit more bad than good, which could drag down the collective RPIs of AAC members and ultimately lead to lower NCAA Tournament seeds come March.

Larry Brown's SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.

Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.

The Bad

  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats return the favor of a visit last season from MW favorite New Mexico with a road trip of their own to The Pit. They also will play former Big East rival and mid-level ACC squad Pitt at Madison Square Garden. Then… well, there’s the rivalry game with Xavier, which seems poised to finish in the bottom half of a newly constituted (read: relatively weaker) Big East; N.C. State, clearly headed toward the bottom of the ACC, and Conference USA also-ran MTSU. That trio might end up in the RPI top 100; it’s highly unlikely any other team on the schedule will come close.
  • Louisville: If the defending champs can escape Rupp Arena with a win, all will be forgiven by both their fans and the committee, as a road win against Kentucky is perhaps the highest quality victory available in college basketball this year. Southern Miss, which finished with an RPI of #30 last season, is favored to win Conference USA. They face a potential Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off final against North Carolina at the Mohegan Sun. They need the Tar Heels to be there, because the rest of their foes are middling teams in weak leagues, with Charleston the most likely to crack the top 100, and several – we’re looking at you, Hofstra and UMKC – seeming likely to end up north of #300.

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A Quick Examination of the AAC Non-Conference Slate

Posted by CD Bradley on October 28th, 2013

Highlighted by the annual renewal of college basketball’s best rivalry, the American has plenty of compelling games to offer before its first in-conference games tip off on New Year’s Eve. The conference’s teams also play a number of games, that while they might not be showcased on national TV, could prove just as crucial if not more so when the NCAA Tournament field is selected and seeded in March. Let’s take a look at four intriguing match-ups as well as four under-the-radar games that AAC teams will be involved in during the non-conference part of the season.

ESPN.com John Calipari (left) and Rick Pitino might not be all smiles when their teams square off Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena.

John Calipari (left) and Rick Pitino might not be all smiles when their teams square off December 28 in Rupp Arena.

Four most intriguing AAC non-conference games

  • Memphis at Oklahoma State, 8 PM, November 19, ESPN. This match-up of two of the nation’s best backcourts, with Marcus Smart and company squaring off against the Tigers’ fleet of guards, has to be considered among the highlights of the season’s first two weeks. It will also provide, fair or not, an early barometer of how these teams and leagues stack up.
  • Louisville at Kentucky, 4 PM, December 28, CBS.  It’s the two best teams in the country. The last two national champions. It’s the most important annual sporting event – yes, even bigger than the Kentucky Derby — in a state where college basketball is the most important sport. It’s Russ Smith vs. the Harrison twins, Montezl Harrell vs. Julius Randle, and, of course, Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari.
  • Florida at UConn, 7 PM, December 2, ESPN2. Connecticut has one of the best guard tandems in the country in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Florida has talent all over the floor, led by senior center Patric Young. Can the Huskies overcome the Gators’ interior advantages to get the kind of marquee win their non-conference schedule offers few opportunities for? The answer could be key to their March chances.
  •  Gonzaga at Memphis, 9 PM, February 8, ESPN. This rare February inter-conference matchup is one of two visits to AAC homecourts by ESPN’s College Gameday this year (Louisville at UConn on January 18 is the other). The Zags entered last year’s NCAA Tournament as the nation’s #1 team, but reached only the round of 32 before bowing out to Wichita State. This game should provide crucial insight into whether Gonzaga can begin to approach last year’s success.

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ESPN Insider Projects AAC Among Nation’s Top Conferences

Posted by CD Bradley on October 25th, 2013

The American compares favorably to the best conferences in the country in ESPN Insider‘s 351-team projections that were released Friday. Led, unsurprisingly, by Louisville at #2, the American placed three teams in the top 25, and three more in the top 100. The team projections are based on projections of each player, based on past production by both the players and the teams as a whole, as explained by Dan Hanner. “The model predicted the tempo free stats of every D1 player, projected the lineup for every D1 team, and then added up the player stats to get a projection for every D1 team,” Hanner wrote. (ESPN Insider absorbed most of the writers of the late, lamented College Basketball Prospectus, which produced similar #1-#351 rankings in its annual book in years past.)

Congrats to Fran Dunphy on His 400th Victory

Fran Dunphy’s inexperienced Temple team presents a major challenge to the coach this year.

After modeling predictions for each player on each team (a detailed, somewhat technical explanation of that process can be found here), Hanner ran 10,000 computer simulations of the season, a new aspect of this year’s version of the rankings which provides a best and worst case scenario for each team. “There are a number of consequences to adding a simulation to the model,” Hanner wrote. “First, the simulation approach gives an advantage to teams with positional flexibility. For example, Louisville has two players, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, who will likely compete to be the team’s starting point guard. Both players project as good, but not elite college point guards. But when you simulate the lineup, and realize that the better of the two players will start, suddenly the expectation is even higher. The winner of the competition is going to have a higher expectation than either player individually.”

Accordingly, Louisville is ranked second (only the uncertainty surrounding Chane Behanan’s suspension dropped them below Kentucky for the top spot), with a best case as the top team in the county and a worst case of 12th. Memphis checks in at 15th (best case sixth, worst case 26th), while UConn is 25th (12th/42nd).

The rest of the American ranks:

  • Cincinnati: #59 (23/97)
  • Central Florida: #96 (60/138)
  • Rutgers: #100 (58/150)
  • SMU: #105 (70/134)
  • South Florida: #110 (63/151)
  • Temple: #129 (67/209; the wide variance, Hanner explains, is due to the lack of returning production: “Fran Dunphy has worked miracles before, but he has never had a team this inexperienced at Temple.”)
  • Houston: #158 (96/209)

The American joins the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big East as the only conferences with each team in the top half of the overall rankings, a claim the SEC, Big 12, MW, A-10 or any other conference cannot make. The full rankings, with commentary, can be found here; conference predictions can be found here.

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Rule Change on Hand-checking Poses Issues for Louisville and Russ Smith

Posted by CD Bradley on October 17th, 2013

With every new college basketball season comes tweaks to the rules of the game, and this year’s version may cause problems for the defending national champions. A major point of emphasis this year will be the enforcement of rules designed to improve offensive flow in the game many complained had grown too sluggish. Among them are increased scrutiny of hand checking, particularly on the ball, and bumping cutters through the lane. Discussion of the rule this week quickly focused on Louisville, which relied on intense pressure defense to win a national title in April. The Cardinals ranked first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, and second (to VCU) in forcing turnovers.

GoCards.com Russ Smith's defense helped Louisville win the national championship, but a rule change may force him to alter his style this season.

GoCards.com
Russ Smith’s defense helped Louisville win the national championship, but a rule change may force him to alter his style this season.

“Louisville isn’t going to have a team if we stick to this because they’re going to all foul out in the first half, and I love the way they play,” said Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy to ESPN, whose team turned the ball over 19 times in an NCAA Tournament game against the Cardinals. “If you’re going to call touch fouls, it’ll be over in the first 10 minutes. (Rick) Pitino will have to play. It really is crazy.” Eustachy wasn’t alone. CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb, when asked about the impact of the rule on Twitter, replied, “Louisville will be called for a ton of fouls.” ESPN analyst Jeff Goodman said Louisville, along with VCU and Butler, would be hurt by the rules on the defensive end. “However, VCU and Cards will benefit offensively.” Surprisingly, Pitino is a big fan of the changes. “Last season was terrible,” Pitino told ESPN. “It was an ugly season. We need to change the game. The one thing the coaches can’t do: they can’t gripe about it. The first six weeks will be a transition for the players as well as the coaches.” He also said the rule changes would render Russ Smith “unguardable.”

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Notes and Quotes From the Inaugural AAC Media Day

Posted by CD Bradley on October 17th, 2013

American Athletic Conference luminaries gathered in Memphis Wednesday as the league held its first men’s basketball media day, offering thoughts on the inaugural season of the still in-flux league.

TheAmerican.org ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg (right) leads the discussion during a roundtable of AAC coaches at the conference's first media day Wednesday in Memphis.

TheAmerican.org ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg (right) leads the discussion during a roundtable of AAC coaches at the conference’s first media day Wednesday in Memphis.

In his opening remarks, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco stressed the strength of the league’s teams, coaches and television deals. That gave way to a roundtable of AAC coaches mediated by ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg.

As was to be expected, little news emerged from the event. The coaches’ preseason picks for top team (Louisville) and player (Russ Smith) were released.

While there might have been little news, coaches and players made some interesting, insightful and funny comments. Among them:

  • “We will not pay players. We will not establish an employer-employee relationship. That’s not what college sports is about, and it is the road to ruin.” — AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco
  • “The only thing that’s realistic is getting another tattoo.” — Louisville coach Rick Pitino, on how he planned to follow up a season that saw his team win a national championship, a horse he co-owned run in the Kentucky Derby, his election to the Naismith Hall of Fame and his son Richard named as head coach at Minnesota.
  • “In the NBA, you don’t shake hands after games. I had 17 really difficult experiences last year.” — SMU coach Larry Brown, who returned to the college game last year after nearly 25 years in the NBA, and whose Mustangs posted a 15-17 record.
  • “With everything that was going on last year, they could have left without anybody saying anything bad about them. They stuck by me, and they stuck by their university.” — UConn coach Kevin Ollie, on Husky guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. UConn was barred from last season’s NCAA Tournament due its failure to meet academic requirements in past years.
  • “We didn’t think it was fair because Russ never quits, so we had to get rid of him. In a nice way.” — Pitino, on the horse he named Russdiculous after star guard Russ Smith. Pitino said the horse got out to early leads only to get passed later in the race.
  • “I just learned how to tweet or text, whatever they call it. It’s troubling to me, to be honest. I just like to coach… I’m gonna learn how to do some of that stuff someday, but not today.” — Brown, on the role social media plays in the college game.
  • “Our rule is that we get to make fun of them.” — Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin on what rules he has for players about using social media.
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Louisville Has The “Best” Fan Base In The Country: Says Who?

Posted by Chris Johnson on May 30th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

College basketball fan bases are a personal and intensely provincial point of debate. Fans of teams around the country take their passionate school fandoms more seriously than they ever should, and when one university’s supporting group dare make a definitive statement elevating its own team-endorsing fervor over others, tension is inevitable. Shouting matches and recriminations are a natural evolution of the conflict. Fans care about their college basketball teams, but more than that they care about their college basketball teams more than you care about your college basketball teams. You can imagine how these kinds of debates play out amongst college hoops’ insanely obsessive followers, the Dukes and North Carolinas and Kansases of the world. The antagonistic bite on the court – that intangibly rousing feeling you get while watching Duke-UNC or Syracuse-Georgetown (ugh) or Kansas-Missouri (double ugh) – cuts just as deep as the fan base bitterness. Naturally, these arguments cross over into the unnavigable ether of comment sections and message boards and Reddit. The result is almost always a solution no one feels satisfied with. Nobody wins.

An impossibly blissful offseason somehow got better for Louisville wonks Wednesday, who can now, even if mostly unfoundedly, proclaim their fan base superiority (AP).

An impossibly blissful offseason somehow got better for Louisville wonks Wednesday, who can now, even if mostly unfoundedly, argue their fan base’s unmatched stature (AP).

A new analytical authority tried to bring order to the psychological fan base warfare by ranking college basketball’s fanbases on a system that is…..completely unpsychological. Indeed, Emory Sports Marketing Analytics came out with its list of “Best Fan Bases” Wednesday and (drum roll, please) the Louisville Cardinals claimed the top spot. The logical next question – in what solar system is Louisville the “best fan base” in the country, and Kentucky, you know, not? – will not make members of the #BBN particularly happy; it took little time for this specific bit of information, the disparity in the rankings, to ruffle the feathers of internet-dwelling Wildcats fans. UK came in at seventh, behind the likes of Arkansas and Texas.

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Award Tour: The Struggles of Ranking Cody Zeller

Posted by DCassilo on December 7th, 2012

David Cassilo is an RTC columnist who also writes about college basketball for SLAM magazine. You can follow him at @dcassilo.

What do we do about Cody Zeller? That’s what we’re asking after his second game this season with fewer than 10 points. The preseason pick for Player of the Year has simply not been the monster in the middle that was expected, but he hasn’t been a disappointment either. We’ll start with the bad. He’s scored 20 or more points just twice in eight games and is averaging a pedestrian 15 PPG and 7.6 RPG this season. You’ll find about 100 players with numbers like that. Now the good. He’s shooting 63.2 percent from the field and his numbers are almost identical to his stellar freshman season. To be honest though, Zeller is likely staying as high as he is on this list based on expectation. But now we’re giving him one final chance. If he doesn’t break out by the end of December, he’ll be off the top 10 list.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

10. Elias Harris – Gonzaga (Last Week – NR)
2012-13 stats: 16.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG

Harris has Gonzaga thinking national title. (AP)

As a senior, Harris is finally coming into his own in all areas of the game. That has especially been true for his offense. After a slow start, he’s scored at least 16 points in five of his last six games. As Gonzaga continues to win, his candidacy will pick up steam. This week: December 8 vs. Illinois

9. Isaiah Canaan – Murray State (Last Week – 7)
2012-13 stats: 21.4 PGG, 3.7 RPG, 3.9 APG

With one game this past week against an NAIA opponent, Canaan essentially had an off week. His slight fall down the rankings has more to do with the other players on the list than with himself. Canaan’s biggest challenge for the rest of the season will be playing well enough to overshadow his weak competition. This week: December 8 at Evansville

8. C.J. McCollum – Lehigh (Last Week – 3)
2012-13 stats: 24.4 PPG, 5.0 RP, 3.2 APG

We’ve said all season that if a player from a conference like the Patriot League is going to win this, he needs to be beyond spectacular. McCollum has been close to that, but performances like the 13 points he put up against Fordham in his last game won’t cut it. Chances are we’ll see another 30-point game from him soon enough, though. This week: December 8 vs. St. Francis (Pa.)

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Big East Summer Capsules: Louisville Cardinals

Posted by mlemaire on August 1st, 2012

While most relish the onset of Summer, college basketball junkies do not. Most of the news surrounding the sport is recruiting rumors and commitments or injuries and transfer news. In order to help keep folks up-to-date on what their teams are doing during the summer, we put together these summer capsules for each team in the conference. Next up is Louisville.

1. The rotating door was busy this summer, and some folks don’t like it.

Is Pitino Running Lesser Players Out Of Town To Make Room For New Ones?

Cardinals coach Rick Pitino is no stranger to controversy and criticism, and this summer was no different as a multitude of injury-laden reserves left the program raising concerns about Pitino’s roster management strategy and questions about whether he is cutting ties with less important players to make room for new ones. Before the end of last season news broke that reserve forward Jared Swopshire would transfer so he could play right away in his final collegiate season. Then, just two days after highly touted recruit Montrezl Harrell signed with the Cardinals and people began to wonder where the extra scholarship would come from, backup and injury-prone big man Stephan Van Treese announced he was leaving also only to reverse course later that month. That reversal came just a week after another injury-prone reserve, Rakeem Buckles, announced he would transfer to Florida International, once again freeing up a scholarship that Van Treese happily took back.  There is absolutely no evidence that Pitino forced any of these players out and it’s entirely possible these players saw the writing on the wall and transferred to a place where they could find more playing time. But perception is also a big deal, and if recruits perceive that Pitino is jettisoning lesser talents to make room for younger players, it will certainly make them think twice before they sign on with Louisville.

2. Just how good can Louisville’s frontcourt become?

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Four Thoughts: Louisville vs. Seton Hall Edition

Posted by mlemaire on March 8th, 2012

Game recaps are boring. If you want to read them, search your local newspaper or the Associated Press. With the Big East Tournament upon us, we figured we would try to offer four thoughts about several of the key games throughout the week.

South Florida took care of business against Villanova tonight and I am only one man with a partner on a family vacation, so I have to pick and choose which game to analyze. I chose the game with juicer storylines. Louisville held off a late rally from Seton Hall that left the Pirates with a lot to worry about on Sunday, so let’s dive right in.

1. When everyone is playing hard, the Cardinals are a really tough team to score against.

This isn’t exactly news to anyone who has watched the team play even once, but Rick Pitino‘s club is full of long, athletic defenders who love to wreak havoc in the passing lanes and contest every shot. And that doesn’t even include the rim-protecting ability that center Gorgui Dieng brings to the defense. According to Pitino, the team had 39 deflections and Dieng had six blocks and 10 rebounds as they harassed the Pirates into 17 turnovers and a 3-19 night from behind the three-point line. The win sets up an exciting matchup with ninth-ranked Marquette in the quarterfinals. The two teams met only once this season, a January tilt in Milwaukee when the Golden Eagles erased a big early lead and won semi-handily. I am going to go out on a limb and say tomorrow’s game will have a little more drama.

Where Does Tonight's Loss Leave Seton Hall on the NCAA Board?

2. If West Virginia’s Kevin Jones went out with a bang, Jordan Theodore and Herb Pope did the opposite.

Theodore admitted as much after the game, saying the duo “came up short tonight,” and that may be an understatement. If you also include the third Musketeer, Fuquan Edwin, the team’s three best players combined to go just 12-33 from the field and nobody got comfortable against the Cardinals’ stifling defense. Pope grabbed 15 rebounds, but the fact that he is undersized if magnified when he plays against Dieng, although it is tough for anybody to get a shot off against the conference’s best shot-alterer. Meanwhile, led by Peyton Siva‘s six steals, Louisville’s guard rotation was active and opportunistic on defense and neither Edwin nor Theodore got off many uncontested jumpers. Edwin will be back next year, but this may have been the last hurrah for seniors Pope and Theodore, and it would be a disappointing end to two great careers.

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