AAC M5: 02.13.14 Edition

Posted by mlemaire on February 13th, 2014

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  1. If you were still one of the tens of people who felt Louisville was an elite team, it’s official now that they are not elite — even Rick Pitino said so. Pitino cited a lack of shot-blocking and size as the main reasons why the team shouldn’t be — “objectively speaking” — considered elite, but I bet if he was to speak candidly he would have a lot more to say. For the record, folks have been down on the Cardinals as they have struggled more than expected during conference play, but I still believe that when everything shakes out the Cardinals will be the best team in the conference. Obviously Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat, so it may be difficult for Louisville to win the regular season crown, but don’t be surprised if they start to gel down the stretch, run through the conference tournament, and are one of the scarier four seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. While some teams like Connecticut have not been subtle about their desire the leave the AAC for greener pastures, the conference has one person in their corner at least in Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. He explained that he was happy to be in the conference for two major reasons. The conference has true round-robin play, which is a departure from the home-and-home schedule of the Big East, and also the competition has helped the Bearcats climb into the Top 20 in RPI. I admittedly didn’t think it was possible for coaches at bigger schools like Cincinnati and Connecticut to talk about loving the AAC with a straight face, but give Cronin credit, those two reasons make a lot of sense, especially considering how bad the team’s non-conference schedule was.
  3. The sun has already set on South Florida‘s season but last night’s embarrassment against UConn should be coach Stan Heath firmly in the hot seat. The Bulls have not been competitive this season but Heath did take the program back to the NCAA Tournament not long ago. But his strategy of loading up on junior college players and transfers has helped the program stay afloat but they haven’t made a lot of sustainable forward progress. The 83-40 beat down delivered by the Huskies wasn’t pretty and by the second half, Connecticut players were treating the game more like a scrimmage than a conference game. Heath joked that he may burn the game tape but he may want to actually consider it, because I doubt he will get a lot of teachable moments out of the thrashing. If the Bulls tank badly down the stretch and start getting blown out in embarrassing fashion, there will be a lot of South Florida fans vocally asking for a change in leadership.
  4. With Rutgers set to leave for the Big Ten at the end of this season, it was only a matter of time before the AAC and the school agreed on the terms of the exit. Rutgers will end up paying an $11.5 million exit fee, a bit less than the $15 million the conference initially sought. Since the conference has already received $5 million, Rutgers will pay the remaining $6.5 million over a four-year period. There’s not really a lot of deep analysis to be done here. The conference gets paid and gets to save some face and Rutgers couldn’t care less because as of next season they will be making it rain with football dollars. The news is a bit bittersweet as we were just getting to know Eddie Jordan and his rebuilding project would be an interesting one to watch in the next few years.
  5. In today’s tidbit that matters not at all, Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett stopped by SMU practice today to say hello to his new friend Larry Brown and see if Brown had any good ideas on how to stop the forward pass. The quotes from both parties are so boring that I will spare you the injustice of having to read them although Garrett did mention something about taking a lot of mental notes while watching Brown coach. So maybe instead of reading cliches, you can imagine Jason Garrett watching Brown run the three-man weave with his brow furrowed, trying really hard to take good mental notes.
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AAC M5: 02.12.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on February 12th, 2014

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  1. It’s interesting to see columnists already campaigning for SMU‘s Larry Brown to be considered for National Coach of the Year honors because there are some, myself included, who feel like he may not even win AAC Coach of the Year honors. Let’s not get the meaning of that sentence twisted; what Brown has accomplished in under two seasons in Dallas is nothing short of remarkable, but let’s not simultaneously forget that Cincinnati was considered a bubble-quality team at the onset of the season and now Mick Cronin has the Bearcats riding high (despite a recent road loss to the Mustangs). If the season ended today, the award would be a close race but I think Cronin would deserve the honor because of what he has been able to do with a mediocre offensive team and without even the same pedigree of players of SMU. If the Bearcats come back to Earth in the second half of the AAC schedule and the Mustangs find a signature win or two away from Moody Coliseum, Brown will probably have a shot to pass Cronin. As for the national honor, unless Syracuse or Wichita State loses multiple games over the next five weeks, I think Jim Boeheim and Gregg Marshall are the clear and deserving front-runners in that race.
  2. I am as big an AAC homer as the next guy so I am not going to sit here and say it doesn’t feel good to point to the Associated Press Top 25 poll and mention that the conference has five teams in the poll, more than every other league except the Big Ten (also with five). Still, crowing about the poll as if it is some grand achievement is probably a bad idea too. There are a few things to remember about the conference before we start comparing it to the likes of the Big 12 and ACC. The first is that after the five teams in this week’s poll, the dropoff to the next five is precipitous, and it’s probably fair to observe that those ranked five have been able to feast on the lesser competition to help propel them up the charts, and none of the conference’s teams are considered legitimate national title contenders either. So while I am all for beating the collective conference chest about the Top 25 poll, I wouldn’t go running to my friends to start the argument that the AAC is a better basketball conference than the Big 12 quite yet.
  3. Rick Pitino and his Louisville team have dealt with plenty of injuries already this season so the news that guard Wayne Blackshear has been cleared to play in Thursday’s game against Temple should be music to his ears. Blackshear missed the game against Houston last week after sustaining a concussion, and while he hasn’t had the breakout campaign many expected from him, the Cardinals could ill afford to lose such an important player for an extended period of time. The Cardinals aren’t quite as deep and talented as they’d hoped, but regardless of how he has played, Blackshear is one of the team’s best guards and outside shooters, so his presence in the lineup is a boon for this offense.
  4. While it’s hard to feel bad for former Louisville forward Chane Behanan because the damage he did to his career with the Cardinals was almost entirely self-inflicted, you do get the sense from reading about his life since his dismissal that he isn’t a bad person. He made some poor decisions, was punished for them, repeated those poor decisions, and now seems to finally realize the consequences of his actions. Of course it took an exit from one of the best basketball programs in the country for him to realize the gravity of his mistakes, but you can tell from the article that he misses playing for the Cards and would like to play for them again. That ship has sailed, of course, but Behanan has landed on his feet with his transfer to Colorado State and is spending his time now working out twice per day in Houston with the well-regarded John Lucas. Behanan has found himself as the butt of a lot of jokes and bad publicity — and frankly, he earned all of it — but that doesn’t mean that we can’t wish him well as he tries to finish his collegiate career on a positive note.
  5. Don’t look now but Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan is putting together a solid and well-rounded 2014 recruiting class that got a bit stronger yesterday when the Scarlet Knights secured the commitment of North Carolina big man Ibrahima Diallo. Diallo plays for Quality Education Academy, which is a basketball factory in the Tar Heel State, and his size, athleticism and rebounding abilities make him one of the top 10 recruits in the state. The 6’10″, 230-pound Senegal native is a good finisher around the rim with the length and leaping ability to become a great shot-blocker, but he is still quite raw and will likely take some time to adjust to high-level college basketball. Diallo is the fourth commitment for the Scarlet Knights in this class, and while there aren’t any true headliners, all four players are legitimate talents and depth is one of the weaknesses holding the Scarlet Knights back right now. Jordan may not have the coaching talent and prestige to turn around the program as quickly as Larry Brown turned around SMU, but steadily upgrading his recruiting is a good way to make sure the team is at least competitive in its new conference.
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AAC M5: 02.07.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 7th, 2014

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  1. Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs writes that Sean Kilpatrick “out-Bazzed” Shabazz Napier in the Bearcats’ 63-58 victory over the Huskies last night. After a cold start, the Cincinnati senior scored 17 of his 26 points in the second half and grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds, hitting five of eight threes to help his team defend a two-game death grip on the conference standings. Conversely, Napier scored 16 points on 19 shots, missed 10 of his last 11 three-point attempts, and said he was reluctant to attack the basket in crunch time after failing to draw many whistles on “a lot of cheap fouls.” Kilpatrick’s game demonstrated “what kind of damage strength, length and maturity can do for a guard,” and while sometimes less exciting to watch than Napier or Russ Smith, he’s soundly and methodically outdueled both in the first of two match-ups with each this season. “I think if his team wins the conference, at the end of the day, Shabazz, Russ Smith and Sean are the three guys, Mick Cronin said of the conference POY race. “And if we win the league, obviously [Kilpatrick will] win the award.”
  2. Yesterday’s College Basketball Power Rankings from SI.com’s Luke Winn include half of the AAC: Cincinnati (#12), Louisville (#14), UConn (#19), SMU (#22) and Memphis (#28). Winn notes that if Cincinnati can make it past UConn tonight without slipping up, they will have gone a full calendar year without surrendering at least one point per possession at home. That’s downright impressive, poor non-conference schedule notwithstanding. He also observes that Louisville’s Luke Hancock has continued to score efficiently despite shooting 30 percent from beyond the arc this year because he’s drawing 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes, good for top-five in the AAC. Hancock’s teammate Russ Smith joins Sean Kilpatrick and Shabazz Napier among the “next 10 contenders” who didn’t quite make Winn’s early-February All-American team.
  3. Cincinnati has hired former Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn to replace Whit Babcock as AD. Bohn, who spent eight years at Colorado before being forced out last May, ushered the program’s transition from the Big 12 to the expanded Pac-12 in one of the moves that precipitated the conference realignment frenzy. That experience likely played a role in Cincinnati’s choice of Bohn, as one of president Santa Ono’s top priorities right now is finding a more stable long-term home for Cincinnati athletics. The former Kansas two-sport athlete, who earned his master’s degree at Ohio University, replaces Babcock after the former athletic director left for Virginia Tech on January 24.
  4. USF’s 79-78 overtime victory over in-state nemesis UCF on Wednesday was “fantastically and gloriously terrible, and it made no sense whatsoever,” writes Voodoo Five’s Ryan T. Smith. Both teams shot over 50 percent, which, if you’re familiar with the I-4 rivals this year, is more indicative of bad defense than anything else. It ended with a free throw prompted by a completely gratuitous foul behind half-court. And while Smith is hesitant to say that the Bulls have “turned the corner,” they’ve at least extricated themselves from the AAC gutter with a strong three-game stretch that nobody saw coming. The second half of their conference schedule sets up much more advantageously than the first, with two games against Rutgers, a rematch in Tampa with UCF, and a date with Temple at home on senior night punctuating likely losses against Louisville and UConn.
  5. Louisville looks to avoid the curse of the week off after bouncing back from their recent loss to Cincinnati with a pair of wins. The Cardinals got out to a glacial start against the Bearcats last week after an eight-day layoff, and The Courier-Journal’s Jeff Greer points out that AAC teams are 0-7 in conference games following breaks of six days or longer. “It’s a weird conference, that’s all I can say,” Rick Pitino admitted. “I don’t understand why we have these eight days off.” One very important silver lining for the Cardinals is that Pitino expects 6’5” junior Wayne Blackshear to make a full recovery from a mild concussion in time to return for next Thursday’s game at Temple. Should his coach elect to plug Blackshear back into the starting lineup at the power forward spot, he would have three games to gain his sea legs at the position before a rematch with Cincinnati on February 22.
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Otskey’s Observations: Episode XI

Posted by Brian Otskey on February 5th, 2014

Each week throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from the previous week of college basketball.

Early Returns on Chris Collins Look Great

When former Duke associate head coach Chris Collins was hired at Northwestern this past spring, many felt it was only a matter of time before the local guy from Northbrook, Illinois, would build up the program to a level where it could achieve its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. After a 7-9 (0-3 Big Ten) start to the season, Collins and Northwestern have righted the ship with wins in five of their past seven games. Most impressive have been the three consecutive wins away from Evanston: at Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota. How have the Wildcats done it? Collins has done what any good coach would do — analyze the strengths and weaknesses of his team and implement a style of play that showcases the strengths while minimizing the weaknesses. Northwestern obviously does not have the same talent level as most other teams in the Big Ten so the way to win games is to slow it down, muck it up and play great defense in low possession games. And that is exactly what the Wildcats have done.

Chris Collins is starting to get it done in Evanston.

Chris Collins is starting to get it done in Evanston.

Collins has gotten this team to buy in defensively as Northwestern is currently ranked No. 10 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. In Big Ten play, the Wildcats lead the conference with a 44.6 percent defensive effective field goal percentage. Since allowing 93 points in a loss at Iowa on January 9, Northwestern has allowed only one opponent (also Iowa) to score more than 56 points in regulation time (Purdue scored 60 in a double-overtime loss to the Wildcats but posted just 46 points in regulation). Northwestern’s games in Big Ten play have averaged only 61.2 possessions with an average possession length of 20.4 seconds, both statistics ranking as the slowest in the Big Ten. Last year’s Northwestern team was dead last in defensive efficiency (in league play) under Bill Carmody which shows you how absolutely remarkable it is that Collins has gotten this group to defend at a high level in such a short period of time. While you never want to get ahead of yourself, at this point it would be a surprise if Northwestern doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament over the next five years when you also consider how well Collins is already doing on the recruiting trail.

Syracuse and Duke Exceeds the Hype

Syracuse’s thrilling overtime victory over Duke last Saturday was one of the best regular season college basketball games I can remember in quite some time. It had everything you would want in a big game: a terrific atmosphere with over 35,000 fans in attendance; two Hall of Fame coaches; league title implications (Syracuse entered the game at 7-0, Duke at 6-2); tons of talent on the floor; and an extremely high level of play. Consider this: Syracuse won an overtime game by two points on its home floor and posted an outrageously high offensive efficiency of 1.34 points per possession. It took that good of an offensive performance to stave off the Blue Devils, which posted 1.31 PPP themselves. It is going to be very difficult to top that game but I am very excited for the rematch at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 22. Duke and North Carolina will always be the best rivalry in the ACC and arguably in all of college basketball, but Duke and Syracuse appear to be on their way to another terrific rivalry in what has become a bloated ACC. This new rivalry has the potential to exceed what Duke and Maryland had going for some time as a secondary ACC rivalry now that Maryland will be moving on to the Big Ten next season.

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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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AAC M5: 01.31.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on January 31st, 2014

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  1. Southern Methodist had things rolling and looked to be on its way to a possible NCAA Tournament berth until it suffered one of those horrific losses Tuesday that the committee will have a hard time looking past. SMU lost to South Florida (RPI #142) in Tampa, a team it had beaten by 17 earlier in the season. Luckily, SMU will have a number of opportunities to put the loss behind it with match-ups against Memphis (twice), Louisville and Cincinnati before the AAC Tournament tips off in March. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi still had SMU in his latest version of bracketology, but just barely, as the second to last team in. The Mustangs will most likely need to get at least one of those wins to get back on the right side of the bubble.
  2. Speaking of South Florida, the Bulls hope to have Chris Perry play the way he did against SMU for the remainder of the season. Perry collected 18 points, tying a career-high, and also pulled down eight rebounds. He had been shooting just 36 percent from the field in conference play before hitting 6-of-9 against the Mustangs. To avoid a tendency toward softness, Perry said he tried to dunk everything in warm-ups to get mentally prepared. Perry and fellow freshman John Egbunu could help lead a resurgence for USF in the second half of the conference season. It was a much-needed home win Tuesday with a Super Bowl Sunday trip to the league’s top team, Cincinnati, up next.
  3. Rick Pitino was named the 2013 Kentucky Sportsman of the Year by the Lexington Herald-Leader. Pitino became the first three-time winner of the award, also collecting it in 1990 and 1996 as the head coach at Kentucky. He’s also the first person to win the award representing both Kentucky and Louisville. Pitino said he was born a New Yorker but will die a Kentuckian. “Certainly it’s a great honor to live in this state and represent two fine universities,” he said. “The passion for basketball has dwindled in other states, but it’s even become greater in our state.” Pitino’s year included a national championship, a second consecutive Final Four appearance, a Hall of Fame induction, and a second straight Big East tournament championship. A Louisville representative hasn’t won the award since 2004 with quarterback Stefan LeFors winning a decade ago. The Cardinals swept the top three this year, with athletic director Tom Jurich finishing second and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater third.
  4. Regardless of the outcome last night in Louisville, the relationship between Rick Pitino and Mick Cronin will always be strong. Cronin is one of Pitino’s many understudies who now successfully coaches a team of his own. Cronin was an assistant coach under Pitino at Louisville in 2002-03, and Pitino — as he often does with former players and coaches — played a large role in Cronin receiving the head coach position at Cincinnati. “He treats me like his little brother,” Cronin said. “It’s a luxury for me. It’s been one of the great things to happen in my life that he opened his world up to me.” Pitino expresses pride whenever he talks about any of his former coaches who have gone on to have successes of their own.
  5. A statistical guru who runs a website called cardsandcatsstats.com was not surprised when Louisville was more efficient with Terry Rozier running the point guard position in Chris Jones’ absence. According to the plus-minus data, the Cardinals score more points in relation to their opponent when the freshman is in the lineup. The system also examines rebounding — a strong suit of Rozier’s — and which players draw fouls. Even though Rozier wasn’t necessarily scoring a lot, he was avoiding turnovers and rebounding well, which shows up in the plus-minus data. How Pitino distributes playing time moving forward between Rozier and Jones, now that he’s back from injury, will be one of the story lines to follow as the regular season winds down. For what it’s worth, Jones and Rozier played roughly equivalent minutes last night, with Rozier posting an offensive rating of 119 and Jones a 68. Coincidentally, Louisville lost the game, 69-66.
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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: 01.30.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on January 30th, 2014

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  1. Much has been said about Louisville’s performance  since Chris Jones has been out with an oblique injury and Terry Rozier stepped in his shoes. Rozier has led the Cardinals to four straight impressive wins (Jones played in the first half against SMU before the injury). Some have even said maybe the Cardinals are better off with Jones sitting on the bench. Rick Pitino, however, reiterated the importance of Jones to the team during his weekly radio show, saying that Jones, the team’s third-leading scorer and second in assists and steals, is an explosive player who the Cards need in the lineup. Jones is expected to return to action tonight in the showdown against Cincinnati — chances are he’ll join Wayne Blackshear off the bench to provide an offensive spark for the home team.
  2. Mick Cronin is in the midst of a great coaching job this season, but a true litmus test awaits tonight in downtown Louisville. While Cincinnati has played very well during its 12-game winning streak and has a top 15 ranking to show for it, this is the kind of game that could catapult the Bearcats into the top 10 and foster expectations not seen since Bob Huggins roamed the sidelines there. Should Cincinnati come out on top, Cronin’s squad will have a stranglehold on the AAC race and the national attention it has long awaited since Cronin arrived in the Queen City eight years ago.
  3. Louisville has played no opponent more than Cincinnati in its storied history, but after this season the two schools may not play each other again for some time. Rick Pitino said yesterday that Cincinnati’s visit tonight will be the last game between the old rivals for the foreseeable future. It will be the 97th meeting in the series, which dates back to the old Metro Conference, the Great Midwest, Conference USA, the Big East and now, for one year, the AAC. Pitino said that he would have been open to continuing the series in the future, but Memphis happened to call first. Pitino called Louisville’s schedule next year “virtually impossible” with ACC opponents and non-conference foes Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky already slated on the schedule.
  4. Memphis may have found its shooting touch from the outside after struggling for the most part from deep all season. Before Sunday’s 10 triples against USF, the Tigers ranked ninth out of 10 teams in the AAC by shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc. The three-ball could give Memphis’ offense a much-needed boost and help draw pressure off of the Tigers’ frontcourt. USF coach Stan Heath for one is a believer, saying that even though they aren’t statistically good from three-point range, they have a number of players who can get hot in a hurry. And if they develop consistency from that range, Heath thinks that they could win the AAC. Head coach Josh Pastner said that the reason the shots fell on Sunday was that the Tigers shared the basketball. If they continue to do that, Heath’s prediction might just come to fruition.
  5. Rutgers forward Kadeem Jack had an impressive 19-point, 11-rebound game on Saturday against Connecticut. Jack hopes to build on that performance and continue his productive play for the reminder of the season. He said that game was his best performance of the season and he needs to bring the same mentality into future games. Head coach Eddie Jordan agrees. “He’s our core scorer. He’s one of our main go-guys and he’s athletic. He gets to the rim, plays in the paint, he can make an 8-foot to 12-foot jump shot. He has to make himself more available to be aggressive to score. He’s got to get his scoring opportunities.” Jack is doing it all this year, as he is currently seventh in the conference in rebounding, 10th in blocks and 11th in field goal percentage.
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AAC M5: 01.22.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on January 22nd, 2014

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  1. Cincinnati is off to its best start in more than a decade, but head coach Mick Cronin is still making major adjustments. With freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence out with a foot injury, the latest change is an increase in the amount of zone the Bearcats are playing. In Cincinnati’s weekend win over USF, the zone forced fewer turnovers than normal, but Cincinnati made up for it by holding the Bulls to 39.2 percent shooting and fewer than 0.9 points per possession. It’s unlikely that their next two foes – UCF and Temple, the eighth- and seventh-best teams in the AAC, per KenPom – will pose much of a test, but the Bearcats will then face Louisville and its conference-best offense next Thursday. If the zone can effectively slow down the Cardinals, it will confirm that Cincinnati as a legitimately dangerous team come March.
  2. Before their visit to SMU on Tuesday, Rutgers was experiencing a big foul problem. In their first five conference games, the Scarlet Knights had committed 21 more fouls than their opponents and taken 56 fewer free throws. Head coach Eddie Jordan cited a lack of proper defensive techniques as the problem — but Rutgers fouled a lot under Mike Rice too – - and coupled with this year’s hand-checking point of emphasis, the team has struggled to keep opponents off the line. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, SMU was able to take advantage — Rutgers had 23 fouls to SMU’s 16, taking 15 fewer free throws in the 70-56 loss. It’s far from the team’s only problem, but it does underscore the magnitude of the task Jordan faces.
  3. Without point guard Anthony Collins in the lineup, South Florida is off to a 1-4 start but the Bulls are confident that they can hang with the defending national champions heading into tonight’s visit from Louisville. Speaking as the only player who returns from South Florida’s last victory over the Cards back in 2012, Bulls senior Victor Rudd believes they are “definitely beatable.” That USF team managed to win two games in the NCAA Tournament, a level of success that appears highly unlikely for this bunch. And while tonight’s match-up may have some aspects of a trap game – the Cards are coming off a big win at UConn and don’t play again until hosting league leader Cincinnati next Thursday – Rick Pitino’s squad hasn’t messed around with inferior teams this season, a group that the Bulls (ranked #181 in KenPom) clearly fall into.
  4. That said, the Cardinals will continue to go without point guard Chris Jones, who will miss his third straight game on Wednesday. Pitino said that he expects the junior back for next week’s game versus Cincinnati, so freshman Terry Rozier will fill in at the point for at least one more game. Some observers, including Sports Illustrated‘s Seth Davis, have suggested that the Cardinals have played better with Rozier running things, but Pitino, for his part, said he doesn’t expect any problems with working Jones back into the lineup. Next Thursday’s game is the only contest for the Cardinals against a top 100 KenPom team for the next month, so a victory there makes a 10-game winning streak a distinct possibility.
  5. Houston took a significant step up in level of competition this year by joining the AAC, but its fans haven’t seemed to realize it yet. The announced attendance at Sunday’s win over Rutgers was 3,115, although the Houston Chronicle said that the actual attendance was “far less” than even that meager number. As a result, the university’s president, Renu Khator, has issued a challenge to fans to turn out for this Sunday’s game against rising star SMU. It’s an uphill climb; the Cougars rank last in the AAC in attendance and have a long to go to recapture even a slight bit of their past glory.
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AAC M5: 01.20.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on January 20th, 2014

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  1. Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell had a huge night with 18 points and 13 rebounds against Connecticut, and his emergence will be crucial if the Cardinals are to make a run at a third straight Final Four. A player who has been mentioned as a potential lottery pick at times, Harrell has stepped up with three double-doubles in his last four games after Chane Behanan’s dimissal from the team. But it’s the sort of varied offensive game he showed Saturday evening – jumpers and hook shots off post moves in addition to his thunderous dunks – that has been missing this season. For UConn, he’s just the latest player to give the Huskies fits. That has been the biggest problem in their recent 5-4 swoon after a 9-0 start: an inability to deal with big, physical inside players. UConn was outscored by 20 and outrebounded by 15 in the paint against a team that has had its own interior problems. The Huskies continue to get worse at keeping other teams off the offensive glass (they rank #289 in the country, allowing foes to grab 34.8 percent of their own missed shots), and they can’t seem to come up with any answers for what has been their biggest weakness this season.
  2. The biggest highlight from Saturday night’s showdown didn’t involve a player but a coach. UConn head coach Kevin Ollie was called for two technical fouls and ejected after his reaction to a second half no-call in front of the Huskies bench. Niels Giffey’s shot fake lured Wayne Blackshear into the air, and the Louisville forward bumped Giffey on his way down, knocking the ball out of his hands. Louisville recovered the turnover, and Ollie went ballistic. It was pretty clearly a foul – the biggest irony is that Blackshear, who Louisville fans believe has never gotten the benefit of a whistle, was spared – and the trigger was a quick one. But UConn was already down nine at that point with Louisville rolling, so it’s a stretch to suggest the missed call cost the Huskies the game.
  3. Louisville won the game without junior point guard Chris Jones in the lineup because of a muscle strain, and it’s unclear whether he’ll return Wednesday when the Cardinals visit USF. Rick Pitino probably won’t try to rush him back, given the more than capable fill-in work of freshman Terry Rozier, who has nine assists and just two turnovers while replacing him in the starting lineup. With Rozier taking Jones’ place, the offense has in some ways appeared more balanced; Rozier has mostly served as a facilitator, which better complements Russ Smith’s aggressive scorer’s mentality, while Jones often also looks to score first.
  4. In non-Louisville and UConn news, conference leader Cincinnati remains hopeful that it will regain the services of freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence this season. Lawrence, who injured his foot in the January 9 win at Memphis, remains in a walking boot; his absence has forced coach Mick Cronin to shift to a smaller lineup and play more zone. While he was only averaging 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, getting back an additional big body would prove invaluable to Cronin come March.
  5. Isaiah Sykes, who leads UCF in scoring and assists, left Saturday’s loss to SMU early in the second half with an apparent head injury. Sykes, also second on the team in rebounding and steals, was taken to the locker room after a collision under the basket, and did not return. While there was no prognosis for his return after the game, any time missed by the team’s best player would obviously be harmful for the Knights, which dropped to 1-4 in the AAC with the loss.
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AAC M5: 01.16.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 16th, 2014

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  1. Louisville already has one foot out the door so it seems obvious that the marquee rivalry in the conference will instantly become UConn and Memphis considering the pedigree, talent and consistency of both programs. The two teams will meet for the first time as conference foes tonight in Memphis in a nationally televised contest that the AAC would really like to become an entertaining and competitive basketball game. The conference was built with football in mind and that will be even more true once Louisville and Rutgers depart, but the AAC may actually be a better basketball conference and the Huskies and Tigers are far and away the conference’s most prominent basketball schools. Cincinnati may feel a bit slighted but it’s true, Memphis and UConn are the two programs with the most history and prestige. Both coaches recognize the importance of this growing rivalry and since we should be living in the moment, the game should be a good one. It goes without saying that both teams are perimeter-oriented in nature and it will be fun to see some of the conference’s best guards go at each other, but the difference-maker could be Shaq Goodwin, who is much better than anyone in the Huskies’ frontcourt and will need to have a big game for the Tigers to win.
  2. Although it seems like every major high school basketball recruit with a coaching father chooses the school where his father coaches, we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it must be to play for your dad, especially when you aren’t a superstar recruit. Josh Heath signed to play for his father Stan Heath at South Florida, and then promptly sat the first 15 games on the bench while his father wanted him to redshirt. I am sure his father was a bit more diplomatic when he approached his son about redshirting, but it is still a tough message to receive from your old man. The good news is that rather than mope or transfer, the younger Heath patiently waited his turn so that when recurring knee issues sidelined Anthony Collins indefinitely, Heath was ready to step up. Playing in his first collegiate game, Heath was effective in 19 minutes in the win over Temple, as he dished out five assists and snagged three rebounds without turning the ball over. He wasn’t quite as error-free in the team’s loss to SMU last night, but he did have four points, two assists, and three steals in 21 minutes. He isn’t going to set the world on fire this season, but this is still a feel-good story of how a coach’s son has earned his playing time without a shred of nepotism involved. Heath is an important part of the team’s future, so it will just be interesting to see if his father is allowed to stick around long enough to see through his career.
  3. This shouldn’t be news to anyone following this conference but Cincinnati finally and deservedly broke into the Top 25 rankings this week and have stayed there despite a near-letdown against Temple. Coaches love to talk about how teams being ranked can be a bad thing because the players get too caught up in where they stand, and clearly coach Mick Cronin is no exception, but the real deal is that being ranked is a very good thing. Sure, it doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things because AP rankings matter little to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, but they make the conference look good and they also make the rest of the nation stand up and take notice. The Bearcats’ offensive ineptitude and physical style of play isn’t likely to garner any national recognition on its own, but beating a bunch of really good teams in conference and breaking into the Top 25 will. Right now they are probably looking at a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Bearcats have the potential to get even higher if they end up winning the conference. They obviously still have to go through Louisville twice, but they have at least entered the conversation among pundits about which are the best teams in the country.
  4. I’m not sure what this “promotion” really means other than a way to recognize a hard-working assistant, but Kevin Keatts was elevated from assistant coach to  associate head coach at Louisville yesterday. Keatts was plucked from Hargrave Military Academy where he won two national prep championships and was runner-up on three occasions as head coach. He has been an invaluable recruiter since joining Rick Pitino’s staff in 2011 and this move may actually help him land a head-coaching gig somewhere else down the line. I seriously doubt the move will have any impact on the Cardinals this season, and it probably won’t even impact Keatts’ responsibilities on the staff, but it’s still nice to see a guy who had his hand in a lot of the team’s success in recent years get his due.
  5. Rutgers easily beat UCF last night but the big story was that backcourt stalwart Myles Mack became the the newest member of the Scarlet Knights’ 1,000-point club, and he did it in style, scoring 21 points in the second half. The milestone was reached at the free throw stripe, but it was pretty clear that he was going to join the club in this game. Mack was a huge recruit for the Scarlet Knights considering he played his high school ball in the state and was the leader of one of the best high school teams in the country that season. He hasn’t been a world-beater since joining Rutgers, but he has been an impact player since the minute he set foot on campus, and it was nice to see him earn what was certainly an emotional milestone for him. The other good news for the team was that Jerome Seagears scored 18 points off the bench in first game since coming back from an ankle injury.
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AAC M5: 01.15.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 15th, 2014

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  1. Cincinnati took care of business last night against Temple in the only conference game played, and everyone who ordered themselves a $70 ticket earned a $10 ticket credit toward a package next year because the Bearcats once again held their opponent under 70 points. The team actually allowed the Owls to shoot better than 40 percent from behind the three-point arc, but they also forced 15 turnovers and Temple made just 9-of-18 free throws to keep Temple away from the magic number. They have now held their opponents under 70 points in 25 straight games, and boast one of the country’s 10 most efficient defenses according to KenPom. Under Mick Cronin, defense has become the program’s identity as it has finished among the top 25 in efficiency in each of the past three seasons. This year’s team has never really had a second scoring option behind Sean Kilpatrick, yet they do have several long and physical athletes who have bought into what their coach is teaching them. It will be interesting to see how this defense-first approach will work in March, but it’s the primary reason why the Bearcats will be playing in March at all.
  2. Devout college basketball fans don’t need to be told that Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin has vastly improved his game from last season, but just in case you weren’t paying attention, Josh Pastner doesn’t mind telling you how much different sophomore Goodwin is from freshman Goodwin. When folks talk about Memphis, they usually start by mentioning the four senior guards, but Goodwin’s emergence as an all-conference caliber player has been just as big a reason for the team’s success. The article astutely recognizes that Goodwin isn’t just a polished offensive player and solid rebounder, but he is also one of the best passing big men in the conference,  instrumental in helping his teammates get open looks and freeing up space for fellow forward Austin Nichols to get easy looks. I hope he stays in college for at least one more season because I don’t think his game translates well to the NBA just yet, and also because he is a lot of fun to watch. The Tigers found out against Cincinnati that shooting a ton of threes is not the best way to win, as Goodwin took just five shots in that game. The unit’s firepower obviously resides in the backcourt, but the offense also needs to go through Goodwin sometimes to keep opposing teams honest.
  3. Since we are on the subject of Josh Pastner talking about things, it’s worth mentioning that in the UConn Blog for the Hartford Courant there was a little note tucked in where Pastner is quoted saying that the AAC is “one of the three best conferences in the country” and should get as many as six bids to the NCAA Tournament. We have no context for the quote but if he was asked a question about where the conference stood, it shouldn’t be surprising that he decided to toe the party line. That said, uhhh Josh, we probably appreciate the conference enthusiasm as much as anyone, but you can’t just say things like that when they clearly aren’t true. The Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC all are clearly better conferences and plenty of people would argue that the Big East and Atlantic-10 are better top-to-bottom as well. As for six bids, Pastner better hope that Houston stays hot because the Cougars are pretty much the only hope the conference has for a sixth bid. Did we mention that this team has lost to San Jose State already and has beaten just one team (UConn at home) of any consequence? At least he didn’t try this nonsense next season.
  4. Admittedly, I have never really considered Rutgers swingman J.J. Moore as a combo forward and have always thought of him as someone who could play guard and forward. It turns out that he can play both positions, as he has been great at guard for the Scarlet Knights ever since Jerome Seagears went down with an ankle injury. The Pittsburgh transfer is third on the team in scoring at 11.9 points per game and adds value defensively with his ability to defend multiple positions. Unfortunately, his talents will be lost in Piscataway because the Scarlet Knights will be very lucky to make any postseason tournament. I am sure he had his reasons for transferring, but the Panthers are among the ACC’s best teams and I bet Jamie Dixon would enjoy having Moore at his disposal for this stretch run.
  5. Kevin Ware‘s feel-good comeback story stalled weeks ago as he struggled with a shin injury and has played sparingly and made very little impact on the team this season. Well now it looks like the story has come to a full stop, as sources are telling the Louisville Courier-Journal that the shin injury may cause Ware to miss the rest of the season. Ware wasn’t on the bench during the team’s recent win over SMU after re-injuring it, and it looks like his season is over. The silver lining is that the sources seemed to refute message board buzz about Ware leaving the program permanently, and it also seems likely that Ware will apply for a medical redshirt which would allow him to retain another year of eligibility.
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