As Connecticut prepared to wrap up non-conference play this week, the Huskies suffered a key loss as center and defensive stalwart Amida Brimahbroke his finger in practice. Brimah’s injury will require surgery and cause the junior to be sidelined for six to eight weeks. As one of the best rim protectors in college basketball, his loss will be tough to overcome. The hope for Kevin Ollie is that his team’s depth will find a way to pick up the slack heading into next week’s game at Texas followed by the start of conference play.
UConn will try to figure out how to handle the loss of center Amida Brimah. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
So where does UConn go from here? Standing at 8-3 with a couple quality wins over Michigan and Ohio State but not much else to show for this season, the Huskies will need to put together a strong performance in the American if they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Here are two areas where Ollie must focus on improvement.
Finals week is always one of the slower times of the college basketball season, but there was still a decent amount of action that took place in the American last week. With the events of the last week in mind, here’s an AAC Report Card.
A: SMU. This was a great week for SMU. Not only did the Mustangs roll over Nicholls State and Hampton to stay undefeated, but head coach Larry Brown also returned from his nine-game suspension for rules violations. What has made this SMU team so potent? Based on the most recent KenPom ratings, SMU owns the eighth most efficient offense in college basketball and the 55th most efficient defense. That offense, with potential AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore leading the way, has carried SMU through its relatively soft non-conference schedule, but there is hardly a Mustang who hasn’t joined the party: seven of SMU’s eight rotation players have offensive ratings among the 115 best in the country. The lone exception, Keith Frazier, is still 371st nationally with an offensive rating of 116.9. There will be no postseason in Dallas, but this is a fun team that really knows how to run an offense.
A: UConn. Following close losses to Maryland, Gonzaga and Syracuse, UConn was looking for another quality win to go along with its late November victory over Michigan. The Huskies found it in a 20-point demolition of Ohio State, a team that has struggled but managed to beat Kentucky last weekend. Kevin Ollie tightened up his rotation against the Buckeyes, reserving major minutes for only seven players. This meant no playing time for Sam Cassell Jr. and Phil Nolan and only a minute of mop-up action for freshman big man Steven Enoch. UConn will look to build on this win as they play one-win Central Connecticut on Wednesday before heading to Austin to face a rising Texas team in its final non-conference game.
Heading into the first of two games between UConn and Louisville this year, the most obvious narratives have already been explored at length. On paper, the battle between senior All-America candidates Shabazz Napier and Russ Smith stands out as the most intriguing match-up, as the diminutive guards have been scoring prolifically and dramatically all year. They figure to do much of the heavy lifting, with backcourt partners Ryan Boatright and Terry Rozier playing a supporting role. UConn big men Amida Brimah, Phil Nolan and Tyler Olander will try to contain Montrezl Harrell the same way they slowed down Memphis in the paint.
UConn needs DeAndre Daniels to keep producing on both ends (Nelson Chenault / USA TODAY)
But the match-up that could ultimately dictate the outcome of the game will take place at the three and four spots, between DeAndre Daniels and Wayne Blackshear. Certainly, Luke Hancock has been playing magnificently in the early part of the Cardinals’ AAC schedule, but Daniels presents an NBA-caliber mismatch that could overpower Hancock and outmaneuver Harrell. Blackshear is much better equipped to guard him at multiple points on the floor, and as a result, he’ll likely be the one who is on the floor with the game on the line tonight. Both Blackshear and Daniels are highly skilled wings who have failed to meet lofty expectations after showing tremendous potential as sophomores. Both former five-star recruits have frustrated their coaches with their tentativeness and lack of productivity on the boards. And both appear poised to put it all together and become consistent go-to weapons for their teams.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie was flying high a month ago, but now finds his team at the bottom of the AAC standings. (USAT)
A few days previous to that, after Shabazz Napier’s buzzer-beater knocked off Florida, we here at RTC wondered if the Huskies might be a legitimate Final Four contender. It’s safe to say that’s not a question getting raised in Storrs today. UConn went on to lose its first game of the season against Stanford on December 18, and now, after dropping both ends of a Texas road trip to Houston and SMU, find themselves in last place in the AAC standings. So what happened? Three things.
Shabazz Napier did not in fact turn into Ray Allen. In their first nine wins, UConn was shooting a ridiculous 45 percent from three-point range, more than 10 percent higher than the year before. Both Napier and Niels Giffey were shooting at least 60 percent from distance. On the night they beat Florida, after shooting 11-of-24 from deep, we wrote: “If their shooting percentages eventually come back to earth, their record might follow.” And here we are. In their losses to Stanford, Houston and SMU, the Huskies shot a combined 18-of-60, or 30 percent from beyond the arc. Napier shot 5-of-17 in those three games, and is now shooting a still great but much more reasonable 47.8 percent for the season. UConn was never going to shoot 46 percent from three all year long, nor will they shoot 30 percent either. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Read the rest of this entry »
The American had a pretty nice weekend, posting an 11-1 record with 11 straight wins over the past four days before South Florida dropped its Las Vegas match-up against Mississippi State on Sunday night. We will take a closer look once the non-conference slate wraps up (mostly) next weekend, but the AAC has posted only a so-so 79-31 overall record, fifth in winning percentage behind the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and Big East. Worse, it ranks ninth in conference RPI, indicative of the problems some AAC members might have come Selection Sunday.
UConn coach Kevin Olliesuggested as much before Sunday’s match-up with Washington, and before tip-off it was announced that the Huskies’ starting lineup had indeed changed. Indeed, freshman Amida Brimah got the start in the Sunday win, with Phil Nolan losing his spot there. Both performed relatively well; Brimah managed four points, three rebounds, two blocks, an assist and a steal in 17 minutes, while Nolan ended up with eight points and five boards in 13 minutes. The Huskies have been a terrible rebounding team all year, ranking outside the top 200 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, and it’s understandable why Ollie might want to mirror Louisville’s Rick Pitino in starting a raw freshman at center who might improve more quickly over a limited veteran. Still, Nolan’s only a sophomore, and he’s been a better rebounder than Brimah thus far.
Sean Kilpatrick continued his move up Cincinnati’s all-time scoring list, sliding into eighth place with 23 points in Saturday’s win over Middle Tennessee. He now has scored 1,650 points in his career, 16 behind Ron Bonham for #7. If he stays on his current pace, he’ll finish with more than 2,000 points, only the second Bearcat in the history of the program to pass that threshold. The other guy who reached that milestone, the school’s all-time leading scorer, remains out of reach; it’s some guy named Oscar Robertson, who managed 2,973 points in his career and was the leading scorer in college hoops history when he graduated in 1960. Still, Kilpatrick, who’s off to a great start this season, has been a very important player for the program, and particularly for coach Mick Cronin, whose job was in some danger when Kilpatrick arrived.
Louisville rolled over Florida International on Saturday night short a couple of reserves. Kevin Ware, whose gruesome leg injury in March made him a national celebrity, suffered a shin injury against Missouri State on Tuesday night and was wearing street clothes on the bench. Freshman forward Akoy Agau also missed the game after being suspended for not “acting the way a University of Louisville basketball player should,” as coach Rick Pitino put it. It was unclear if either will be available for Saturday’s massive tilt at Rupp Arena against hated rival Kentucky, but it also probably matters very little. Agau, a little-used reserve, is unlikely to see the floor in such a high-level contest anyway; and while Ware might have gotten some run, he’s been a pretty distant fourth in the Cardinals’ guard rotation behind Russ Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier.
Two AAC schools, Temple and Houston, have something major in common despite the differences inherent in being located more than 1,300 miles apart. They are both struggling to achieve relevance in their hometowns, where they not only face competition from other college programs but also professional squads in all major sports. Houston appears to be ahead of Temple in its local efforts, and may therefore offer a blueprint. “We’ve had to fight, scratch, and claw to become relevant, not just in this city but in the state,” Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “By no means do I think we’ve conquered that. But we’ve made inroads.”
Four Thoughts is our way of providing some rapid reactions to some of the key games involving AAC teams throughout the season.
Shabazz Napier rises to take the game-winning jumper in UConn’s 65-64 victory over Florida on Monday. (credit: AP)
What is left to say about Shabazz Napier? UConn’s senior guard did it again, capping off another ridiculous shooting night with a buzzer-beater to seal the Huskies’ 65-64 win over Florida on Monday night. Napier finished with 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting (more on that momentarily) and another game-winner, plus a four-point play on the penultimate possession; he also scored the final points for UConn in one-possession victories over Indiana and Boston College. He added four rebounds, two assists and three steals, while controlling a sometimes sloppy game of runs. Due to some inconsistent offense by both teams – the game was mostly played with more effort than skill, despite some impressive athletic feats – the teams alternated bursts of points and traded the lead back and forth, including three times in the final minute. Through it all Napier was magnificent, and has to be near the top of the list for All-America consideration thus far.
With the win, the Huskies are now 8-0 with wins over Florida, Maryland, Indiana and Boston College. They reached #2 in one RPI replicator Monday night; while that ranking is flawed in many ways and still unreliable so early in the season, it’s an indicator of the value of their hot start. UConn has four non-conference games remaining before AAC play begins; they will be favored in each of them, making it likely they will reach 2014 undefeated. Things couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start for Kevin Ollie’s team. But… Read the rest of this entry »
In sad news, particularly so close to the holidays, the family home of Cincinnati forward Jeremiah Davis III was severely damaged by a fire last week. No one was injured. “It’s Thanksgiving you know and I’m just thankful for my family,” Davis III told the News Record. “They’re what’s most important. Family is the biggest thing.” Davis said his teammates’ support has been invaluable. “They gave me their condolences and have been trying to make me laugh to just get my mind off of that.” Head coach Mick Cronin said the university is trying to figure out how to help his family without running afoul of NCAA rules. “We’re working on it but it’s a process,” Cronin said. “Nothing ever goes quickly with the NCAA.”
Louisville rolled through its first three games at home in easy fashion, looking every bit a consensus top three team in America. Then came a weekend trip to Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun, where we would imagine Rick Pitino will not be booking another trip soon. The Cardinals slopped their way through a Saturday win over Fairfield — “This was a bad performance by us… But we’ll come back. I don’t expect us to have two bad games in a row.” — and then proved their coach wrong by getting manhandled by North Carolina on Sunday. Pitino blamed the loss on the team’s defense: “It’s quite evident tonight that this is not the same team defensively at the three, four and five spot.” Unfortunately, it’s the exact same players at the three spot and the four spot as a year ago, which suggests that the absence of NBA first-round pick Gorgui Dieng has weakened the team defensively as whole.
Connecticut missed out on the last Big East Tournament as we’ve known it due to academic troubles last season, and the AAC won’t be playing its tournament in the Big Apple this year. And yet senior guard Shabazz Napier still managed to have his Kemba Walker moment in the world’s most famous arena, dropping 47 points over two nights at MSG to lead the Huskies to a 2KSports Classic title. “That’s my big brother. I try to emulate everything that he does in a sense, but also put my type of talent, my type of skills on it,” Napier said of Walker, the MVP of the 2011 Big East and NCAA Tournaments. “I’m not trying to be him — that’s hard shoes to fill. I’m just trying to be Shabazz.” Indiana’s Tom Crean, whose Hoosiers lost to UConn in the final, had a different comparison in mind. “I imagine it would be in the NFL like trying to deal with a great running back — like Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson now, something like that.”
Playing a smaller but still crucial role in UConn’s MSG win was senior Tyler Olander, a former starter adjusting to a bench role this year. “You just have to be ready when your number is called,” he said, and he was when foul trouble snared Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah. In 24 minutes of action, he notched only four points and four rebounds, but he also got two steals, including one after Napier’s go-ahead basket than ended up being the game-winner. Olander had an eventful summer in a bad way, getting arrested twice and earning a spot in coach Kevin Ollie’s doghouse. Since then, he has been working hard to rebuild his reputation. “I’m so proud of Tyler and how he’s handled himself off the court,” Ollie said Friday night, “and that’s giving him the opportunity to do the different things he’s doing on the court.”
It’s still early, but the AAC continues to struggle to acquire good wins this season. As of Sunday night, the conference ranked ninth in RPI, with no wins over a team currently in the top 50 (although Indiana is likely to end up there). Only UConn (#14), Cincinnati (#45) and SMU (#78) are in the top 100. Again, it’s early, and the RPI will definitely shift substantially in the weeks and months ahead. But nearly three weeks into the college basketball season, it’s hard to dispute that the conference is off to a disappointing start. If it doesn’t start getting wins over decent teams soon, it risks a disappointing overall season; just ask the 2011 and 2012 Pac-10, which discovered that if none of your teams beats anybody in the non-conference slate, they don’t turn into quality wins themselves for conference foes come January and February.
The NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, suspended Memphis freshman Kuran Iverson for the Tigers’ first regular season game against in-state foe Austin Peay for playing basketball in two different cities this summer. Iverson, a Hartford, Connecticut native, played summer league games in both Memphis (the Bluff City Classic) and Waterbury, Connecticut (the Hartford Pro Am). The NCAA limits players to one team in one league during the summer, and Memphis self-reported the violation. “He assumed he could (play in the Hartford summer league) because it was in his backyard, in his neighborhood, and he grew up watching the league” Memphis coach Josh Pastnertold the Commerical-Appeal. “He didn’t think anything would be against it.” Iverson can play in preseason exhibitions and scrimmages, will sit against Austin Peay (ranked #283 in the country by Ken Pomeroy) and will return for a road trip to Oklahoma State, who Pomeroy ranks #4. The timing is convenient for the Tigers, who shouldn’t have much trouble with Austin Peay, but will need all the help they can get against Marcus Smart and the Cowboys.
A year ago, Connecticut had only thing left to play for: “Pride,” junior guard Ryan Boatright said to USA Today. “Pride and proving the world wrong.” Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun had just retired in the face of the Huskies’ ineligibility for the NCAA tournament due to academics. Kevin Ollie was named the interim coach, “but I looked at it like I had a lifetime deal,” Ollie, a former Connecticut point guard, told USA Today. “I look that way at every aspect of my life, everything. That’s how I want my players to look at things. Sometimes you’ve got to believe in the dark. You don’t know the outcome, but you just keep believing in one another.” Playing for pride, and believing in one another, carried Connecticut to a 20-win season and now has them ranked #19 in the preseason coaches poll. Ollie got a new contract, and now finds himself as one of brightest young coaching stars in the game. Once Louisville leaves of the ACC, Connecticut will be the clear face of the league, and Ollie’s early success has them well poised to for that role.
The major obstacle to Connecticut’s success this year certainly appears to be its thin frontcourt, and Wednesday’s easy exhibition win over Southern Connecticut State can’t be too comforting on that issue. The Huskies were outrebounded by their Division II foes 48-43, and managed only five offensive rebounds compared to SCSU’s 18. “I wasn’t happy with the rebounding effort, and they’ll understand that when we get back Friday,” Kevin Ollie said after the game, but singled out sophomore Phil Nolan for praise. “He as six rebounds in 11 minutes, that’s pretty damn good. If he does that, he’ll play.” For his part, Nolan said the rebounding would improve. “We’ll get back in the lab and work on rebounding, and you’ll see improvement next time,” Nolan said, adding that “People say we have a small team, but you look at it, we’re pretty big. We can do a lot of things.” The American promises to be a perimeter-oriented league, but the Huskies must improve their rebounding (they ranked #278 in offensive rebounding percentage and #319 in defensive rebounding percentage last year, according to Pomeroy) if they want to live up to their lofty preseason ranking.
Temple coach Fran Dunphy has been a head coach in college for 24 years – with 15 NCAA tournament trips – but thinks this year might be his toughest yet. “I think this is as challenged as I’ve been as a basketball coach,” Dunphy told CBSSports.com. “It should be a very interesting experience for us this year to see where we wind up. There’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of apprehension at this point.” That’s reasonable, as the Owls find themselves in a new league with many new faces in their team photo. The team lost five seniors off a squad that won 24 games, including one in the tournament. Those five combined to average 52.9 points per game while the team averaged 72.8. Dunphy’s first team at Temple finished 12-18; the next six (also the last six) have each won 21 games and made the NCAA tournament, so it’s tough to count him out. But facing a tough non-conference slate and a stronger league, it seems highly unlikely that Temple will be dancing in March.
Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie has one of the nation’s best backcourts, but a frontcourt full of questions. One of those questions was answered earlier this week when freshman Kenton Facey was declared eligible, and Ollie hopes that sophomore Phil Nolan can answer another. “I need one big man to step up and just separate themselves,” Ollie said. “I’d like to have two, three, four of them separate themselves, but I need one, and if not, we’ll do it by committee. They know exactly, I made it real plain and simplified it a lot, that how to get minutes is rebound.” Nolan said he had put on some weight over the offseason and hopes to build off a first taste of success late last season, when he averaged more than six rebounds over his last three games. “I think he comes back this year stronger physically. His endurance is better and he’s able to play more plays at a high level in a row,” associate head coach Glen Miller added. “A lot of freshmen take plays off here and there, but he’s playing a more complete game, and he’s doing everything a lot better.”
SMU coach Larry Brown is also trying to figure out a frontcourt rotation with both returning players and newcomers trying to stake a claim. Brown said he’s intrigued by a pairing of two massive newcomers: junior college star Yanick Moreira and Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy, who has lost 40 pounds since leaving the Big East. “Markus looks great,” Brown told CBSSports.com. “I think he and Yanick are going to blend well together. They’re both team guys and I think those two will give us a real strong base to work with.” Brown said those two will pair with returning big men Shawn Williams and Cannen Cunningham, underscoring that perhaps his toughest challenge will finding the proper balance.
While major college athletics officials are discussing revisions to the NCAA governance structure in Indianapolis this week, it appears a new division of the biggest schools is off the table for now. “From what I’ve heard in the association, I think people would like to have one Division I, but in some ways, a structure that will make certain differentiations between small conferences and big conferences,” Nathan Hatch, president at Wake Forest University and chairman of the Division I board of directors, told USA Today. “I think people like having one division.” That’s good news for the American, which risked being on the outside looking in had the five largest football conferences – the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 – left the others behind. Hatch sand other said some differentiations in rules are under consideration, but it’s unclear which side of the divide the AAC schools will end up on. Probably the biggest impact of a new super division would be the fate of the NCAA tournament, and that such an option seems out of the question can only be good news for college basketball’s crown jewel. Yahoo! reports that athletic directors, who took a back seat to college presidents a decade ago, appear set to reassert themselves in the revised structure.