AAC M5: 02.19.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on February 19th, 2014

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  1. Rick Pitino has made no secret of his distaste for certain aspects of social media over the years, but a Twitter firestorm about some comments he made about Twitter was based on quotes actually taken out of context. Pitino was addressing questions about race and discrimination in basketball (the school honored its first three black players at Tuesday night’s game), and it led into a question about players on the receiving end of racially-charged comments via social media. Pitino’s answer was chopped up into a quote that made it sound as if he thought all people who used the Internet were underachievers. The Big Lead and Louisville Courier-Journal beat writer Jeff Greer (who asked the question that elicited the quote) quickly sought to squash the controversy. Let’s hope they did.
  2. On the court, a couple of Cardinals reached major milestones in Tuesday night’s win over USF. Sophomore Montrezl Harrell set the school single-season record for dunks with five regular-season games remaining, passing Pervis Ellison and Chane Behanan. And Russ Smith, who famously almost transferred to Manhattan after his freshman season, passed Hall of Famer Wes Unseld and Billy Thompson to reach #10 on the school’s all-time career scoring list, and reached second place on the school’s all-time career steals list, 29 behind former backcourt mate Peyton Siva. After two Big East titles, two Final Fours and a national championship, we almost seem to take Russ Smith for granted, but his is maybe the most improbable career imaginable.
  3. Shabazz Napier has been getting most of the attention this season, and rightly so, but his backcourt partner Ryan Boatright has fought through adversity to make major contributions to UConn’s success. He missed a game to attend his cousin’s funeral last month, and has been hampered by a shoulder injury that has dropped his shooting percentage, but still managed to score 21 points in Saturday’s overtime win over Memphis. “I keep telling you guys he might not be shooting well, but I can never question his heart, his effort and his enthusiasm to win,” coach Kevin Ollie said of Boatright, whose contributions will be the determining factor in how far the Huskies play into March.
  4. Memphis ends the season with games against Louisville, at Cincinnati and SMU, but before that it has to deal with three teams much closer to the bottom of the AAC standings. Head coach Josh Pastner, though, knows that avoiding bad losses might be just as important as adding quality wins at this point, and his team is trying to keep his team focused on the next game rather than the brighter lights to come. The Tigers have six losses, but all of them came against top 50 RPI teams, so none do the serious damage to their seeding potential that a loss to Rutgers, Temple or Houston – their next three foes – would do. And they have a very recent example in SMU’s loss to Temple on Sunday to remind them of the necessity of keeping their eye on the ball.
  5. SMU locked down the top point guard in the 2014 class a while back in hometown hero Emmanuel Mudiay, and now has secured insurance against him departing after a single season. The Mustangs and 73-year-old coach Larry Brown have received a commitment from class of 2015 point guard Sedrick Barefield. The 6’2″ Coronoa, California, native is ranked as the #85 junior by Rivals.com, and continues the unlikely recruiting success of a program with no tradition to speak of led by a coach in his seventies who hasn’t completed four seasons at a single job in more than a decade.
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AAC M5: 02.18.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on February 18th, 2014

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  1. Shabazz Napier, all 6’1″, 180 pounds of him, has carried Connecticut on his narrow back all year. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, dramatic game-winning shots and saving stranded kittens, probably. Kevin Ollie says Napier is an All-American, the best guard in America, and The Sporting News seems well on the way to being convinced. It is undeniable that Napier is one of the very best players in the country, but it remains an open question as to whether or not he’s the best guard in The American. It’s possible, in fact, that the three best guards in the country – Napier, Sean Kilpatrick and Russ Smith – ply their trade in the AAC. It’s just one more subplot for intriguing stretch run.
  2. Earlier this season, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was worried that this year’s team would never figure out his defensive schemes well enough to find the type of success to which the program has become accustomed. And yet here we are in mid February, and for the fifth time in six years, the Cardinals find themselves in the top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. Pitino said that in the absence of a shot blocker like departed star Gorgui Dieng, this year’s squad has found success by keeping foes out of the lane entirely. “There’s always the one game where you must be the better defensive team to win in the NCAA tournament,” Pitino said, no doubt with his goal of reaching a third straight Final Four in mind.
  3. Nearly 20 years ago, Fran Dunphy was the coach at Penn seeking counsel from veteran coach Larry Brown, who was taking over the Philadelphia 76ers. Dunphy recalls that the much more accomplished Brown often asked as many questions as he answered. Brown certainly didn’t have enough answers on Sunday, when his resurgent SMU team – ranked for the first time in nearly 20 years – lost to Dunphy’s rebuilding Temple squad. It serves as a reminder that while Temple might be having a rough season, their coach has some skills.
  4. Memphis coach Josh Pastner has been trying to get Geron Johnson to play like, well, Geron Johnson. “I just told him, ‘Look, we need you to be better. We’re not gonna achieve the level of success that we want if you’re playing like you did the previous two games,’” Pastner said after Saturday’s loss at Connecticut, when Johnson went 7-for-10 from the field, scoring 15 points and adding eight rebounds. Johnson said he has struggled with the rules changes this year, but knows he needs to better adjust. He will have to if the Tigers are to succeed in March.
  5. The American’s run of having half its teams ranked lasted exactly one week. SMU dropped out of the rankings after its loss to Temple, leaving four AAC teams ranked in both polls. Most noteworthy is Louisville, ranked #11 by the AP and #5 by the coaches, the largest disparity between the two polls. One way or the other, it will be settled on Saturday when the Cardinals face the otherwise highest ranked team, Cincinnati (#7/#9).
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AAC M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on February 14th, 2014

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  1. It has been a roller-coaster freshman campaign for talented Memphis big man Dominic Woodson. The 6-foot-10 and 300-pound center has a lot of talent and moves extremely well for a man his size, but there have been plenty of not-so-subtle hints that Woodson hasn’t quite figured out the whole maturity thing and still has a lot to learn. Yesterday, coach Josh Pastner let it be known that Woodson has been suspended from the team indefinitely for cussing from the bench during the team’s win over Central Florida. Pastner kicked him off the bench during the second half of the game and while it seems petty to suspend a player for curse words, it’s not hard to understand that cussing is just part of the problem for Woodson. It seems unlikely that Woodson will be suspended for the rest of the season, although he doesn’t play a lot to begin with, but it does sound like Pastner is sending a serious message for his big man to clean up his act. Hopefully Woodson receives the message loud and clear because if his behavior doesn’t show marked improvement Pastner probably won’t put up with much more.
  2. In contrast, Tigers’ freshman Kuran Iverson is handling the transition to college basketball much better than Woodson. Iverson might have been even more highly touted than Woodson coming out of high school in Hartford, Connecticut and yet he is playing less than 10 minutes per game and has yet to make a real difference for the team this season. Iverson gets a chance to return home this weekend as Memphis travels to player UConn and he said that he will have plenty of family in attendance, which is understandable since the XL Center is apparently just “two minutes from his house”. Unfortunately (primarily for sportswriters), the traditional storyline about a hometown player returning to wreak havoc on the nearby team that spurned him doesn’t quite fit in this situation as Iverson didn’t really want to go to UConn and the Huskies never seemed seriously interested in Iverson either. Hopefully he does get a chance to play in front of his friends and family and his attitude seems positive, so hopefully the playing time will come down the road as well.
  3. Four players from the conference — Memphis’ Joe Jackson, UConn’s Shabazz Napier, Louisville’s Russ Smith, and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick – were named to the Naismith Trophy Midseason Top 30 list yesterday. The folks picking this list got it right, at least in regards to the AAC, as those four have easily been the conference’s four best players and it’s not really close. When I first started to think of anyone who got snubbed, I was quickly surprised to realize just how far these four have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Jackson’s statistics don’t quite measure up to the other three’s numbers, but he has arguably meant more to his team than anyone other than Kilpatrick and so he deserves to be on the list just as much as the other guys. That said, when you look at the combination of value to the team and all-around numbers, it is clear that Kilpatrick has the best chance of any of these players to actually win the award. He probably won’t, because there are far more high-profile candidates having fantastic seasons, but he is the only one with a real shot at winning the award.
  4. Louisville wanted to play Thursday’s game against Temple in Philadelphia. But the Owls, hoping to maximize fan turnout against one of the conference’s best teams, decided to postpone the game until Friday evening due to weather conditions. Cardinals’ coach Rick Pitino is anxious to get back on the court because his team hasn’t played in nearly 10 days and a Courier-Journal reporter didn’t help matters when he told Pitino that teams coming off a six-day layoff or more in the American Athletic Conference are 0-8 in their first game back. Pitino did point out that the extra day would help guard Wayne Blackshear shake the cobwebs from his concussion, but it’s still obvious that the Cardinals aren’t pumped to spend another full day in Philly. Both sides have a point in the matter, but it’s Temple’s home game so ultimately it’s their call. And frankly, it all seems to be much ado about nothing because the Owls are terrible and will need more than help from the weather to beat the Cardinals.
  5. Now that CBSSports.com has caught on, am I allowed to pat myself on the back for mentioning that the best AAC teams feasting on the terrible AAC teams is a big reason why the conference has as many ranked teams as any other conference in the country? Parrish deserves more credit since I just mentioned it in passing and he actually fleshed out the argument and used numbers to back it up but he illustrates the point well — the bottom half of the American is awful and it’s helping the other teams in the conference. Parrish does give credit where credit is due by pointing out that SMU and Cincinnati are much better than anyone expected and that is another reason why so many of the conference’s teams are ranked. But folks picking NCAA Tournament winners should be wary of pumping up the AAC because the teams that will make the tournament will undeniably have inflated win totals thanks to consistently dominating the conference’s worst teams.
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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: 02.11.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on February 11th, 2014

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  1. Ideally this would have been covered in yesterday’s Morning Five but because of my forgetfulness, we will talk about it today. Hopefully SMU athletic director Rick Hart got head coach Larry Brown a nice gift or at least gave him a firm handshake this morning because the legendary coach has made his boss look like a genius in hiring him. In just his second year at the helm of the program, Brown has rebuilt the Mustangs quicker than anyone could have expected. On Monday the program found itself back in the Associated Press Top 25 poll after a nearly 30-year absence. The team earned the right after moving to 19-5 on the season by smoking Cincinnati at home over the weekend to end the Bearcats’ undefeated run in conference play. Brown has used a heavy influx of high-major transfers and suffocating defense to lift the team to its current level of success, and considering the recruiting haul expected to arrive on campus next season, the Mustangs may be in the poll to stay. They are now firmly in the NCAA Tournament field and should be considered a dark horse candidate to make a run thanks to their defensive prowess and impressive depth.
  2. Pretending that AAC Player of the Year honors is a race between three players should be borderline insulting given the type of season that Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick is putting together. The senior made a somewhat surprising decision to return for his last season and the move has paid big-time dividends as Kilpatrick has led the Bearcats to their current perch atop the AAC standings. He had a poor shooting night in the team’s loss over the weekend to SMU, but otherwise he has handled the pressure of being the team’s clear-cut No. 1 scoring option and has contributed plenty of rebounding, distributing, and of course, defense. Once considered an NBA afterthought, he has thrust himself into the conversation with his play and to say that UConn’s Shabazz Napier and Louisville’s Russ Smith should be included in the discussion for Player of the Year honors is a disservice to Kilpatrick.
  3. The UConn Huskies are beginning to feel the wear and tear of a long conference season and questions about whether the program has the depth to hold on for the second half of the conference schedule have begun to emerge. The team’s bench was outscored by 16 in the UCF game, which is fine when you are playing UCF but isn’t fine when you are playing legitimate competition. And to make matters worse, players whom coach Kevin Ollie was counting on to make big contributions — guys like Omar Calhoun and Tyler Olander — have become relative afterthoughts as their performance and playing time has slowly disappeared. It’s no secret that the Huskies would be a mediocre team without Napier, fellow guard Ryan Boatright, and athletic forward DeAndre Daniels, but they still need other players to step up if they want to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament. Ollie’s primary concern should be getting everyone healthy and making sure that he doesn’t overuse his best players down the stretch. But in order to do that, he needs to be able to trust players like Calhoun and Olander and freshmen like Terrence Samuel and Kentan Facey. It might be worth playing them more minutes against bad teams to at least see what they can do and build their confidence, because the Huskies will need them when the competition takes a turn for the better.
  4. The Louisville Courier-Journal took the time to hand out some midseason grades to the Louisville basketball team yesterday and they must be using a nice sliding scale because the grades they gave the Cardinals are awfully generous. The backcourt received a nice round “A” grade, which would be accurate if we were only grading Russ Smith, but Chris Jones, Luke Hancock, and Wayne Blackshear have all been inconsistent this season and I don’t think even coach Rick Pitino would give his backcourt an “A”. The frontcourt received a “B-” which, again, would be accurate if we were only grading Montrezl Harrell, who has been improving recently but has still yet to assert his dominance. But the rest of the frontcourt is a mess. Chane Behanan is gone and was disappointing even when he was on the floor; Stephan Van Treese has become more than just a space-eater now, but applauding him for his tap-outs and deflections is indicative of just how ineffective the rest of the team’s frontcourt has been. Somehow the bench got a “B” despite the fact that every player cited (guys like Tim Henderson, Mangok Mathiang, and Anton Gill) have been nothing more than bit players to this point. The bottom line is that Louisville has a great record and can snag a protected seed with a strong finish to the season, but they haven’t beaten anyone of note and no one seriously considers them a national title contender. Their grades should reflect that.
  5. Much has already been made of Memphis guard Joe Jackson‘s game-changing block on Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski, and while it was not the only reason Memphis came back to clinch Saturday’s big non-conference win, you would be hard-pressed to find a single play in a single game that changed momentum so drastically and suddenly. Focusing on a singular play that wasn’t a game-winning shot or defensive stop is usually a vehicle that writers use to tell the story and spice up the game recap. But if you were watching the game over the weekend — even if it was only through your television — you could feel the energy in the building return after Jackson made that block and the Tigers were a different team as a result. Before the season, I was hard on Jackson who I felt was a good college guard but slightly overrated when compared to the rest of the conference’s elite guards, but it’s probably getting close to time to issue an apology.
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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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AAC M5: 02.05.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 5th, 2014

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  1. UConn is poised to give Houston and Chicken Knowles a run for their money in the player nickname arms race, after Will “Turtle” Jackson gave coach Kevin Ollie a verbal commitment on Monday. The 6’4” Georgia point guard, ranked by Rivals.com as the #39 recruit in the class of 2015, reportedly picked the Huskies over Louisville, Memphis, Florida and Kansas, among others. Jackson credited UConn fans’ enthusiastic support of both the men’s and women’s teams as an influence in his decision, as well as Ollie’s style of play. His high school coach is also, by all indications, amazing, judging from his recollections of a pivotal fourth-quarter comeback: “I called a timeout and I just said, ‘Turtle, you take over this game. You do whatever you want to do.’ And do you know, that sucker scored 22 points in the last four minutes and 50 seconds? He didn’t miss a shot.” With four-star shooting guard Prince Ali already in the fold for 2015, UConn is the early favorite for the league’s best-named backcourt.
  2. In case you weren’t convinced of the top-heavy nature of the AAC in its inaugural year, RTC writer CD Bradley points out that the top half of the league is 25-2 against the bottom half. (It’s now 26-2, following Memphis’ pummeling of Rutgers last night). Five teams are very much in play for NCAA Tournament bids; the other five are nowhere near the bubble. The only real question at this point is whether SMU (17-3, 6-3 AAC) can avoid a fatal misstep over the course of its final nine games. The Mustangs are positioned well after handily defeating a very good Memphis team in Moody Coliseum last weekend, but have failed to record a quality road win this season. Their loss earlier in the week to USF demonstrated that back-to-back road trips to Rutgers and Temple aren’t guaranteed wins, and losing to either could derail their auspicious NCAA projections.
  3. Rutgers has received letters from attorneys representing three additional players in connection with the Mike Rice scandal, The Star-Ledger reports. The documents, submitted on behalf of current Scarlet Knight Jerome Seagears and former players Dane Miller and Robert Lumpkins, were apparently filed in April, May and June 2013, but were only made public this week following a disclosure request. None of the three have filed suit as of now. Former teammate Derrick Randall also named the university in a lawsuit last December, which is now pending in federal court.
  4. Rick Pitino will have to interrupt the implementation of his new, guard-heavy starting lineup after 6’5” wing Wayne Blackshear suffered a concussion in practice. Briefing the media ahead of his team’s game against Houston tonight, Pitino said that although Blackshear wouldn’t be making the trip to Texas, he doesn’t expect the junior to be out for terribly long. “I think Wayne’s going to be fine, I don’t think this is a serious concussion,” Pitino said, adding that “we don’t want him to travel because that takes a lot out of you.” After that, the Cardinals, and Blackshear in particular, can look forward to a restorative eight-day hiatus before another road game at Temple. In the meantime, Pitino set about the task of motivating Stephan Van Treese to take advantage of his expanded playing time: “It’s his time to evolve. We need some monster games from him where he grabs 12 or 13 rebounds […] He’s a veteran basketball player who needs to step up, and he’s capable of doing that.”
  5. For SMU’s Markus Kennedy, Saturday began with a career game against a ranked Memphis team, and only got better from there. His mother, Barbara Kennedy, was scheduled to depart for Kuwait on Monday morning on her third deployment as a U.S. Air Force sergeant, and Markus said they weren’t expecting to see each other beforehand. “That was kind of rough on me,” he admitted, oblivious to the fact that his school had secured a waiver from the NCAA to buy the sophomore a plane ticket back home to Philadelphia. Markus’ mom was just as clueless, and his aunt got in on the surprise, organizing a game in which Barbara had to identify family members while wearing a blindfold. The result was pretty awesome:

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AAC M5: 02.03.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 3rd, 2014

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  1. The Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore writes that the renewed emphasis on defensive principles put in place by UConn coach Kevin Ollie’s has paid off since his team started 0-2 in league play. The Huskies have held their last seven opponents to 35.2 percent shooting from the field and have outrebounded six of them. Ollie described the recent defense as “phenomenal,” beginning with Ryan Boatright’s disruptive harassment of opposing point guards, and praised his team for successfully limiting offensive rebounds and second-chance points. “Defense is going to win us games, win us championships,” said Boatright. “Any time we can get more stops, hold them to a low shooting percentage, the more offensive opportunities for fast break, transition points we can get. Defense is our main thing.” Comfortable winners of three in a row against lesser competition, the Huskies will measure their revamped defense against one of the best in the country when they travel to Fifth Third Arena to play Cincinnati this week.
  2. Cincinnati overcame a late second half deficit to beat Louisville 69-66 on the road last Thursday, in a game that had massive implications for the AAC title hunt. An excruciating 20-point first half, haplessness on the boards, and poor late-game execution were among the issues that helped seal the Cardinals’ fate, and Mike Rutherford at Card Chronicle wrote that it was the most stinging defeat since a 2011 senior day loss to USF. “Louisville really, really, really needed to win Thursday night, and the way they failed to accomplish that was troubling.” Louisville led 64-61 with fewer than three and a half minutes remaining in a frenzied home environment before a series of mystifying fouls allowed Sean Kilpatrick to essentially win the game from the free throw line. It was eerily reminiscent of the Memphis home loss, and made it seem as though late-game poise could be a chronic shortcoming of the preseason conference favorite.
  3. The good news for Louisville fans? The Cardinals still had a 17-4 record and #12 national ranking after the loss to Cincinnati, both of which were consistent with their relative position at the same point last season. This year’s squad looks a lot less likely to go on to win the national title, but they at least took the necessary first step toward repeating that pattern over the weekend with an 87-70 victory over UCF. The game represented a major departure for Rick Pitino, who introduced a smaller starting lineup, featuring Luke Hancock at the three and 6’5” wing Wayne Blackshear accompanying Montrezl Harrell in the frontcourt. “We can become a very good offensive basketball team with Wayne at the four,” Pitino said. “He’s willing to mix it up in there.” Given how poorly the Cardinals had been rebounding with true center Mangok Mathiang in the starting lineup, it’s unclear whether Louisville will really lose much ground in that area.
  4. In another game that changed the landscape of the AAC standings, SMU continued its winning streak at Moody Coliseum on Saturday with an 87-72 win over Memphis. Tied at halftime, head coach Larry Brown issued a challenge to his players to seize the spotlight, and they responded in a big way with a decisive 29-8 run. “We came here looking for big games,” said freshman wing Sterling Brown, who finished with a season-high 15 points. “This is the kind of game we want all the time. We had to show up.” The Mustangs remain undefeated through 11 home games this season, made all the more impressive by the fact that Josh Pastner’s Tigers hadn’t dropped a road conference game since February 2012. The win removes the bad taste of last week’s road loss to USF, and lends another strong argument for an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
  5. Even before Temple’s 90-74 loss to Villanova on Saturday, RTC’s Mike Lemaire assured readers that the Owls would not be turning things around in 2013-14. Noting the futility of their remaining schedule – a daunting slate that includes home-and-homes with SMU and Louisville – Lemaire predicts that even the CBI would be a stretch for a 6-14 team whose best win came at home against St. Joseph’s. Picked to finish fifth in the league by AAC coaches, the Owls have shown they can score at a high level, but “their inability to do anything positive defensively is borderline inexcusable given the athletes on the roster.” Lemaire points out that as brutal as this season has been, it’s provided Fran Dunphy’s young roster a year of meaningful experience that will pay dividends next year, particularly with conference realignment poised to hand them a much more forgiving AAC schedule.
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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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