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

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

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

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

WINNER: Louisville

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

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

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

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

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

LOSER: Saint Louis

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

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Award Tour: The Battle for Runner-Up is Heating Up

Posted by Jameson Fleming (@jamesonfleming) on February 28th, 2014

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Jameson Fleming is an RTC columnist who also works for CBSSports.com as the site’s social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesonFleming.

Marcus Smart is well on his way to getting back in the good graces of the Player of the Year rankings. In the two games since he returned from suspension, the Oklahoma State sophomore is averaging 16.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 8.5 APG. It’s too late to make any kind of run at Player of Year – both nationally and in the Big 12 – but Smart can salvage an otherwise disappointing season and ensure the Cowboys go dancing with a strong finish.

Player of the Year

10. Kyle Anderson – UCLA. Last Week: 10
2013-14 stats: 14.9 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 6.9 APG, 113.1 ORtg

Kyle Anderson is on thin ice after a poor performance in a loss against Stanford and a one-game suspension Thursday night for violating team rules. Other than Doug McDermott, Anderson might be the most unique player in the country. He’s one of just two players 6’7″ or taller in the country to rank in the top 100 in assist rate. The 6’9 Anderson is 20th in that metric, assisting on 35.4 percent of his team’s baskets. Saint Joseph’s Halil Kanacevic stands 6’8″ and assists on 29.2 percent of his team’s buckets.

9. Scottie Wilbekin – Florida. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats: 13.5 PPG, 3.9 APG, 113.2 ORtg

Wilbekin Has Been Outstanding for the Gators This Season

Wilbekin Has Been Outstanding for the Gators This Season

During the last month, it’s become more apparent that this Gators team is Scottie Wilbekin’s team. Casey Prather was the early star, but lately, Wilbekin has been the dominant force on an outstanding Florida squad. Wilbekin has improved in SEC play, toting an offensive rating of 121.0 and averaging 19.0 points per game in Florida’s five toughest conference games so far.

8. Andrew Wiggins – Kansas. Last Week: 9
2013-14 stats: 16.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 114.1 ORtg

Andrew Wiggins hasn’t quite been the star he was expected to be on the offensive end of the floor. There’s no doubt that he’s been a very good scorer, but his top contribution for the Jayhawks may be on defense. Read the rest of this entry »

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AAC M5: 02.24.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on February 24th, 2014

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  1. Today’s topics will center on what was the game of the year so far in the AAC, Saturday’s last-possession contest between the conference’s top two teams. While Russ Smith will garner most of the spotlight for his game-winning shot at Cincinnati Saturday, it could not have happened without the assist from freshman guard Terry Rozier. Rozier, following the lead of captain Luke Hancock, said what fans saw at the end of the Cincinnati game is what the Cardinals are made of, not the previous late game losses. With Russ Smith on the bench with foul trouble, Rozier and fellow backcourt mate Chris Jones combined for 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting for a stretch in the second half to not only keep the Louisville in the game but extend the lead. Rozier finished with 11 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal in just 22 minutes. If Rozier and Jones continue to develop alongside Smith, Rick Pitino may have his team poised for another March run after all.
  2. Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell excelled when given the opportunity to perform in what Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin described as a bloodbath of a basketball game Saturday. Harrell collected 21 points and 10 rebounds and continually found ways to put the ball in the basket on an afternoon when where it was quite difficult to do so on both ends of the court. “That game was very physical,” he said. “It was physical on both ends. But I’d rather a game be physical like that. It brings back memories from the Big East.” While Russ Smith buried the shot that will be remembered, Harrell scored the two previous buckets to get the Cardinals in position to pull out the win. Harrell will have to find a way to improve his free throw shooting going forward, because team’s will follow Cronin’s lead and send the big man to the foul line where he could only connect on 5-of-12 Saturday. Rick Pitino said Harrell’s, and the team’s, woes from the line will be corrected. If a trip to Dallas is in this team’s future, it better do so.
  3. Outside of the final shot by Russ Smith, the story of the game was the officiating and physical play allowed by the guys in stripes. While many Cincinnati fans blamed the officials for the loss, coach Mick Cronin did not, even though he was asked about it on two occasions after the game. The officials conducted a seven-minute video review with 1:30 left to decide who would have possession after Russ Smith lost control of his dribble. After the original call said it was Louisville’s ball, the officials went to the monitor and switched it to Cincinnati, only to regroup for another review and give it to Louisville. Smith eventually made one free throw on the possession. Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn said the university will address the situation through the appropriate channels.
  4. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas identified Cincinnati Sean Kilpatrick as one of the most underrated players in the country last week. And after seeing the senior guard almost single-handedly bring the Bearcats back in the second half of an eventual one-point loss to Louisville, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind what Kilpatrick is capable of. The 23-year old scored 28 of Cincinnati’s 57 points Saturday, 22 in the second half. He surpassed the 2,000-point mark for his career. The only other Cincinnati player to do that was Oscar Robertson.
  5. Former Connecticut guard Khalid El-Amin, a member of the 1999 national championship team, sees a little bit of himself in Shabazz Napier. Napier met El-Amin at Saturday’s practice before yesterday game against SMU. “My mother loves him more than she loves me,” Napier said. “She would always say, ‘El-Amin, El-Amin — I like the way he plays, with that swagger.” Nappier leads Connecticut in scoring, rebounding, and assists. The team has a long way to go to be compared to El-Amin’s squad, especially after suffering a loss to SMU yesterday. Larry Brown’s SMU squad has impressed all season. But yesterday the Mustangs did something they haven’t done thus far, beat a ranked team on the road when they took out Connecticut 64-55 to complete the season sweep.
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Award Tour: Doug McDermott is Simply Toying with the Competition

Posted by Jameson Fleming (@jamesonfleming) on February 21st, 2014

AwardTour

Jameson Fleming is an RTC columnist who also works for CBSSports.com as the site’s social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesonFleming.

Several players and coaches dropped out of the rankings even though they probably deserve a spot on their respective lists. Arizona’s Sean Miller saw his team drop a road game against Arizona State, which is of course completely acceptable. For now, or at least until his squad figures out how to score again, Miller will remain sidelined from our top five. Jim Boeheim’s team also can’t score. The offensive issues for the Orange are more fixable than Arizona’s because the only player ‘Cuse is missing is Baye Keita — his face should be put on a milk carton for how little he contributes with the ball. On the NPOY side, both of Cincinnati’s Justin Jackson and Sean Kilpatrick deserve some love and one will likely find his way into the rankings with a win against Louisville this weekend.

Just weeks away from the end of the regular season, everyone is still chasing the guy on the left.

Just weeks away from the end of the regular season, everyone is still chasing the guy on the left.

Player of the Year

10. Kyle Anderson – UCLA. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats: 15.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 6.8 APG, 114.0 oRTG

At no point this season did UCLA ever look like it would struggle to make the NCAA Tournament, but rarely did the Bruins look they’d be a threat to make a deep run in March. That has changed. UCLA has won seven of eight games to easily move into second place in the Pac-12 thanks to a league-best offense. Who runs that attack? Kyle Anderson. He picks his spots to score, but he also puts an emphasis on being the distributor Steve Alford’s offense needs. He’s had three double-figure assist games in his last eight after recording just one previously.

9. Andrew Wiggins – Kansas. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats: 16.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 113.3 oRTG

The Big 12 is arguably the best conference in the country, and it’s loaded with very good players. For most of the season, various Big 12 players have popped in and out of the rankings, most notably Marcus Smart. With the Oklahoma State guard’s decline, however, the Big 12 is lacking a standout Player of the Year candidate. Joel Embiid looked like he might take over the race, but the Kansas freshman still hasn’t been able to consistently play major minutes. Queue Andrew Wiggins: He’s the top shot-taker and maker for the best team in the league (by far) and he can defend all over the court. With a stretch against Texas, Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and at West Virginia remaining, Wiggins could easily put the Big 12 POY award on lockdown with several strong performances.

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AAC M5: 02.20.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on February 20th, 2014

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  1. Russ Smith flirted with the NBA after Louisville won a title last year – his father in fact said that he was going to declare for the draft – but he ultimately decided to return for his senior year in an effort to boost his draft stock. So it has to be pretty exciting to hear an NBA scout tell the Courier-Journal that Smith is “a clone of Allen Iverson. He has a similar body type. He gets to the basket. He scores and has that mentality.” Rick Pitino has been been pumping his star guard as an NBA prospect all year long, and said after Tuesday night’s game that he hoped his hometown Knicks drafted his current star player. While the Iverson comparisons might be a bit too much, there has to be a spot in the league for a guy with Smith’s motor and ability to score.
  2. Russdiculous wasn’t the only potential NBA player Rick Pitino talked about after the Cards’ win over USF. The Hall of Famer and former NBA coach said Victor Rudd, who scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Bulls, could play in the NBA if he worked to develop certain aspects of his game. “Victor Rudd is the type of basketball player that the pros like. … He needs to go left better, he need to offensive rebound more. He needs to get inside more.” Pitino compared Russ to Rodrick Rhodes, a star recruit for Pitino at Kentucky who had an up-and-down career there before eventually transferring; Rhodes could do many things well, but he was determined to prove that he was a long-distance shooter. Rudd still has a long way to go to reach the next level.
  3. Memphis won the Conference USA title in six of the past eight seasons, but after a step up in competition Josh Pastner’s team now finds itself in fifth place in the AAC standings. The Tigers haven’t given up on their goal of winning yet another conference title, even it if will require some help from the teams ahead of them: Cincinnati, Louisville, UConn (whose sweep of Memphis gives them a tie-breaker) and SMU. While the large number of games remaining between all the teams keeps Memphis’ slim hopes alive for now, the better shot at a league title will come in the AAC Tournament that will be played on the Tigers’ home floor.
  4. Despite a couple of recent stumbles, the renaissance of SMU basketball under the tutelage of 73-year-old basketball nomad Larry Brown remains among the most unlikely stories in college hoops this season. Brown, a Hall of Famer and the only coach to win both NCAA and NBA titles, describes as “pretty awesome” everything that has happened to him with the Mustangs. “I just feel lucky I’m still coaching. I love what I do, I love being in this environment, I enjoy the players and look forward to practice every day and being around them.” Most observers – this one included – were mystified when Brown took the job in Dallas two years ago, but it’s impossible to deny that the coaching legend is adding to his tremendous accomplishments with his work there.
  5. When they met a month ago in Storrs, UConn cruised past Temple by 24 points. When the teams meet again tonight, the Huskies might have a tougher time with the Owls, whose improvement was most recently evidenced by their win over SMU on Sunday. Temple head coach Fran Dunphy has reached six straight NCAA Tournaments, but the combination of many top players graduating with an improvement in competition by joining the AAC have resulted in a rare rebuilding year in Philadelphia. Given Dunphy’s track record, that rebuild should come quick.
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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: 02.14.14 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: 02.11.14 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: 02.06.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on February 6th, 2014

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  1. Two AAC veterans made Rob Dauster’s latest Player of the Year Power Rankings, and neither one is Russ Smith. Topped by consensus national frontrunner Doug McDermott, the list includes UConn’s Shabazz Napier at number two and Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick at number eight. Dauster writes of Napier, “I’m not sure there is a player in the country that is more influential in regards to his team’s success,” and stresses that the senior puts up huge stats despite UConn’s dearth of interior scoring threats. Likewise, he describes Kilpatrick as the only prolific scorer on Mick Cronin’s defense-oriented roster, but says “I could make a strong argument that teammate Justin Jackson is more deserving of this ranking. That’s a good sign for the Bearcats.” Smith was listed among other candidates outside of the top 10.
  2. Having already held Louisville and Memphis to 66 and 53 points, respectively, The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bill Koch writes that Cincinnati has an opportunity to shut down the third-best offense in the AAC as well when they take on Connecticut tonight. In addition to averaging 76 points per game, the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense leads the league in free throw shooting (77.4 percent) and three-point percentage (41.5). Their rotation also includes three of the AAC’s top outside shooters in Napier (43.4 percent), DeAndre Daniels (47.8 percent) and Niels Giffey (55.6 percent). Koch says the Huskies “might be the most fearsome” of the offenses that Cincinnati has faced, and senior Justin Jackson did not disagree: “I still have nightmares about Napier, man […] He does some things that have you sitting there like, ‘Did he really do that?’” One factor that could tip the balance in the Bearcats’ favor is the expected return of 6’9” freshman Jermaine Lawrence, who’s been out since early January.
  3. After being annihilated in Memphis 101-69 this week, Rutgers is 0-7 on the road and 0-5 in AAC road games, losing those contests by an average margin of 19 points. Tuesday’s defeat was the first time the Scarlet Knights had given up 100 points since 2006. “It was just total domination from every aspect of the game,” coach Eddie Jordan said during a postgame interview, adding, “We just weren’t ready for their physicality and for their expertise at playing the game.” Jordan said his team would regroup and set their sights on getting to sixth place in the conference standings in order to earn a bye in the AAC Tournament.
  4. On the other side of the blowout, their blistering offensive performance gives Memphis some much-needed confidence heading into a College GameDay showdown with a 21-3 Gonzaga team on Saturday. Rediscovering their outside shot, Josh Pastner’s team hit 12 of 19 threes (63 percent) and shot 59 percent from the field. Six Tigers scored in double digits, including every starting and Michael Dixon Jr. off the bench, in a balanced scoring attack that encountered little resistance against Rutgers. “The open man is the go-to-man and that’s what we did tonight.” said Chris Crawford, who finished with a 12-point, 11-rebounds double-double that atoned for his disappointing performance in the previous loss to SMU.
  5. Temple begins its four-day tour of Texas tonight. It marks the Owls’ longest road trip since playing exhibition games in Europe last summer. A challenging weekend on the road for any East Coast team (looking at you, UConn), it’s exacerbated by the Owl’s youthful inexperience and SMU’s dominant home court advantage in Moody Coliseum this season. “It’s a far trip,” admitted coach Fran Dunphy. “SMU is a really tough team that will cause matchup problems for us, Houston has had its ups and downs like us but two really difficult games to prepare for, again, it’s a long way to go.” Dunphy will have to lean on the leadership of upperclassmen Dalton Pepper, Anthony Lee and Will Cummings, the latter of whom observed, “there’s not too many Temple alumni or fans in Texas.”
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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: 01.27.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on January 27th, 2014

AAC_morning5_header

  1. Connecticut forward DeAndre Daniels showed his toughness on Saturday by returning from what appeared to be a bad ankle injury in the Huskies’ victory at Rutgers. The junior forward went down with 4:11 to go in the first half, but eventually returned to produce a gutty seven-point, five-rebound performance in limited time. Daniels had been criticized for his lack of… well, anything and everything in the prime time game against Louisville last weekend. But he bounced back with a 31-point performance in a mid-week win over Temple, and it was his toughness returning after Saturday’s injury that may have UConn fans hopeful for the remainder of the season. After all the criticism, maybe Daniels is out to prove something. The Huskies certainly need him to play at his best is they hope to have a special season.
  2. Louisville needs Chris Jones in its lineup if the Cards hope to win another national title, but a different version than the one before he was sidelined with an oblique injury. Jones will most likely come off the bench going forward, since in his absence Terry Rozier has played exceptional basketball. The main difference between the two players is that, according to head coach Rick Pitino, Rozier understands the russdiculousness of Russ Smith while Jones does not. Smith doesn’t always make the obvious choice — such as passing to an open Jones, for example — and that could become frustrating for a score-first player who likes the ball in his hands. Regardless, the idea of Jones, along with forward Wayne Blackshear (and streaky-shooting Tim Henderson), coming off the bench could provide an offensive spark even more dangerous than last season’s group.
  3. South Florida has signed an agreement with a Texas-based executive recruting firm to assist with its athletic director search, at a cost of $100,000. The firm’s president, Bob Beaudine, is reportedly a friend and associate of Rob Higgins, the overwhelming local favorite to replace retiring athletic director Doug Woolard. Higgins, a USF grad, currently heads the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. In the ever-changing climate of conference alignment in college sports, there’s never been a more important time to have the right person leading an athletic department, especially for schools like South Florida that are currently on the outside of the football-driven conference landscape.
  4. Longtime friends and point guard rivals, Quentin Snider and Tyler Ulis, look to continue their rivalry at the college level by attending Louisville and Kentucky, respectively. Ulis attends Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, while Snider plays at Ballard High School in Louisville. The two have played with or against each other in AAU and basketball camps since the second grade, including a stint as roommates at Chris Paul’s elite point guard camp in August. The two are excited to become a part of one of the country’s best rivalries. “Us going to rivals [in college] is going to be pretty fun,” Snider said. “He knows my moves. I know his moves.” Ulis is the No. 6 ranked point guard by Scout.com, a spot ahead of Snider.
  5. The Cincinnati coaching staff wore “4 Pete’s Sake” lapel pins yesterday in the Bearcats’ overtime win against Temple. The pins were worn to recognize former assistant coach Dan Peters, who is fighting pancreatic cancer. Peters is currently the director of basketball operations at Akron, and he was at Cincinnati for six seasons (1999-2004) under Bob Huggins. Akron held a purple-out last week in honor of Peters, and this weekend was also dedicated to the Coaches vs. Cancer suits and sneakers program, where coaches all around the country wore sneakers to support the good cause.
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Key Matchup in UConn-Louisville Could Take Place on the Wing

Posted by Will Tucker on January 18th, 2014

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 Daniels Memphis

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.

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