When the next AAC Morning 5 is published, only four teams will remain to vie for a national championship. Will an AAC school be one of them? Both AAC squads still remaining, Louisville and Connecticut, will hit the floor in their respective regional semifinals tonight. While Louisville will face a familiar foe in Kentucky, Connecticut will experience some familiarity of its own by playing in Madison Square Garden. It will be a nostalgic night for the Connecticut faithful, especially for former coach Jim Calhoun. Calhoun built Connecticut into a basketball power after taking over the program in 1986 and had great success in the Garden.
Last year on the way to a national championship, Louisville guard Russ Smith could lean on the play of big man Gorgui Dieng and backcourt mate Peyton Siva. Those two have since moved on to the NBA, but that doesn’t mean Smith isn’t getting help from them. Smith said he talks almost daily with the two, mainly asking for advice about leadership. “It’s been really tough not to have them on the court with me,” he said. “They helped me so much last year.” Siva took Smith under his wing from the moment he stepped on campus. Siva’s advice to Smith: Don’t stress what other people are saying and just play your game. Dieng said Smith needed to stand up if something was going bad and now he understands and does so.
Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts will be the next head coach at UNC-Willmington, unless of course, he didn’t actually graduate from college. It marks the fourth assistant-to-head coach move in four years from Louisville. He is known as one of the best recruiters in the game and played a large role in signing Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, all players that will be a major part of the Cardinals’ Sweet 16 game tonight with Kentucky. Keatts was also instrumental in the landing of the Louisville 2014 recruiting class headlined by guard Quentin Snider.
Sean Vinsel of cardsandcatsstats.com welcomes the Sweet Sixteen match-up between Kentucky and Louisville. The Indiana grad’s website breaks down both teams statistically using measures not usually seen in the college game such as NBA’s plus/minus system. Louisville’s most productive line-up according to Vinsel is Chris Jones, Russ Smith, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese. Kentucky’s is the Harrison twins, James Young, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. The X-factors, he said, will be Luke Hancock and Cauley-Stein.
Larry Brown said SMU owes everything to its fans. The Mustangs faithful made NIT home games feel like regular season finales with a conference championship on the line. SMU won 12 out of 13 games at Moody Coliseum this season, including the third round NIT victory over California, securing a spot at Madison Square Garden. “I think it plays a big part,” Senior Shawn Williams said of the crowd. “Those five-or-six-point runs turn into 10-or-12-point runs with the crowd.” The Mustangs were hoping for an NCAA Tournament berth, but a chance to play three more games at home wasn’t a bad consolation prize.
Louisville heads into today’s game at Memphis as one of the hottest teams in the country, riding a seven-game winning streak and 11 of 12. In a league full of top-notch backcourts, perhaps the biggest reason for the Cardinals’ success is that theirs has been the best. And the most surprising reason for that is precocious freshman Terry Rozier.
Rozier was a highly-touted recruit that Louisville fans had to wait on for quite some time due to a year-long stopover at prep school. When he finally arrived in the fall, he was overshadowed by incoming JuCo star Chris Jones. Rick Pitino eased in the freshman; in his first eight games, he never played 20 minutes or scored in double figures, averaging fewer than 15 minutes and five points per game. Despite his limited playing time, one key statistic offered a glimpse of what was to come: In those eight games, he dished out 13 assists against only two turnovers. In his next 16 games, he got more time and offered more productivity in kind. He topped 20 minutes 11 times in those 16 games, averaging 8.6 points per game and posting nearly a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
During Louisville’s last four games, though, he appears to have made The Leap. He made the SportsCenter Top 10, as shown in the clip above, and a national writer called him the best NBA prospect on the defending national champions. He even got his Hall of Fame head coach to compare him favorably to a much more heralded freshman: “Tyler Ennis is awesome, plays all 40 minutes, and he is a great, great basketball player; one of the premier players in the country, but he is up here, and I put Terry up here too. So that is the highest compliment that I can give him.” Russ Smith, his All-American teammate, said, “He’s determined to be probably the best player in the country. He’s gonna be that, real soon.” And instead of making a freshman mistake and taking a contested jumper, he made the pass to Smith that set up the game-winning shot in the Cardinals’ signature victory a week ago at Cincinnati. He has shared the story of his unusual upbringing as well as his fear of squirrels.
Cincinnati guard Sean Kilpatrick, arguably the front runner for AAC player of the year, has come a long way since being redshirted by Mick Cronin as a freshman. He was redshirted because Cronin didn’t think he would get enough minutes, an idea that took Kilpatrick a couple days to get used to. Now, five years later, Kilpatrick is thankful for his Cronin’s insight. Kilpatrick said he wouldn’t know the things he knows now without the redshirt season. Bearcat fans have seen a theme take hold this season: reserving the second half for a big performance from Kilpatrick to take control and will Cincinnati to victory. After one such effort, Cronin labeled his star a first-team All-American. “I want to know who’s better than him. I’m not talking about a freshman five years from now, I’m talking about right now,” Cronin said. Cronin also said that Kilpatrick stands tall with many of the former great guards at Cincinnati such as Nick Van Exel and Steve Logan.
Memphis freshman big man Austin Nichols needs to become a leader instead of a follower. And he’s beginning to do so in recent games. Coach Josh Pastner said Nichols was hesitant at the beginning of the season and wanted to just fit in and sit in the back seat of the vehicle. “And I told him he needs to be the driver. We need him to be going after everything,” he said. It appears to be sinking in. Nichols earned Rookie of the Week honors in the conference last week after averaging 13.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in two wins including his first double-double in the overtime win against Temple. Memphis needs that production to continue because after tonight’s tilt at Houston, the Tigers finish with three ranked opponents: No. 7 Louisville, at No. 11 Cincinnati, and No. 23 SMU.
Connecticut is running out of time to define themselves and play “UConn basketball” as coach Kevin Ollie put it. That has been a slogan for players and coaches all season and it means quick tempo, crisp ball movement and ball pressure from the guards. A few teams have shut that style off for Connecticut, who failed to shoot above 37 percent from the field against SMU twice, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Connecticut is 0-4 against teams ahead of them in the standings in the AAC. Unfortunately, the Huskies have two games remaining against the top teams in the conference, Saturday at home against Cincinnati and the following Saturday in the season finale at Louisville. If Ollie’s team can’t get a win in either of those games or make a strong run in the AAC tourney, they may find themselves in the dreaded 8/9-seed slot of the NCAA tournament.
Louisville freshman guard Terry Rozier has played without fear lately in helping the Cards in their current six-game winning streak. But off the court, there is something that strikes instant fear for Rozier: squirrels. Rozier said he’s afraid of all squirrels because he was nearly attacked by one at a young age. He’s said they’re sneaky and untrustworthy. His fear even hindered his basketball growth because a neighbor growing up used to put bird food out that the squirrels would love to eat. The squirrels would congregate in Rozier’s back yard where his basketball goal stood. Luckily, the bird feeder eventually broke and Rozier was able to return to honing his game that has become as much a part of Louisville’s success as anything.
A Real Sports feature on SMU coach Larry Brown aired on HBO Tuesday night. Of course, as the former coach of Allen Iverson, Brown was asked by host Bryant Gumbel about practice. Brown, who has always gotten along well with Iverson, said he liked the practices better when Iverson wasn’t there because he got to coach the other guys. Brown said, at 73, SMU will be his last coaching stop and he still loves to be on the sidelines. The Mustangs are in position to make their first NCAA tournament since 1993.
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.
Louisville forward Montrezl Harrellexcelled 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sean Kilpatrick could use some help offensively tonight
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.
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.
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.
Luke Hancock needs to have a big game tonight (Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have written quite a lot in this space about SMU and its quest to end a two-decade NCAA Tournament drought. Now others are taking notice. Dallas Morning News columnist and Around the Horn yakker Tim Cowlishaw says thanks with a new arena, a new conference and an old coach, the Mustangs are now “must-see basketball.” But Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach, knows that garnering respect for close losses to defending champion Louisville isn’t where the program needs to be; it’s when such a loss is a disappointment, because the expectation is to win, that the Mustangs will have arrived.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin wants to find more playing time for freshman guard Kevin Johnson, but he has one big obstacle to that goal: Sean Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick not only leads the Bearcats in scoring, but also the entire conference, and he’s the heart and soul of the AAC leaders. He’s also averaging nearly 32 minutes per game this year and 36 minutes in conference play, which makes finding time for his backup a challenge. Cronin knows that the freshman needs time now if he is to be relied upon come March, but it’s got to be tough to take your best player off the floor any more than necessary.
The Bearcats will travel to Louisville next Thursday to take on the second-place Cardinals, and perhaps the biggest story will be the return of Louisville point guard Chris Jones. The junior has missed the past three games with strained muscle in his side, and freshman Terry Rozier has filled in so well that a growing contingent of Cardinal fans are wondering aloud if maybe Rozier shouldn’t keep the job. Coach Rick Pitino admits that Jones still has some adjusting to do when it comes to playing with Russ Smith, but also made it clear that the team is better off with Jones than without him. While that is hard to deny, we wouldn’t be surprised if Rozier finds himself on the floor in more and more crucial moments, even after Jones returns.
UConn athletic director Warde Manuel has denied that he’s a candidate for the same job at Virginia Tech. In only two years on the job, Manuel has been plenty busy; among other challenges, he has overseen the transition from Big East to AAC and hired coach Kevin Ollie to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun. That hire seems to be going well thus far, but it generally isn’t ideal for coaches who haven’t solidified their position for the guy who hired them to leave. And it would probably sting a bit extra if Manuel left for the ACC, the league that passed over UConn not so long ago.
While Manuel might be out, Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock is a candidate for the AD job at Virginia Tech, a source told the Roanoke Times. Babcock is in his third year at Cincinnati, and during his tenure he too lost out in his efforts to secure a spot in the ACC for his school. He then saw his football coach depart for an SEC job; presumably the frustrations inherent in being on the outside looking in at the top tier of college athletics might be enough to get a young up and comer to jump, particularly when it would bring him back to the state where he attended college himself at James Madison.
After a win over Rutgers in which SMU‘s basketball team allowed one fewer point to the Scarlet Knights than did the football team, Mustangs’ fans are relying on defense to carry the team to its first NCAA Tournament in 20 years. While SMU ranks a decent #69 in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, their #14 defense (keyed by a #1 ranking in two-point field goal defense, allowing 38.4 shooting inside the arc) is the biggest reason for its 15-4 start. The Mustangs have been even better since conference games began, with a 90.2 adjusted defensive efficiency rating, good for second in AAC play behind league-leading Cincinnati. The Bracket Project’s Bracket Matrix, which aggregates 59 NCAA Tournament projections, has Brown’s team averaging a #11 seed, placing SMU firmly on the bubble. We’ll know a lot more about the Mustangs’ chances after they host Memphis and Cincinnati on consecutive Saturdays in early February — if they are to win one or both of those games, their defense will almost certainly be the reason.
SMU coach Larry Brown is thinking way beyond just making the NCAA Tournament. He thinks he can win it all. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t compete for a national championship,” Brown told ESPN Dallas/Ft. Worth. “If we get our share of Dallas kids. We’ll play with anybody anywhere.” He has already enjoyed great success recruiting the Metroplex in his first two seasons, with freshman Keith Frazier (a McDonald’s All-American) set to be joined next year by point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, widely considered a top-three player in the Class of 2014. That said, there are many huge challenges to Brown winning a national championship at SMU, with the biggest hurdle being possibly Brown himself. The Hall of Fame coach — the only man to win both a college (Kansas, 1988) and NBA (Detroit, 2004) title — hasn’t finished a third season at a single job in over a decade. He’s doing a commendable job so far, but going from bad to good is often easier than going from good to great.
DeAndre Daniels has long been an enigma. The UConn junior can carry the Huskies, like he did with 31 points and 12 rebounds in Tuesday’s win over Temple or his 23 points and 11 rebounds in last week’s win over Memphis. But he’s just as likely to disappear in the big moment, like when he went suffered through foul trouble and 1-of-9 shooting while allowing Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell to post 18 points and 13 rebounds in Saturday’s loss. Given UConn’s lack of any other threat in the frontcourt, the Huskies need him to more consistently provide the big numbers of which he has proven capable. Kevin Ollie suggests that it is his effort level that has been inconsistent and that he gets easily knocked off track by a couple of missed shots. If so, that’s the type of individual flaw that could easily cut short an otherwise promising season when win or go home time arrives.
Rutgers wasn’t expected to win much in head coach Eddie Jordan’s first year, but the Scarlet Knights have certainly been respectable in their first few AAC games. Then came a road trip through Texas, where the wheels completely fell off the wagon. After back-to-back double-figure losses to Houston and SMU, Rutgers now stand at 8-11 overall and 2-4 in the AAC. Maybe the Texas swing is a tougher trip than expected – it similarly caught UConn earlier this season – but the most likely explanation is that Rutgers still has a long, long way to go.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has mixed and matched starting lineups all year, but it seems he might have lucked into his best combination out of necessity. With starting point guard Chris Jones out the past three games with an injury, the insertion of Terry Rozier into the starting lineup has clicked everything into place. The Cardinals have rolled to three straight double-figure wins as a result: by 39 over Houston, 14 at UConn and Wednesday night’s 39-point win at USF. After some struggles early in the season, the Cards are finally looking like the team everybody had in the preseason top three. Next week brings a real test: AAC leader Cincinnati visit the defending champions on January 30.
Cincinnati is off to its best start in more than a decade, but head coach Mick Cronin is still making major adjustments. With freshman forward Jermaine Lawrence out with a foot injury, the latest change is an increase in the amount of zone the Bearcats are playing. In Cincinnati’s weekend win over USF, the zone forced fewer turnovers than normal, but Cincinnati made up for it by holding the Bulls to 39.2 percent shooting and fewer than 0.9 points per possession. It’s unlikely that their next two foes – UCF and Temple, the eighth- and seventh-best teams in the AAC, per KenPom – will pose much of a test, but the Bearcats will then face Louisville and its conference-best offense next Thursday. If the zone can effectively slow down the Cardinals, it will confirm that Cincinnati as a legitimately dangerous team come March.
Before their visit to SMU on Tuesday, Rutgers was experiencing a big foul problem. In their first five conference games, the Scarlet Knights had committed 21 more fouls than their opponents and taken 56 fewer free throws. Head coach Eddie Jordan cited a lack of proper defensive techniques as the problem — but Rutgers fouled a lot under Mike Rice too – – and coupled with this year’s hand-checking point of emphasis, the team has struggled to keep opponents off the line. Unfortunately for the Scarlet Knights, SMU was able to take advantage — Rutgers had 23 fouls to SMU’s 16, taking 15 fewer free throws in the 70-56 loss. It’s far from the team’s only problem, but it does underscore the magnitude of the task Jordan faces.
Without point guard Anthony Collins in the lineup, South Florida is off to a 1-4 start but the Bulls are confident that they can hang with the defending national champions heading into tonight’s visit from Louisville. Speaking as the only player who returns from South Florida’s last victory over the Cards back in 2012, Bulls senior Victor Rudd believes they are “definitely beatable.” That USF team managed to win two games in the NCAA Tournament, a level of success that appears highly unlikely for this bunch. And while tonight’s match-up may have some aspects of a trap game – the Cards are coming off a big win at UConn and don’t play again until hosting league leader Cincinnati next Thursday – Rick Pitino’s squad hasn’t messed around with inferior teams this season, a group that the Bulls (ranked #181 in KenPom) clearly fall into.
That said, the Cardinals will continue to go without point guard Chris Jones, who will miss his third straight game on Wednesday. Pitino said that he expects the junior back for next week’s game versus Cincinnati, so freshman Terry Rozier will fill in at the point for at least one more game. Some observers, including Sports Illustrated‘s Seth Davis, have suggested that the Cardinals have played better with Rozier running things, but Pitino, for his part, said he doesn’t expect any problems with working Jones back into the lineup. Next Thursday’s game is the only contest for the Cardinals against a top 100 KenPom team for the next month, so a victory there makes a 10-game winning streak a distinct possibility.
Houston took a significant step up in level of competition this year by joining the AAC, but its fans haven’t seemed to realize it yet. The announced attendance at Sunday’s win over Rutgers was 3,115, although the Houston Chronicle said that the actual attendance was “far less” than even that meager number. As a result, the university’s president, Renu Khator, has issued a challenge to fans to turn out for this Sunday’s game against rising star SMU. It’s an uphill climb; the Cougars rank last in the AAC in attendance and have a long to go to recapture even a slight bit of their past glory.
Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell had a huge night with 18 points and 13 rebounds against Connecticut, and his emergence will be crucial if the Cardinals are to make a run at a third straight Final Four. A player who has been mentioned as a potential lottery pick at times, Harrell has stepped up with three double-doubles in his last four games after Chane Behanan’s dimissal from the team. But it’s the sort of varied offensive game he showed Saturday evening – jumpers and hook shots off post moves in addition to his thunderous dunks – that has been missing this season. For UConn, he’s just the latest player to give the Huskies fits. That has been the biggest problem in their recent 5-4 swoon after a 9-0 start: an inability to deal with big, physical inside players. UConn was outscored by 20 and outrebounded by 15 in the paint against a team that has had its own interior problems. The Huskies continue to get worse at keeping other teams off the offensive glass (they rank #289 in the country, allowing foes to grab 34.8 percent of their own missed shots), and they can’t seem to come up with any answers for what has been their biggest weakness this season.
The biggest highlight from Saturday night’s showdown didn’t involve a player but a coach. UConn head coach Kevin Ollie was called for two technical fouls and ejected after his reaction to a second half no-call in front of the Huskies bench. Niels Giffey’s shot fake lured Wayne Blackshear into the air, and the Louisville forward bumped Giffey on his way down, knocking the ball out of his hands. Louisville recovered the turnover, and Ollie went ballistic. It was pretty clearly a foul – the biggest irony is that Blackshear, who Louisville fans believe has never gotten the benefit of a whistle, was spared – and the trigger was a quick one. But UConn was already down nine at that point with Louisville rolling, so it’s a stretch to suggest the missed call cost the Huskies the game.
Louisville won the game without junior point guard Chris Jones in the lineup because of a muscle strain, and it’s unclear whether he’ll return Wednesday when the Cardinals visit USF. Rick Pitino probably won’t try to rush him back, given the more than capable fill-in work of freshman Terry Rozier, who has nine assists and just two turnovers while replacing him in the starting lineup. With Rozier taking Jones’ place, the offense has in some ways appeared more balanced; Rozier has mostly served as a facilitator, which better complements Russ Smith’s aggressive scorer’s mentality, while Jones often also looks to score first.
Isaiah Sykes, who leads UCF in scoring and assists, left Saturday’s loss to SMU early in the second half with an apparent head injury. Sykes, also second on the team in rebounding and steals, was taken to the locker room after a collision under the basket, and did not return. While there was no prognosis for his return after the game, any time missed by the team’s best player would obviously be harmful for the Knights, which dropped to 1-4 in the AAC with the loss.