AAC Exhibition Impressions: Part I

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 13th, 2014

College basketball exhibition games are no different from preseason games in any other sport. Coaches like to use the inferior opponents as a chance to test strategies on both ends of the floor and evaluate fringe candidates for the rotation through extended minutes. For these reasons and the fact that exhibition opponents are usually Division II/III or NAIA teams with almost no real size, deriving meaningful observations from these performances is usually a fruitless endeavor. These games are a nice opportunity for players to get some run against a team other than themselves, but they don’t mean a whole lot in the grander scheme of the full season. Some AAC teams choose to not even play exhibition games. We say all of this so that we can look at least somewhat self-aware when we dedicate the rest of this post to drawing meaningful conclusions from the smallest of sample sizes.

Pastner Continues to

Josh Pastner Continues to Feel the Heat in Memphis

Memphis Will be Much Better Than They Were on Wednesday. The Tigers played terribly in their overtime loss to Christian Brothers on Wednesday night, but let’s not rush to any big-picture conclusions. Head coach Josh Pastner explained afterward that he used the game to experiment with a few things; the team’s two best players – Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols – looked very sharp; and you better believe that Kedren Johnson won’t often shoot 1-of-4 from the field and turn the ball over six times. Still, losing to a Division II oppoent is not a very good look for a team with a bunch of question marks this season. Aside from Goodwin and Nichols, the Tigers shot just 31 percent from the field and 22 percent from downtown. Throw in 21 turnovers against an overmatched opponent and you can see why folks that closely follow this program might be worried. The bottom line is that nobody should be panicking in Memphis just yet, but the Tigers have a lot of room to improve.

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One on One: An AAC Preview With Jason Smith

Posted by Walker Carey on November 6th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the AAC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an AAC expert in Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith), the Memphis Tigers beat reporter for The Commercial Appeal.

Rush the Court: Defending national champion Connecticut obviously lost a lot from last season’s team with dynamic guard Shabazz Napier now a member of the Miami Heat. Nevertheless, the Huskies are still expected to contend for the league title. What is it about Kevin Ollie’s squad that has the unit in position to contend in the first year of the post-Shabazz era?

Jason Smith: It starts with Ryan Boatright, who was a great complementary player to Shabazz Napier last season. They are expecting him to be a Shabazz-type as their go-to-guy this season. I am not sure if Boatright is a guy who can shoulder the entire load like Shabazz or like Kemba Walker did in 2011, but Connecticut does bring back some other pieces that should help with things. They have one of the best rim protectors in the country in Amida Brimah, the sophomore seven-footer. A lot of people are excited about Daniel Hamilton, the five-star freshman who was named conference Newcomer of the Year. People are expecting a lot from him. At this point last year, I do not think a lot of people thought Connecticut was a team that could win a national title and they obviously proved us all wrong. A lot of the credit has to go to Kevin Ollie, and with him back in the fold, Connecticut has to be a team that you should expect to compete for the league title.

Who Will Step Up For the Huskies This Season?

Who Will Step Up For the Huskies This Season?

RTC: SMU clearly took a hit when it lost blue-chip recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to eligibility issues. Despite this loss, the Mustangs figure to be a contender in the conference. With Keith Frazier, Nic Moore, and Markus Kennedy returning to the fold, what is the ceiling for SMU in year three of the Larry Brown era?

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Five Burning Questions in the AAC

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 6th, 2014

The best part about preview season and the lull before the college basketball storm is all of the questions. The meat of nearly every preview of any team or player or coach is the questions surrounding them. Can UConn repeat? How will the Huskies replace Shabazz Napier? Is this the year SMU gets back to the NCAA Tournament? Will Markus Kennedy be eligible? Although it would likely rank among the most boring reads of all-time, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to come up with questions about each player and coach on every team in the conference. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, we pared the list down to five burning questions. We did make an effort to ask some of the less obvious questions in an effort to avoid repeating ourselves too often.

What does the AAC have in store for an encore performance?

In the grand landscape of college basketball, the AAC sits in a rather precarious position. Yes, the conference can call itself the home of the defending national champions, but the conference is also very fortunate that the Huskies made that remarkable run last season. The glow from that championship hasn’t quite subsided and it’s helping distract from the fact that the conference could be in for a rough follow-up season. Arguably the most prestigious program from last season, Louisville, is gone.

Kevin Ollie  (Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY)

Is the AAC Home To Another Championship Contender This Season? (Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY)

The schools replacing the Cardinals – with the exception of Tulsa — are basketball also-rans that have almost never mattered on the national scene. UConn and SMU seem like NCAA Tournament locks at this point, but all of the other teams have major issues, and it’s conceivable that the conference could place only those two teams in the Big Dance. It’s also possible that five or six teams could make the NCAA Tournament. This season may very well be the best indication of what type of basketball conference the AAC will be going forward.

How exactly is Cincinnati going to score points and, more importantly, win games?

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AAC M5: 11.03.14 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 3rd, 2014

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  1. News from last week’s Media Day is still trickling out and that means that we continue to gather evidence that says SMU coach Larry Brown is ready to take on all comers. The Dallas Morning News published a brief but illuminating interview from the event and it features a lot of Brown at his finest. He called the AAC an underrated conference. He called college basketball the “best minor league system” in the world. He challenged Mark Cuban over whether college basketball or the D-League is better at developing players, and he admitted that he wasn’t “excited” about the precedent Emmanuel Mudiay might have set by opting to play professionally in China. On the topic of college basketball v. D-League, I’m with the folks over at College Basketball Talk on this one. Each player is different and there is no right or wrong place for that player to be. It seems almost a little absurd to have this argument in the first place. The other big takeaway here is that Brown has been around for too long to care about mincing words anywhere, which is going to only make this season even more fun to follow.
  2. For now, it’s safe to pay only a little attention to news that Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin suffered a recent groin injury. But the Tigers’ other projected starting forward, sophomore Austin Nichols, is dealing with a shoulder strain, meaning that Memphis’ frontcourt is awfully banged up going into its huge season opener against Wichita State. The team expects its junior leader to only miss about a week of practice — and reports are that he should be ready to go when the Tigers square off with the Shockers — but let’s just say that the Tigers absolutely need a healthy Goodwin if they want to be successful this season.
  3. Temple head coach Fran Dunphy has obviously been keeping close tabs on this microsite because he is clearly cribbing from our analysis when he recently said that his team’s improvement has to start on the defensive end. Okay, so it’s doesn’t take a basketball genius to realize that the Owls were terrible defensively last season, so maybe Dunphy came to the idea independently. At least he was right. The Owls ranked No. 257 in defensive efficiency last season and that is totally unacceptable for any team that wants to sniff the NCAA Tournament. The piece rightly points out that one reason to hope that the team’s defense will be better this year is that they are deeper and more athletic thanks to transfers like Jaylen Bond and healthy returnees like Daniel Dingle. It’s always smart to trust in Dunphy, so if he recognizes that his team needs to be better defensively, they should be able to get at least some things fixed on that end of the floor.
  4. As Mick Cronin continues to try to rebuild Cincinnati into the type of perennial national contender it once was, one of the next steps is to improve the team’s local gym. The Fifth Third Arena, where the Bearcats play all of their home games, isn’t exactly a beloved venue, and now word has leaked that the university is taking the first steps to rectify that situation. Reports in recent months have said that the university filed paperwork with the state about renovating the arena, but on Friday athletic director Mike Bohn basically told everyone to pump the brakes. The plan has not been approved by the Board of Trustees and Bohn seemed particularly cagey when discussing whether it might be approved at all. A renovation would help modernize the building and make it more fan-friendly, but it will also be really expensive — like $40 to $70 million expensive. It could provide a big boost in recruiting, though, so if Cincinnati is serious about competing in basketball nationally, the school may get it done sooner than later.
  5. It’s basically old news at this point, but the season still hasn’t started so I am cutting myself some slack. UCF landed a big recruit, both literally and metaphorically, when 7’6″ center Tacko Fall pledged his services to the Golden Knights. A native of Senegal, Fall’s best basketball trait is that he is absolutely enormous and affects the way opposing offenses run just by being on the court. He is hardly fleet of foot, but he does move deceptively well for a man his size and may not be totally hopeless on offense. Now the question is whether coach Donnie Jones will ever get to see this recruiting class on campus — adding incredible size always helps, so long as you can stay around to coach it.
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AAC Tournament: Thursday Recap/Friday preview

Posted by Ross Schulz on March 14th, 2014

With the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament in the books, we take a look at a few of the big takeaways from Thursday, as well as storylines to keep in mind on Friday.

What went down on Thursday

  • Thursday marked the only day of all-day action at the AAC Tournament, and the anticipation reached a fever pitch for the final match-up with the hometown team, Memphis, against Connecticut, the only game featuring two ranked teams. It did not live up to the hype. Memphis was thoroughly outplayed to the point of embarrassment while falling behind by as much as 25 before losing, 72-53. Connecticut won all three games against Memphis this season and the Tigers’ faithful, which began filing out of FedEx Forum with five minutes to play, has to hope the loss will serve as a wake-up call heading into the NCAA Tournament.

    Shabazz Napier and UConn flustered Memphis for most of the night. (AP)

    Shabazz Napier and UConn flustered Memphis for most of the night. (AP)

  • Houston opened Thursday’s play with an impressive upset of SMU. While the focus will be on the sliding Mustangs, who have now lost three straight games heading into NCAA Tournament, credit should be given to Houston and its offensive production against the stingy SMU defense in its 68-64 win. Jherrod Stiggers poured in five three-pointers and 19 points; L.J. Rose buried three treys in route to 16 points; and big man TaShawn Thomas had 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. The Cougars got it done on the defensive end as well, with Thomas coming up with a key block down the stretch to keep SMU from tying the game. Read the rest of this entry »
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AAC Tournament: Wednesday Recap/Thursday Preview

Posted by Will Tucker on March 13th, 2014

With the first round of the AAC Tournament in the books, we take a look at a few of the big takeaways from Wednesday night, as well as story lines to keep in mind on Thursday.

What went down on Wednesday

  • Rutgers completed a three-win sweep of South Florida, making the Bulls the only AAC team who failed to beat the Scarlet Knights this season. It was a frustrating loss for USF fans, whose team missed six consecutive free throws in the second half and couldn’t quite get over the hump. Victor Rudd had 22 points and seven rebounds but ended his USF career on a low note, losing an offensive rebound on a missed Rutgers free throw that all but sealed the deal for Eddie Jordan’s club.
  • UCF won, in spite of Donnie Jones. From the moment when Isaiah Sykes nailed a long three while getting hit in the face late in regulation, Temple seemed destined to let another close game slip away. But Jones kept the Owls in the game, inexplicably benching his best player and hot hand for the first three minutes of the first overtime and two minutes of the second overtime. Sykes had amassed 32 of his career-high 36 points in regulation, including six crucial points in the closing minutes, but it was senior forward Tristan Spurlock who saved the day with his defense in overtime, highlighted by two blocks in 20 seconds. For Temple, it was a merciful end to a season full of near misses.

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AAC M5: 03.07.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on March 7th, 2014

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  1. Reflecting on the “sorely tested patience” of Rick Pitino, 2014 edition, Mark Coomes of Insider Louisville writes that Kentucky-era Pitino would have quashed a Russ Smith/Chris Jones backcourt long before it had an opportunity to flourish. Enduring the improvisational tendencies of Smith and Jones, including shots that in another lifetime “would’ve led to the summary executions of Travis Ford and Tony Delk,” would have been unfathomable to the Pitino of yore. But this season, even after many fans began clamoring for Jones to relinquish the car keys to Terry Rozier, the coach elected to stick with “Chrisdiculous.” It paid off on Wednesday night, when Smith and Jones exploded for a combined 47 points, eight rebounds, eight steals, and seven assists in Louisville’s come-from-behind win over SMU. It’s still premature to declare that the duo has turned the corner for good: As Coomes points out, the two didn’t “mesh” on Wednesday so much as they “shared the floor (and the ball) for most of both periods and rarely got in each other’s way.”
  2. Not everyone has bought into Russ Smith as a pro prospect, though. Three unnamed NBA executives interviewed by SI.com described Smith in languid terms as a second rounder with little hope of thriving in the league. One went further, remarking “when I watch him, I don’t see a guy who makes his teammates better. It’s all about him getting shots and scoring.” It seems like an unusual criticism, given the significant strides Smith has made this season as a distributor, improvements borne out by statistics and manifested in the record-breaking number of dunks Montrezl Harrell has thundered home this season, many courtesy of Smith’s passes. His assist rate of 31.1 percent is third in the AAC; his 4.5 assists per game ranks fifth in the league, and his assist to turnover ratio has improved from 1.1 to a respectable 1.7 since 2012-13. But then again, how many times have you seen the “selfish” label applied to Smith in the past three years in spite of any statistical or qualitative evidence to the contrary? His most intractable critics will always find Smith’s game aesthetically unappealing for many of the same reasons that others find it so endearing.
  3. Two special guests are traveling from Michigan to attend Isaiah Sykes’ senior night this evening: his two-year-old daughter, Makayla, and mother, Dominique, who will get to watch her son play college basketball in person for the first time. Family and basketball are permanently intertwined for the UCF guard. Growing up in Detroit, he found safety and guidance on basketball courts after his father died when he was three, and as an adult aspiring to play in the NBA, Sykes hopes his basketball career can provide better opportunities for his own daughter. “Usually people working hard on basketball, it’d be for yourself,” Sykes said. “When you have a daughter or a son or a child, you’re not just working for yourself, you’re working for your family […] It’s not just about you. I put them before me, and this is what I’ve got to do in order for her to have the life I want for her.”
  4. Mike DeCourcy writes that folks in Cincinnati won’t stress over the distinction between outright and co-champions of the AAC, as either would earn the program its first conference championship of any kind since 2004. Should the Bearcats take care of business on the road against Rutgers tomorrow, they’ll have to wait approximately two hours for the end of the Louisville-UConn game before they know for sure. As for yesterday’s senior night festivities, the evening couldn’t have gone any better for departing upperclassmen Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles, and Justin Jackson, who scored a combined 71 points in the Bearcats’ 97-84 win over Memphis. Racking up an efficient 34 points, Kilpatrick even outshone big performances from Shabazz Napier and Russ Smith earlier this week, firing the “latest salvo in the war for the AAC Player of the Year.”
  5. The Hartford Courant’s Jeff Jacobs wrote an excellent piece in which he grapples to accurately place Shabazz Napier in the UConn hoops pantheon. It’s also full of adorable moms-at-senior-night anecdotes, and I’m a total sucker for those. UConn’s assistant director of athletic communications, Phil Chardis, who covered the Huskies in the Connecticut press for more than 30 years, told Jacobs, “In my opinion, no UConn player has meant any more to his particular team than Shabazz.” Apart from his impressive career statistics and memorable single-game accomplishments, Napier’s legacy may most be defined by his decision to remain at UConn despite impending NCAA sanctions, a transfer exodus and lingering uncertainty. Kevin Ollie showered Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander with effusive gratitude for that very reason Wednesday night, thanking his seniors for “providing me with loyalty and providing this program with faith.” “They kept this program alive. I owe them a lot,” added Ollie. “I can never repay them for what they gave me.”
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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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Rest in Peace: Central Florida Knights Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on February 5th, 2014

Although we aren’t even halfway through the AAC schedule, the herd of NCAA Tournament contenders has thinned considerably and there are some teams whose prospects of playing in any meaningful postseason tournament are already dead in the water. We are gathered here today to celebrate their brief turn in the conference conversation.

Why are we mourning UCF?

Blackshear poses a good defensive matchup for players like Isaiah Sykes  (AP Photo / Timothy D. Easley)

Isaiah Sykes Has Been The Knights’ Lone Bright Spot (Timothy D. Easley)

The Knights have exactly one half-decent win this season and that was a late November triumph over a mediocre Miami (FL) team. Their next best win is a two-point home victory over Temple that came in the beginning of January and also serves as their only conference win thus far. The rest of the team’s wins are almost too embarrassing to mention. They have a win over Division II Tampa and a win over NAIA school Rio Grande, and then they have four wins over teams that rank 300th or below in KenPom’s team rankings.

In fact, since beating the Owls, the Knights have lost their next six games by no fewer than 10 points (albeit against the cream of the conference crop for the most part), and they probably won’t be the favorite in more than one or two games the rest of the way. It’s true that the Knights had to replace one of the best big men in school history when Keith Clanton graduated, but they returned every other meaningful contributor from a 20-11 squad. No one expected the Knights to take their new and better conference by storm, but most expected them to field a competitive team. Unfortunately, the roster has been too weak and the team has been too inefficient on both ends of the floor to make that happen.

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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: 01.20.14 Edition

Posted by CD Bradley on January 20th, 2014

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

Posted by CD Bradley on January 18th, 2014

Heading into a busy weekend of action, here are some key thoughts from a number of scheduled games around the AAC.

Shabazz Napier (left) and Russ Smith have been the two best players in the AAC this season, and they will square off Saturday night.

Shabazz Napier (left) and Russ Smith have been the two best players in the AAC this season, and they will square off Saturday night.

Game of the Weekend: ESPN’s College GameDay has something special planned for its 10th season premiere — broadcasting its morning and evening shows from the sites of two different games. While both involve AAC teams (more on that in a moment), it’s the nightcap that matters most here, with Louisville visiting UConn. Both teams are coming off Thursday night victories – UConn got a big win at Memphis, while Louisville won big over Houston – and the two preseason favorites need this game. For Louisville, it would bolster a weak resume with no decent road wins. For UConn, a win would get them back over .500 in AAC play after starting 0-2. In addition to all of that is the showdown between the conference’s two best players: Shabazz Napier, the only player in America leading his team in scoring, assists and rebounds, and Russ Smith, following up his spectacular junior season with an even better senior campaign.

Best of the Rest:

  • Cincinnati, picked to finish fourth in the preseason, sits atop the AAC at 5-0. It will look to keep its spotless record with a visit to South Florida, a team trying to right its season without its best player. Junior point guard Anthony Collins has been troubled with left knee problems all year, and is now considering sitting the rest of the year and applying for a redshirt. Without him, the Bulls have lost five of seven.

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