Let’s Make Some Room Atop the American for Cincinnati

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 9th, 2014

It seemed like the AAC’s first season of existence would be a banner year with defending champion Louisville joining, a talented UConn team shut out of the tournament in 2012-13, and a Memphis club armed with one of the best backcourts in America. Yet most forgot about the arrival of Cincinnati. The Bearcats aren’t exactly a big name in college basketball (well, not anymore). Highly-touted freshmen? Not here. Legendary coach? With time maybe, but not now. A rabid fan base that travels to road games well? There weren’t any more than 30 fans sitting behind the Bearcats’ bench on Tuesday night in Houston.

Mick Cronin has his Bearcats off to a 3-0 start in AAC play. (AP photo)

Mick Cronin has his Bearcats off to a 3-0 start in AAC play. (AP photo)

Still, Mick Cronin has perhaps his best team since being named head coach in 2006. And the Bearcats played like it in the first half against the Houston Cougars. The active hands and moving feet of Cincinnati’s defense frustrated Houston, forcing nine turnovers, blocking seven shots and forcing the Cougars to shoot 8-of-24 from the field. Cincinnati took a 16-point lead into the locker room. But the Cougars went on a 23-10 run to start the second, capped by a three-pointer from Brandon Morris to cut Cincinnati’s lead to 50-47 with 9:56 to play. It was Morris’ fourth three of the half on his way to a career-high 17 points. The Bearcats stopped playing their hard-nosed defense, which prompted Cronin to call a 30 second timeout to regroup. And regroup they did.

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Evaluating AAC Non-Conference Schedules: The Good…

Posted by CD Bradley on October 29th, 2013

While major rivalries and national television match-ups get the most attention, the games against much lower profile opponents can make just as big a difference come Selection Sunday. Scheduling is with question an art, but it’s at least equally a science. Sports Illustrated‘s Luke Winn and Andy Glockner have both examined the equation for maximizing a schedule’s impact on RPI, and in turn the strength of an NCAA Tournament resume. Glockner succinctly summarized it thusly: “Don’t schedule terrible teams. Ever.” and “Don’t lose at home. Ever.” Simple enough. Expanding on that, he offered four guidelines for assembling a schedule designed to boost RPI: don’t schedule SWAC teams; play the best teams in small leagues; play neutral site games that really aren’t neutral; and remember that the consolation games in holiday tournaments can become much more important than they seem at the time.

Want to go dancing? Non-conference scheduling is crucial to punching your ticket.

Want to go dancing? Non-conference scheduling is crucial to punching your ticket.

Non-conference games account for roughly 40 percent of AAC teams’ regular season games, and closer to 35 percent of the games considered by the NCAA selection committee after the conference tournament. But these games play an oversized role because they largely determine the availability of quality wins within the league once conference play begins. Good performances against a solid non-conference schedule provides a strong RPI from the beginning, while a weak non-conference slate coupled with losses against bad teams can be very tough to overcome. If a schedule is bad enough, it can drag down the RPI of other teams in the conference, particularly in a league like the AAC with a true round robin schedule. If the league can avoid bad losses against decent competition, it can buoy the whole league, as the Mountain West showed last year with its top overall conference rating. As we will see, it’s unlikely that type of quality is present for the AAC this year.

With the elements identified by Winn and Glockner in mind, let’s take a look at the non-conference schedules facing AAC teams this season. First, the good. We’ll visit the bad and the ugly in a corollary post on Wednesday.

The Good

  • Temple: The Owls face what is clearly the best non-conference schedule of any AAC team. It lacks elite competition – unless a match-up against New Mexico materializes in the final or consolation game of the Charleston Classic, there’s probably not an RPI top 25 team here – but more than makes up for it by not including any terrible teams. Almost every team here is projected to finish near the top of its own league, and the ones that aren’t – Clemson and Texas – won’t hurt by virtue of their major conference affiliations. If everything breaks right, no team on this schedule should end up with an RPI above #200. There are winnable road/neutral games, too. It’s hard to envision a schedule more optimized to boost RPI, but can the inexperienced Owls take advantage this season?
  • Memphis: The Tigers take a different tack. Their schedule includes two Division II games, which won’t count toward their RPI; but they might have been better off scheduling a third rather than Jackson State, a second division SWAC team. They overcome some of the dregs with multiple elite opponents: at Oklahoma State, Florida in Madison Square Garden, Gonzaga at home, and a possible second match-up with the Cowboys in the Old Spice Classic final. All four seem likely to be RPI top 25 teams. At least two wins out of those four contests are key, because the Tigers will have so few additional opportunities; aside from those four games, the Old Spice semis against either LSU or St. Joseph’s might well be their only other top 100 foe.
  • UConn: More Temple than Memphis, the Huskies’ schedule features home tilts with probable top 50 RPI teams Florida, Stanford and Harvard. There are neutral court games against Maryland and Boston College (and possibly Indiana or Washington), as well as a home game with Patriot League favorite Boston University and a road game at Washington; all appear likely to end up in the RPI top 100. There a couple of 200+ types, but nothing so likely as to drag the whole ranking down. This is a solid non-conference schedule for Kevin Ollie’s first-NCAA Tournament eligible year.

That’s pretty much it for good non-conference slates in the AAC. More to come…

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A Quick Examination of the AAC Non-Conference Slate

Posted by CD Bradley on October 28th, 2013

Highlighted by the annual renewal of college basketball’s best rivalry, the American has plenty of compelling games to offer before its first in-conference games tip off on New Year’s Eve. The conference’s teams also play a number of games, that while they might not be showcased on national TV, could prove just as crucial if not more so when the NCAA Tournament field is selected and seeded in March. Let’s take a look at four intriguing match-ups as well as four under-the-radar games that AAC teams will be involved in during the non-conference part of the season.

ESPN.com John Calipari (left) and Rick Pitino might not be all smiles when their teams square off Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena.

John Calipari (left) and Rick Pitino might not be all smiles when their teams square off December 28 in Rupp Arena.

Four most intriguing AAC non-conference games

  • Memphis at Oklahoma State, 8 PM, November 19, ESPN. This match-up of two of the nation’s best backcourts, with Marcus Smart and company squaring off against the Tigers’ fleet of guards, has to be considered among the highlights of the season’s first two weeks. It will also provide, fair or not, an early barometer of how these teams and leagues stack up.
  • Louisville at Kentucky, 4 PM, December 28, CBS.  It’s the two best teams in the country. The last two national champions. It’s the most important annual sporting event – yes, even bigger than the Kentucky Derby — in a state where college basketball is the most important sport. It’s Russ Smith vs. the Harrison twins, Montezl Harrell vs. Julius Randle, and, of course, Rick Pitino vs. John Calipari.
  • Florida at UConn, 7 PM, December 2, ESPN2. Connecticut has one of the best guard tandems in the country in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Florida has talent all over the floor, led by senior center Patric Young. Can the Huskies overcome the Gators’ interior advantages to get the kind of marquee win their non-conference schedule offers few opportunities for? The answer could be key to their March chances.
  •  Gonzaga at Memphis, 9 PM, February 8, ESPN. This rare February inter-conference matchup is one of two visits to AAC homecourts by ESPN’s College Gameday this year (Louisville at UConn on January 18 is the other). The Zags entered last year’s NCAA Tournament as the nation’s #1 team, but reached only the round of 32 before bowing out to Wichita State. This game should provide crucial insight into whether Gonzaga can begin to approach last year’s success.

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ESPN Insider Projects AAC Among Nation’s Top Conferences

Posted by CD Bradley on October 25th, 2013

The American compares favorably to the best conferences in the country in ESPN Insider‘s 351-team projections that were released Friday. Led, unsurprisingly, by Louisville at #2, the American placed three teams in the top 25, and three more in the top 100. The team projections are based on projections of each player, based on past production by both the players and the teams as a whole, as explained by Dan Hanner. “The model predicted the tempo free stats of every D1 player, projected the lineup for every D1 team, and then added up the player stats to get a projection for every D1 team,” Hanner wrote. (ESPN Insider absorbed most of the writers of the late, lamented College Basketball Prospectus, which produced similar #1-#351 rankings in its annual book in years past.)

Congrats to Fran Dunphy on His 400th Victory

Fran Dunphy’s inexperienced Temple team presents a major challenge to the coach this year.

After modeling predictions for each player on each team (a detailed, somewhat technical explanation of that process can be found here), Hanner ran 10,000 computer simulations of the season, a new aspect of this year’s version of the rankings which provides a best and worst case scenario for each team. “There are a number of consequences to adding a simulation to the model,” Hanner wrote. “First, the simulation approach gives an advantage to teams with positional flexibility. For example, Louisville has two players, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, who will likely compete to be the team’s starting point guard. Both players project as good, but not elite college point guards. But when you simulate the lineup, and realize that the better of the two players will start, suddenly the expectation is even higher. The winner of the competition is going to have a higher expectation than either player individually.”

Accordingly, Louisville is ranked second (only the uncertainty surrounding Chane Behanan’s suspension dropped them below Kentucky for the top spot), with a best case as the top team in the county and a worst case of 12th. Memphis checks in at 15th (best case sixth, worst case 26th), while UConn is 25th (12th/42nd).

The rest of the American ranks:

  • Cincinnati: #59 (23/97)
  • Central Florida: #96 (60/138)
  • Rutgers: #100 (58/150)
  • SMU: #105 (70/134)
  • South Florida: #110 (63/151)
  • Temple: #129 (67/209; the wide variance, Hanner explains, is due to the lack of returning production: “Fran Dunphy has worked miracles before, but he has never had a team this inexperienced at Temple.”)
  • Houston: #158 (96/209)

The American joins the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big East as the only conferences with each team in the top half of the overall rankings, a claim the SEC, Big 12, MW, A-10 or any other conference cannot make. The full rankings, with commentary, can be found here; conference predictions can be found here.

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Notes and Quotes From the Inaugural AAC Media Day

Posted by CD Bradley on October 17th, 2013

American Athletic Conference luminaries gathered in Memphis Wednesday as the league held its first men’s basketball media day, offering thoughts on the inaugural season of the still in-flux league.

TheAmerican.org ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg (right) leads the discussion during a roundtable of AAC coaches at the conference's first media day Wednesday in Memphis.

TheAmerican.org ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg (right) leads the discussion during a roundtable of AAC coaches at the conference’s first media day Wednesday in Memphis.

In his opening remarks, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco stressed the strength of the league’s teams, coaches and television deals. That gave way to a roundtable of AAC coaches mediated by ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg.

As was to be expected, little news emerged from the event. The coaches’ preseason picks for top team (Louisville) and player (Russ Smith) were released.

While there might have been little news, coaches and players made some interesting, insightful and funny comments. Among them:

  • “We will not pay players. We will not establish an employer-employee relationship. That’s not what college sports is about, and it is the road to ruin.” — AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco
  • “The only thing that’s realistic is getting another tattoo.” — Louisville coach Rick Pitino, on how he planned to follow up a season that saw his team win a national championship, a horse he co-owned run in the Kentucky Derby, his election to the Naismith Hall of Fame and his son Richard named as head coach at Minnesota.
  • “In the NBA, you don’t shake hands after games. I had 17 really difficult experiences last year.” — SMU coach Larry Brown, who returned to the college game last year after nearly 25 years in the NBA, and whose Mustangs posted a 15-17 record.
  • “With everything that was going on last year, they could have left without anybody saying anything bad about them. They stuck by me, and they stuck by their university.” — UConn coach Kevin Ollie, on Husky guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. UConn was barred from last season’s NCAA Tournament due its failure to meet academic requirements in past years.
  • “We didn’t think it was fair because Russ never quits, so we had to get rid of him. In a nice way.” — Pitino, on the horse he named Russdiculous after star guard Russ Smith. Pitino said the horse got out to early leads only to get passed later in the race.
  • “I just learned how to tweet or text, whatever they call it. It’s troubling to me, to be honest. I just like to coach… I’m gonna learn how to do some of that stuff someday, but not today.” — Brown, on the role social media plays in the college game.
  • “Our rule is that we get to make fun of them.” — Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin on what rules he has for players about using social media.
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What’s In Store For UConn Without Jim Calhoun? The National Media Weighs In…

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 14th, 2012

Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Over the past 26 years, Jim Calhoun has morphed the Connecticut men’s basketball program from a middling Yankee Conference ensemble to a plucky Big East upstart to a nationally-revered hoops powerhouse. He did it without the normal built-in advantages of most successful programs, without historical precedent, without strong administrative or financial support, without favorable geography, or a rich pool of high school players to recruit from. What Calhoun accomplished at UConn is truly remarkable; his legacy is forever intertwined with the program’s foundation and rise to prominence. The situation UConn now finds itself in – transitioning away from a legendary leader – is not completely unique. Arizona, UCLA, and North Carolina, to name a few, have all weathered the departures of sideline legends deftly, sustaining their national relevance and competitiveness with new coaches. The challenge for UConn is finding the right coach to succeed Calhoun, to prolong and advance what the three-time national title winner engineered in Storrs. While Calhoun believes two-year assistant Kevin Ollie is the perfect fit, it’s unclear whether new AD Warde Manuel will stick with Calhoun’s preference in the long run. But the timing of Calhoun’s departure has forced Manuel’s hand: Ollie is assured one season on the Huskies’ sidelines, a test run to prove himself as the long-term solution.

UConn’s basketball success is tied to Calhoun’s legacy (Photo credit: AP Photo/Jessica Hill).

With UConn ineligible for the postseason in 2013 and a depleted roster to work with, Ollie faces a tough road in the upcoming season. Whether or not he is the best choice to lead the Huskies out of the Calhoun glory days is an open question, but the national media has opined in droves over the fate of UConn’s program now that it has lost its foundational architect. Here’s a sampling of some of the best Calhoun retirement-related pieces I’ve come upon in the wake of yesterday’s official announcement, with a brief pull-quote summary of how each writer believes the Huskies will march on without Calhoun.

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Jim Calhoun Hints At Retirement: How Will UConn Sustain His Progress?

Posted by Chris Johnson on September 7th, 2012

Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

When programs are so closely associated with one legendary coach, it’s often difficult to properly gauge their sustainability and staying power. Coaching leadership and innovation, when harnessed in the right ways, can ignite and maintain momentum. In these instances, when sideline legends engineer complete turnarounds at places with little or no previous historical success, the burning question is whether the building project and subsequent rise has set the stage for long-term security and continuity, or if the inevitable coaching change will undo the trailblazing predecessor’s foundational work. UConn men’s basketball is one of these programs. The Huskies’ success is impossible to extract from its longtime head coach Jim Calhoun. UConn garnered some regional recognition as a member of the Yankee Conference under Hugh Greer, but it was only when Calhoun took over – not to mention UConn’s move to the Big East in 1979, a conference created with the goal of assembling the region’s best basketball programs – that the Huskies truly hit their stride on the national stage. In 1986-87, Calhoun’s first season as head coach, UConn finished 9-19. Two years later, the Huskies won their first national postseason tournament when they knocked off Ohio State en route to an NIT championship. By 1990, UConn had claimed its first Big East title along with a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. More importantly, UConn debuted its new on-campus home, Gampel Pavilion, signaling a positive turn in the school’s administrative support for the ascendant Huskies. Nine Big East titles and three National Championships later, UConn has clearly established itself among the college hoops elite. It seems unlikely the Huskies will ever recede into their pre-Calhoun irrelevance, but there remains a sneaking suspicion that UConn will lose at least some measure of its national prestige once their pioneering head coach calls it quits.

It sounds as if Calhoun is ready to leave the program he elevated to elite status (Photo credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images).

What once felt like an unimaginable outcome – that Calhoun, after morphing UConn into the national powerhouse it is today, would step down – has inched closer and closer to reality. In fact, the timetable for his retirement could dictate that Calhoun has seen his last moments on the Huskies sidelines. In a candid interview with SI.com’s Mark Blaudschun, Calhoun spoke with humbling acceptance and resignation of the circumstances surrounding his health and the program he practically built from the ground up. Calhoun, 70, is coming off his 26th season at the helm, just two years removed from winning his third – and arguably his most impressive, given the talent on hand – national championship. The Huskies, who returned much of their championship rotation (minus Kemba Walker) and welcomed in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, vastly underperformed in their title-defense season. Calhoun missed three games due to recruiting violations, and UConn was notified it had been banned from the 2013 postseason thanks to its inability to meet the NCAA’s increasingly stringent APR standards. Still, Calhoun, undeterred by the variety of factors weighing against him, thought he could extend his career on the sidelines, if only to lead UConn out of the grim short-term outlook it now faces. That may still be the case, but an offseason bike injury requiring hip surgery seems to have sapped the competitive drive that has long defined Calhoun’s coaching psyche. From Blaudschun’s story:

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