Tuesday AAC Roundtable: Assessing the Season’s StartPosted by Mike Lemaire on November 19th, 2013
Every week the four AAC microsite writers will come together in an effort to make sense of and answering questions about what happened in the AAC over the course of the previous week. In the future, we hope these thoughts will post on Monday and the questions will get more interesting as the schedule does.
1. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the start to the season as a whole?
C.D.- I’d say a 4. Through Sunday’s games, the AAC is 24-4, which is obviously pretty good. Unfortunately, not many of those wins were the kind that earn the “quality” label. That explains why the conference ranks 10th in RPI, with only one team (UConn, #36) in the top 70. Obviously, that will change. But by how much?
Ross- I’d give it a 3. The conference certainly could have gotten off to a worse start, but to see a team predicted to finish in the top five of the conference, Temple, struggle to two early season losses to Kent State and Towson puts a damper on the AAC excitement. Central Florida also had the big stage at home on national television against ACC and in-state rival Florida State, and promptly flopped. The top of the conference — Louisville, Memphis, Connecticut and Cincinnati — has looked strong, albeit mostly against weak competition. Cincinnati has the conference’s best win knocking off North Carolina State at home by 11.
Will- I’m going with 6. Appropriately, that’s also the number of AAC teams that remain undefeated as we enter the second half of November. Teams have made the most of the lackluster schedules their coaches and administrators have dealt them, and have avoided the dumpster-fire losses that have peppered the non-conference schedules of teams like Rutgers, USF and Houston in the past. UConn and Cincinnati notched wins versus a pair of mediocre ACC teams; Louisville and Memphis have convincingly rolled over outclassed competition; even South Florida and Houston sport unblemished records with wins away from home. Rutgers, UCF and Temple are the only teams that have looked fatally flawed through three games.
Mike- It’s a 1 for me and that’s entirely because of the match-ups we have seen thus far. The most exciting game of the season has been the Huskies’ one-point win against Maryland. I’d dare you to name even one other exciting basketball game an AAC team has played in. Yes, it’s unfair to the programs in the conference to base a rating on such a small sample size but most of the other major conferences have had multiple teams play more competitive and interesting games than the entire AAC members have played combined. Wake me up when Memphis travels to Stillwater tonight.
2. What player or team or news has been the biggest surprise thus far?
C.D.- I think Houston has to be happy to be 4-0, although they haven’t played anybody. I don’t expect that streak to last, but I do expect TaShawn Thomas to continue being a beast. He went for 18 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks on Sunday against Lehigh, and he is averaging 18.3 PPG and 10 RPG for a talented Cougars’ club.
Ross- Most newcomers need a certain amount of time to adjust to this level but that hasn’t been the case for Louisville’s Chris Jones. He finally committed his first turnover in the third game of the season and is scoring at will from the outside and by driving to the bucket. He’s averaging 13.7 points and 4.3 assists per game thus far. If he can keep those numbers going, it’s safe to say the Cardinals have found a replacement, if not an upgrade, from Peyton Siva.
Will- South Florida has built a 3-0 record with little help from Anthony Collins, but the real surprise is that they have shot over 50 percent from the field in the process. Granted, they haven’t encountered much resistance from their first three opponents, but scoring at the fourth-best rate in the league against anyone is a great start for a team that shot 38 percent last season. Having Collins sidelined in the first two games was a blessing in disguise for Stan Heath’s club, as it gave junior college point guard Corey Allen Jr. an opportunity to learn the ropes and demonstrate his offensive efficiency. The junior has averaged 20.5 points (on 64 percent shooting) and hit five of six three-point attempts in the last two wins.
Mike- Connecticut freshman center Amida Brimah was expected to be a defensive-only player this season and that has held true through the team’s first four games. But I don’t think anyone could have foreseen just how good Brimah would be in that regard almost immediately. He has been an instant game-changer on the defensive end for a team without frontcourt depth. He is playing only 15 minutes per game and still ranks 11th in the country at four blocks per game. His 24.6 percent block percentage would be the second-best in the country if he had enough minutes logged to qualify for the leaderboard. He is still a non-factor offensively and will need to avoid early foul trouble to stay on the floor, but coach Kevin Ollie has found the next in a long line of UConn rim-protectors.
3. What player or team or news has been the biggest disappointment thus far?
C.D.- It has to be UCF losing at home to Florida State. The Seminoles are picked near the bottom of the ACC, but it still would have ranked among the best wins by the AAC so far. Instead, they weren’t even close, trailing by double digits for the last 12 minutes.
Ross- The biggest disappointment is Temple’s start. The Owls are clearly rebuilding but still have enough talent with Will Cummings, Dalton Pepper, Quenton DeCosey and Anthony Lee to, one would think, get a win out of two games with Kent State and Towson. Granted, the Towson game was on the road in a tough environment, but this is a team that went on to lose by 34 to Villanova. The Owls were in both games at the end and could have pulled them out, but losing two of the first three games is not the way coach Fran Dunphy wanted to start Temple’s first season in the AAC.
Will- The 2013-14 Temple Owls present a textbook reminder that past performance does not guarantee future results. We knew they were rebuilding, and we knew it would be difficult for Fran Dunphy to guide this role player-heavy ensemble to a seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. But it was hard to imagine the Owls going 1-2 in the most manageable portion of their non-conference schedule. With a home loss to a MAC squad and a late collapse to a Towson team that Villanova dismantled by 34, a tight win over a bad Ivy League is the only encouragement on Temple’s schedule. Looking ahead, it’s entirely plausible that the team picked to finish fifth in the conference could begin AAC play with a 3-5 record. The play of junior point guard Will Cummings has been particularly sketchy as he leads the nation with five turnovers per game.
Mike- It’s disappointing that SMU coach Larry Brown and star player Jalen Jones couldn’t find a way to work out their differences. Jones was the team’s best player last season and it’s nearly impossible to imagine that Brown couldn’t find a spot in the starting lineup for such a versatile player. The Mustangs could have used Jones in last night’s disappointing loss to Arkansas. It’s unfair to everyone involved to speculate on what the real reasons Jones transferred are and it’s also probably unfair to say that Brown has a history of running off players who don’t fit into his vision. But Jones isn’t the first player to transfer out of a Brown-coached program and it’s unfortunate that last season’s star won’t be around to see if the program can actually turn it around.
4. Has anything you’ve seen made you change your mind about a specific team?
C.D.- I had high hopes for SMU, but they might well have exceeded them in absolutely demolishing Rhode Island, 89-58. It wasn’t the quality of the foe so much as the way they did it, holding URI to 31 percent shooting. With so many new guys playing defense at that level so early is promising. I know they didn’t look good last night against Arkansas, but I think this team will have it figured out once conference play begins.
Ross- While too early to tell, I’d look for Houston to finish ahead of Temple in the AAC standings. Led by TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House, the Cougars are off to a 4-0 start and look like a team capable of finishing in the top half of the conference standings. Temple will improve throughout the year, but Houston’s offensive firepower will push them ahead of the Owls and into the fifth spot in the league’s standings before the season’s end
Will- The transfer of leading scorer Jalen Jones from SMU dealt a dramatic blow to the Mustangs’ hopes of rounding into the conference dark horse everyone wanted them to be. I didn’t expect Larry Brown’s team to finish the in top half of the league to begin with, but assumed his star player’s exit would seal their fate as the ninth- or 10th-place team. Watching freshmen Ben Moore and Keith Frazier perform at such a high level already, coupled with the seamless transitions of transfers Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Yannick Moreira, I’m beginning to reevaluate. The sum of Brown’s newcomers might outweigh the individual loss of Jones, especially since their coach seems eager for all of them to play valuable minutes early on.
Mike- I still don’t think South Florida comes anywhere close to making the NCAA Tournament, but I should probably apologize for picking them to finish at the bottom of the conference. Corey Allen has had a dynamic start to his Division I career and freshman center John Egbunu is already playing well and looks like a solid foundation for the future of the team. Once the team gets Anthony Collins playing at full strength, they may be a more formidable opponent than most people realized. They still haven’t played anyone good and I don’t think the questions about their offense have been answered, but they certainly look like a much better team than one that will finish last in the AAC.