Championship Week Primer: Bid-Stealers and Teams to Watch

Posted by Henry Bushnell on March 10th, 2015

Championship Week is upon us. And while some mid-majors have already locked up their spots in the Big Dance, it’s time for the major conference tournaments to get under way. Here’s a brief look at each of those upcoming tournaments with a description of one team in each that is primed to use the postseason as the catalyst for a run and one potential bid-stealer.

AAC

SMU is Flying Under the Radar Somewhat (USA Today Images)

SMU is Somewhat Flying Under the Radar (USA Today Images)

  • Team to Watch: SMU – This one might seem obvious as SMU is the top seed and the best team in the conference. But such is the state of the AAC that the Mustangs are really the only team with a shot to make some noise in March. Temple is an NCAA Tournament team but isn’t anything special, and the same could be said for Cincinnati and Tulsa, if either cracks the field of 68.
  • Potential Bid-Stealer: UConn – Hey, we’ve certainly seen the Huskies get hot before. There haven’t been many indications that Kevin Ollie’s team can put together a run, but its draw is favorable — SMU is on the opposite side of the bracket — so a Sunday date with the Mustangs with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line is a distinct possibility.

ACC

  • Team to Watch: North Carolina – The Tar Heels have amazingly lost six of their last 10 games en route to a fifth-place finish in the ACC. But since an ugly loss to NC State a couple weeks ago, they’ve looked decent and are capable of exploding at any time. North Carolina has elite athleticism and a guard in Marcus Paige who is one of college basketball’s best when he’s locked in. The Heels — playing in front of the always-friendly Greensboro crowd — should be favored against Louisville in the quarterfinals before meeting a Virginia team that could still be at less than full strength.
  • Potential Bid-Stealer: Miami – Miami isn’t a bid-stealer, per se, because the Hurricanes don’t have to win the ACC Tournament to earn entry into the Dance. They probably only need two victories but they’ve been given an intriguing road as the #6 seed. Provided the Hurricanes win their Wednesday game against Wake Forest or Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and then potentially Duke await. Miami has already gone toe-to-toe with both this year in their buildings, and even beat Duke at Cameron. If Jim Larranaga’s team were to pull off those two upsets, anything could happen in the championship game.

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SMU’s Alleged Academic Improprieties and How Scandals Still Follow Larry Brown

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 16th, 2015

Nearly 30 years since the NCAA lowered the boom on SMU’s football program by giving it the “death penalty,” it is time for SMU’s basketball program to take its turn in the not-so welcome crosshairs. It was reported earlier today that the school has received a Notice of Allegations from the the governing body that “includes accusations of academic improprieties.” Is anyone all that surprised that Larry Brown is once again in hot water with the NCAA? The allegations, or at least the one that sources are discussing, centers around sophomore Keith Frazier — a player who was declared ineligible earlier in the day and will miss the remainder of the season — and whether the school helped grease the wheels for Frazier’s eligibility coming out of high school. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who follows Mustangs’ basketball, however, as several outlets were reporting about improper grade changes and the SMU coaching staff’s involvement as far back as January. But this story shouldn’t really be about Frazier, or the imperfect and semi-hypocritical academic standards set forth by the NCAA; it should be about the SMU basketball program and Larry Brown’s dedication to flouting NCAA rules everywhere he ventures.

Larry Brown Is In Trouble With The NCAA, In Other News, The Sky Is Still Blue

Larry Brown Is In Trouble With The NCAA. In Other News, The Sky Is Still Blue.

This is the third ineligibility issue related to academics under Brown this season alone. Star forward Markus Kennedy sat out the first half of the season because of his academic shortcomings and Xavier transfer Justin Martin‘s decision to leave school to play professionally reportedly had as much to do with shoddy academics as with his desire to take his game to the next level. Now Frazier has been ruled ineligible for the rest of the season and it turns out that the “personal reasons” that forced star recruiter and assistant coach Ulric Maligi to take an indefinite leave of absence were probably related to his seemingly hands-on role in helping Frazier become eligible. The willful misinformation that SMU is putting out there is strong enough to make us look like jerks and wonder whether Frazier’s absence from Thursday’s practice actually was related to a death in the family. It sounds terribly crass to even suggest such a thing, but the Mustangs have brought this type of scrutiny on themselves because of their efforts to mask the underlying issues within the program.

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Media Timeout: The Birth and Death of Rivalries After Realignment

Posted by Will Tucker on December 26th, 2014

College basketball places huge emphasis on individual games — showdowns between top-ranked teams, annual rivalry clashes, single-elimination tournaments — but it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture from time to time. Each month, the Media Timeout will review emerging trends in how fans and journalists watch, follow, and talk about the sport.


Conference realignment in recent years has reshaped the college basketball landscape in both obvious and subtle ways. To paint the timeline in admittedly broad brushstrokes, it started with Colorado and Nebraska abandoning the Big 12 for the greener pastures of the Pac-10 and Big Ten, respectively. In the scramble for leagues to position themselves for the eventual “superconference” paradigm, the Pac-10 would add Utah to complete the Pac-12; the Big Ten would go on to poach Maryland and Rutgers; the SEC, Missouri and Texas A&M; the Big 12 reloading with TCU and West Virginia. Most of the Big East diaspora – Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame basketball, and eventually Louisville – settled in the ACC, and the Big East experienced its own dramatic transformation to a basketball-centric league as a result. Those shifts trickled down through many of the mid-major conferences, including the Mountain West, Conference USA, and Atlantic 10, weaving a convoluted web of migration across the country.

realignment europe

The War in Prussia Had Nothing on Conference Realignment

The consequences of those migrations are still revealing themselves several years later. Nowhere have they been more tangible to fans than in the separation of traditional rivals and the formation of new rivalries, sometimes taking root in unexpected places. Rivalries have long been fluid entities, in spite of our tendency to mythologize and idealize a bygone era of college basketball – one in which meritocracy trumped TV revenue, recruiting was an even playing field, and geography and shared heritage determined which schools became rivals. In 1980, for example, Depaul-Marquette was a big deal; Syracuse-UConn wasn’t that big of a deal; and Louisville and Kentucky had played each other only 12 times, ever.

So with that in mind, let’s pay homage to several of the casualties of conference realignment, before turning our attention to budding rivalries that may take their place. We’ll also look at existing rivalries that are being preserved despite changes in conference affiliation.

Rivalries Lost

Duke-Maryland: The rivalry between Duke and Maryland had lost some of its luster by the time the Blue Devils closed out the series by claiming their 13th win in the final 16 meetings: Overall, the Blue Devils held a commanding 114-63 advantage over the Terrapins. But there’s no question that this rivalry’s demise was a significant loss for college basketball fans. This is especially true for fans in D.C., where both schools have a significant alumni presence (College Park is about nine miles from the Capitol Building; Duke places a large number of alumni in the nation’s power cities). On the hardwood, the series experienced a golden age at the turn of the 21st century, when the teams traded national championships and were fixtures at the top of the ACC standings. While the rivalry may have lost some of its competitive edge in recent years, it never lost the element that truly set it apart: vehement hostility. From JJ Redick’s phone number, to the $500,000 in property damage recorded during the 2001 College Park riots, to the imperious “Not our rival” chants serenading Maryland players in Cameron; the discontinued series left big shoes to fill in terms of sheer animosity.

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Cincinnati Win Gets AAC on the Board, Only Six Weeks Too Late

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 18th, 2014

Let’s be clear: Cincinnati’s Wednesday night victory over San Diego State was very important for the Bearcats. Mick Cronin’s team was in urgent need of a quality victory, and it got one. But the Bearcats didn’t need the win nearly as badly as the American Athletic Conference. Before Cincy’s takedown of the Aztecs, the league’s best wins were over Wyoming, Dayton and Creighton. Let’s do that again: The league’s best wins were over Wyoming, Dayton and Creighton. Throw in Temple’s home victory over Louisiana Tech, and you VERY quickly have the entirety of the league’s victories over KenPom top-100 foes this season. Four top-100 wins, none over a team in the top 60 as of December 17. Conference USA, a league that nine of 11 AAC programs chose to leave of their own accord, has more than twice that number. More unflattering comparisons are available, but the point is already clear: The AAC is off to a disastrous start. For the sake of a league that once formed a significant portion of the Big East, San Diego State had to lose last night.

Winston Shepard Should Know: Troy Caupin's Bearcats, Not To Mention The Entire AAC, Needed Wednesday Night's Game Far Worse Than San Diego State Did

Winston Shepard Should Know: Troy Caupin’s Bearcats, Not To Mention The Entire AAC, Needed Wednesday Night’s Game Far Worse Than San Diego State Did (Photo: Aaron Doster, USA Today Sports)

As far as early resumes go, Cincinnati’s looks pretty good, especially after last night. The bad isn’t so bad (their two losses came away from home to Ole Miss and Nebraska), and the Bearcats now have an actual win of substance. Further non-conference profile-bolstering opportunities also lurk in upcoming matchups with VCU (home) and NC State (road). Whether the Bearcats are good enough to take advantage of those chances is another story. The match-up with the Aztecs was billed as a “first to 50 wins” type of deal, but Cincy actually got by the Aztecs with some sneakily stingy shooting – 17-of-21 from the line, 21-of-42 on two-point field goals, and 4-of-11 from three-point range. Out of character? Certainly. Completely unsustainable? We’ll see. Expect the Cincinnati defense to remain as fortified as ever (among the top 25 nationally in defensive efficiency over the past four seasons, 26th this season), so the offense won’t need to come in bunches for the Bearcats to keep winning games. Keep an eye on sophomore Troy Caupin – the better his Sean Kilpatrick imitation, the more games this team will win.

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All the Reasons to Love the AAC Coaches in One Helpful PSA

Posted by mlemaire on November 20th, 2014

On Tuesday the American Athletic Conference released what they are calling a “public service announcement” that is really just a quick pump-up campaign featuring some video and stills of the league’s 11 coaches in action. I am probably the only one (at last count, only 38 people have even viewed it), but I loved every second of it and that’s because any content focused on this group of coaches is worth examining. The marketing folks over at conference headquarters are smart to use the coaches as the league’s primary selling point. This is not only because most casual college basketball fans would have trouble naming five AAC players even if we gave them Emmanuel Mudiay, but because the league’s coaches are characters with colorful backgrounds and track records that make it far more interesting to follow. I legitimately got fired up about the upcoming season. And since I was fired up, I decided to channel some of that energy into capturing some of the best moments of the 30-second video to help everyone else understand why these coaches are so awesome. I’m not the only one fired up either…

Haith is pump

That’s right, even #Haith is excited for the new season. But he isn’t the only colorful coach in the conference. We’ve got UCF‘s Donnie Jones, seen below looking out onto the court as he realizes that Isaiah Sykes graduated last season. Either that or he is just remembering that Kevin Ware never actually made it to campus and that he really shouldn’t have followed that convicted felon on Twitter. Read the rest of this entry »

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Poor Recruiting Hurts AAC More Than Losing Louisville Ever Will

Posted by mlemaire on November 19th, 2014

Last week, RTC national columnist Bennet Hayes asked if Louisville’s departure from the AAC would “cripple” the conference and rightly pointed out that the Cardinals’ consistent excellence and national pedigree would be sorely missed by a new conference still looking to find its way. But with all due respect to my colleague, he isn’t asking the right question. The AAC will absolutely miss Louisville, and the prolonged irrelevance of the teams replacing the Cardinals’ program should be a major concern. But the conference still has enough competitive programs to stay relevant in March. The real question is whether the top five or six teams can ever be consistently nationally relevant. The reason the answer to that question isn’t obvious is because the league can’t seem to attract much NBA-level talent and that all starts with recruiting.

Daniel Hamilton Was The AAC's Only Five-Star Recruit And Best NBA Prospect

Daniel Hamilton Was The AAC’s Only Five-Star Recruit And Is Maybe Its Best NBA Prospect

The early signing period for the recruiting class of 2015 officially came to close today, and after landing just one five-star prospect (UConn’s Daniel Hamilton) in the Class of 2014, things again look bleak for the conference. Only two five-star prospects (UConn commitment Jalen Adams and Memphis commitment Dedric Lawson) signed their letter of intent with an AAC school last week, and not coincidentally, UConn and Memphis are the conference’s only programs that can currently boast top 30 recruiting classes. Let’s break down just how unfavorably the AAC recruiting classes stack up to those from the rest of the major basketball conferences.

  • The AAC, the Big 12, and the Big Ten are the only three conferences without a commitment from one of the country’s top 20 players, but it’s almost a certainty that Kansas will land one if not two or three of the uncommitted five-star prospects.
  • The AAC has only six of the top 100 prospects in the country currently committed, far less than the Pac-12 (15), Big Ten (13), SEC (14), and the ACC (17). The Big East currently has seven top 100 prospects committed and the Big 12 has just five (again… Kansas).
  • Only the Big 12 has fewer schools among the top 30 recruiting classes in the country after the early signing period, and it seems highly unlikely that any other school from the conference will break into that group, although SMU is probably close.
  • Of the top remaining uncommitted prospects, only five-star center Diamond Stone is seriously considering an AAC school (UConn) while the rest of the uncommitted prospects seem to be considering SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 schools.
  • UConn and Memphis are responsible for four of the six top-100 prospects committed to play in the AAC, and Memphis’ highly ranked class has as much to do with their coaching hires and Dedric Lawson’s decision to reclassify as it does with Josh Pastner’s recruiting prowess.

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Preseason Questions: Does Louisville’s Departure Cripple the AAC?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 11th, 2014

By nearly any measure, the American Athletic Conference’s maiden voyage was a successful one. The odd new assemblage of schools that was the 2013-14 AAC sent four of its 10 members to the NCAA Tournament, and then UConn went out and won the whole damn thing. As a result, the one-year old AAC is currently the proud owner of more post-2000 national titles than the Big Ten and Pac-12 combined — who says a new conference can’t possess a little slice of history? The brilliant opening act was fun, but present and future prospects for the AAC have quickly turned murky. Much has changed in the six months since the Huskies cut down the nets in Arlington. Three new programs have joined the league — East Carolina, Tulsa, and Tulane – while two former league members – Rutgers and Louisville – have departed. The balance sheet of coming and going league members is laced with irrelevant basketball programs, with one massive exception – Louisville. Can a nascent and unsettled league survive the departure of one of college basketball’s premier programs?

Louisville's Move To The ACC? Should Be Fun For Pitino & Co., Less So For The American Athletic Conference. (Getty)

Louisville’s Move To The ACC? Should Be Fun For Pitino & Co., Less So For The American. (Getty)

If you’re wondering how Louisville is liking its new ACC digs, the answer – at least during this preseason – is very well, thank you. Six ACC squads populate KenPom’s preseason Top 25 (compared to just one from the AAC), including the Cardinals at a healthy No. 3. Identifying the ACC as tradition-laden is about as obvious as naming Michael Jordan an all-time great, but seeing conference-mates Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Syracuse in the top 20 sends a message loud and clear: Welcome to the big time, Cards. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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The RTC Podblast: AAC Preview Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 4th, 2014

Welcome to conference preview season. In this, our first of eight conference preview RTC Podblasts that we’ll be rolling out before the dawn of the season, AAC microsite columnist Mike Lemaire (@mike_lemaire) joins us to discuss the key storylines, teams and players to watch among the 11 teams of the American. As always, Shane Connolly (@sconnolly114) hosts the podblast, and the full rundown of topics is below. Make sure to tweet at us (@rushthecourt) if you have any opinion on which team should be the gang’s new favorite heading into the 2014-15 season.

Make sure to add the RTC Podcast to your iTunes lineup so that you’ll automatically upload it on your listening device after we record. And don’t forget to check out our 2014-15 Preseason Storylines Podcast, and feel free to contact us through Twitter or email — we’re listening.

  • 0:00 – 6:37 – UConn as Defending Champ
  • 6:37 – 10:24 – SMU as a Contender
  • 10:24 – 15:14 – Best of the Rest
  • 15:14 – 19:00 – Ryan Boatright and the Battle for Best Player
  • 19:00 – 20:40 – Other 1st team All-AAC Discussion
  • 20:40 – 28:46 – Coaching Newcomers
  • 28:46 – 33:35 – Randy’s New Favorite Team
  • 33:35 – 36:05 – Bold Predictions
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Five Players to Watch in the AAC: Purvis, Moreira, Frazier, Cummings & Woodard

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 29th, 2014

In the coming weeks, we will be posting as much preview content as possible. We are starting today with AAC players to watch, but expect more on coaches and newcomers to watch, etc. If you are really lucky, we might even post some stuff where “to watch” isn’t in the title this preseason.

One of the best and also most difficult parts about putting this list together is that the AAC has so many players worth watching. The league doesn’t have the NBA talent that other leagues do, but in some ways that is more fun. We started the list with more than 25 names and it was bittersweet to cut each one of them from the list because they are all worth mentioning. The definition of “worth watching” obviously varies and not everyone will agree with our group, but while we didn’t create an algorithm to trim the list, we did consider more than just sheer talent when choosing these five players.

Rodney Purvis, guard, UConn. You may have heard that the defending champions lost a pretty important player to the NBA after their magical run to last season’s National Championship. You may have also heard that this year’s version of the Huskies is expecting to have a tough time replacing that guy’s production. If you’ve heard those things, then you’ve probably also heard that there is a fair amount of pressure on Rodney Purvis, in particular, to make up for his absence.

All Eyes Are On Rodney Purvis As He Tries To Supplant Shabazz Napier

All Eyes Are On Rodney Purvis As He Tries To Supplant Shabazz Napier

No one expects the North Carolina State transfer to replace all of Shabazz Napier’s production. But a big reason why the Huskies are a consensus top-20 team in preseason polls is because most folks expect Purvis to replace a whole lot of it. After all, it was head coach Kevin Ollie who likened Purvis to a Ferrari last season, and those expectations are not unfounded. Purvis was one of the most highly recruited players in the country coming out of high school and the 6’4″ and 205-pound combo guard is an explosive athlete who can attack the rim as well as shoot the three. With senior Ryan Boatright sliding over to handle the team’s point guard duties, Purvis should be free to concentrate on scoring, rebounding and playing defense. An MCL sprain to fellow guard Omar Calhoun only makes him more important to the league favorites.

Yanick Moreira, center, SMU. Moreira filled up the box score for Angola in this summer’s FIBA World Cup. He averaged 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in five outings and was one of the breakout stars of the tournament. Of course those eye-popping numbers came against lesser competition, and Moreira still hasn’t shown he can stay healthy for a full season. But if he can provide even two-thirds of that production for the Mustangs this winter, they will almost assuredly get invited to the NCAA Tournament. The oft-injured senior missed the majority of the conference slate last season and he never really regained his form after an inspiring start to the season. Although SMU was still moderately successful without him in the lineup, the team missed his rebounding, athleticism and rim-protection. Also, the main reason the team was still successful was because frontcourt partner Markus Kennedy emerged as one of the best big men in the conference. Kennedy is back and expected to assert himself again this season, so if Moreira can stay healthy, the duo forms easily the best frontcourt in the conference.

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Six Questions: Your Unofficial AAC Preview Primer

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 28th, 2014

The college basketball season is fewer than three weeks away, but more importantly, the college basketball preview season is in full swing. There are literally dozens of excellent previews out there for your consumption, so rather than duplicate the tried-and-true method for season previews, we just figured we would answer a bunch of questions that people may or may not want to know the answer to. There will of course be more focused content published here over the next few weeks, but we figured it best to start with a primer.

1. The conference looks different from last season, what the heck is going on?

An Old Familiar School Returns, But Where's Everybody Else? (USAT)

An Old Familiar School Returns, But Where’s Everybody Else? (USAT)

The final fumes of football-related conference realignment are responsible for all of this coming and going, and unfortunately, it has hurt the AAC from a basketball standpoint. Louisville, arguably the conference’s premier program from a prestige and attention view of the world, has decamped for the ACC, and Rutgers has also left for the Big Ten. The conference replaced those two programs with three programs from Conference USA – East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa – primarily known for their successes on the football field. The good news is that Tulsa looks to be excellent this year and could even compete for the conference crown, but the Pirates and the Green Wave do nothing to lift the impression of the conference from a basketball standpoint. Although it looks as if conferences are generally done shifting pieces, it would be naïve to set that in stone, especially since programs like UConn and Cincinnati were actively campaigning for new homes over the last two years.

2. Who is the best team in the conference?

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Emmanuel Mudiay Turns Pro: What It Means For SMU

Posted by Mike Lemaire on July 15th, 2014

Six months of commendation for SMU coach Larry Brown and optimism about the Mustangs’ 2014-15 season went out the window yesterday morning when superstar recruit Emmanuel Mudiay somewhat surprisingly made it known that he would be pursuing a professional career overseas instead of heading to campus next season.

Mudiay's decision to skip college leaves SMU wondering what might have been.

Mudiay’s decision to skip college leaves SMU wondering what might have been.

For Mudiay, the decision makes sense on a number of levels. Although he claims that the decision is motivated by financial issues rather than eligibility concerns, there are plenty of pundits who wonder whether Mudiay would have been allowed to play as a collegian at all. Speculation aside, a financial motive is a legitimate one. Mudiay can make a lot of money playing professionally, even for one season — certainly more than he would have seen while suiting up as a freshman for the Mustangs. And while he may struggle to adjust to the professional ranks in a different country, he will still likely end up as a lottery pick based on his upside alone, so why not earn a very large paycheck in between? There aren’t many players who have an opportunity like this, especially American high school players, so it’s hard to find fault in Mudiay’s logic.

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