Your Way Too Early 2014-15 AAC Preview

Posted by Mike Lemaire on April 7th, 2014

As we anxiously wait to see whether UConn can deliver a title to the American Athletic Conference in its very first season of existence, it’s important to take some time to wildly speculate about how the conference will shake out next season. We don’t yet have a complete list of who is heading to the NBA Draft and we haven’t watched even one minute of East Carolina or Tulane basketball this season, but that won’t stop us from sticking our necks out with everyone’s predicted finish for next season.

With Larry Brown Back, SMU Will Push Forward (Photo credit: LM Otero/AP).

With Larry Brown Back, SMU Will Push Forward (Photo credit: LM Otero/AP).

  1. SMU. Every top team in the conference is losing at least two important pieces except for the Mustangs. Graduating senior Nick Russell was a valuable contributor this season, but SMU has guys like Keith Frazier and Sterling Brown waiting in the wings. Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore will continue to get better and don’t forget about incoming uber-recruit Emmanuel Mudiay who could be in the starting lineup from Day One.
  2. Connecticut. People thought Kemba Walker was irreplaceable until Shabazz Napier stepped up, but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the Huskies have another superstar guard ready to fill the void. Napier’s departure will leave the biggest hole, but Niels Giffey was an efficient offensive player and Lasan Kromah was dependable as well. The team’s success will likely hinge whether DeAndre Daniels decides to turn pro. If he stays for his senior season and Omar Calhoun turns around a once promising career, those two and Ryan Boatright form a solid nucleus to rebuild around. 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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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: 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 M5: 01.07.14 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on January 7th, 2014

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  1. Temple is experiencing a “Murphy’s Law season” after dropping another close loss,78-76, to UCF over the weekend. Discounting a 14-point loss to Clemson, the Owls have been competitive in every game they’ve played this season, as their other six losses have been decided by an average of 3.2 points. On the road against the Knights last Saturday, not even an explosive 31-point performance from junior point guard Will Cummings could put Temple over the top. Philadelphia Daily News writer Dick Jerardi points out that Fran Dunphy’s team is “a play here and a play there away from maybe 10 wins.” Instead, the Owls are stuck at 5-7 and winless in the AAC, facing a January schedule that includes a home-and-home with Cincinnati, a trip to UConn and a home game against Memphis.
  2. With a road trip to Louisville looming on Thursday, Memphis coach Josh Pastner says there’s no time for his team to have a “pity party” over its 16-point loss to Cincinnati in the FedEx Forum. His players seem to be absorbing that message, as veterans from Joe Jackson to David Pellom to Chris Crawford reiterated the sense that they “can’t let it soak in on us.” Following their marquee match-up in the Yum! Center and a night spent in Louisville, the Tigers fly straight to Philadelphia for a game at Temple on Saturday afternoon. Returning from that road trip with a 1-3 AAC record is by no means out of the question right now, and would place Memphis in a deep hole just one week into league play.
  3. Adding to the excitement of UCF’s first league win as members of the American, Isaiah Sykes entertained the home crowd with a near-triple-double stat line during the Knights’ close win over Temple last Saturday. The 6’6″, 220-pound senior logged a double-double before halftime, and finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists, matching a career-high for scoring. Sykes also helped contain Temple point guard Will Cummings in the second half, limiting him to 11 of his 31 total points after halftime. “Coach Jones asked me to step up and check [Cummings],” Sykes recalled. “My focus was just to slow him down and contain him and my teammates did a good job being there on the help side and putting me in good position to stay in front of him.” It’s the type of game Donnie Jones needs to see this season from the big, versatile guard in order for his team to finish in the top two-thirds of the league.
  4. Heading into tonight’s road game against Houston, Cincinnati players aren’t overlooking the Cougars after watching them knock off UConn on New Year’s Eve. “If you beat Connecticut, that’s a good quality win. That obviously makes you a pretty good team,” said three-time reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Week, Justin Jackson. Though Houston star TaShawn Thomas poses a particular challenge for Cincinnati given that freshman Jermaine Lawrence is doubtful for the game, Mick Cronin expressed total confidence in his senior Jackson: “If you’re going to compete for a league championship, you need two all-league players, not one… Right now we’ve got two guys playing at that level in Justin and Sean Kilpatrick.” Both teams sit atop the AAC at 2-0, alongside Louisville, and the Bearcats look to earn a 3-0 start in league play for the first time since 2004-05, their Conference USA farewell campaign.
  5. College Basketball Talk’s Scott Phillips picked out some interesting quotes from a New York Daily News piece on Larry Brown, in which the 73-year-old coach related the rebuilding project at SMU to what John Thompson encountered at Georgetown in the early 1970s. “[Though] I know I am not John Thompson, I see there’s potential for the same thing here. We’ve got a good city. It’s a fine school in an improving (conference). There’s a lot of talent in the area.” Brown also noted that when he first arrived, he had been “stunned” by the apathy with which the local community seemed to regard the SMU program. That problem seems like it’s taking care of itself now that the Mustangs are improving their facilities, recruiting, and on-court performance.
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AAC M5: 12.13.13 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on December 13th, 2013

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  1. TGIF: check out the “dentist selfie” (read: “DENTIST SELFIE.”) that landed former UConn center Hasheem Thabeet on Deadspin last night. All I really want to know is how the tallest man to ever don a Huskies jersey fits in a dental chair. Are there a handful of niche specialists with offices equipped to accommodate 7’3” men? Boutique medical equipment manufacturers? Is the Big & Tall model really necessary, or will any old chair do the trick if you attach an ottoman? We’ll probably never know. All we can say for sure is that Hasheem is much more comfortable with his hygienist than I will ever be with mine.
  2. College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster ranks Louisville co-captain Luke Hancock as one of the 10 most disappointing players in the country through the first month of the season. Many expected the Final Four MVP to pick up where he left off in April, but he’s had a slow start to his senior season. Hancock is averaging 9.0 points and 2.2 rebounds per game while shooting career lows of 31.4 percent from the field and 22.9 percent from outside the arc. “Maybe our expectations for Hancock were too high heading into the season given that he was basically a role player prior to the Final Four,” says Dauster. “But even as a role player, Hancock isn’t doing his job.” Bear in mind that folks in Louisville were saying the same thing a year ago, when the Yum! Center collectively groaned each time Hancock bricked a three. Last season he hit 9 of 41 threes in his first eight games (21.9%) and still managed to become a 40 percent three-point shooter in 2012-13, so don’t count him out yet.
  3. Two AAC teams appear in the top 10 of Luke Winn’s power rankings this week, with UConn and Louisville holding steady at #8 and #9, respectively. Winn does, however, question whether the Huskies can sustain an offense that’s “based on uncharacteristically accurate three-point shooting.” He highlights dramatic increases in three-point field goal percentage between last season and this one for Niels Giffey (+33%), Lasan Kromah (+27%), Shabazz Napier (+21%), DeAndre Daniels (+13%), and Ryan Boatright (+11%). All five are shooting above 41 percent from beyond the arc this year, and UConn leads the nation at an insane 46.5 percent – more than 10 percentage points higher than last season. To put that in perspective, only two teams since 2003 have shot 44 percent or better over the course of a season.
  4. Memphis officials announced yesterday that coach Josh Pastner has donated $250,000 to help upgrade the university’s athletic facilities. The gift, which athletic director Tom Bowen said was the largest the school had ever received from one of its coaches, will help fund projects including an indoor practice facility for football, a softball complex, and a practice facility for men’s basketball. Pastner received a pay increase when he signed his contract extension in March, placing his salary at $2.65 million per year.
  5. UCF won its second straight game against a dismal Howard team on Wednesday to advance to 5-3. Coach Donnie Jones actually sat star guard Isaiah Sykes for the duration of the second half, in hopes of finding some energy off the Knights’ bench. It worked, as freshman Brandon Goodwin posted seven assists to only two turnovers and helped UCF overcome a two-point halftime deficit. Nonetheless, it’s hard to feel optimistic about this team given how poorly they’ve performed against a very manageable schedule. Of their five wins, one was over a Division II school and three were against teams ranked in the bottom 30 nationally by Ken Pomeroy. Throw in bad losses to Florida Atlantic team and Valparaiso, and you’re left with an ugly resume.
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AAC M5: 12.04.13 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on December 4th, 2013

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  1. The Cincinnati Enquirer takes a look back at the history of Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Arena – formerly known as the Shoemaker Center — which became one of the most fearsome venues in college basketball under Bob Huggins during the 1990s and 2000s. Last night, the Bearcats played their 400th game in the facility, which had been christened with a 66-64 win over #20 Minnesota in 1989. A Steve Sanders corner three was the difference in Huggins’ first home game at the building’s opener. Since then, the Bearcats have won 82 percent of the games played in what has become known only as “The Shoe.” The author said that the on-campus facility, combined with the arrival of Huggins and better recruiting, helped turn Cincinnati basketball back into a national power.
  2. Shabazz Napier gave credit to athletic trainer James Doran for keeping him upright and healthy to bury the game-winning shot at the buzzer versus Florida Monday night. Napier went to the floor hard after making a three with 33 seconds left, thinking he had reinjured the ankle he hurt last year. Luckily for the Huskies, that wasn’t the case, and thanks to some extra ankle tape wrap applied before the game, Napier was able to finish the contest and make one of the most memorable shots of the early season. Connecticut players also credited the Gampel Pavilion crowd for the victory — the win marked the 42nd consecutive non-conference victory in the building.
  3. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino confirmed yesterday that the Cardinals will face Indiana in next year’s Jimmy V Classic in Madison Square Garden. The Hoosiers and Cardinals are only separated by about 100 miles but the two teams haven’t met on the court since 2003. Both sides have shown interest in committing to a series featuring two of the game’s most storied programs. It was also mentioned recently that Louisville may open the year with a game against Richard Pitino’s team, Minnesota, in Puerto Rico. Add those two games to a date in the ACC/Big Ten challenge and it looks like the Cardinals will face three Big Ten conference opponents next season, all before December 7.
  4. Cincinnati is off to a 7-0 start this season, but that has impressed hardly anyone to this point. The Bearcats received just eight votes in this week’s AP poll and zero in the coaches’ poll. Maybe the voters have a collective memory of last season, and remember when Cincinnati was ranked for most of the season up until early February when a run of five losses in six games almost cost the team an NCAA Tournament berth. A wait-and-see approach should be taken when discussing Mick Cronin’s team. After dispatching South Carolina Upstate last night, the Bearcats will have a chance to prove themselves Saturday with a road game at The Pit against New Mexico, one of the toughest road venues in college basketball.
  5. Fans of AAC teams knew they could count on the top three or four teams to be strong in this year’s league, but most held out hope that another two or three teams would step up to make the middle of the conference stronger than anticipated. Through six games, it’s evident UCF is not going to be one of those mid-tier teams. The Knights fell to 3-3 last night after a bad loss to 2-6 Florida Atlantic. Central Florida will need to get scoring from more than just Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell, who combined for 41 points last night. With only five games remaining until conference play, the Knights need to pull it together or they’ll be fighting with Rutgers for ninth place in the 10-team league.
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AAC M5: 11.14.13 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on November 14th, 2013

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  1. Conference and school officials released the terms of Louisville’s early exit from the AAC, which will allow the program to disassociate from the league in July 2014 in exchange for $11 million in total exit fees. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jeff Greer describes the negotiation as an amicable and “easily negotiated parting of ways,” noting that the school has already paid $5 million in exit fees and will continue to remit payments of $1.5 million each year until September 2017. In addition, a good faith clause included in the agreement encourages Louisville’s football and men’s and women’s basketball programs to schedule AAC opponents through at least 2017. The total figure could be lowered depending on the outcome of ongoing legal proceedings between Rutgers and conference brass in Providence, and Louisville’s migration to the Atlantic Coast Conference is still contingent upon the resolution of a messy legal battle between the ACC and Maryland.
  2. After a 2-0 start to USF’s season, Collin Sherwin of Voodoo Five writes that point guard Corey Allen Jr. has emerged as a major asset for the Bulls in Anthony Collins’ absence. While much of the preseason attention in Tampa was focused on the pair of four-star recruits joining USF’s frontcourt, Allen has been indispensable in his first two performances as a Bull, including a near-triple double stat line of 21 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and three steals posted during a blowout of Bethune-Cookman. Nonetheless, Sherwin expresses concern about how to best utilize Allen once Collins returns from injury. Playing the 6’0” junior college transfer alongside the Bulls’ star point guard potentially keeps their most talented backcourt personnel on the court, but it would also mitigate USF’s notable size advantage and possibly expose them to defensive vulnerabilities against bigger shooting guards.
  3. Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan is looking for the right defensive adjustments after shaky results in a 1-1 start. The Scarlet Knights yielded 84 points to a Florida A&M team that finished 2012-13 ranked among the nation’s 20 most inefficient offenses, then watched as UAB scored 48 second-half points on 50 percent shooting to overcome a six-point halftime deficit. While offensive production has been more than adequate, Jordan acknowledged his concerns about balance after practice yesterday, and junior guard Myles Mack admitted, “Our defensive side is trying to catch up a little bit to our offensive side. Our offense, I think we execute well. But I think the defense has to get better.” The Knights will strive to hold an opponent below 75 points for the first time this season when they host Yale tonight.
  4. Shaky ball handling doomed UCF in their first challenge of the season last night, as they committed 20 turnovers in a loss to Florida State. Despite the emphasis Donnie Jones had placed on beating the Seminoles’ imposing press during his team’s preparation, the kind of pressure his guards encountered last night probably bore little resemblance to what their teammates were able to simulate in practice. Freshman Daiquan Walker coughed it up four times in 10 minutes, while star seniors Isaiah Sykes and Calvin Newell didn’t fare much better as they combined for nine turnovers. The result was easy transition opportunities for FSU, which finished shooting 50 percent from the field despite hitting only 3-of-11 attempts from beyond the arc. The loss exposed a liability that could jeopardize the Knights’ hopes of gaining traction in the AAC this year, given the pressing ability of teams like Louisville and Cincinnati, among others.
  5. Just as his team has flown under the radar on their way to a 2-0 start, so too has star shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick quietly continued etching his legacy in Cincinnati program history. After scoring 21 points against NC State and 43 points through two games, Kilpatrick has moved from 16th to 14th on Cincinnati’s career scoring list, passing Yancy Gates’ 1,485 points in the process. It will be interesting to see where he ends up by the end of the season, as he seems poised to exploit his role as the clear centerpiece of the Bearcats’ offense.
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AAC M5: 11.13.13 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on November 13th, 2013

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  1. Houston’s prospects this season received a boost yesterday after the NCAA cleared sophomore Danrad “Chicken” Knowles to play immediately. A top-60 recruit who signed in the Cougars’ landmark 2012 class with Danuel House, Knowles sat out last season after being declared academically ineligible. As a 6’10″ face-up forward, he was noted by recruiting services for his athleticism and offensive versatility, and those attributes should make an immediate impact for a Houston team that lacks elite talent. Knowles could quickly work his way into a complementary starting role this season alongside House, TaShawn Thomas and L.J. Rose.
  2. After two quiet games, the Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore writes that UConn is waiting for DeAndre Daniels to reprise his breakout performance from late last season. Daniels went scoreless and collected only one rebound in 18 minutes against Yale on Monday, and it seems his early shooting struggles have poisoned every facet of his game. Kevin Ollie expressed little sympathy for a 6’9” player with NBA-caliber talent: “He has just got to play. He can’t worry about scoring. Use your length, use your energy… we can’t wait for anybody on this team.” Ollie added, “You want [Daniels] to keep his head up, but at the end of the day, you can’t baby him.”
  3. Addressing newly implemented officiating rules, Eddie Jordan used the word “farce” at least three times while describing the current state of college basketball in an interview after Rutgers’ 79-76 loss to UAB on Monday. Rather than objecting specifically to the way his team’s loss was officated, Jordan reportedly took issue with the changes in style of play imposed by the new guidelines, and said he wondered whether fans would lose interest in college hoops as a result. Fouls weren’t the most pressing concern for Jordan’s Scarlet Knights after a frustrating road loss in which they were significantly outrebounded by their first opponent with decent size. Rutgers suffered a minus-27 margin on the boards against UAB, and Jerry Carino of New Jersey Hoops Haven notes that the Knights have been outrebounded 42-25 on the offensive glass through two games.
  4. Louisville point guard Chris Jones quietly orchestrated his second consecutive game without a turnover in the Cardinals’ 97-69 win over Hofstra last night. While the return of Chane Behanan and Luke Hancock set the tone and Russ Smith stole the show by lightin up Hofstra’s zone for 30 points, Cardinal Authority’s Jody Demling pointed out that in his first two games with the team, Jones has accumulated 12 assists and zero turnovers in 55 minutes. He put together the best game of his short Louisville career against the hapless CAA visitors, chipping in 20 points (on 54 percent shooting) and four steals to go with his seven assists. As a team, the Cardinals have forced 43 turnovers while committing only eight themselves this season.
  5. Central Florida will face its first major challenge when the Knights host Florida State tonight, particularly on the offensive end. Orlando Sentinel writer Paul Tenorio points out that after carving up overmatched Division II Tampa in their season opener, Isaiah Sykes and UCF’s other guards face a much stiffer test breaking down the Seminoles’ interior defense. “Florida State is going to be a tougher team to drive it on… those gaps close quick when you get there,” said head coach Donnie Jones, who acknowledged “we’ve got to really make the extra pass in this game, much more so than we did in the Tampa game.” Jones said that breaking the press and defending in accordance with the new hand-checking rules were also points of emphasis in UCF’s preparation for the Seminoles.
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AAC Team Previews: Central Florida Knights

Posted by CD Bradley on November 4th, 2013

Our team preview style has been heavily cribbed from the microsite writers over in the Pac-12. We love them and assume they would take our attempt at loose imitation as flattery and not plagiarism. 

Central Florida

Strengths: Experience and flexibility. The Knights’ starting lineup is made up of five returnees, all of whom averaged at least 20 minutes per game for a 20-win team last season. Their best player, 6’6” Isaiah Sykes, led the team in scoring, assists and steals and was second in rebounding last season, and can play four positions. Their center by default, 6’7” Kasey Wilson, led Conference USA in three-point shooting last season, making 42-of-84 from long range. That versatility could cause match-up problems for some teams and put the Knights in numerous advantageous scoring positions.

Isaiah Sykes, the do-everything wing for Central Florida, will have to do even more this season. (ucfknights.com)

Isaiah Sykes, the do-everything wing for Central Florida, will have to do even more this season. (ucfknights.com)

Weaknesses: Defense and rebounding. Even with all the returning players, UCF has one big loss to overcome: center Keith Clanton, the school’s all-time leading rebounder, who pulled down nearly a quarter of the team’s rebounds last season and nearly half its blocks. But even with him, the team still allowed opponents to shoot 49.4 percent on two-point attempts (good for #239 in the country, according to KenPom.com) and to grab 33.1 percent of rebounds on the defensive end (#229 nationally). Without Clanton, a team that allowed foes to make too many close shots and rebound too many of the few they missed is going to have some major problems. Unless 6’8” JuCo star Eugene McCrory can make a big difference at the defensive end, the Knights don’t look to have many answers.

Schedule: The non-conference slate offers only one real opportunity for a marquee win, and it’s very early on when Florida State visits Orlando on November 13. Otherwise it’s possible the Knights won’t face another top 100 RPI team before conference play (although it’s not necessarily their fault that a road game at Miami (FL) the week before Thanksgiving won’t feature Shane Larkin). AAC play starts with a bang, with preseason favorite Louisville visiting Orlando on New Year’s Eve. The conference slate is front-loaded, though, as they close with at Houston, Rutgers, at SMU, at Temple and Houston.

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AAC M5: 10.17.13 Edition

Posted by Will Tucker on October 17th, 2013

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  1. AAC media day came and went yesterday without any notable drama in the FedEx Forum, as coaches identified Louisville as the unanimous favorite to win the conference and Russ Smith as the preseason AAC player of the year. Praising his “little psycho all-American,” coach Rick Pitino called Smith “the closest thing at the collegiate level to Allen Iverson that I’ve seen,” adding, “I don’t think you’re ever out of a game because of his abilities.” Second-year SMU coach Larry Brown, who coached Iverson in the NBA, was hesitant to draw the analogy to A.I., whom he said was truly unique, but did praise Smith for returning for his senior year. “I think it’s pretty neat that he came back to school,” said Brown, “That’s not an easy decision. It speaks volumes for the kid and the relationship that he has and the respect he has for the program.”
  2. UConn coach Kevin Ollie seemed neither flattered nor complacent after his team improved from ninth place in last year’s preseason Big East rankings to second in yesterday’s AAC coaches’ poll. “That’s respect,” he acknowledged, “but it doesn’t mean anything because everybody starts the season zero and zero. I want to be first at the end of the American Conference tournament. It’s just a number right now.” Nonetheless, respect was flowing liberally in the Huskies’ direction yesterday, as guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were first- and second-team all-AAC selections, respectively, and Rick Pitino and Larry Brown heaped praise on their former player Ollie. Napier, for his part, took issue with the absence of teammate DeAndre Daniels from either all-AAC list, remarking boldly that the junior forward “should have been preseason player of the year.”
  3. The Orlando Sentinel’s Paul Tenorio observes that whereas UCF senior Isaiah Sykes would have been the center of attention at the Conference USA media day, yesterday in Memphis he was overshadowed by the presence of Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier and the AAC’s other elite guards. Despite averaging 16 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.5 APG and 2.3 SPG for the Knights, while earning the distinction of being the only player to register multiple triple-doubles last season, the 6’6” guard remains a relative unknown in his new environment. Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who encountered Sykes twice in conference play last year, said, “I know how good he is. I don’t know if the other schools and the national media know how good he is, but I think they’ll see it this year.” Memphis guard Geron Johnson added, “We know he belongs… He’s going to be alright in this league.”
  4. Although Rutgers placed last in the preseason poll at AAC media day, several coaches insisted that the ranking spoke to the strength and depth of the conference rather than the limitations of Eddie Jordan’s team. Memphis coach Josh Pastner asserted that the AAC and ACC would be the nation’s best conferences this season, and said “there’s no question in my mind that six teams will come out of this league to play in the NCAA Tournament.” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin speculated that this Rutgers squad would not have been picked last in the former Big East, and cautioned, “If Rutgers is picked 10th — with  Myles Mack and Wally Judge and Kadeem Jack and Jerome Seagears –– if they’re picked 10th, that tells me this league is going to be a problem.”
  5. On the heels of its list of the top-100 college basketball players, CBS Sports released the first part in a series of position rankings yesterday, in which six AAC guards were listed among the nation’s 30 best ball-handlers. Louisville’s Russ Smith (#2) and Chris Jones (#20), Memphis players Joe Jackson (#11) and Michael Dixon (#13), and UConn tandem Shabazz Napier (#7) and Ryan Boatright (#27) all made the cut. The fact that each pair is likely to log most of their minutes on the court together simply underscores how entertaining it will be to watch the top three backcourts compete in the AAC this year. It’s also interesting to note that a third of the league’s elite ball handlers are transfers, as Jones spent 2012-13 in junior college while Dixon went on hiatus after leaving Missouri last fall.
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