Morning Five: 04.15.14 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on April 15th, 2014

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  1. Yesterday was a big day for NBA Draft announcements. The biggest name to announce that he was leaving college was Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon. Despite his game being ridiculously raw, this decision seemed like a no-brainer since he is projected to be a top-10 pick. Could Gordon’s game use a little (ok, a lot of) work? Sure, but it seems unreasonable to ask him to pass up a contract that will probably be worth at least $6 million. Two other players–Gary Harris and Jerami Grant–also decided to leave college and while they are not quite at Gordon’s level in terms of draft status they are both borderline lottery picks and in the top 20 of most mock drafts, which suggests that they should be almost guaranteed first round picks despite leaving after their sophomore seasons. A slightly more surprising departure was that of Glenn Robinson III, who projected to be a borderline first round pick (more likely a second rounder). There are conflicting reports regarding whether or not Robinson has signed with an agent yet, but it would seem wise for him not to do so since he is far from a guaranteed first round pick and his father should be able to get plenty of insight without the official use of an agent.
  2. Two other likely first round picks–Willie Cauley-Stein and Montrezl Harrell–opted to stay in school for at least one more year. The two sophomores were projected to be somewhere around the #20 pick in this year’s Draft so they passed up a  pretty significant amount of money to come back and play. Both figure to be key pieces for their respective teams next year. Cauley-Stein could help Kentucky get back to the Final Four next year while Harrell makes Louisville (with more modest goals next year) a potential top-tier team in the ACC next season.
  3. We could be getting two more big draft decision announcements in the next few days and unlikely many cases we are not sure which way these players (sorry, student-athletes) will go. Nik Stauskas will announce his decision tomorrow. The decision for a Big Ten Player of the Year is a significant one for any program, but it is particularly so for Michigan with the recent departures of Jon Horford (transfer) and Glenn Robinson III (NBA Draft). Michigan won’t necessarily struggle next year if Stauskas leaves, but if he does you can forget about them contending for a Big Ten title. Jabari Parker is expected to announce his decision on Wednesday. Parker has already said that he will not be going on his LDS mission (at least not in the near-future), but is still deciding between returning to Duke for his sophomore year or entering the NBA Draft. If Parker does return (we honestly don’t see why unless he thinks he will learn to play defense as a sophomore), he would make Duke the prohibitive favorite going into next season even if they are a team loaded with freshmen.
  4. It was a busy day at St. John’s yesterday. Former St. John’s guard Max Hooper announced that he will be transferring to Oakland. This will be Hooper’s second transfer as he started his college career at Harvard and he will be eligible to play next year (with two years of eligibility remaining) as he is expected to graduate in May. Hooper is a three-point specialist and even though some are suggesting he could replace Travis Bader we don’t see that happening since Hooper only averaged 3.2 points per game. In more favorable news for St. John’s fans it appears that Chris Obekpa had a change of heart and is looking to return to St. John’s. This does not necessarily mean that Obekpa will be welcomed back by Steve Lavin, but it does place Lavin in an interesting predicament. Our guess is that he will give Obekpa some internal punishment that the other players in the program will know about just to show them that he is still committed to their program.
  5. John Calipari finally revealed what his famous “tweak” was that was credited in some circles as sparking Kentucky’s late-season run: telling Andrew Harrison to play like a point guard. According to Calipari, he showed Andrew tapes of Deron Williams and asked him what Andrew would have done in a similar situation. Invariably, Andrew answered “shoot” then Deron passed the ball for an assist. We never really bought into the whole “tweak” idea unless it was having Aaron Harrison hit ridiculous late-game three-pointers, but it served its purpose by deflecting attention away from the players even the actual idea was ridiculously simple.
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Battle of the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by C.D. Bradley & Brian Joyce on March 28th, 2014

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The most intense rivalry in college basketball renews Friday night in Indianapolis when Louisville and Kentucky square off in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. C.D. Bradley, who writes about the American for RTC, and Brian Joyce, who covers the SEC, preview the showdown and what it means to the basketball-mad bluegrass state.

C.D. Bradley: A lot of people will tell you that Duke and North Carolina is the top rivalry in college basketball, but it’s impossible to convey the ever-present antipathy between red and blue. A big part of it is the usual once-a-year nature of the rivalry, but this will be the sixth time Louisville and Kentucky have met in the NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, which had snatched the advantage over the past year, winning a national title and ending this season in the top five of the national rankings while the Wildcats struggled, the possibility of having their potential repeat title run ended by their neighbors to the east is a doubly unpleasant notion. What does this game mean for UK fans?

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Brian Joyce: One might assume that Kentucky fans would be relieved to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance after losing to South Carolina and Arkansas a month ago, but a person with that theory must not know Kentucky fans very well. A win over Wichita State has the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy over the potential of their Wildcats if things come together like they did on Sunday afternoon in Saint Louis. It may even be possible that Kentucky fans are slightly overlooking Louisville. Julius Randle played all of four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats’ victory in December after dominating with 17 points during the first 20 minutes. The Cards struggled with Randle and Kentucky’s length, and while Louisville is a much different team at this point in the season the challenge of stopping the Cats’ imposing front line remains. Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington he has beaten his rival in five of the last six meetings, and Kentucky fans expect that trend to continue.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen, Friday Night

Posted by Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) & Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 28th, 2014

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Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent, and Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent. Make sure to also follow @RTCMidwestRegion and @RTCEastRegion for news and analysis from Indianapolis and New York City throughout the weekend.

#2 Michigan vs. #11 Tennessee – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Indianapolis, IN) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Tennessee was not supposed to be in this position. It barely found its way into the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Volunteers had to travel to Dayton last Wednesday to take on Iowa to even advance to the round of 64. Tennessee got by the Hawkeyes in overtime and that was only the beginning of its winning ways. In Raleigh, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was able to throttle Massachusetts and take advantage of Duke’s stunning loss to Mercer by dismantling Bob Hoffman’s Bears in the round of 32 to advance to the Sweet 16. Leading the way thus far for Tennessee has been the spectacular play of forward Jarnell Stokes. The junior has been nothing short of dominant in the team’s recent run, as he is averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in his last three games. The Volunteers have also received a lift from guard Josh Richardson. The junior, who averaged 10.1 points per game in the regular season, has stepped up his play in the tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 points per contest. As a team, the Volunteers’ performance on the rebounding glass has aided tremendously in taking them to the Sweet 16. Tennessee has been an excellent rebounding team all season and its rebounding prowess was never more on display than in Sunday’s victory over Mercer. The Volunteers had a sensational 41-19 rebounding advantage over the Bears in the winning effort.

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan will take the court in Indianapolis after a relatively easy first weekend in Milwaukee. The Wolverines cruised to a 17-point victory in the round of 64 over an undermanned Wofford squad before wearing down Texas in a 14-point victory. John Beilein’s team has been an outstanding perimeter shooting offense and that has carried over into the postseason. The Wolverines hit a combined 21 three-pointers in the two victories. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas hit seven of those 21 triples an was the team’s leading scorer in each victory. Michigan’s frontcourt has been seen as a concern since sophomore big man Mitch McGary was lost to a back injury in late December, but forward Jordan Morgan showed he is a capable post presence with his performances in Milwaukee. The senior averaged 12.5 points and 10 rebounds against Wofford and Texas, while living up to his reputation as a solid interior defender. In Friday’s game, it should be expected that both teams will play to their strengths. Tennessee will try to use its size advantage to the dominate the interior and Michigan will attempt to get its perimeter shooting going early and often. Texas had a great advantage over Michigan in size too, but the Wolverines were able to wear the Longhorn bigs down through a terrific transition effort and solid offensive spacing. It would be wise to expect Michigan to do the same Friday. Tennessee will keep close throughout much of the game, but the shot-making ability of Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson III will ultimately be too much for the Volunteers to overcome. Two-seed Michigan will win the game to advance to its second straight Elite Eight.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan

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AAC M5: 03.28.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on March 28th, 2014

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  1. When the next AAC Morning 5 is published, only four teams will remain to vie for a national championship. Will an AAC school be one of them? Both AAC squads still remaining, Louisville and Connecticut, will hit the floor in their respective regional semifinals tonight. While Louisville will face a familiar foe in Kentucky, Connecticut will experience some familiarity of its own by playing in Madison Square Garden. It will be a nostalgic night for the Connecticut faithful, especially for former coach Jim Calhoun. Calhoun built Connecticut into a basketball power after taking over the program in 1986 and had great success in the Garden.
  2. Last year on the way to a national championship, Louisville guard Russ Smith could lean on the play of big man Gorgui Dieng and backcourt mate Peyton Siva. Those two have since moved on to the NBA, but that doesn’t mean Smith isn’t getting help from them. Smith said he talks almost daily with the two, mainly asking for advice about leadership. “It’s been really tough not to have them on the court with me,” he said. “They helped me so much last year.” Siva took Smith under his wing from the moment he stepped on campus. Siva’s advice to Smith: Don’t stress what other people are saying and just play your game. Dieng said Smith needed to stand up if something was going bad and now he understands and does so.
  3. Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts will be the next head coach at UNC-Willmington, unless of course, he didn’t actually graduate from college. It marks the fourth assistant-to-head coach move in four years from Louisville. He is known as one of the best recruiters in the game and played a large role in signing Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier, all players that will be a major part of the Cardinals’ Sweet 16 game tonight with Kentucky. Keatts was also instrumental in the landing of the Louisville 2014 recruiting class headlined by guard Quentin Snider.
  4. Sean Vinsel of cardsandcatsstats.com welcomes the Sweet Sixteen match-up between Kentucky and Louisville. The Indiana grad’s website breaks down both teams statistically using measures not usually seen in the college game such as NBA’s plus/minus system. Louisville’s most productive line-up according to Vinsel is Chris Jones, Russ Smith, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese. Kentucky’s is the Harrison twins, James Young, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. The X-factors, he said, will be Luke Hancock and Cauley-Stein.
  5. Larry Brown said SMU owes everything to its fans. The Mustangs faithful made NIT home games feel like regular season finales with a conference championship on the line. SMU won 12 out of 13 games at Moody Coliseum this season, including the third round NIT victory over California, securing a spot at Madison Square Garden. “I think it plays a big part,” Senior Shawn Williams said of the crowd. “Those five-or-six-point runs turn into 10-or-12-point runs with the crowd.” The Mustangs were hoping for an NCAA Tournament berth, but a chance to play three more games at home wasn’t a bad consolation prize.
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AAC M5: 03.26.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on March 26th, 2014

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  1. In a shocking turn of events, news was released late last night that Manhattan’s Steve Masiello, who had agreed in principle to become the South Florida head coach on Tuesday morning, was no longer a candidate for the position after a “discrepancy” was found during his background check. As of this writing, there had been no speculation as to what the deal-breaking issue might have been, but it certainly puts the parties of Manhattan, South Florida and Masiello in rather awkward positions at this time.
  2. Even though his sophomore season has yet to be completed, it appears Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell will forgo his junior and senior seasons and enter this summer’s NBA Draft. Harrell averages 14.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game and is projected to be selected somewhere in the middle of the first round. The eventual loss of Harrell is not a surprise to Louisville fans, but it definitely makes the departure of Chane Behanan that much more difficult to swallow. Behanan would have been back for his senior season, filling a void in the frontcourt. Now Louisville will have to rely on Mangok Mathiang and unproven freshman and sophomores in 2014-15.
  3. One of Louisville’s all-time greats, Darrell Griffith, was selected to join the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2014 class. Griffith, also known as Dr. Dunkenstein, led the Cardinals to their first national championship in 1980. The local Louisville Male product is responsible for a 101-25 record in four years with the Cards before becoming the second pick of the 1980 NBA Draft and playing professionally through 1991. Griffith joins UofL Hall of Famers Denny Crum and Wes Unseld in the shrine.
  4. When the ball is tipped on Friday night, Louisville fans can take solace in one historical statistic heavily in their favor: Rick Pitino is 11-0 in Sweet Sixteen games as a head coach at Louisville, Kentucky and Providence. That figure is impressive on its own, but throw in the margin of victory of 19.7 PPG and it’s simply unheard of. To make it 12 in a row he’ll have to take down rival Kentucky, something he’s had a hard time doing since taking over at Louisville. He’s won only five of 14 matchups with the Wildcats, and just one of six versus John Calipari.
  5. After being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, SMU did not pout and whine. Instead, after Monday night’s impressive win over LSU, the Mustangs are one game away from making it to the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden. It was another sellout crowd and another win at Moody Coliseum. The SMU faithful, who have witnessed wins in every home game except one of 18 this season, will get one more look at their team tonight against California. Now with 25 wins, this version of the Mustangs ranks fourth in school history in victories and has collected the most since the 1987-88 team won 28. With quite a bit of star power returning and matriculating as freshman, it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Mustangs will be the favorites to win the AAC next season.
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AAC M5: 03.24.14 Edition

Posted by Ross Schulz on March 24th, 2014

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  1. For the second time in three NCAA Tournaments, in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville will square off. This time, the setting will be Indianapolis in a regional semifinal and the match-up was almost inevitable, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. All of the angst from both fan bases about seedings that were too low can be thrown out the window — there are more important things to worry about. The writer says that this rivalry, which will pit the last two national champions against each other, is the best in college basketball right now. Considering the only other option is Duke and North Carolina, and that neither of them have reached the Final Four since Duke’s 2010 national title while one or both of the Commonwealth’s programs have played in the last three, it’s a fair point. This season’s game will be even more passionate and intense than the Final Four battle in 2012. Louisville, at the time making a surprise run to the Final Four, knew it had nothing to lose against the best team in the country. The game was more of a celebration of basketball in the Commonwealth. Not this time. Either team will view the season as a disappointment if its run ends Friday night.
  2. Louisville knows that it is in for an intense game on Friday night, but a meeting with No. 1 seed Wichita State may have been a better match-up for the Cardinals because of Kentucky’s size. The Wildcats muscled their way to a 73-66 win in the teams’ first meeting at Rupp Arena in December. Both teams, however, have changed significantly since then. Chane Behanan was still with the Cardinals, although it would prove to be his last game in cardinal red. Luke Hancock is now fully healthy and Chris Jones has adjusted to his role alongside Russ Smith in the backcourt. And although the Harrison twins had a strong game against Louisville in the first meeting, they haven’t played consistently well until the postseason.
  3. Shabazz Napier made sure Connecticut wasn’t going to lose on Saturday night against Villanova. The do-everything guard poured in 21 of his 25 points in the second half while battling a shin injury. The senior has seen a lot of things in his four-year career. He was a freshman on the national championship and Big East Tournament championship teams of 2011, and also worked through a 2013 season of no postseason hope for the Huskies. Now he’s got his team back in the Sweet Sixteen, playing in a familiar venue at Madison Square Garden with what should be a strong home crowd on hand. When many of Connecticut’s past greats were no doubt looking ahead to NBA stardom, Napier has played fully for the “UConn” on the front of his jersey. Other than the Louisville-Kentucky game, the best story of the Sweet Sixteen might be the senior guard’s refusal to let his team go home for good.
  4. A number of strong potential candidate names have surfaced for the South Florida head coaching job after Stan Heath was fired on Friday. One name at the top of the list is former UCLA coach Ben Howland (also reportedly interested in the Marquette job). Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy has also shown interest as did former Marquette coach Buzz Williams before opting to take the vacancy at Virginia Tech. Athletic Director Mark Harlan said the job has reached a desirable status because of a renovated Sun Dome, a new practice facility and the rising status of the American Athletic Conference. Two freshman big men, John Egbunu and Chris Perry, made the AAC All-Rookie Team, so there’s also some talent waiting in the wings.
  5. Even though it might be seen as the most successful Cincinnati team in 10 years, the Bearcats’ postseason finish will be a tough pill to swallow. Still, Mick Cronin said that he’s never had a team achieve their potential more than this group — they gave every ounce they could give. It was the fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament for Cincinnati and Cronin, but a fifth may prove to be difficult to achieve. The senior core of Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson will all depart. No double-figure scorers return, although two starters, Shaquille Thomas and Ge’Lawn Guyn, are expected to. No matter the roster, though, do not count Cronin out of anything.
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James Johnson’s Dismissal Highlights the Other Unpleasant Side of March

Posted by Lathan Wells on March 17th, 2014

The month of March is one that brings joy to many college basketball programs across the country, as they now have the chance to chase a national championship via the NCAA Tournament (or to a lesser extent, an NIT title that at least yields a banner). But as many know, March is often a time of despondency across the college basketball landscape. It starts with the teams that had their hopes dashed on Selection Sunday when their names weren’t called, but it also extends to the programs whose seasons are completely over. That’s where the dark days in March occur, and Virginia Tech’s James Johnson experienced such a day today as he was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Hokies after a mere two seasons on the bench.

James Johnson's uninspiring term at Virginia Tech ended after only two years (newsleader.com)

James Johnson’s uninspiring term at Virginia Tech ended after only two years (newsleader.com)

Johnson was considered something of a surprise hire when he replaced the ousted Seth Greenberg two years ago. In fact, he had never been a head coach at all, having recently left Blacksburg to take on a similar assistant coaching role at Clemson. Instead, Greenberg’s messy exit coupled with resounding support from the holdover players convinced the administration to hire Johnson to take over the program, citing in particular his recruiting ability for some of the better teams of the Greenberg era. He inherited a bad team in his first season that only produced 13 wins, even with ACC Player of the Year and eventual pro Erick Green on the roster. His follow-up nine-win campaign, which resulted in a dead-last performance in a 15-team ACC, was due to an extremely underwhelming roster. In the preseason, Johnson made the bizarre decision to name an incoming freshman team captain despite the presence of seniors Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines returning. And it wasn’t a superstar talent like Jabari Parker who was named the leader, either; it was two- or three-star guard Ben Emelogu. Emelogu had a decent start to his first college campaign, but he was far from a star.

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region Analysis

Posted by Walker Carey on March 17th, 2014

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Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), Midwest (11:00 AM), South (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCmwregion).

You should also check out our upcoming RTC Podblast with Walker breaking down the Midwest Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.

Midwest Region

Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Favorite: #4 Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC). Not to take anything away from the fantastic seasons completed by #1 seed Wichita State, #2 seed Michigan and #3 seed Duke, but Louisville is one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals were likely dropped to a #4 seed due to their weak non-conference schedule and the fact that some of their wins in AAC play were over vastly inferior competition. However, when you have the talent and winning experience that Louisville possesses, seeding does not really matter all that much. Guard Russ Smith is one the nation’s elite scorers and he has shown throughout his collegiate career that he can go off for a monster night in any game against any team. Forward Montrezl Harrell has taken a huge step forward during his sophomore season and his 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game give the Cards an outstanding post presence. Toss in the fact that Louisville’s defense only allows 61 points per game and averages 10.1 steals per game and it should be clear why Rick Pitino’s squad is the favorite to return to the Final Four to defend its national title.

Should They Falter: #1 Wichita State (34-0, 18-0 MVC). If favorite Louisville is to stumble before reaching the Final Four, the undefeated Shockers are the team that is most equipped to do the job. While Wichita State has caught a ton of unnecessary criticism for its “easy” schedule, it is impossible to discount the fact that the team completed the nearly impossible task of finishing the regular season and conference tournament with an unscathed record. Throughout all the monotonous discussion about Wichita State’s merit as a top seed, it was often forgotten that Gregg Marshall’s squad has a solid nucleus that was on the team that advanced to the Final Four last April. Guards Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton, along with forward Cleanthony Early, played big minutes for the team last season and all four have experienced even more success in greater roles this season. Not only is Wichita State talented enough to return to the Final Four, it is also talented enough to cut down the nets at Cowboys Stadium on the first Monday in April.

Grossly Overseeded: #6 Massachusetts (24-8, 10-6 A-10). Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen had a fine season, but their résumé does not suggest that they were worthy of a #6 seed. After winning 16 of its first 17 games, Massachusetts went 8-7 over its final 15. Those seven losses included setbacks to non-Tournament teams Richmond, Saint Bonaventure and George Mason. The Minutemen were a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic 10 team as a result, and that was evident by the fact that they were the #6 seed in their conference tournament. What really makes the placement here a headscratcher is that George Washington and Saint Joseph’s finished ahead of them in the conference and they were given a #8 and a #10 seed, respectively.

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AAC Tournament: Championship Recap

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 16th, 2014

With the championship of the AAC Tournament in the books, we take a look at a few of the big takeaways from Louisville’s domination over the weekend.

What went down Saturday:

  • This game was not nearly as close as the final score made it seem to be. The Cardinals played defense like their hair was on fire in the first half, overwhelming Connecticut’s guard duo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The result was a 14-point halftime lead that Louisville stretched to more than 20 in the second half before letting the Huskies rally somewhat down the stretch. The Huskies did a great job of putting themselves in a position to win the conference tournament, but they did not have the firepower or the depth to hang with the Cardinals, a team which is clearly firing on all cylinders.

    Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

    Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

  • Montrezl Harrell continues to be the primary reason why the Cardinals have looked so much better in the last month. UConn’s frontcourt issues are well-documented, so it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that Harrell had a big day against them. But with 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, 11 rebounds, and three blocks, Harrell was the best player on the floor and Louisville fans should be thrilled that he has finally emerged. Harrell has always had the skill set to be this good but his recent explosion has coincided with a sudden influx of confidence. You can just tell that Harrell now goes after rebounds as if he knows he will get it, and he attacks the rim like no one is going to stop him — which has been mostly true. If he keeps playing like this in the NCAA Tournament, Louisville will not be a fun team for anybody to play.
  • The other big takeaway from the game on Saturday night is that Louisville’s defense is ready for the NCAA Tournament. The Cards dominated UConn in the first half, and if it wasn’t for big games from DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah, the Huskies’ shooting percentages would be very ugly. Napier and Boatright combined to shoot 7-of-22 from the field, and Russ Smith collected five steals for the Cardinals that helped Rick Pitino’s team put the game out of reach early.
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AAC M5: 03.11.14 Edition

Posted by mlemaire on March 11th, 2014

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  1.  With the seeding for the AAC Tournament now set in stone and remarkably zero teams in the conference on the bubble, conversation has turned to who should win conference player of the year honors and unsurprisingly, coaches with players in contention began plugging their guys’ qualifications immediately. The race is actually incredibly tight this season with Louisville‘s Russ SmithCincinnati‘s Sean Kilpatrick, and Connecticut‘s Shabazz Napier all deserving candidates. Each of the trio is a potential All-American and even choosing the player who has “meant the most to his team” is difficult when forced to decide between the three. Smith plays for the best team and is probably the most efficient of the three on both ends of the floor. Napier is the heart and soul of his team, a fine two-way player in his own right, and an absolute must-watch player with the ball in his hands late in the game. But my pick for the honor is Kilpatrick, who has anchored the Bearcats’ offense with his best season as a collegiate on both ends of the floor. One could conceivably argue that Napier is more important to his team’s success than Kilpatrick, but the Huskies have other guards who could take his place. There is no one on the Bearcats’ roster who could replace Kilpatrick, especially on the offensive end, and Cincinnati would likely be unranked and borderline unwatchable offensively without him, which is why Kilpatrick deserves the award.
  2. Saying that the AAC “surpassed” expectations in its first season seems overly positive. The league certainly met expectations in its first season, but pointing to national rankings and win totals as proof of the AAC’s excellence is disingenuous. Yes, the top five teams in the league are all safely in the NCAA Tournament barring some sort of epic collapse or failure from the tournament committee, but the rest of the conference was awful, so Larry Brown‘s to trumpeting of the league’s depth is deserving of an eye-roll. The conference is not very deep at all and the contrast is stark when you look at conferences like the Big-12, the ACC, and the PAC-12. Those conferences have very few truly bad teams while the AAC has a handful of teams that have earned the “bottom-dwellers” moniker. This isn’t to say that the first season hasn’t been a success, but let’s just consider the source when we hear the coaches of SMU and Cincinnati sing its praises.
  3. Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports is on the record as saying that Montrezl Harrell‘s recent stretch of dominance makes Louisville a legitimate Final Four contender and he is hardly alone in that analysis. The Cardinals have lost just one of their last 10 games and have recent blowout victories over UConn and SMU and a big reason why is because Harrell has been a force to be reckoned with. The breakout that everyone was expecting to happen earlier in the season has finally arrived as Harrell is averaging 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds over his past five games and rims are in perpetual danger of being ripped from the basket when he dunks. The experience and size of Stephan Van Treese is certainly a nice luxury for the Cardinals, but Harrell is the team’s only impact player on the interior and if he keeps playing like this, his impact could extend all the way into another Final Four.
  4. It started in 1999 when then-Cincinnati assistant coach Mick Cronin got the signature of highly-touted Bronx guard Kenny Satterfield and now recruiting the New York and New Jersey area has become a crucial part of the Bearcats’ recruiting strategy and their success too. The current team has four contributors from the New Jersey-New York area: Sean Kilpatrick, Jermaine LawrenceShaquille Thomas, and Jermaine Sanders and the team will add touted recruit Quadri Moore next year as well. The connection makes sense not only because Cincinnati is a former Big East team but also because New York City and New Jersey basketball has a reputation for being physical, intense, and tough — three qualities that have become staples of Cronin’s teams in Cincinnati. Kudos to Cronin for extending the school’s recruiting base and luring players who fit his mold to the Midwest, it has helped Cincinnati remain competitive long after Bob Huggins left but it has also helped this year’s club become one of the best in the history of the program.
  5. It is almost time for Louisville and college basketball fans to say goodbye to the mercurial Russ Smith. The senior gave us all a gift when he made the decision to return for his senior season and he made his extra year count as he has begun racking up first team All-American honors from numerous outlets and is an odds-on favorite to be named a first team All-American by the Associated Press as well. It’s hard to imagine Smith had much to improve on after a stellar junior campaign, but he came back as a better but similar version of his junior self. The nickname Russdiculous is one of the most well-known as well as deserved nicknames in college basketball and it is a shame to think that fans won’t get a chance to see Smith careen coast-to-coast for a layup or bury an ill-advised three-pointer early in the shot clock. Clearly it will be a shame for the program and coach Rick Pitino too as they move to the ACC next season, because the team’s guard play will take a major step back without the program’s best player.
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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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Who Won The Week? Louisville, Marcus Smart, Michigan and The Citadel…

Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 28th, 2014

wonweekWho Won the Week? is a regular column that outlines and discusses three winners and losers from the previous week of hoops. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.

We’ve got more to get to here than usual, so we’ve got a special extended-yet-abbreviated edition of WWTW on tap today.

WINNER: Louisville

Russ Smith won Louisville's game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Russ Smith won Louisville’s game over Cincinnati on Saturday with a late jumper. (AP)

Your defending national champions – remember them? – are rolling at just the right time in the season. They went into Cincinnati and handed the Bearcats their first home loss of the season Saturday, 58-57, with a Russ Smith dagger – remember him? – then followed that up by blowing out woebegone Temple 88-66 on Thursday.


Sophomore Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell thrived this past week, as he has since the dismissal of Chane Behanan, scoring 21 points in both games. Going forward, the Cardinals have games left at Memphis and SMU, followed by a home game against Connecticut. Though they’re tied with Cincinnati at the top of the American and on a seven-game winning streak, we’ll know much more about Louisville by the time the conference tournament rolls around.

(Related winners: Smith; Harrell. Related losers: Cincinnati, which squandered its chance at an outright AAC championship by losing at home; Temple, which had its first 20-loss season in school history thanks to Louisville.)

LOSER: Saint Louis

The Billikens, which had been one of America’s last four teams undefeated in conference, took one of the most befuddling losses of the whole season, falling 71-64 on Thursday to a Duquesne team that had won four Atlantic 10 games in Jim Ferry’s two seasons in Pittsburgh. What had been one of the nation’s top 10 shooting defenses gave up an effective field goal rate of 50.7 percent, including 14-0f-18 shooting and 7-of-9 three-pointers by Dukes guards Micah Mason and Jerry Jones. And against one of the nation’s 10 worst defenses vs. three-point shooting, Saint Louis only made 4-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. The Billikens have a top-five defense nationally according to KenPom.com, but their offense ranks 169th in efficiency. Then again, defense wins championships, right?

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