Evaluating AAC Non-Conference Schedules: The Bad and the Ugly…

Posted by CD Bradley on October 30th, 2013

We looked at the best of the AAC non-conference schedules in Part I, after explaining a bit of what makes for a good non-conference schedule. This season, there’s quite a bit more bad than good, which could drag down the collective RPIs of AAC members and ultimately lead to lower NCAA Tournament seeds come March.

Larry Brown's SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.

Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs, a popular sleeper pick, have a lot riding on a trip to Virginia.

The Bad

  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats return the favor of a visit last season from MW favorite New Mexico with a road trip of their own to The Pit. They also will play former Big East rival and mid-level ACC squad Pitt at Madison Square Garden. Then… well, there’s the rivalry game with Xavier, which seems poised to finish in the bottom half of a newly constituted (read: relatively weaker) Big East; N.C. State, clearly headed toward the bottom of the ACC, and Conference USA also-ran MTSU. That trio might end up in the RPI top 100; it’s highly unlikely any other team on the schedule will come close.
  • Louisville: If the defending champs can escape Rupp Arena with a win, all will be forgiven by both their fans and the committee, as a road win against Kentucky is perhaps the highest quality victory available in college basketball this year. Southern Miss, which finished with an RPI of #30 last season, is favored to win Conference USA. They face a potential Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off final against North Carolina at the Mohegan Sun. They need the Tar Heels to be there, because the rest of their foes are middling teams in weak leagues, with Charleston the most likely to crack the top 100, and several – we’re looking at you, Hofstra and UMKC – seeming likely to end up north of #300.

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A Quick Examination of the AAC Non-Conference Slate

Posted by CD Bradley on October 28th, 2013

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

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

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

Four most intriguing AAC non-conference games

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

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ESPN Insider Projects AAC Among Nation’s Top Conferences

Posted by CD Bradley on October 25th, 2013

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

Congrats to Fran Dunphy on His 400th Victory

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

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

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

The rest of the American ranks:

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

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

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Notes and Quotes From the Inaugural AAC Media Day

Posted by CD Bradley on October 17th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Chris Johnson on October 17th, 2012

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

The missing element to SMU’s surprising hire of Larry Brown is the Hall of Fame coach’s less-than-healthy history of run-ins with the NCAA. The last time Brown walked off the college hardwood, he left Kansas in deep NCAA waters. The Jayhawks were suspended from the 1989 NCAA Tournament for infractions during Brown’s tenure. Eight years earlier, he brought damaging penalties to another blueblood program, this time leaving UCLA to relinquish its 1980 Final Four appearance after learning Brown had used ineligible players. Though he spent one-year at Davidson (1972) without stepping into NCAA troubles, Brown’s college track record gives cause for pause. In two extended stays at high-profile locales, he’s left behind a punitive footprint – whether by his own volition or otherwise. And that’s before the seedy undercurrents – before agents, runners, nefarious third-parties and shoe companies solidified their place in elite prospects’ inner circles – that define today’s recruiting landscape fully seeped their way into high school and grassroots hoops. That’s not to say third-parties didn’t exist 20 or even 30 years ago; they did, but not nearly to the extent they do in today’s recruiting culture. Brown can steer clear of NCAA punishment, even in today’s hazardous environment, but it will require a nuanced overview of NCAA guidelines and procedures for a man whose only interaction with the organization (albeit more than two decades ago) ended twice with harsh discipline.

The positive intrigue surrounding Brown’s hire is underwriting his questionable past in the college ranks (Photo credit: LM Otero/AP).

For most coaches, a checkered past like Brown’s would elicit no small measure of skepticism and suspicion. Hiring a coach with an extended inability to follow NCAA protocol demands scrutiny, no matter the credentials of the incoming head man. But Brown has avoided any and all sorts of public backlash or cynicism. He is embarking on his new job with a litany of past NCAA baggage, carrying a free pass from an increasingly dubious national punditry and a wave of positive sentiment highlighting his every move.

Now consider by way of a counterpoint the onrush of mistrust and doubt surrounding John Calipari and his inheritance of the Kentucky job. Calipari, to many the poster boy for all things evil in college hoops –- the one-and-done rule, the way he pilfers the nation’s top high school players, his players-before-the-program approach that drew irksome reviews from the UK faithful — has never been personally charged with a major recruiting violation. He annually persuades the best high school players in the country to join his program, annually competes on the sport’s highest stage, and regularly repeats the process with a new batch of five-star imports. His system is so refined, so proven, so successful, that fans and coaches can’t help but question his practices. Because when you install and master a winning model, when rival programs suffer the misfortune of knowing their efforts simply can’t match up, criticizing and bashing Calipari’s system is the only ammunition available. When you can’t beat him, falsely accuse him – or so the saying goes…

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