The American Athletic basketball conference—an offshoot of the old Big East, sans the Jesuit basketball-only schools—could go one of two ways when the seasons started. With defending national champion Louisville as their foundation, the Cardinals could be joined by up-and-comer Memphis to give the league two national powers, with UConn and Cincinnati leading a secondary group that could lead to American putting half of its ten teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Or, Louisville could show some cracks in its armor, Memphis could look okay, but nothing special, while Cincinnati and UConn bore the scent of NCAA bubble teams. In other words, the American could look like a so-so league at the upper rung of the midmajors, rather than a true power conference.
Unfortunately for the conference, it’s the latter description that’s most fitting right now. Louisville lost yesterday to Kentucky. The Cards have also lost to North Carolina, and have no notable wins. No one suggests Rick Pitino’s team isn’t a threat—they were still ranked sixth in the country prior to the Kentucky loss—Louisville has some serious work to do before they can be considered a real threat to repeat.
Louisville still gets great production from guard Russ Smith, a hero of last year’s team and averaging 17 ppg this year. Chris Jones is knocking down 14 ppg as his running mate, and sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell is coming along, averaging 12 points/8 rebounds per game.
It’s the secondary pieces that have been a problem. No one has replaced the tremendous playmaking that Peyton Siva brought last year. Luke Hancock, who was the 2013 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player on the strength of his three-point shooting, is only 25 percent from behind the arc. Chane Behanan, who was a beast on the boards is only averaging nineteen minutes per game. And Wayne Blackshear, the small forward who needed to step up his game has only been adequate.
Louisville has one of college basketball’s all-time great coaches on the sidelines, they still have the talent and they have time to get everything figured out. But they’ll do the figuring in conference play which begins on New Year’s Eve, and we won’t know until March how that’s really going to translate on the national stage.
Three teams are legitimate challengers to Louisville for the American Athletic basketball title. All have notable players leading the way, though all have depth concerns…
UConn (ranked #15): Shabazz Napier is looking like one of the conference’s best guards, averaging 15 points/6 rebounds/6 assists and hitting 51 percent from three-point range. Ryan Boatright is a good running mate, and DeAndre Daniels provides some athleticism in the front court. The notable wins are Maryland, Indiana and Florida although it’s debatable how notable the first two are, and all three were by the narrowest of margins.
Cincinnati (11-2): The Bearcats’ losses are to New Mexico and Xavier, which is nothing to be ashamed of and Cincy picked up a nice win over Pitt. Sean Kilpatrick averages 19 points a night in the backcourt and is the team’s only real three-point shooter. The frontcourt is held down by 6’8” senior Justin Jackson, who averages an 11/8 and Tutus Rubles who helps out on the boards.
Memphis (9-2): I saw Memphis is a dark horse for a national championship run at the start of the season. They have two excellent players in guard Joe Jackson and forward Shaq Goodwin, who combine to average nearly 30 points a game and make a nice inside-out combo. Shaq needs to start imitating his namesake though, and get on the boards, where the average is six a night. Not bad, but it won’t get the Tigers to where have the potential to be. Memphis has split two games with Oklahoma State, so it’s not as though the season is lost. The Tigers just haven’t hit what I think their stride will be.
And we conclude with the other six teams that make up American Athletic basketball…
SMU (10-2): Nic Moore, a little 5’9” sophomore is a sharpshooter who hits 55 percent of his treys, while Markus Kennedy is a decent sophomore forward and 6’11” Yanick Moreiria is grabbing six rebounds a game in spite of only getting an average of twenty minutes. How about we get Moreiria a little more playing time and see what happens?
Central Florida (8-3): The school that won the American Athletic in football shouldn’t expect a similar showing in hoops. UCF has losses to Valparaiso and Florida Atlantic. The Knights have a balanced attack with four double-digit scorers. Tristan Spurlock scores, rebounds and hits from behind the arc. Maybe they can play their way to the NCAA bubble.
South Florida (9-4): Victor Rudd, a 6’9” senior is averaging 16 points/7 rebounds, and he leads up a front line that includes freshman Chris Perry and John Egbunu that goes to the glass. The Bulls need a three-point shooter to emerge if they’re going to make any kind of run in conference play. Remember, this program is just two years removed from an NCAA Tournament berth earned in the tough, old Big East.
Houston (8-5): In addition to losing five games, including to San Jose State and UL-Lafayette, the Cougars are dealing with some key injuries. At least one of them isn’t to TaShawn Thomas, the forward who averages 17 points/9 rebounds a game. Thomas will be worth watching, but his team won’t be a factor.
Temple (5-5): What’s happened to the Owl basketball program? They’ve got scorers—Will Cummings, Dalton Pepper, Quenton Cosey and Anthony Lee all average at least 15 ppg. But the losses include defeats to Kent State, Towson and Texas Southern.
Rutgers (6-7): The pieces would seem to be here for some success. Myles Mack and Jerome Seagers can shoot from the perimeter, Wally Judge can rebound, J.J. Moore is a good supplemental scorer and Kadeem Jack is most complete player in the entire lineup, with 14 points/7 rebounds. But those pieces have come apart in losses to Drexel, William & Mary and Fairleigh Dickinson.