When the college basketball season started, defending national champion Louisville was the odds-on favorite in the newly formed American Athletic Conference, with Memphis the most likely challenger. It still might play out that way, but with four league games under our belt, it’s Cincinnati that has jumped out on top, while both the Cardinals and Tigers struggle with problems. IsCincinnati basketballgoing to surprise everyone and with the American title?
Let’s begin first by pointing out the phrasing of the question. This is about the regular season championship, and we’re not looking beyond that. There’s plenty of time in late February and early March to talk about who the most viable NCAA Tournament threat, and if Louisville and Memphis can get some of their issues worked out, there is no denying their potential. But for now, let’s just enjoy the conference race and keep the focus there.
Cincinnati is built around a guard-forward combo of Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson. They get 18 ppg and 12 ppg respectively, and Jackson also averages eight rebounds per game. The Bearcats have no one else averaging in double figures, though forward Titus Rubles does make a notable contribution rebounding, with his six boards per game.
The lack of depth to the attack is an obvious red flag, and we can add that the three-point shooting isn’t very good. Kilpatrick is more than willing to let it fly behind the arc, but so are all the players on my men’s league rec basketball team, and we all see firsthand that a player’s willingness to shoot a three shouldn’t be confused with his ability to make it consistently. Kilpatrick is at 33 percent, the bare minimum necessary for the shot to be even worthwhile attempting.
So there’s nothing in the lineup that offers a “wow” factor, but let’s review how it translates onto the court. Here’s a brief summary of Cincinnati’s 4-0 start in American play…
vs. SMU (65-57): It wasn’t a great defensive night, as the Mustangs shot 45 percent, while Kilpatrick tossed up bricks. But Cincy got to the free throw line, enjoying a 23-8 scoring edge at the stripe.
@Memphis (69-53): This was a big-time win. The Bearcats hold Memphis to 33 percent shooting, shut down forward Shaq Goodwin, and get good games from Kilpatrick and Jackson.
@Houston (61-60): Note that the Cougars are a likely contender for an NCAA bid, so this is another good road win. The key was taking care of the basketball. The Bearcats won the turnover battle 15-8 and made up for Kilpatrick’s 1-for-8 shooting from three-point range and being outrebounded.
vs. Rutgers (71-51): The Bearcats enjoy a 31-11 scoring advantage on free throws to key this rout.
You have to like the mental toughness Cincinnati shows in tough road spots, but the reliance on free throw scoring against average teams is a red flag. I have to think that both Louisville and Memphis are going to restore order. My own answer to the question of whether Cincinnati basketball can do for their home city what the baseball Reds and football Bengals couldn’t, and overachieve to win a conference title, would be no.
Big East basketball has gotten more than its share of news lately, as the league’s seven Catholic universities have decided to leave the league and protect themselves from greed-driven, football-driven realignment. For now, on the basketball floor, we still have another unwieldy 16-team conference race to look forward to, and the Big East has six teams in the Top 25, with three in the Top 10. The conference got a signature win today when Louisville beat Kentucky. With Big East games beginning on New Year’s night, let’s break down the conference landscape.
THE ELITE THREE
Louisville, Cincinnati and Syracuse are the trio of teams ranked in the Top 10. The Cards and Orange have been there all year after last March, when Louisville made the Final Four and Syracuse came within a game of doing so. So that’s where our overview will begin.
Louisville: Rick Pitino’s team got exactly what it needed in the return of center Gorgui Dieng today. Now they have an anchor in the post to support a team whose primary talent is in the backcourt and on the wings. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith can both distribute and score from the guard spots, with Siva doing a little more of the former and Smith more of the latter. Chase Behanan and Wayne Blackshear kick in quality help from the wings and Pitino is working Luke Hancock into the rotation.
Size is the issue, as the guards are smallish, and there’s not even a pure power forward, much less a center…at least until Dieng returned from his wrist injury. The Cards are still thin up front, but at least they have someone.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats have risen to #8 in the polls, but don’t be deceived into thinking they’ve done anything incredibly impressive. The best win is over Xavier, while Cincy lost at home to New Mexico on Thursday. The Lobos have a good team, but a top-level Big East team should win that game at home.
Though I’m skeptical of Cincinnati as a Top 10 team, I can still see optimism for the coming conference schedule. The backcourt has been a strength here in recent years and this season is now different, with Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and Jaquon Parker. There’s not a lot of need for scoring from the frontcourt, but the Bearcats do need rebounding. Hence, Justin Jackson will be a key part of any success this team enjoys.
And a note to forward Titus Rubles—when you’re shooting .048% from three-point range, stop shooting the trey! Note that’s not 48 percent with a decimal, that’s less than half a percent! And he shoots an average of more than one a game! Okay, I’ll cool with the exclamation points. But to sound like Stephen A. Smith and talk like the players are listening to me, Titus please stop shooting that shot when you keep laying bricks.
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim has never loaded up on tough December competition, so even though this year’s fare was light, the fact Boeheim played San Diego State and Temple—and got a split—constitutes a positive bear of a schedule by the Orange’s usual standards.
Michael Carter-Williams is one of the great playmakers in the country, with 6’6” size and averaging ten assists a game. It seems like two-guard Brandon Triche has been around forever and the senior is averaging 15 ppg. C.J. Fair and James Southerland are tough forwards who score and rebound, while Rakeem Christmas also goes to the glass. If we want to pick a nit, there’s not a ton of depth here and Syracuse could use a pure three-point shooter to loosen defenses up, but Boeheim has everything he needs to make a run at another Big East title.
THE BEST TEAM
I’m not going to waste a lot of time talking about Notre Dame, because I discussed them last week in a brief look at national title contenders. I think the Irish are the best team in the Big East with a brilliant backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, while Jack Cooley is a beast on the boards, averaging 11 per game and also scoring 15 ppg.
The one thing Notre Dame hasn’t done is back up the rhetoric I’m spouting. They’ve only got one loss, but it was to St. Joe’s, who’s been a disappointment. The Irish have nice wins over BYU and Kentucky, but tougher tests are ahead. Now’s the time to prove their an elite team in more than one sport this academic year.
Pitt and Georgetown weren’t up to their customary expectations a year ago, but both are nationally ranked and each has a legitimate chance to move into the top three in this league.
Pitt: The Panthers have been at their best when they’re physical, and this team has all the markings of being cut in that mold. Talib Zanna is averaging seven rebounds a game, and he’s joined by a seven-foot freshman from New Zealand in Steve Adams, averaging six boards a game. If Adams keeps growing and toughening up, Pitt is going to be tough to handle. The backcourt is in good shape with freshman playmaker James Robinson and quality shooters Tray Woodall and Lamar Patterson.
Georgetown: When it comes to size, Pitt has nothing on Georgetown. In an era of college basketball where a lot of teams are like Louisville—stacked on the perimeter and just looking for one guy down low, Georgetown is the reverse. John Thompson III can run waves of power forward/center types, starting with sophomores Greg Whittington and Otto Porter, and including junior Nate Lubick. The burden falls on 6’1” sophomore guard Markel Starks to keep the offense flowing and defenses loosened up. Starks, along with backcourt mate Jabril Trawick each have nice shooting touches and should do well enough to keep this team winning games.
LOOKING TO DANCE
This group includes UConn, with new coach Kevin Ollie, a consistent NCAA program in Marquette, along with South Florida, Rutgers and Seton Hall.
UConn: The Huskies started the year strong with their win against Michigan State over in Germany. Ollie, just inked to a contract extension after taking over from the legendary Jim Calhoun, has a good backcourt in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, but rebounding is a problem. UConn needs sophomore DeAndre Daniels and/or junior Tyler Olander to hit the glass or they’ll be overwhelmed in this physical league.
Marquette: MU has gone to the Sweet 16 two straight years, and even in a rebuilding year has had a respectable non-conference run. The Golden Eagles have beaten Wisconsin and only lost by a point to Butler, though a defeat to UW-Green Bay was disappointing. They have a good playmaker in Junior Cadougan, a playmaker in Vander Blue, and an inside player in Davante Gardner. If the complementary pieces come through—starting with Jamil Wilson and his outside shot—Marquette will be back in the Dance.
Seton Hall: Fuquan Edwin is one of the most exciting players in the conference, averaging 18 points/6 rebounds per game and shooting over 50 percent from both the perimeter and behind the arc. The Pirates also have a lot of depth, with the key supporting pieces being forwards Eugene Teague and Brandon Mobley. They’ll need sophomore Aaron Crosby to grow as a playmaker and make all the pieces function in harmony.
Rutgers: There’s an exciting backcourt here with Eli Carter and Myles Mack, who can each shoot the lights out. But Carter and Mack are both woefully undersized and ill-suited to defend guards who even go as tall as 6’4”. Dane Miller and Wally Judge are respectable rebounders, and the Scarlet Knights will be competitive, but this is not an NCAA team—and even though they’re 9-2, they lost to Ole Miss and have no wins worthy of bragging about.
South Florida: The Bulls made a strong run to the NCAA a year ago, though rekindling the flame has been a challenge, with early losses to Central Florida, Western Michigan and Oklahoma State. I suppose that wouldn’t be bad if this were football and assessing USF’s ability to compete in the Big East, but it’s a little more ominous in hoops. But I haven’t written them off yet—Toarylyn Fitzpatrick is a talented forward who can rebound inside and shoot the trey outside, while Victor Rudd can get after it on the glass. Anthony Collins and Jawanza Poland comprise a functionable, if not great, backcourt. There’s at least enough here to competitive in the league again.
It was just 2009 that Villanova made the Final Four and one year later they were a national contender all year before an early NCAA exit. St. John’s looked on the upswing after Steve Lavin returned them to the NCAA Tournament. But both teams struggled last year and this year doesn’t look a lot better. Villanova lost to Columbia by eighteen points, one of four losses. St. John’s has also lost four times, never a good sign for a team going into Big East play. The good news is that at least the losing is being done with underclassmen who have an upside. Keep a special eye on Red Storm guard D’Angelo Harrison, averaging 21 ppg in non-conference games.
IS THERE ANY HOPE?
That’s the question in Providence and DePaul, two schools without any recent track record of success, and four losses. Providence lost to Brown yesterday and DePaul dropped a game to Gardner-Webb in November, so the easy answer is this question is no.
In the case of DePaul, the easy answer is the correct one, because while Brandon Young and Cleveland Melvin are great talents, there is nowhere enough quality depth to compete in the Big East. Providence might have a little bit of hope—they have a versatile point guard in Kadeem Batts who can score and dish, along with a good forward in sophomore LaDontae Henderson, who’s knocking down 18 a game. Then you mix in the best of them all in Bryce Cotton, who’s averaging 22 ppg. If the Friars find some rebounding, maybe they can get those pieces to mesh as the season wears on.