Player of the Week
Russ Smith, Louisville
Russdiculous has picked up right where he left off in last year’s NCAA tournament. The senior guard leads the conference with 20.3 points per game thus far, in addition to 5 assists and 2 steals per game, both good for 7th in the AAC. The Cardinals have won their first three games by an average of 31.7 points and Smith is a big part of the reason why. In the victory over Hofstra, in particular, Smith went off for the Cardinals, scoring 30 on 12/22 shooting in a 97-69 win.
But what must have Coach Rick Pitino even more excited than the big numbers is the efficiency with which Smith is playing. The streaky guard has always been notorious for his questionable shot selection and borderline out-of-control style of play. But in three games so far, Smith has shot 47% from the field, a vast improvement over his career 38% shooting over his first three seasons. Additionally, he has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.8, good for 4th in the entire conference. Smith looks dedicated to team basketball and to winning basketball and, as the Cardinals’ schedule picks up, Coach Pitino will be hoping to see a continuation of Smith’s proficient play.
TaShawn Thomas, Houston
Houston is my favorite sleeper team to win the conference, and a big part of that is due to TaShawn Thomas. Literally. The junior power forward gives the Cougars something that most of the other teams in the conference are lacking and that is a legitimate post presence. He may only be 6’8” and 215 pounds, but Thomas is a strong player and is putting up classic big man numbers. In addition to his 18.3 points, he is second in the conference with 10 RPG and a 74% shooting percentage and first with 4 BPG.
Thomas’ 74% shooting stands out in particular. It’d be one thing if a Memphis player was shooting that kind of percentage, as they’ve only played one game, but Thomas is shooting at that clip through 4 games, all of them victories. Granted, none were against great teams and Thomas’ 48% free throw percentage leaves much to be desired. But this kind of play is exactly what Houston needs from Thomas to hang with the big boys from the Big East this year.
Niels Giffey, UConn
Giffey is shooting lights-out to start the season and is making a strong case for the AAC Sixth Man of the Year award. Despite averaging just 19 minutes per game through four games, the German guard-forward is averaging 11.5 PPG on an astounding 80% shooting. Giffey has long had a reputation for being a deadly shooter, but after a trio of 5/6 shooting performances to open the year, he could be one of the premiere shooters in the nation. He’s also shooting 80% (12/15) from behind the arc. Thus far, He’s been a great outside shooting complement to UConn’s more athletic guys like Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, and DeAndre Daniels. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of pace Giffey can maintain from the field.
Nick Russell, Southern Methodist
Following the shocking announcement that SMU’s 2012-2013 leading scorer Jalen Jones would transfer, Nick Russell became the top returning player for the Mustangs. After averaging 14 PPG last season, Russell has struggled to contribute to Larry Brown’s offense this year. Through two games, he’s shooting 29% (4/14) and is yet to make a three-pointer after five attempts. Fortunately, newcomers Nic Moore and Keith Frazier have stepped up to score points for SMU in their 2-0 start, so once Russell gets it going, this should be a strong team.
Jermaine Lawrence, Cincinnati
Lawrence was ranked #26 in this year’s freshman class by Rivals.com, third-highest of any freshman in the conference. Obviously, there were fairly big expectations for the power forward going into this year. Through three games, all of them wins, Lawrence has only 5 PPG on 36% shooting. Not exactly mind-blowing numbers for the high-profile recruit. But to be fair, Lawrence has only played 18 minutes per game as the Bearcats return several talented forwards (and the conference as a whole has had a strong start, leaving slim pickings for my Who’s Not category). The Bearcats don’t need him to do a whole lot at this point in time, but coach Mick Cronin will look for Lawrence to be more efficient in the minutes he sees.
Top 5 Players Who Will Make You Forget About the Big East
Following the split of the Big East, a few Big East teams left out in the cold joined with a few C-USA teams looking to jump in the national spotlight to create the American Athletic Conference. Now, this Brady Bunch of teams has jumped out to a combined 25-4 record through November 17th. Here are five players who (in addition to the players mentioned beforehand) are helping to get the AAC off the ground:
1. Shabazz Napier, UConn
Napier has done absolutely everything for the 4-0 Huskies. The 6’1”, 180 lb. point guard is averaging 9.5 RPG (4th in the conference), along with 13.5 PPG, 7.8 PPG, and 1.5 SPG. He had a triple-double in the game against Yale and provides excellent on-the-ball defense, a key in a league filled with stellar guard play.
2.Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Kilpatrick was expected to carry a large load for the Bearcats this year after most of Cincinnati’s starters graduated. He’s averaged 18.3 PPG through three games this year. All three of his shooting percentages have increased dramatically thus far, and he’s led the Bearcats to three straight victories, including one over NC State. With continued play like this, Kilpatrick could be a contender for Conference POY.
3. Isaiah Sykes, Central Florida
Sykes is the do-everything star guard for UCF and is looking to carry his team in his senior season. He currently leads the Knights in points (18.7), rebounds (7.0), and assists (4.3) after being voted to the preseason all-conference team. His shooting has started off a little slow (41%, 20% from 3) and the Knights fell to Florida State early, but after three years of playing in the C-USA, Sykes is primed to shine on a big stage and maybe even take his game to the next level.
4. Victor Rudd, South Florida
Throughout his career, Victor Rudd has been a good player stuck on a subpar team. But he is one of the best wing players in the league and this year, he and his teammates could make an impact in the conference race. He’s averaging a solid 17.7 PPG, and with his size, athleticism, and scoring ability, he could have pro potential, a rarity for Bulls players.
5. Kadeem Jack, Rutgers
After just over a week of play, Kadeem Jack has put up some of the most impressive numbers in the conference. He’s top ten in the league in scoring (19.7), rebounding (7.7), field goal percentage (65%), and blocks (1.7). He scored 30 points against Florida A&M and could be one of the lone bright spots in another down year for Rutgers.