Player of the Year (through non-conference play):
Shabazz Napier, UConn
The UConn Huskies, in their return to postseason eligibility, currently hold the best record in the conference. They possess only one loss, while the defending champion Louisville Cardinals, as well as Cincinnati, Memphis, and SMU, have two. And the lion’s share of the credit goes to their do-everything point guard, the gutsy senior Shabazz Napier, who is capping off his career in style.
One look at the numbers tells just about all of the story. Napier leads a very talented Huskies team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals; not only that, Napier is in the top ten in the entire conference in each of those categories. This is a guy that wants to win and, thus far, aside from a slight mishap against Stanford, that is all UConn has done. Napier seems to be as capable as any player in the nation of putting on a Kemba Walker-esque display of team-on-his-backery come tournament time and, if he plays a tad more efficiently, the Huskies will be gunning for a spot in the Final Four. And while his measurable don’t jump off the page, ‘Bazz is one of the best pro prospects in the AAC
A Trio of Temple Scorers:
Will Cummings, Dalton Pepper, and Quentin DeCosey are the highest-scoring trio in the entire conference by nearly seven points per game. Following the departure of four of the Owls’ starters, it was unclear as to who would step up and score buckets for this team. Anthony Lee, the lone returning starter, was the leading candidate and, 14 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, he has played well. But Cummings, Pepper, and DeCosey, who combined to average 10.6 PPG last season, currently average a total of 49.6 PPG. All three are in the AAC top 11 in scoring. At 5-5, it’s been an up-and-down season for these inexperienced Owls, but they looked impressive in wins over UAB, Georgia, and St. Joseph’s. There still could be potential to make noise in conference play for these guys. If one is having an off night, Temple still has the other two (and Lee) to lean on for scoring.
Chris Jones, Louisville
As expected, Russ Smith is putting up big scoring numbers for Louisville this season, to the tune of 16.9 PPG. More unexpectedly has been the production of JUCO transfer Chris Jones, the 5’10” guard. In the absence of guys like Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has stepped up to put points on the board for the Cardinals. He can stroke the three, he can get to the rim, he can convert at the line. He’s been the second-leading scorer for the 6th-ranked Cardinals and should continue to shine in conference play as he tries to prove he belongs with all the elite scoring guards this conference has to offer.
The race for the conference title was expected to be a battle between the traditional Big Boys of the conference with the likes of Louisville, UConn, Memphis, and Cincinnati duking it out for the inaugural conference title. This has been the case, but the SMU Mustangs, formerly of Conference USA, have thrown their hat into the ring after a 10-2 start. Following the surprise transfer of Jalen Jones just before the start of the season, it was expected that the Mustangs would have a hard time running with the conference powers, but Larry Brown brought in three transfers that have led SMU to a spot near the top of the standings. Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy, and Yanick Moreira, transfers from Illinois State, Villanova, and South Plains College, respectively, are the Mustangs’ three leading scorers. They’ve impressed in wins over Texas A&M, TCU, and Wyoming, but are yet to notch a serious signature victory. But they have the talent to pull off an upset or two of any of the other conference powerhouses. This squad certainly has the makings of a tournament team.
Justin Jackson, Cincinnati
Sean Kilpatrick currently leads the Bearcats, and the conference, in scoring. But it’s the emergence of the big man, Justin Jackson, that has helped Kilpatrick put the Bearcats in with UConn and Louisville and Memphis in the discussion of who the league’s best team is. The senior upped his PPG from 3.8 to 11.4, his RPG from 5 to nearly 8, and his BPG from 1.4 to 3. He’s been efficient, he’s been intimidating, and he’s made big plays for Cincinnati in big wins over Pittsburgh, NC State, and Nebraska.
This pretty, pretty fastbreak by Memphis: http://youtu.be/vt4u_xSOYb4
Houston Perimeter Players
Like SMU, Houston was projected to be a dark horse candidate that could steal some games from the bigger, badder former Big East opponents (and Memphis) at the top of the conference. They were expected to contend for an NCAA tournament berth. And they were expected to complement the inside play of Tashawn Thomas with a nice scoring punch. But most of the above expectations have not come to fruition. Double-double machine Thomas has played well on most nights and is near the top of the conference with 17.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 3.7 BPG, and a 65% FG percentage. But the Cougar guards and swingmen haven’t provided much help. Danuel House led the group and looked good to start the season until being put out of commission indefinitely for a knee surgery. Baylor transfer L.J. Rose, the point guard, has distributed well, but is shooting 36% and turns the ball over 2.6 times per game. Guard Jherrod Stiggers has the second-most shot attempts of the team this season, but, due to his incredibly low shooting percentage (35%), he is only fourth on the team in scoring. If the Cougars are going to turn it around, TaShawn Thomas is going to need help on the perimeter. The talent is there for this team, but the victories are not.
Ryan Boatright, UConn
Shabazz Napier is having a great year. Ryan Boatright, on the other hand, is not. His scoring, assists, and shooting percentage are sinking from last year and, though the Huskies have a great record, they generally haven’t needed Boatright to play well to win. He’s playing less minutes, but he’s also shooting worse than he did his first two years. He should be able to turn things around and be a nice second option to Napier in the postseason, but until that happens, skepticism will remain over Boatright’s consistency and effort.
Luke Hancock, Lousville
The struggles of last season’s Final Four MOP have been well-documented by this blog. Hancock’s field goal percentage has dropped 11 points from last season, and his three-point percentage has dropped nearly 15 points. Shooting is the wing player’s bread and butter and, without consistency behind his shot, he’s not very effective. He can still come off the bench and put up big numbers as a spot-up shooter, but something is off from last year’s tournament to this season.
Top 5 Non-Conference Victories in the AAC
1. Memphis over Oklahoma State, 73-68
This victory wins the top spot for three reasons. First, it was over a top five team in Oklahoma State, a feat no other team in the AAC has come close to accomplishing this season. Second, it came in the finals of the Old Spice Classic, one of the more renowned preseason tournaments in college hoops. And finally, it was a vengeance game for Memphis, who had gotten manhandled by OSU just a couple weeks prior. Shaq Goodwin led the way with 17 points and All-America guard Marcus Smart was held in check for 12 points. It gave OSU their first loss of the season, and it will go a long way in determining what seed the Tigers receive on Selection Sunday.
2. UConn over Florida, 65-64
This game was decided on a buzzer beater by none other than Shabazz Napier, who corralled his own miss in the waning seconds and put it back up for two. It was a signature victory for UConn over 15th-ranked Florida and it further adds to the legend of Shabazz Napier.
3. Cincinnati over Pittsburgh, 44-43
This was an emotional victory for the Bearcats, who beat their former Big East foe in Madison Square Garden as a part of the Jimmy V Classic. In a defensive slugfest, the Bearcats came out on top, thus ending Pittsburgh’s undefeated run. Justin Jackson had 12 points to lead Cincinnati, and Titus Rubles had the go-ahead basket with six seconds to go. Despite Sean Kilpatrick being held to only nine points, the Bearcats were tenacious and still managed to eke out the victory.
4. Connecticut over Indiana, 59-58
In another tight one, UConn came out on top over Indiana in Madison Square Garden as a part of the 2K Sports Classic. Though this wasn’t the most talented Hoosiers squad ever, it was a likely tournament team that gave the Huskies everything they wanted and then some. Once again, it was the late-game heroics of Shabazz Napier, who had the last four points for UConn as they hung on to a one-point lead in the final minute-and-a-half. Napier had another 27 points in this game as the Huskies did a fantastic job of holding Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh to zero points and four fouls in ten minutes of action.
5. Louisville over Louisiana-Lafayette, 113-74
While the other conference title contenders have been getting signature victories in non-conference play, the Cardinals have been taking care of business against a schedule of lesser opponents. This particular game doesn’t jump out on paper, but once you delve deeper, you’ll find that this was a very good win for the Cardinals. Louisiana-Lafayette doesn’t have the name recognition of Indiana or Florida or Pittsburgh, but they do have All-America candidate and NBA prospect Elfrid Payton, a shooting guard with a knack for scoring. But on this day, it was all Louisville, who put up a staggering 113 points against a solid opponent. They held Payton to 12 points and dominated this one from start to finish.
Power Rankings for Conference Play
1. UConn- Shabazz Napier is the best player on the best team in this conference and there is plenty of support around him. The Huskies have had an impressive non-conference run.
2. Louisville- The defending champs continue to win games in blowout fashion with their fast-paced, havoc-creating defense and the offense of Russ Smith.
3. Memphis- The Tigers are not far behind UConn and UL and they have a whole slew of freshmen who get better every day. Point guard Joe Jackson has this team in a position to make a run at the conference title.
4. Cincinnati- The Bearcats have been solid, though not as impressive as the above three schools. Unlike UConn, Louisville, and Memphis, their supporting cast is still a question mark. If players beyond Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson can continue to play well against talented conference opponents, you can expect Cincinnati to be right there in the thick of things as the conference season winds down.
5. Southern Methodist- The upstart Mustangs look good, but are still relatively young and relatively unproven. They are the dark horse in the conference title race without a doubt. They will win some games they were not expected to win and probably even make the tournament, but they’re not quite yet on the level of the conference’s elite.
6. Central Florida- The Knights have several guys who can really put the ball in the basket. Isaiah Sykes is a big-time player and I expect him to raise his production in conference play. Calvin Newell can score, too, so expect this team to win some shootouts down the road. A tournament berth is still within reason.
7. South Florida- Victor Rudd is an amazing player. The rest of the guys on this team? Occasionally amazing players. But the consistency isn’t always there for this team, which relies heavily on a trio of newcomers in John Egbunu, Chris Perry, and Corey Allen Jr.. They’ll win some games and have a good shot at the NIT. But with a hot run in conference play, who knows where they might end up.
8. Houston- If Danuel House were active, the Cougars would be higher on this list. But they will have to make do without him for most of the rest of the year and it could get difficult. TaShawn Thomas will likely see several double teams, in which case the perimeter guys need to make shots. The Cougars are in deep at this point in the season.
9. Temple- This team has shown a lot of heart and tenacity following the departure of several key players. They know how to put points on the board, but defense is not a great one. This is a team that could be pretty good next season, but for know, they need to fend off Rutgers to make sure they are not the last team in the conference.
10. Rutgers- This Rutgers team is better than many Rutgers teams. But that’s not saying much. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack and maybe even J.J. Moore could play big minutes for any AAC team, but the rest of the players aren’t a great unit. The Scarlet Knights looked good in close road losses against George Washington and UAB, but they will lose their fair share of conference games this year. They’re a decent team, but this is a very good conference.