Player of the Week

Russ Smith, Louisville

It’s the start of conference season, and, as is to be expected, the Louisville Cardinals are winning games.  And, as is to be expected, Russ Smith is scoring points in bunches.  In a pair of road wins against Central Florida and Rutgers, Smith scored a total of 46 points, along with 10 assists, 5 steals, and 5 rebounds.  He went to the line 20 times, including an astounding 16 times against Rutgers, and shot 80% from the line.

Russ-diculous is currently maintaining a 17.7 per game scoring average, good for third in the conference, and his 23 PPG in conference play currently leads the entire AAC.  He’s also become a much more active distributor, with 4.9 APG, and is averaging 1.7 APG.  Smith has proven time and time again this season that he has tightened up his erratic play and has become the kind of player who can be the #1 scorer for a championship-caliber team.  And the Louisville Cardinals are exactly that.  The conference schedule is about to get tougher, as Rutgers and UCF aren’t among the AAC frontrunners.  A 10-day gauntlet of Memphis, SMU, Houston, and UConn looms, starting January 9th.  But Russ and the Cards should take care of business and come out with at least three wins in that span.  He’s certainly looking like conference player of the year material.

Who’s Hot?

Tashawn Thomas, Houston

The Cougars were perhaps the team of the week in the AAC.  They picked up a huge win over #17 UConn on Wednesday, then followed it up with a nice road win over South Florida.  The key to all this was the big man, TaShawn Thomas, who averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks in those two games.  Thomas has had some off nights this year, particularly in games against top-notch opponents, but he delivered in the Cougars upset over UConn.  He shot 8/15 and grabbed 8 rebounds and won the duel of star players with Shabazz Napier.  With the injury to Danuel House and disappointing losses to San Jose State and Louisiana-Lafayette, the Cougars didn’t start the year the way they wanted to.  But Thomas is averaging 19.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, and 3.6 BPG over the last five games, so he’s putting up the kind of production that will win Houston games throughout conference play.  The Cougars are currently on the outside looking in as far as the tournament bubble picture, but that could change with more wins like the on over UConn.

Isaiah Sykes, Central Florida

It’s been an interesting season for Isaiah Sykes.  The preseason All-Conference selection has played well.  He’s been efficient, he’s raised his shooting percentage to over 50%, and he’s played well with his talented cast of teammates.  But his role has been reduced and he hasn’t had to do everything for the Knights with the emergence of Calvin Newell, Tristan Spurlock, and Kasey Wilson.  He’s playing 7 fewer minutes per game and most of his per game averages have dipped slightly.  But in the last two games for the Knights, he’s put up numbers that hint at his all-conference potential.  He was a lone bright spot for the Knights in a 25-point loss to Louisville with 19 points and 9 rebounds.  He followed that up with 23 points, 6 assists, and a career-high 15 rebounds in a narrow win over Temple.  He’s playing well, he’s reasserting himself as The Guy for UCF, and he’s got the Knights headed in the right direction.

Who’s Not?

DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut

The Huskies are on a two-game skid now, despite the best efforts of Shabazz Napier, and junior forward DeAndre Daniels is to blame for a small portion of the lack of recent success.  He shot 3/10 in each of those losses and has not made half of his shots in any of the Huskies past four games.  This, accompanied by 6 turnovers, isn’t an ideal type of output by Daniels.  He’s expected to be the inside presence and accompaniment to Napier for this team.  His recent numbers aren’t terrible, but it would seem that, when Daniels underwhelms, as do the Huskies.

Chris Crawford, Memphis

The Tigers suffered their first loss to an unranked team on Saturday in a loss to a tough Cincinnati squad and the player who appeared to have the worst game for Memphis was Chris Crawford, who shot 2/11, with a pair of turnovers.  But his recent slump extends well beyond that single game.  In the Tigers’ past four games, Crawford is averaging a meager 6.3 PPG on 23% shooting, with 2.5 turnovers per contest.  Crawford may not be the best player for the Tigers, but they need his outside shooting to stretch the floor.  But in a slump like this, he doesn’t have much to offer for the Tigers.

Top 5 Seniors

1. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

At this point, the successes of Shabazz have been well-chronicled by this blog.  Simply said, Napier is stuffing the stat sheet with points, rebounds, assists, and steals averages that rate among the conference’s top 10.  But now, the Huskies have dropped two straight games and it’s time for Napier to get in his teammates faces, create more open looks, and right the ship.

2. Russ Smith, Louisville

Smith appears to be the best player for the best team in the conference right now.  He considered leaving his classmates and entering the draft for another year, but he’s proven a lot thus far this year and, with the continued success of the Cardinals, it appears he made the right decision and could even be making NBA first rounder money for it come next year.

3. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

It often seems to me that Sean Kilpatrick gets overshadowed by the Big Two of Napier and Russ-diculous, but he’s a great player in his own right and has the Bearcats on a six game winning streak.  With a conference-leading 18.6 PPG, there’s no doubt that Kilpatrick is leaving it all out there following the departure last season of many of his key teammates.  Cincinnati has quietly defeated Pitt, Middle Tennessee, Nebraska, SMU, AND Memphis (on the road) during their current streak.  There’s something to be said for his defense as well, and I’d say he is right up with Napier and Smith in the conference POY race.

4. Victor Rudd, South Florida

Finally, a non-guard makes the list!  Victor Rudd’s Bulls have lost some games this season, but Rudd himself is leading a cast of young players through an up-and-down season.  With 15.7 PPG and 7.1 RPG, Rudd is playing big and putting up numbers.  The wins haven’t always come for USF, but Rudd is making it known that he’s an elite player in this conference.

5. Isaiah Sykes, Central Florida

With all due respect to Joe Jackson of Memphis, Sykes takes the final spot on this list due to his all-around production.  If his play continues to blossom like it has this past week, he could be on the way up this list and on the way to conference POY recognition.

Power Rankings (last week in parentheses)

1.Louisville (2)- With UConn suffering two losses this week and Louisville, manhandling UCF and Rutgers, the Cardinals easily supplanted the Huskies for the number one spot.

2.Cincinnati (4)- The Bearcats are a hot team, winning seven straight against good competition from high-level conferences.  Justin Jackson is playing great and Sean Kilpatrick is the conference scoring leader.  The road win over Memphis was highly impressive.

3.UConn (1)- No one can deny that this team has talent, but two losses this week really sting.  The road losses to Houston and SMU were surprising, but not completely shocking.  But it’s time for Shabazz and Co. to pick up the pieces and get back on the winning path.

4.Memphis (3)- A 16-point home loss is never good for a ranked team, especially if it’s to an unranked team.  But Cincinnati is a good team, so this loss is somewhat excusable.  Memphis is still somewhat hard to figure out compared to the other teams in the conference, but the talent is there.  Josh Pastner needs to prove he can put it together.

5.Houston (8)- The victory over UConn could be a turning point for the Cougars.  TaShawn Thomas is a hoss inside, and he has a supporting cast that, when making shots, makes this team deadly.

6.Southern Methodist (5)- It was said that this past week would prove if these Mustangs were for real.  The jury is still out after a loss to Cincinnati (hot, but unranked) followed by a win over UConn (ranked, but on a skid).

7.Central Florida (6)- The Knights have won six out of seven and look like the mid-level team in a good conference that they are.  This week didn’t tell us much, with a loss to Louisville and a win over Temple, but it will be interesting to see if they can extend the losing woes for UConn on Saturday.

8.Rutgers (10)- The Scarlet Knights are still keeping at it and are far from being done with this season.  The beat Temple and looked competitive in a loss to Louisville.  Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack are a talented duo with the potential to surprise.

9.South Florida (7)- The Bulls have dropped four out of five and it would appear their freshman big men are still experiencing growing pains.  There is talent on this squad, and Victor Rudd won’t let them lose too many games, but the winning needs to start happening against Temple on Thursday.

10.Temple (9)- Temple is scoring over 78 points per game, but their defense is suspect.  They dropped games against Rutgers and UCF, teams that they could conceivably hang with and now they’re looking at a rough stretch of games the next few weeks.  Their big four scoring options need to gain more consistency.