It’s going to take a while for the American Athletic Conference to sort itself out. For now it has ten teams, but Louisville will be jumping to the ACC, and Rutgers is going to the Big Ten. Then several new teams will be entering the conference. So the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons will be better indicators of what the conference has to offer, but for now it is what it is. And what it is is a pretty damn good basketball conference.
The AAC (pronounced “ack”, by me) prefers the name The American. And even though this appears to be a solid conference on the basketball court, I don’t think they have earned the right to be called The American. Sure, they have the defending national champion, but the AAC is just a placeholder while awaiting the newly shined ACC. So they have to earn the name ‘The American’. For now, it’s the ack.
So who is going to win this thing?
The Louisville Cardinals lost Gorgui Dieng and Payton Siva, but they’re still plenty talented. Chane Behanon, Wayne Blackshear, Kevin Ware, and Montrezl Harrell were all consensus top 100 recruits, and Louisville brought in three more this year. Those seven elite recruits means that Louisville has more than all but nine teams in college basketball. And that doesn’t even include their best player.
Recruiting gurus missed on Russ Smith, and now the national media is missing on him as well. The USA Today recently listed Smith as the 26th best player in the nation, and described him with one word: “chucker.” Which isn’t exactly what I think of him.
There is an annual debate each season between the old-school and the new-school guys. I’m proudly in the new-school camp, which has been defined by Ken Pomeroy, John Gassaway, Eamonn Brennan, and others. The old-school guys see Russ Smith as a gunner, as a chucker – as a very talented guy who shoots too much. The new school guys see Smith as an exceptionally talented guy who does what his team needs him to do. Two years ago, with a very similar roster, the Cardinals had the 103rd ranked offense in the nation (offensive efficiency). Last year it was No. 5. There was some overall maturation of offensive skills, but another primary difference was that Russ Smith launched ~150 more shots than in the previous season.
This year, with Chane Behanon and Montrezl Harrell’s offensive games rounding into form, Smith probably won’t need to take 33% of the shots when he’s on the floor. But if he does, let him. He’s my preseason national Player of the Year for a reason.
In Conference USA the Memphis Tigers haven’t had to deal with a team rated in Pomeroy’s top 50 in four years (UTEP in 2009-10). The best team in the past three years finished the season at No. 63. Of the teams currently in the AAC, Louisville finished last season No. 1, Cincinnati was No. 48, Connecticut was No. 52, and Temple was No. 62. So it’s clearly a step up in competition.
But Memphis, like Louisville, has a ton of talent on the roster. They have even more consensus top 100 players than Louisville. The Tigers have eight of those players, and the worst a team team with that much talent finished in any conference last year was 12-6. The average record was 14-4. So Memphis will win plenty of games, and the key might be how they fare against Louisville. Unfortunately for Josh Pastner’s club, they’re clearly a step behind the Cardinals.
Memphis’s offense is stuck in neutral because they can’t take care of the ball. Last season they turned it over on 20.8% of their possessions (223rd nationally) and they’ll need to get this fixed if they want to have a chance at winning this conference. I’m assuming they’ll improve at least to the ~150 range, which is why I have them 2nd.
While Cincinnati has the chance to be really good, it’s tough to pick against UConn here. They have a very solid back court in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who are both upperclassmen now (senior and junior, respectively). These two account for about half the shots when they’re on the floor, and their interchangeability makes the Huskies difficult to guard. But – like Memphis – this is a team with a significant Achilles heel. The Huskies can’t control the offensive glass on either end of the floor. The only grab 28.5% of their misses, while their opponents rebound at a 36% clip. This is a difference of five possessions a game, which is holding them from reaching their potential. With a tiny back court and bigs who aren’t good rebounders, I’m not sure who is going to fix that this season.
2013-14 AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Russ Smith, Sr., Louisville
2013-14 AAC FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Danrad Knowles, Houston
2013-14 AAC ALL CONFERENCE TEAM
Chane Behanan, Jr., Louisville
Joe Jackson, Sr., Memphis
Sean Kilpatrick, Sr., Cincinnati
Shabazz Napier, Sr., Connecticut
Russ Smith, Sr., Louisville
8. Central Florida
10. South Florida