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Top of American Athletic Conference as good as any, tourney hopefuls no mystery

The American Athletic Conference is basically a group of outcasts who either didn’t get picked up by a major conference or is on the fast track out, but don’t tell that to the five teams atop the leaderboard.

If you’ve followed the conference all season, you are well aware that the cut line between the top and bottom of the conference might as well be carved in stone. More than likely, the top half of the conference will make the NCAA Tournament while maybe one (Houston Cougars) of the remaining five will get an invite to the NIT, CBI, or CIT.

Collectively, the top five in the AAC are as good as any other top five in any conference in America.

The two teams tied atop the standings in the American are No. 7 Louisville and No. 11 Cincinnati, who share identical overall (24-5) and conference records (13-3 AAC) and split their season series. A game back in third is No. 23 Southern Methodist (23-6, 11-4) followed by unranked Connecticut (23-6, 11-5) and No. 21 Memphis (22-7, 11-5).

Then you get to the great divide.

In sixth place is Houston (15-14, 7-9) followed by Rutgers (11-18, 5-11), South Florida (12-17, 3-13), and Central Florida (11-16, 3-13). In the cellar sit the Temple Owls (7-21, 2-14), who just last season advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Both UCF and Houston won 20 games a season ago but only the latter made a postseason tournament appearance (CBI). Don’t forget South Florida. The Bulls are just two years removed from a surprising run to the third round of the NCAA tourney. These teams might be in the bottom half this year but they’re hardly perennial doormats (besides the Scarlet Knights).

To put some numbers to it, the top five teams are 116-29 (.800 winning percentage) while the bottom five are just 56-86 (.394 winning percentage).

Does this mean the top teams in the American aren’t really that strong because of how weak the bottom half is? Hardly. Let’s not forget who cut the nets down in Atlanta last April.

So just how good is Louisville, you ask?

Very good. Head coach Rick Pitino is up to his old tricks (winning) and is doing so without last year’s Final Four all-tournament team member Chane Behanan, who on December 30 was dismissed from the team after failing a drug test. A year ago, Behanan’s 15 point, 12 rebound performance helped the Cards capture the NCAA title.

The name you associate Louisville with is American Player of the Year candidate Russ Smith (17.7 points, 4.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds per game) but the guy that somehow goes unnoticed is Montrezl Harrell. Pitino speaks glowingly of his 6-foot-8-inch, 235-pound forward, saying, “Montrezl is really developing into a great basketball player. He came in a dunker, a shot blocker..he’s one of the brightest guys on our team from a scouting standpoint, from knowing the game. He picks it up right away. He owns up to what’s going wrong.” You’d be hard pressed not to notice Harrell. The sophomore is typically the most physically imposing person in the arena and they love him (and his dunks) in Louisville.

The one knock on Louisville has to be their strength of schedule which will hurt their seeding in the tournament. They’re 17-0 against teams with an RPI of 150 or worse and just 4-5 against the top 50 in RPI. They’re a very good basketball team with a high-powered offense (81.7 ppg) with talented guards (Smith, Luke Hancock) and a presence in the paint with Harrell and Mangok Mathiang. They’re limiting opponents to just over 61 points per contest and under 40 percent shooting.

What about Cincinnati?

Quick, first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Bearcats? Sean Kilpatrick. The senior is also a serious contender for conference POY honors and for good reason. In SI.com’s Brian Hamilton‘s feature about Kilpatrick on February 21, it’s easy to see how much he means to head coach Mick Cronin‘s Bearcats — everything. He’s just the second Bearcat ever to score at least 2,000 points. The other? Oscar Robertson

Against Connecticut on Saturday, Kilpatrick was just shot just 25% (4-16) and was held to 16 points while committing seven turnovers, a far cry from his 26 point, 12 rebound performance earlier this year when they beat the Huskies.

The problem for Cincinnati is they lack any true scorer besides Kilpatrick, who’s averaging 20.5 points per game. Senior forward Justin Jackson (11.2 ppg) has nearly quadrupled his scoring from a year ago which certainly helps but after that, the drop off is tremendous.

Kilpatrick is their horse and they’ll ride him as far into March as his hot hand can take them.

SMU can’t be that good, can they?

They sure can. Head coach Larry Brown and the Mustangs were just 15-17 a year ago but earlier this month found themselves in the top 25 for the first time since Ronald Reagan was President. A soft schedule (SOS: 154) coupled with losses at South Florida and Temple isn’t helping their credibility but they did sweep UConn and split with Cincinnati.

They already dropped a game to Louisville, 71-63, in early January but will get another crack at the Cardinals on March 5 when Louisville visits the Moody Coliseum, where SMU is perfect on the year. Three days later they’ll conclude the regular season at Memphis, who they beat by 15 at home.

Unlike Louisville, Cincinnati,and UConn, SMU doesn’t have one household name on their roster. Offensively, they knock down 49.3 percent of their shots, good for ninth in the Division I, while limiting opponents to just 36.8 percent shooting, second in the country. Their second-leading scorer, Markus Kennedy, explains the key to their stifling defense, saying “It’s the same every game. The leading scorer on every team, we try to lock up.” He makes it seem so easy.

For coach Brown and the Mustangs, it’ll be about the defense come tourney time. They’ve had to face some pretty prolific scorers in the AAC, so they’ll be ready for anyone’s best shot.

Sleep on the Mustangs if you want but they’re no fluke.

UConn isn’t even ranked, they’re not for real.

Au contraire. After a win against No. 11 Cincinnati, they should crack the polls once again.

They’ve got the third in a trifecta of standout guards in the AAC who’s vying for the POY trophy, Shabazz Napier. If you’re not from New England, you probably see or hear about him from time to time on SportsCenter, most notably when he beat then-No. 15 Florida at the buzzer.

He’s as dynamic a scorer as there is in college basketball but does it all for head coach Kevin Ollie. He leads the Huskies in scoring, rebounding, and assists this year and has had too many clutch shots to count. In Storrs, his heroics are reminiscent of the great Kemba Walker, who as you may recall, led the Huskies to a national championship three years ago. If you’d like a look back, SI’s Andy Staples documented Kemba’s journey through the tourney in 2011. He’ll likely do another feature on Napier is these Huskies make a similar run.

Napier (17.8 ppg, 6 rpg, 5.3 apg) has one of the best supporting casts in the league in fellow backcourt mate Ryan Boatright (12.4 ppg, 3.5 apg), sharp-shooter Niels Giffey (50% 3PT) and forward DeAndre Daniels (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg). 

As long as the game is within reach and Napier has the ball in his hands, the Huskies have a fighter’s chance.

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Memphis is a fraud.

Not even close. They just capped a season sweep of Louisville with a 72-66 win on Saturday ”That’s a big-time win,” head coach Josh Pastner said. Indeed.

A few months ago you’d have yourself a valid argument thinking Memphis wasn’t a contender. Early in the season, like so many schools choose to do, they scheduled cupcakes like Austin Peay, Jackson State, and Nicholls State, among others. The Tigers did, however, face off with Oklahoma State twice in a two-week span, once in Stillwater (a 101-80 loss) and the other in the championship game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando (a 73-68 win).

Memphis fought hard to erase an early 12-point deficit and had a chance to either beat No. 16 Florida or send the game to overtime, but Joe Jackson had his show partially blocked and the Tigers fell, 77-75.

They’re a lock for the tournament and likely improved their seeding drastically with the win(s) over the Cardinals. Pastner has silenced a lot of his critics with some marquee wins and has the Tigers ready to roar into March.

Yes, it’s a new league, but the teams atop the standings are not new to winning. Sure, Louisville is out of here next year but we live in the now, and as it stands, two teams in the AAC have won the national championship in the past three years. Five more hopefuls locks can improve upon that number once tourney time arrives.

They are for real America(n)!

Tags: Aac American Athletic Conference Louisville Cardinals Rick Pitino Russ Smith

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