montrezl harrell

2014 American Athletic Conference Tournament Preview: Louisville looks to win its only year in the AAC

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source: Getty Images
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Not many knew what to expect in the first year of the American Athletic Conference. But after a season that saw five likely NCAA Tournament teams (Cincinnati, Louisville, SMU, UConn, Memphis) and three All-Americans (Sean Kilpatrick, Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith), it is safe to say that this is a really good league this season. Cincinnati and Louisville tied atop the league standings — with Cincinnati getting the No. 1 seed by virtue of a coin flip; seriously — and both teams will be favored to reach the finals and face each other for the tourney title. Can Louisville win the league in its only year in the American before moving on to the ACC?

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Memphis, TN

Final: March 15, 6:00 p.m., ESPN

Favorite: Louisville has won nine of its final 10 games of the regular season and with sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell peaking at the right time, this looks like a dangerous team that is poised for a run. Harrell is averaging 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game over his last five games — four of them against ranked opponents — and when you add his interior scoring with Louisville’s deep stable of talented guards, they’ll be tough to beat in Memphis.

Russ Smith is playing at an All-American level — as both shot-happy Russdiculous or as a distributor — and Luke Hancock, Chris Jones and Wayne Blackshear are all capable of being solid role players and perimeter scoring threats.

And if they lose?: Cincinnati was the surprise of the American during the season as they tied with Louisville atop the conference standings and won the No. 1 seed via a coin flip. Mick Cronin’s bunch really defends and hits the glass hard and Sean Kilpatrick should be a first team All-American on everyone’s list after putting up 20.9 points and 4.5 rebounds a game.

Other Contenders:

  • Memphis: With homecourt advantage and four senior guards, the Tigers are very dangerous in this event. The frontcourt duo of Austin Nichols and Shaq Goodwin have made great strides playing together since the beginning of the season.
  • SMU: Larry Brown has done a tremendous job turning this program around and Nic Moore is one of the best point guards in a conference full of great guards.
  • UConn: Shabazz Napier played at an All-American level this season, but he’ll need more help from Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and company to have a shot at winning this thing.

Sleeper: Houston

The Cougars own wins over UConn and Memphis and played first-round opponent SMU within single digits in both losses. TaShawn Thomas and Danuel House are a talented enough inside-outside, one-two punch to give any team in the league problems.

Deeper Sleeper: Rutgers

The American is definitely stacked at the top and weak at the bottom this season but Rutgers has been in some real fights since losing by 48 at Louisville on February 16th. Since then, Rutgers has lost by six points or less to Memphis, Cincinnati, Central Florida and UConn and owns a win over South Florida.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Nic Moore, SMU: Illinois State transfer has made a major impact on the Mustangs with his poise and shooting ability (48% FG, 45% 3PT, 84% FT).
  • TaShawn Thomas, Houston: The junior averaged 15.5 points, eight rebounds, and 2.6 blocks a game on 59 percent shooting from the field.
  • Myles Mack, Rutgers: The junior point guard can score (15.9 points per game) or distribute (4.4 assists per game) and he’s a threat to knock in perimeter jumpers.

CBT Prediction: Louisville over Cincinnati

Best Big East Tournament Memory: Since the AAC is technically the old Big East, that means I’m allowed to do this:

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.