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AAC Tournament: Louisville looks like a title favorite with blowout win of UConn

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On Thursday, Louisville beat Rutgers by 61 points in the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament.

On Friday, Russ Smith scored a school-record 27 of his 42 points in the first half of a semifinal win over Houston.

On Saturday, there were no records set, but Louisville beat UConn by double-digits for the fifth consecutive time, ending what had grown to be a terrific rivalry with a 71-61 AAC title game win that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. A Luke Hancock three, a Shabazz Napier turnover and a layup by Terry Rozier in the last 30 seconds of the first half put the Cardinals up 37-23 going into the break, and the Huskies never really challenged Louisville the rest of the way.

MORE: New Mexico knocks off San Diego State in the MWC title game

That will vault Louisville into Selection Sunday as arguably the hottest team in the country.

Don’t believe me?

Well, the Cardinals won their three AAC tournament games by a combined 100 points. Seriously. 100 points. That came after they best UConn by 33 points exactly one week ago today. Ten days ago, they overcame a 14-point first half deficit at SMU, one of the toughest home courts in the country, to beat the Mustangs by 13. Since a Janaury 9th loss to Memphis at home, Louisville has won 16 of their last 18 games, with the two losses being by three points at home to Cincinnati and by six points at Memphis in a game that the Cards choked away an eight-point lead in the final three minutes.

For the third straight season, Rick Pitino has got his team playing their best basketball in March, which is a scary thought considering that Louisville is currently sitting at No. 2 in KenPom’s rankings and have spent the majority of the season sitting in the top five.

Do you want to play this team right now?

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I certainly don’t, and I’m sure that there are quite a few No. 1 seeds that are thinking the same thing. Because right now, not only does Louisville look like they are one of the three or four best teams in the country, but they did so little in non-conference play that there is a legitimate possibility that they could end up being a No. 4 seed.

Imagine that?

Imagine being a No. 1 seed that has to play the Cardinals in the Sweet 16?

Pretty miserable, right?

That’s still a long ways away, however, and with a number of games with significant seeding implications coming on Sunday, we can’t assume anything at this point.

But I will say this: With Russ Smith playing the best basketball of his career; with Montrezl Harrell dominating the paint for the last month; with Chris Jones finally finding a way to mesh with Smith; with Luke Hancock healthy; with the Louisville defense hitting another gear; with all of that happening right now, we’re realizing that there was a legitimate reason that the Cardinals were a consensus top three team back in the preseason.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.