No. 24 UConn picked up a season sweep over Memphis with its solid 86-81 American Athletic Conference win on Saturday at home. The Huskies (20-5, 8-4) needed overtime and some Shabazz Napier heroics to advance past Memphis (19-6, 8-4), but Kevin Ollie’s bunch will be happy with the win over a talented Memphis team.
Napier hit the critical three-point play with a minute left to tie the game for UConn and put the game into overtime and led the Huskies with a career-high 34 points while also adding four assists, four steals and five rebounds in the big AAC win.
Ryan Boatright (21 points) also hit a key three-pointer in overtime and UConn was good at the free throw line down the stretch in going 29-for-36 from the free throw line overall.
It wasn’t a pretty win, as they only shot 40 percent from the field and had 10 team assists, but UConn limited themselves to only six turnovers and stayed in the game long enough for their guards to take over and make plays down the stretch.
With Connecticut role players defending the rim or providing hustle (Lasan Kromah), the Huskies can remain calm knowing that they have a couple takeover guys down the stretch.
If UConn can add a consistent third scoring option behind Napier and Boatright, they’ll be really tough to stop in these final few weeks. Right now the Huskies are limiting turnovers and they can be a bit isolation heavy, but they mostly take make-able shots.
The Huskies have a reasonable schedule down the stretch with home games against SMU and Cincinnati and a road game at Louisville. Can UConn make a run and win some games before the tournament?
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
The inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference — or American as they prefer — features the defending national champions in Louisville for only one year before they leave for the ACC, but it should make for some great competition at the top as the Cardinals, Memphis and UConn will slug it out for the AAC title.
Cincinnati, Temple, South Florida, Houston and SMU all have talented pieces in place for potential NCAA Tournament runs while Central Florida and one-year AAC member Rutgers (Big Ten next season) are at the bottom.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. The champs are still loaded: Louisville loses senior leader Peyton Siva, defensive stopper Gorgui Dieng and forward Chane Behanan is suspended, but the Cardinals still return Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Montrezl Harrell and Kevin Ware should be up to speed soon. Wayne Blackshear is also finally healthy and Chris Jones is the top junior college transfer in the country.
2. Best backcourt won’t be crowned overnight: Between Louisville (Smith, Jones, Ware and Terry Rozier), Memphis (Joe Jackson, Mike Dixon, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson) and UConn (Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun) can all vie for the honor of the best backcourt in the American — and maybe the country — but that claim will have to be decided on the floor.
3. The return of UConn: Tournament-ineligible last season due to a poor APR, the Huskies have the talent to make a postseason run behind their aforementioned experienced backcourt and the late-season play of junior DeAndre Daniels. The key for the Huskies will be finding an interior presence somewhere, be it Tyler Olander, Phil Nolan or Kentan Facey.
4. SMU has a lot of new (and talented) pieces: Led by McDonald’s All-American shooting guard Keith Frazier, Larry Brown will have quite an infusion of talent in year two at SMU. But how will they all integrate together? JuCo center Yanick Moreira, Illinois State point guard transfer Nic Moore and freshman two-guard Sterling Brown are also potential key pieces.
5. The American has talent from top-to-bottom: The heavy-hitters Louisville, Memphis, UConn and Cincinnati should compete for NCAA Tournament bids right away but other teams in the league could surprise thanks to a lot of returning talent. Temple, South Florida, Houston, and SMU all have a lot of pieces and with it being a new league one — or more — could thrive right off the bat.
PRESEASON AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Russ Smith, Louisville
An explosive off-guard with the ball, Smith averaged 18.7 points per game last season but must be more of a leader if Louisville is to remain in national title talks. A key question with Smith will be whether or not he embraces his role on this team — ‘Russdiculous’ actually works in Louisville’s system — or if he spends his senior season trying to prove he can be a point guard to NBA teams.
THE REST OF THE AMERICAN’S FIRST TEAM:
Shabazz Napier, UConn: Experienced senior guard can score or run an offense and remains one of the nation’s most underrated guards.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Averaged 17 points in the Big East and remains Cincinnati’s No. 1 scoring option.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Breakout postseason and summer for the sophomore big man could lead to big season.
Ryan Boatright, UConn: Explosive junior guard can score and push tempo with best of them.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
Joe Jackson, Memphis
Luke Hancock, Louisville
TaShawn Thomas, Houston
Michael Dixon, Memphis
Isaiah Sykes, Central Florida
BREAKOUT STAR: Omar Calhoun (UConn)
Calhoun is poised for a big year after a strong freshman season where he averaged 11.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-5 wing will have the benefit of playing with two of the conference’s top five returning scorers and assists leaders in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright and the trio will be tough to guard.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Larry Brown (SMU)
It’s not the kind of pressure from fans or administration, but time is not on SMU’s side. Their last NCAA Tournament? 1993. Some of the Mustang players weren’t born yet. Head coach Larry Brown is 73, which means that his time in Dallas is limited. Brown will have a few years to win at SMU and he gets a major talent influx this year with transfers and a strong recruiting class.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : This new league was better than we thought.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The battle of the backcourts between Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
December 28th, Louisville at Kentucky
November 19th, Memphis at Oklahoma State
December 14th, Cincinnati at Xavier
December 2nd, Florida at UConn
February 8th, Gonzaga at Memphis
1. Louisville: The champs return a number of talented pieces and add best junior college guard Chris Jones and get a healthy Wayne Blackshear. How soon does Behanan return from suspension?
2. Memphis: Incredibly experienced senior-laden backcourt leads a talented group that needs Shaq Goodwin and its talented freshman class to mature quickly.
3. Connecticut: Napier and Boatright are as good any backcourt in the country but how much have Omar Calhoun and DeAndre Daniels improved?
4. Cincinnati: After Sean Kilpatrick who scores for the Bearcats? Mick Cronin’s bunch will still defend like crazy but questions on offense linger.
5. Temple: Fran Dunphy’s teams always compete and even without Khalif Wyatt, Will Cummings and Anthony Lee still gives them plenty.
6. South Florida: One-two punch of playmaking guard Anthony Collins and forward Victor Rudd gives the Bulls a nice foundation going forward.
7. Houston: TaShawn Thomas returns from a 16.9 and 9.8 junior campaign and Danuel House should make the leap on the wing as a sophomore.
8. SMU: A lot of new talent and transfers for the Mustangs, but how does it all mesh together in a new league?
9. Central Florida: Six of top seven return, including first-team All-Conference USA guard Isaiah Sykes.
10. Rutgers: The Eddie Jordan era begins in New Jersey as the Scarlet Knights look to turn around their program.
Incoming Memphis freshman Pookie Powell is enrolled in classes, but will redshirt for the 2013-14 season, his head coach Josh Pastner announced today.
This is a win all the way around.
Prior to even being admitted to Memphis, it was questionable whether the Top 100 recruit, according to Rivals.com, would qualify academically. PawOfTheTiger.com reported back in April of 2013 that it wasn’t so much Powell’s high school grades that were an issue, but rather his ACT score. Fast forward several months, and Powell qualified and is good to go at Memphis. That’s a win, in and of itself for Memphis basketball.
Even though he is eligible, Powell probably was not going to receive many minutes this coming season, considering Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson are all ahead of him.
The fact that Powell can learn Pastner’s system and style of coaching without using up a year of eligibility, along with being able to focus on getting on a good track academically without the pressures of playing as a freshman, another win for all parties.
Pastner led Memphis to a 31-5 season and undefeated mark in the C-USA. The Tigers beat Saint Mary’s in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament, but lost to Michigan State, 70-48, in the next round.
“I love Memphis,” Pastner told CBSSports.com. “I love my president, Dr. Shirley Raines. I love my athletic director, Tom Bowen. I love Tiger Nation. And I love my team. My focus has always been on Memphis.”
USC has now lost out on two candidates that were once considered targets to fill the spot that was vacated by Kevin O’Neill midway through the season and that has since been filled on an interim basis by assistant Bob Cantu. Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon was considered a candidate but recently signed a contract extension that will keep him at Pittsburgh through the 2022-23 season.
Pastner staying put means Memphis will reap the benefits of the high-level recruiting class that he has put together for the Tigers first season in the soon-to-be-renamed Big East in 2013-14. The class consists of five players, four of whom are among the Top 100 in the nation. The most high-profile among them is 6-8 power forward Austin Nichols, a Tennessee native who is in the nation’s Top 25.
Indiana has now lost three times this season as a No. 1-ranked team, but the story is more about Minnesota. Coach Tubby Smith brought in a sports psychologist to talk to his team prior to Tuesday’s matchup and it paid off. The Gophers were focused and played with energy, led by senior Trevor Mbakwe’s 21 points and twelve rebounds.
The defense was able to disrupt Cody Zeller, Yogi Ferrell, and Christian Watford for most of the game and seal it down the stretch. Minnesota is No. 1 in strength of schedule for a reason. Being in the Big Ten adds to that. But Tuesday’s win is a big boost to a team that was likely already in the NCAA tournament, thus helping to solidify their spot.
The Volunteers needed a signature win on their resume and got it Tuesday. By getting a win over a Top 10 team, Cuonzo Martin’s squad now shifts to sit squarely on the bubble. Their final three regular season games are favorable, too. Tennessee plays Georgia and Auburn on the road before returning home to host Missouri.
Memphis has looked impressive against Conference USA this season. The key there is “against Conference USA.” As soon as Josh Pastner’s team got an opportunity against a non-conference for the first time in nearly two months, we saw shades of the Memphis team that dropped out of the Top 25 early in the year. Going 6-of-18 from the free throw line certainly did not help.
Wisconsin is taking care of business. The Badgers are currently tied for second in the Big Ten with Michigan State and have Purdue and Penn State in their final three regular season games, along with the Spartans. Those are two very winnable games, plus another that will be a battle. Or, as we say, par for the course in the nation’s best conference.
From the opening minutes, Mbakwe was beating up Indiana on the interior. His vicious block on Cody Zeller set the tone and his energy was sustained throughout, helping his team to a big win. It’s the kind of lead-by-example display that you might come to expect from a senior leader.
2. Jordan McRae, Tennessee (27 points, seven rebounds, four assists)
Tennessee, much like Minnesota, had a chance for a signature win Tuesday and got it. What Mbakwe was to the Gophers, McRae was to the Volunteers. He had a stellar first half with 17 points, but kept his foot on the pedal for another 10 in the second to help Tennessee close out and get the win.
3. Jerrelle Benimon, Towson (31 points, seven rebounds, four assists)
Benimon will be the CAA’s Player of the Year and deservedly so. In a game that his team needed to retain second place in the conference, he came up big. Twenty-two of his 31 points came in the first half and he led the Tigers to an 85-81 overtime victory.
1. Cody Zeller, Indiana (9 points, 2-of-9 FG)
Zeller was tentative against Minnesota and that could be a cause for concern for Indiana as the Hoosiers come down the back stretch of the Big Ten schedule and into the postseason. He was bothered inside by the energy from Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, as well as the length of Rodney Williams. Simply put, the Hoosiers need Zeller to be an elite complement to swingman Victor Oladipo if they want to win in March.
2. Memphis from the Free Throw Line (6-of-18)
In a game that ended up coming down to two points, shooting 33 percent from the free throw line is the easiest problem to highlight. The Tigers typically shoot around 69 percent from the line, but Tuesday night was abysmal. The result is a team without a big-time win who got exposed by a non-conference opponent.
3. Florida’s Depth Issues
The Gators essentially played with a six-man rotation in their loss to Tennessee on Tuesday night. Added to that, swingman Casey Prather had to leave the game late in the second half after a collision left his head bloodied. This will continue to be a major concern for Florida moving into March, especially against teams that can work the interior and wear down the Gators inside.
Memphis extended its winning streak to 18 games and clinched at least a share of the Conference USA with its victory over Southern Miss, 89-73, Saturday afternoon at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn.
Since dropping out of the Top 25 and being the team that became fashionable to label “disappointing” after its performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Memphis has been on a tear. Coach Josh Pastner’s team has lost just one game in that span (22-1) and have an average margin of victory of just under 14 points per game.
A key has been point guard Joe Jackson, who has only failed to score in double figures three times since Atlantis and had 15 points, five rebounds, and four assists Saturday against Southern Miss.
In a weak C-USA this season, Memphis is doing all that it can. It does not allow for the Tigers to get a quality win in conferences games, rather into turns into a series of dodging possible resume blemishes. But Memphis has now hung 89 points on Southern Miss both at home and on the road and won by double digits twice.
That gives coach Josh Pastner’s team some room to operate. If Memphis slips up and loses in the conference tournament in Tulsa next month, they will still be in a position to grab an at-large bid. Southern Miss on the other hand likely needs to secure the automatic through the conference tournament to get avoid falling into the NIT.