American Midseason Catchup: Conference looks to rebound from underwhelming start

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source: AP
UConn’s Ryan Boatright (AP Photo)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American.

MIDSEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ryan Boatright, UConn

Pretty easy choice at this point in the season. Boatright’s averaging 19.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, and he’s also shooting nearly six percentage points better from the field than he did a season ago (44.9% compared to 39.1%).

THE ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM:

  • Boatright
  • Nic Moore, SMU: Averaging 15.4 points and 4.7 assists per game, the junior point guard is shooting nearly 51 percent from the field.
  • Will Cummings, Temple: Cummings (14.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.9 apg) isn’t shooting the ball particularly well (32.9%), but he leads the Owls in scoring and assists, is second in rebounding and is the heart and soul of that team.
  • Jherrod Stiggers, Houston: Stiggers (17.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.6 apg) leads the American in scoring and made three-pointers (44).
  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa: While teammate James Woodard landed on the league’s preseason all-conference list, Harrison (14.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.8 apg) is second on the team in scoring and first in assists.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. UConn’s non-conference games at Florida (January 3) and Stanford (January 17) are of even greater importance due to their lack of a signature win. The Huskies did what they had to do from a scheduling standpoint, putting together one of the tougher non-conference slates around to account for the strength of their league. The problem: they lost the biggest games on said schedule, losing to West Virginia, Texas and Duke (with a last-second loss to Ivy contender Yale to boot). Getting a win at either Florida or Stanford (or better yet, both) will be key for UConn from an NCAA tournament seeding standpoint. And finally being at full strength should help the Huskies as well.

2. Those transfers are paying off for Temple. Fran Dunphy added three quality transfers to the program, with forward Jaylen Bond (Texas) eligible at the start of the season and guards Devin Coleman (Clemson) and Jesse Morgan (UMass) taking the court for the first time in mid-December. They’ve given the Owls much-needed depth, with Bond being one of the best rebounders in the American. Coleman’s been solid, and Morgan is averaging 16 points per game and became Temple’s best three-point shooter the moment he stepped onto the floor. Those two will make life easier for Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey moving forward.

3. As expected, the process of getting their backcourt in order has taken some time at Memphis. The Tigers lost four experienced guards from last season’s NCAA tournament team, so their struggles early in the season weren’t a surprise. But it doesn’t help when a transfer expected to have an impact in Kedren Johnson was essentially playing his way into shape, especially when considering the fact that he had more Division I experience than any guard on Josh Pastner’s roster. The Tigers have played better of late, winning four straight heading into the start of league play, but their best win in that stretch came against USC Upstate. JUCO transfer Trahson Burrell has improved throughout the season, but those guards will need to continue to make strides if Memphis is to contend in the American.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. SMU’s integration of Markus Kennedy into the rotation. Kennedy, who was academically ineligible for the fall semester, undoubtedly makes a difference in the paint for the Mustangs. And while his numbers haven’t approached what they were last season, his return is something opponents have to account for. Yanick Moreira benefits from Kennedy’s presence, as does the versatile Ben Moore. With Nic Moore and Keith Frazier among the contributors on the perimeter SMU has the talent needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. How formidable they are once there will depend upon the play of Kennedy.

2. Amida Brimah’s quest for consistency at UConn. One of the most stunning performances of the season was Brimah’s 40-point, 12-rebound outing in a win over a bad Coppin State team. How did he build on that outing? Zero points, one rebound, two blocks and five fouls in UConn’s loss to Duke in East Rutherford. Brimah’s shooting 71 percent from the field but the 4.4 rebounds per game are a bit underwhelming for a player his size. Sure UConn’s guards are going to handle the majority of their scoring, and Boatright and freshman Daniel Hamilton have been the team’s best rebounders. But if UConn is to win the American and make some noise in the NCAA tournament, Brimah has to be a consistent presence in the middle.

3. Who steps forward offensively for Cincinnati. The Bearcats are without head coach Mick Cronin for health reasons, so that issue is the most important one they face entering conference play (and more important than basketball; get well soon, Coach). But on the floor this is a group that needs someone (or better yet, multiple people) to step forward offensively for a team that doesn’t have a player averaging double figures. Guards Troy Caupain and Farad Cobb are the ones who have the ball in their hands in crunch time, and forward Octavius Ellis and Gary Clark Jr. are second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Can any of those players emerge as a consistent double-digit scorer? The answer will be the difference between going back to the NCAA tournament and winding up in the NIT.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The regular season title – and conference player of the year- will be determined March 1 at the XL Center in Hartford. SMU, which swept the season series last season, visits UConn on that day. The point guards on display, SMU’s Nic Moore and UConn’s Ryan Boatright, are two of the best in the country and the two best players in the American as well. Look for the winner of this game to win the conference, with its best player taking the American’s highest individual honor as well.

2. The American gets three NCAA tournament bids. While it can be argued that five teams enter conference play with a realistic shot of getting into the Big Dance, the underwhelming performance in non-conference play (things picked up late thanks to SMU’s win at Michigan and Temple blowing out Kansas) will be what hurts come Selection Sunday. Add in the fact that the teams in the bottom half of the American have suffered some bad losses, and it becomes tougher for the conference to earn respect in the room when the bracket gets filled out.

3. Once again there will be clear separation between the top and bottom of the conference. What killed the American in regards to both seeding and selection last season was how weak the bottom of the conference was, and that will once again be the case in 2014-15. USF has a ways to go under first-year head coach Orlando Antigua, and UCF is just as bad as they were last season (and Isaiah Sykes and Tristan Spurlock are gone, too). East Carolina doesn’t do much to move the needle, and the same can be said for a transfer-laden Houston squad that may be good for an upset or two in conference play. Can Tulsa and/or Tulane pick up the slack? If so, that would undoubtedly help the American as a whole, but Tulsa’s been inconsistent and Tulane’s best win to date came against Loyola (IL).

POSTSEASON

  • NCAA: UConn, SMU, Temple
  • NIT: Cincinnati, Memphis
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Tulsa, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, UCF, USF

Duke edges North Carolina 63-57 behind Roach, Lively

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
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DURHAM, N.C. — Jeremy Roach scored 20 points, Dereck Lively II had career highs of eight blocks and 14 rebounds and Duke defeated North Carolina 63-57.

Kyle Filipowski added 14 points and Tyrese Proctor 11 for the Blue Devils (17-6, 8-4 ACC), who won their third straight and beat the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-5) for the first time in three meetings, including in last year’s Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 63rd career double-double, extending his own program record, Leaky Black had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Caleb Love added 12 points and RJ Davis 11.

Roach scored eight of Duke’s final 10 points, including the last four after Lively’s tiebreaking dunk with 1:35 to go. North Carolina missed its last five shots, including a trio of 3-point tries in the final minute.

The Blue Devils’ six-point winning margin matched their largest lead.

Neither team reached 40% shooting but Duke outscored North Carolina 20-2 off fast breaks and was 11 of 15 at the free-throw line to only 2 of 3 for the Tar Heels.

The stat sheet was fairly even at halftime when Duke led 33-32 except for one telling stat, a 16-0 advantage for the Blue Devils on fast-break points as they scored repeatedly off transition.

A 14-5 run erased a seven-point North Carolina lead — the Tar Heels’ largest — and put Duke in front 26-24 with just under four minutes left in the half. A Proctor 3-pointer broke the fourth tie before Bacot cut it to the one-point margin at the break. Bacot had 12 points in the first half. Roach had 10.

The game matched two men who played in this rivalry and are now leading the programs they played for: first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer and Hubert Davis, in his second year for North Carolina.

The teams will meet again in their regular-season finale at Chapel Hill on March 4. Duke plays at No. 23 Miami on Monday. North Carolina is at Wake Forest on Tuesday.

No. 13 Iowa State rolls past eighth-ranked Kansas 68-53

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes scored all 15 of his points in the second half as No. 13 Iowa State rolled past No. 8 Kansas 68-53 on Saturday.

Osun Osunniyi added 13 for the Cyclones (16-6, 7-3 Big 12), who stayed within at least a game of front-running Texas in the conference standings. Tamin Lipsey added eight rebounds and 10 assists.

“Today, we came out and played desperate,” Holmes said.

Jalen Wilson led the Jayhawks (18-5, 6-4) with 26 points for his sixth straight game with at least 20. No other Kansas player had more than 8 points.

“It’s not a formula for success for us,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We need balance from our starting five. If one guy feels like he’s got to go do it all on his own, it crashes the offense.”

The Cyclones led for all but 1:14 of the game, building a 34-16 scoring edge in the paint. Kansas struggled early, making just two of their first 10 shots and committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Iowa State shot 46% for the game.

“From the beginning, we gave them some easy buckets,” Wilson said. “That’s something we’ve struggled with (defensively) … the easiest way to get comfortable is easy buckets, layups, stuff like that.”

Iowa State was up 33-21 at the break.

Holmes missed all four shots in the first half, but after getting sick at halftime, he helped the Cyclones stretched the lead to 42-31 early in the second half with a 3-pointer and layup.

“I felt a little nauseous the whole day,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with some sickness over the past week and a half.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks dropped to 3-4 during a stretch in which six of its seven opponents were ranked. The lone unranked foe was Kentucky. … Kansas committed a season-high 20 turnovers Saturday. … The loss to Iowa State was Self’s first in five meetings with second-year Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Iowa State: Improved to 12-0 at home this season and 5-0 in the Big 12. It was also the Cyclones’ fifth win over a top-10 opponent in the past two seasons.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts No. 10 Texas on Monday.

Iowa State: Travels to West Virginia on Wednesday.

Bishop helps No. 10 Texas rally past No. 7 Kansas State, 69-66

Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports
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MANHATTAN, Kan. – Christian Bishop was as frustrated as anyone in a Texas jersey in the first half Saturday. He’d been held without a point by Kansas State and, not surprisingly, the No. 10 Longhorns were facing a double-digit deficit on the road.

Maybe that’s why he punctuated every bucket in the second half with a fist pump.

Bishop poured in 14 points after the break to lead the Longhorns’ comeback, including the go-ahead lay-in with 37 seconds to go, and the new Big 12 leaders held on for a 69-66 victory over the No. 7 Wildcats on Saturday.

“Christian’s been working really hard over the last couple of games to get him back to the level he was playing four or five games ago,” interim Texas coach Rodney Terry said. “He really came out and rebounded and gave our team an incredible lift the way he played the second half.”

Red-hot guard Sir’Jabari Rice also had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Longhorns, and it was his two free throws with nine seconds left that forced the Wildcats into needing a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.

After a quick timeout, the Wildcats’ Ismael Massoud got an open look from the wing but came up well short of the basket, allowing the Longhorns to hold on for their fifth win over a Top 25 team this season.

Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr added 10 points apiece for Texas (19-4, 8-2), which took over sole possession of first place in the rough-and-tumble Big 12 by avenging its overtime loss to the Wildcats (18-5, 6-4) early last month.

“Our league, we don’t have any bad teams,” Terry said. “To come in on a home court against a top-10 team and have this kind of performance, I’ll stack it up with one of the best wins I’ve been part of in 30 years of coaching.”

Keyontae Johnson struggled through foul trouble but still had 16 points to lead the Wildcats, who have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season. Desi Sills scored 11 points and Markquis Nowell had 10, but he also had six turnovers, including one with less than a minute to go and Kansas State down by one.

“I don’t want to wash this one. I want to live with this one for 36 hours,” Wildcats coach Jerome Tang said. “Everybody in our arena did our job except the coaches and players on the floor.”

Kansas State and Texas played one of the most entertaining games of the season in Austin, when they went bucket-for-bucket through regulation and into overtime. The Wildcats eventually escaped with a 116-103 victory.

Early on Saturday, Texas looked as if it would struggle to score half as much.

With the Wildcats clamping down on the perimeter, the Longhorns kept throwing the ball away, and at one point had seven turnovers against just five made shots. They also went a stretch of more than 7 minutes with just one field goal.

Kansas State took advantage of their offensive malaise.

Despite the sure-handed Nowell’s turnover trouble, and leading scorer Johnson picking up his third foul with 5 1/2 minutes left in the half, the Wildcats steadily built a lead. It reached as many as 14 before Texas made three free throws in the final second to get within 36-25 heading to the locker room.

It was the spark the Longhorns needed: They made their first six shots of the second half, and their run spanning the break eventually reached 17-4 while getting them within 40-39 with 15 minutes left in the game.

“There were points in the second half we did get rushed,” Nowell said, “and it led to turnovers and fast-break points.”

Rice’s 3-pointer a few minutes later gave Texas its first lead since the opening minutes. And when the Wildcats went on a nearly 5-minute scoring drought, Bishop began to assert control, the Creighton transfer scoring 11 points over a 6-minute stretch and punctuating each of them with a roar and a fist pump.

Just like their first meeting Jan. 3, though, the rematch Saturday was destined to go down to the wire.

“There’s no blowouts in our league,” Tang said.

BIG PICTURE

Texas could do nothing right in the first half and nothing wrong in the second, shooting 57% from the floor over the final 20 minutes. Most of the success came in the paint; the Longhorns were just 4 of 16 from the 3-point arc.

Kansas State couldn’t overcome 19 turnovers, including six by Nowell, who had 36 points, nine assists and eight rebounds when the teams met in Austin. He had just six rebounds and three assists on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Texas heads down Interstate 70 to face eighth-ranked Kansas on Monday night.

Kansas State wraps its homestand against No. 15 TCU on Tuesday night.

James leads No. 2 Tennessee over No. 25 Auburn, 46-43

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Josiah-Jordan James scored 15 points and 14 rebounds to lead No. 2 Tennessee to a 46-43 victory over No. 25 Auburn on Saturday in a game in which every point was difficult and nothing flowed.

“Both teams played as hard as they could,” said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. “Every possession was a grind.”

The Volunteers (19-4, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 27% from the field and 9.5% from the 3-point line. They were recovering from a Wednesday loss to Florida in which they shot 28%.

Tennessee had a 47-42 edge on the boards and 15-8 on the offensive glass.

“A game like this shows a lot of character,” said James. “I knew coming in (rebounding) was what I’d be called to do. I had to use the body God’s given me.”

“Both teams did a fantastic job,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. “To hold Tennessee to 27% … It doesn’t get any better than that.”

“I don’t think there’s a more physical league in the country,” said Barnes.

The Tigers (17-6, 7-3) were led by Johni Broome with 11 points and nine rebounds and K.D. Johnson off the bench with 10 points. Auburn managed only 24% from the field and 11% from the 3-point line.

Jaylin Williams made two free throws with 2:47 to play cut Tennessee’s lead to 40-38. Santiago Vescovi hit his first 3-pointer of the game and got a four-point play out of it for a 44-38 lead. A 3-pointer by Wendell Green Jr. cut the advantage to 44-41 with 30 seconds left.

A turnover on the inbounds play gave Auburn the ball with 23 seconds to play. Broome got a tip-in to make it a one-point game, and Zakai Zeigler made two free throws.

Green’s last-second 3-point to tie clanked out.

“At the end, Wendell Green got the shot off and got fouled,” said Pearl. “Nothing got called.”

Auburn scored eight straight points to start the game. Tennessee followed with a six-point run and an eight-point spurt early in the second half. Those were the longest runs of the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee was in the No. 2 spot in the poll for two days before falling at Florida. Under Barnes, the Vols now have 25 wins over teams ranked in the Top 25. . Auburn had been clinging to the elite at No. 25 this week. The Tigers have been ranked as high as No. 11, coming in the fifth week of the season.

STAT SNACKS

Since statistics started being kept in 1999-2000, Tennessee is on pace to be the all-time leader in field-goal percentage defense (.348; Stanford, 1999-2000, is second .352) and 3-point defense (.225; Norfolk State, 2004-05, is second .253). . Through 22 games, the similarities between last year’s Vols point guard Kennedy Chandler (now with the Memphis Grizzlies) and this year’s Ziegler are striking (points per game: Chandler 13.5, Ziegler 11.4; rebounds: 3.0, 3.0; assists: 4.95, 5.05).

UP NEXT

Auburn: The Tigers will host Texas A&M on Tuesday night.

Tennessee: The Vols will tackle in-state rival Vanderbilt in Nashville on Wednesday.

Pedulla’s 22 points lift Virginia Tech past No. 6 Virginia

Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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BLACKSBURG, Va. – Sean Pedulla scored 22 points and Virginia Tech beat No. 6 Virginia 74-68 on Saturday, snapping the Cavaliers’ seven-game winning streak.

Pedulla made 6 of 13 from the floor as the Hokies (14-10, 4-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) posted their biggest win of the season. He added 8 of 9 from the free-throw line. Justin Mutts added 17 points.

Virginia Tech never trailed and shot 50% from the floor for the fourth straight game.

“There was no pouting (after the Miami loss). Just back to practice the next day,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said of his team, which lost 92-83 to No. 23 Miami on Tuesday. “Yeah, we’ve got Virginia coming in. Yes, in-state and all of that stuff. We’ve got another opportunity to play another really good opponent. We’ve got a chance to play Virginia Tech basketball and fight and compete and adhere to the things that are important to us – and we did that by and large on both ends of the floor.”

Jayden Gardner’s 20 points led Virginia (17-4, 9-3), which saw its usually stingy defense struggle. Kihei Clark finished with 17 points for the Cavaliers, while Reece Beekman had 15. Armaan Franklin, who had scored in double figures in 10 straight games, had six.

The Cavaliers tied the game at 38 on Gardner’s basket with 15:09 remaining, but the Hokies outscored Virginia 17-7 over the next seven minutes and never looked back.

Mutts hit 7 of 11 from the floor and added eight assists and four rebounds. Grant Basile had 14 points and Hunter Cattoor scored all 10 of his points in the second half for the Hokies.

“The heart was there, but to win in this setting against a team that’s playing good basketball, and Tech is, and they’ve got the players, you’ve got to be hard and smart,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “You can’t just be all hard. We were (hard and smart) for stretches, and they made us make some adjustments that helped a little bit, but they made the big shots.”

TIP-INS

Virginia: The Cavaliers suffered a rare poor outing on the defensive end, and it cost them. They led the ACC in scoring defense (60.2 ppg) going in, but allowed the Hokies to score 74 points and shoot 50.9% (27 of 53) from the floor. The Hokies became just the third team this season to shoot better than 50% against Virginia and scored 40 points in the paint.

“They run a lot of action, whether it’s dribble handoffs, fakes, they keep you on your toes, and it takes an incredible, and I think disciplined (effort) to keep them in front and keep them out of the paint,” Bennett said.

Virginia Tech: After losing eight of their previous 10 games, the Hokies needed a big win to help their thin NCAA Tournament resume. Registering 19 assists and turning the ball over just eight times were keys.

“Obviously, we keep up with stuff throughout the year, like `Oh, this would be a huge win on our resume,”‘ Pedulla said. “We do think about (the NCAA Tournament), and we obviously want to get there again. We know our team’s capable of it. We’re focused on it and we’re just trying to stack those wins on top of each other. I think this win definitely helps us.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Cavaliers were one-point underdogs going into the game, so they shouldn’t drop more than a few spots in Monday’s poll.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Hosts N.C. State on Tuesday.

Virginia Tech: Takes on Boston College in Blacksburg on Wednesday.