For a conference whose first league games haven’t even tipped off yet, the AAC is doing pretty well for itself in its NCAA basketball debut. Defending national champion Louisville is the highest-ranked of three Top 25 programs in the newly formed 10-team league, but there’s plenty of competition here for Rick Pitino’s squad.
One of the most intriguing teams has a big-name coach of its own: Larry Brown, in his second season at the helm for SMU. The well-traveled bench boss has the Mustangs off to their best start in years, thanks to a host of transfers including ex-Villanova forward Markus Kennedy.
Herein, a closer look at the Mustangs and the rest of the teams, games and individual stars who will shine the brightest in the first-ever season of American Athletic Conference hoops.
Central Florida 8-3
South Florida 8-4
Transfer-driven SMU is no pushover
McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier was the addition that got the most hype, but Larry Brown also brought in a raft of transfers led by former Illinois State PG Nic Moore. The older newbies have been the headliners in wins over Wyoming and Texas A&M (plus a narrow loss to an outstanding Virginia squad).
Memphis is more than just a backcourt
The Tigers’ intimidating collection of perimeter scorers has gotten plenty of help from some youngsters down low. Sophomore Shaq Goodwin has been a terrific (and versatile) defensive presence, while freshman Austin Nichols has shown flashes of serious scoring punch.
Big East defense is alive and well
The ex-Big East programs at the top of the standings—Louisville, UConn, Cincinnati—all know how to shut down opposing scorers. Ball-handlers used to the more freewheeling Conference USA will learn to fear ball-hawks such as Shabazz Napier (1.9 steals per game for the Huskies) and Chris Jones (2.0 for the Cards).
Can anybody exploit Louisville’s forwards?
The Cardinals have lost to their two ranked opponents this season because their only scoring comes from the backcourt (Russ Smith and Chris Jones). UConn and Memphis both feature offense-first frontcourts that might not be able to push the Cards around but watch out for physical Cincinnati.
How bad will the have-nots be?
The gulf between the top half of the standings and the rest of the league looks as wide as the geographical footprint of this Houston-to-Storrs conference. South Florida and Temple, in particular, are both recent NCAA tournament competitors who now look like they’d struggle in the mid-major CAA, let alone the AAC.
What kind of playing style will the league gravitate towards?
The Big East was as physical as they come, with smothering defenses that locked down even its prodigious offensive talent, but only a few of those defensive powers have made the transition to the new league. Will UConn and Cincinnati be enough to impose a similar personality on this league, or will fast-breaking Conference USA-style offenses become the order of the day?
UConn at Louisville (Mar. 8)
The two favorites for the league crown meet in the season finale, with the Cards coming off a brutal two-game road trip to Memphis and SMU. If they don’t have enough left in the tank to excel against the Huskies, Napier will be happy to steal a win at the KFC Yum! Center.
SMU at Cincinnati (Jan. 1)
The Mustangs won’t have to wait long to prove they’re ready for their tough new league, jumping into the deep end with a conference-opening road trip against the punishing Bearcats D. Guards Nick Russell and Ryan Manuel will have their hands full with Cincy star Sean Kilpatrick and his 19.1 points per game.
Memphis at Louisville (Jan. 9)
Sadly, Louisville (which figures in the best geographic rivalries created by the ACC) is only around for a year. Tigers fans had better enjoy the short trip—and the marquee backcourt battles between Joe Jackson and Russ Smith—while they can.
Austin Nichols, Memphis
He doesn’t have much bulk to him, but Nichols’ long arms (at 6’8”) have made him a solid shot-blocker to go with his sporadic offensive brilliance (19 points on 9-of-16 shooting against LSU).
John Egbunu, South Florida
Hulking center John Egbunu doesn’t get many scoring chances in the Bulls’ slowdown offense, but he’s still chipping in 7.8 points per contest. More importantly, he’s contributing 5.9 boards and 1.7 blocks a night on the defensive end.
Troy Caupain, Cincinnati
The closest thing the Bearcats have to a true point guard is Troy Caupain, who’s been coming off the bench so far. The 6’3” Virginian is dishing out 2.2 assists and recording 1.1 steals a night.
Russ Smith, Louisville
A leading contender for national POY honors, SG Russ Smith has added some impressive assist numbers (4.9 a night) to his sensational combination of scoring and defense.
Shabazz Napier, UConn
Napier is giving Marcus Smart a real run for his money as the best all-around point guard in college hoops, leading the 15th-ranked Huskies in scoring, rebounding (6.3 per game at 6’1”), assists and steals.
Joe Jackson, Memphis
Even in a backcourt with four senior stars, Jackson is the clear leader of the high-scoring Tigers, topping the team in points, assists and steals (1.8 per contest).
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
The best pure scorer in the AAC, Kilpatrick has put last year’s disappointing shooting percentages in the rearview mirror while leading the Bearcats to a 10-2 start.
Freshman of the Year: Austin Nichols, Memphis
Nichols isn’t the most physical of the league’s first-year post players, but he’s the best scorer, and he’s on (by far) the best team.
Coach of the Year: Larry Brown, SMU
Much like Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State, Brown appears to have found the right formula for concocting a competitive team out of largely unwanted transfers.
Player of the Year: Russ Smith, Louisville
Backcourt mate Chris Jones has struggled as a passer, leaving Smith to take over playmaking duties (and thus rack up even more imposing stats) for the league’s best offense.
Pitino’s beloved backcourt pressure has sparked a high-octane offense. With senior Russ Smith salvaging what could have been a debacle at point guard, the Cardinals’ biggest hole—the lack of an elite post presence—is one this conference is ill-equipped to exploit.
Dark Horse: Cincinnati
Even the Cardinals haven’t been as devastating on defense as Mick Cronin’s Bearcats during nonconference play. There’s no point guard and little interior scoring, but a great D and Kilpatrick could be enough to carry a surprise champion if Louisville hits a wall as it did in Big East play last season.
Shoo-ins: Louisville, UConn, Memphis
Strong starts have given these powerhouses all the momentum they’ll need.
The Bearcats have just one quality win to their names (against Pitt on a neutral court), but an ironclad D should bring more in league action, especially at home.
Long shots: SMU, South Florida
The Bulls have better wins (Alabama, at George Mason) but fewer of them, while the balanced SMU offense showed enough in defeat against Virginia to provide hope against AAC foes.
6. South Florida
7. Central Florida