Who's excited for American Athletic basketball?! I don't know about you, but it seems like every winter for as long as I can remember, I've found myself longing for Southern Methodist University and the University of Central Florida to rekindle one of college basketball's great rivalries. And not only did the formation of the American Athletic Conference make that happen, it also brought back the storied UConn-Houston rivalry! Remember those two times UConn and Houston played? Man, that was something. And then UConn won its national title in 2011 in Houston! I bet that really got the Cougars' blood boiling!
Kidding aside, I am actually intrigued by the formation of the American Athletic Conference, even though everyone in charge of coming up with its name should be fired and never allowed to work in a creative field ever again. Seriously, though, what do we call this conference? Its Wikipedia page says it's also known as "the American." I guess I could talk myself into that eventually, but right now I hear "the American" and think of Premier League announcers discussing Jozy Altidore. And I can't say that Louisville is the favorite to win "the American title" because that's just going to confuse pro wrestling fans who think I'm talking about the United States Championship. It's also too close to MLB's American League. Meanwhile, "American Athletic" is a mouthful, and a sports apparel company has had the exact same name since 1954. And every time I've seen it called the "AAC" in print, I've misread it as "ACC." That leaves "AA," which won't work for obvious reasons. Although, now that I think about it, AA could be appropriate since UConn and Cincinnati fans might start drinking heavily when they realize that after Louisville and Rutgers leave for the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, next year, the AA could arguably be called a mid-major conference.
Anyway, the one big thing I'm looking forward to with the AA1 is that it will provide the first conference game between Louisville and Memphis since the 2005 Darius Washington game. Outside of that, it's hard to find a reason to care about the conference. There will be a handful of decent teams to go along with defending national champion Louisville, and it will be interesting to see Memphis actually compete for a conference title after years of cruising through Conference USA. But with two of the bigger programs leaving after this season, zero historical context, and a terrible, generic name, it's difficult for a neutral fan like me to get excited about the Battery.
But I'll do my best — American Athletic Conference basketball is here! Drink it in, America!
Top Three Teams
Some Louisville fans think the Cardinals will be even better than they were a year ago, either because they honestly believe this or because lying to themselves is how they cope with Kentucky bringing in the best recruiting class in college basketball history. It's too early to make bold claims like that, but I have no problem admitting that Louisville has an excellent chance at becoming the first back-to-back national champion since Florida in 2007. Its only losses from last season are Gorgui Dieng, Peyton Siva, and Siva's dad's guns popping out of his cutoff airbrushed shirt. Siva's replacement at point guard is Chris Jones, who was the best junior college player in the country last year and who should fit in perfectly with Louisville's up-tempo system, even though he and Russ Smith might combine for 40 shots a game. Siva's understanding of when to be aggressive and when to defer to his teammates will certainly be missed, but I doubt Rick Pitino is going to mind having another big-time scorer.
Meanwhile, Dieng's replacement will be fellow Sudanese big man Mangok Mathiang, a redshirt freshman who was ineligible last year. It remains to be seen what role Mathiang will play for Louisville, since there isn't an article about the guy that doesn't repeat the word "raw" 100 times. But even if Mathiang doesn't become a significant contributor, Louisville should be fine. It would lack the shot-blocker it had a year ago, but its press wreaks so much havoc and its lineup is so deep and talented that it should have no problem forcing turnovers. And after the Cardinals force turnovers, they can spread the floor on offense to let guys like Jones and Smith break down the D, kick it out to Luke Hancock at the 3-point line, and throw their arms up in celebration as Hancock applies the moisturizer.2
While we're on the topic of Hancock, let's all raise a glass to him for that Final Four performance last season. In late February I made fun of Hancock for shot-faking so much, creating the Bob Knight Award just for him. The combination of his "when in doubt, shot-fake" approach, his lackluster defense, and his fantastic beard reminded me of myself, which isn't exactly a compliment. But when the Final Four rolled around, he broke out of his shell, going 8-for-10 from 3 in those two games (including 5-for-5 in the championship) while averaging 21 points. Think about it this way: When a lightly recruited freshman who averaged 7.6 minutes and 1.8 points per game (Michigan's Spike Albrecht) explodes for 17 points in the first half of the national title game, yet you're the biggest "Whoa, where did that come from?!" story, you know you've done something special.
The second-best team in the Battery, UConn, is the second-most underrated team in the country. Although, Iowa is getting so much love for being underrated that it can barely be considered underrated anymore, so I'll change my mind and say UConn is the most underrated team in America. After a disappointing national title defense in 2012, UConn got slapped with a postseason ban for 2013 because of its bad Academic Progress Rate, prompting Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith to transfer. With Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond going pro after 2012, last season figured to be a rebuilding year for the Huskies. Instead, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright led the Huskies to a better season than they had the year before, only nobody really seemed to notice or care because UConn couldn't play in the NCAA tournament. With their top six scorers, including Napier and Boatright, returning, I expect the Huskies to surprise some people.
Speaking of surprises, it wouldn't surprise me if Memphis ended up being significantly better than UConn. It returns three double-digit scorers from a 31-win team, adds transfer Mike Dixon from Missouri, and brings in a great recruiting class led by Austin Nichols. But the only one of those 31 wins worth mentioning is the 54-52 win over St. Mary's in the first round of the NCAA tournament. After that, the Tigers got blown out by Michigan State in the second round, so it's difficult to say just how good they were. Besides the questions about how well Memphis can compete with other major programs, it might have trouble working all its new players into the rotation. For all I know, it could end up answering all these questions by challenging Louisville for the Battery title. UConn and Louisville are more proven, however, which is why I'm putting Memphis third.
Best College Player — Russ Smith (Louisville)
The last time we saw Russ Smith, he was getting upset for missing a free throw when his team was two seconds away from winning a national championship. When I brought this up on Twitter, some Louisville fans argued that he was upset because he wanted the walk-on waiting at the scorer's table to come into the game, which only could've happened if he made the shot. Even if that is true, the fact that you would totally believe that Smith couldn't enjoy winning a national title because he missed an opportunity to score another point speaks volumes about the guy. He's like a pitcher in baseball — he's got a specific job (get buckets) that makes him the most important player on his team, but it also makes him look like he's detached from the rest of the squad because all he cares about is doing his job.
Just to clarify, I love Russ Smith. I love that he probably has no idea what the score is or how much time is left at any point in the game. I love that he's terrible in late-game situations. I love that he shoots almost five 3-pointers per game even though he shoots only 33 percent from behind the arc. And most especially, I love that he's a threat to go for 40 on any given night. He's impossible to stop because even he doesn't know what he's about to do. He's must-see TV for any college basketball fan because not only is he unpredictable, but he also possesses an absurd amount of talent and is absolutely perfect for Pitino's style on both ends of the court. If Louisville doesn't win another national title this season, it will almost certainly be because Smith made boneheaded plays toward the end of a game. And if Louisville defends its title, it will almost certainly be because Smith was unstoppable. There is no in-between.
Best Pro Prospect — Montrezl Harrell (Louisville)
Harrell didn't have eye-opening numbers as a freshman last season — 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game. You can point to a few reasons why a likely lottery pick in June didn't put up great numbers, with the primary one being that Louisville was the best team in the country and played a ton of guys. But NBA scouts don't mind underwhelming stats when a guy has the physical tools and the work ethic to be a stud.
Jay Bilas will be foaming at the mouth on draft night about Harrell's 7-foot-4 wingspan, but it's his intensity on both ends of the court that makes him so much fun to watch. Of the 97 field goals he made last season, I'm willing to bet that at least 80 were dunks. It's as if during every game he considers it his mission to rip down the rim. He takes pride in playing defense as well as rebounding, which are two things that very few players pursue with much passion. In short, if I had to describe Harrell with a phrase that all the cool kids are using these days, I'd say that he goes HAM.
The big drawback for Harrell is that he's a tweener for the NBA. He's undersized as a power forward but he isn't skilled enough offensively right now to play the wing. His poor shooting means that he scores almost exclusively from fast breaks, offensive rebounds, finishing pick-and-rolls as the screener, and occasional post moves. He's like a center in a small forward's body. With that, Harrell will almost certainly disappoint the fan base of whatever team drafts him — at least at the beginning of his career. The good news is that he has got the potential to be one of the NBA's best defenders in five years, so if he can learn to knock down corner 3s, he would be a perfect Bruce Bowen/Shane Battier "3-and-D" guy. Only unlike Battier and Bowen, Harrell crashes the boards with reckless abandon and tries to dunk on the world every time he's near the basket.
Most Underrated Player — Shabazz Napier (UConn)
The most underrated player in the Battery is the point guard of the most underrated team in America. As a freshman, Napier averaged 7.8 points and 3.0 assists as the sixth man on UConn's national championship team. Kemba Walker was the star and Lamb was the Robin to Walker's Batman, but in my opinion Napier was the third most valuable player, even though he never started a game. The following season Napier led the Huskies in assists and steals, he was the second-leading scorer, and he averaged 3.5 rebounds, but nobody seemed to realize it because UConn finished a disappointing 20-14. Then the Huskies got hit with the postseason ban, most of their best players left for the NBA or other schools, and the college basketball world decided to ignore UConn until November 2013.
Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien won all sorts of national coach of the year awards last season, not because Penn State was particularly great but because he took over a Dumpster fire and turned it into a respectable team. Now, I'm not equating UConn's suspension for poor academic rating with the crimes Jerry Sandusky committed at Penn State. I'm just saying that if people want to applaud O'Brien for doing so much with so little, then Napier should also get more credit from the national media for not only sticking at UConn when so many others bailed, but also for carrying the Huskies to a 20-win season when it looked like they might struggle to finish with a winning record. Napier was consistently great last season, averaging 17.1 points, 4.6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds, which is phenomenal board work for a 6-1 point guard.3 For the Huskies to be as good as I expect this season, Napier needs to be even better. I trust he understands this and is ready to make the most of his final year at UConn. I just hope people are paying attention this time.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — Joe Jackson (Memphis)
Jackson is the most important player in the Battery this season, not only for what happens on the court, but for his leadership and for the fact that the entire vibe of the team is in his hands. A little background: Jackson is a homegrown kid from the south side of Memphis who was a McDonald's All American in 2010. In a Dana O'Neil article from December of that year, Jackson explained why he chose to play college ball in his hometown: "I want to be remembered. I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'"
After a good-but-not-great couple of years to start his career, Jackson took over as Memphis's go-to guy last season and was named Conference USA player of the year. As a four-year starting point guard on a very young Memphis team, Jackson has a ton of responsibility this year, and it goes way beyond running the offense. His career probably hasn't gone as well as he thought it would, considering Memphis has won only one NCAA tournament game in Jackson's three years and so many top recruits from 2010 are in the NBA already. But the pieces are in place for this to be a special final year. Memphis is loaded with talent and the Tigers are playing in a tougher conference that should better prepare them for the NCAA tournament. The strength of schedule that comes from playing in a tougher league should also elicit more respect from the selection committee when it comes time to seed the teams.
At this point, Jackson isn't quite the hero he hoped to be. He's a local kid who is loved by Memphis fans, but he's not on the Anfernee Hardaway/Keith Lee level reserved for homegrown Tigers legends. It's not too late for him to join this group. This season is his one chance to engrave his name in Memphis basketball history. Chances are the city will never love him like it loves Hardaway, but if he leads the Tigers to challenge Louisville for the conference title and make a deep NCAA tournament run, that will certainly be a big step in the right direction.
Player Who Best Fits the Label "Loose Cannon" — Mike Dixon (Memphis)
Everything I wrote about Russ Smith could qualify him as a loose cannon, but I don't want to give the same player multiple titles, so Mike Dixon is filling in here. Dixon is a Missouri transfer who has always played with a chip on his shoulder, but his performance on the court isn't what earns him loose-cannon status. Dixon's unpredictability stems from his tumultuous history at Mizzou. And in this case, there's nothing funny or charming about labeling Dixon a loose cannon, but there's no better place to bring it up, because he's a talented player whose past could play an unpredictable and pivotal role in Memphis's season.
Dixon left Missouri last season after he was suspended for violating team rules. Shortly after the suspension was announced, it was reported that a fellow student had accused him of rape. He ultimately wasn't charged because of lack of evidence, but two days after that accusation was made public, a similar accusation from 2010 surfaced. The alleged victim from 2010 didn't press charges because she didn't want her family to know and didn't want to deal with potential harassment from Mizzou fans. She did, however, report the incident to university police, and a nurse who examined her said that she thought force was involved. This article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covers the details well.
I won't pretend to know what happened either of those nights. I am fairly confident, however, that Louisville's student section will have something to say to Dixon about his past when Memphis plays the Cardinals. With that in mind, I'm making my first bold prediction of the season: When Memphis plays at Louisville on January 9, Mike Dixon will be involved in an altercation. I don't know if punches will be thrown, but if Louisville's fans harass him for the rape allegations and the Cardinals handily beat the Tigers, it will be enough for Dixon's frustrations to boil over and shove a Louisville player (probably Smith). I don't know exactly what will happen from there, but the refs will definitely get involved, Dixon will get a tech, Louisville fans will go crazy, and the video that gets posted to YouTube a few hours later will prompt thousands of amateur lawyers to offer their opinions in the comments section.
Most Intriguing New Coach — Eddie Jordan (Rutgers)
I'm interested to watch Jordan's transition from the NBA to college. How will he handle NCAA rules, recruiting, pleasing boosters, worrying about academics, and all the other headaches that college coaches deal with? I'm also curious how Jordan will lead Rutgers as it moves to the Big Ten next year. The Scarlet Knights never had much success in the Big East. Will Jordan be able to change that when they join another historically great basketball conference? Most of all, I'm interested in Jordan taking over at Rutgers because he's not Mike Rice.
And really, that's the only reason this hire matters. I mean, only one guy on Rutgers's roster was alive the last time the Scarlet Knights made an NCAA tournament. In fact, if you were writing a book about the history of Rutgers basketball, you could pretty much just write "1976" and that would cover it. Jordan has zero pressure to win, and really all he has to do to ensure his job security is not throw balls at his players' faces or call them "soft-ass Lithuanian pussies."4
Speaking of which, wouldn't it be awesome if that were in his contract? If there were a clause that read: "Rutgers holds the authority to terminate Mr. Jordan for behavior deemed detrimental to the university, such as throwing basketballs at players' faces or calling them soft-ass Lithuanian pussies." Even better would be if it were revealed that Jordan is using that as a sales pitch for recruits. I would buy Rutgers season tickets immediately if some recruit told the media that Jordan came to his house, sat down with his family, looked his mother in the eye, and said: "I can't promise that your son will play in the NBA. Hell, I can't even promise him playing time. That's something he has to earn. But I can promise that he'll leave Rutgers with a degree and he will be a better person than when he arrived. And I can promise that I'll never launch basketballs at his face or call him a soft-ass Lithuanian pussy."
Anyway, say what you want about Rice. He's insane. He should never coach college basketball again. His eyes look like they're going to pop out of their sockets, grow teeth, and eat you. He was never even a very good coach to begin with. It can't be a coincidence that he has never coached at the same place for more than three years. I could go on all day. But in fairness, it should also be noted that he made Rutgers basketball relevant for a little while. Maybe Jordan can do the same by accomplishing something positive.
Coach on the Hot Seat — Mick Cronin (Cincinnati)
Calm down, Cincinnati fans. I don't think Cronin is on the hot seat, nor do I think he should be. This is more of a preemptive pick in that I think his seat should start heating up if things don't go well this season. So I guess you could say Cronin's seat is in a non-preheated oven that was just turned on. Or something. I don't know. Figure out your own analogy.
Here's what I know: Bob Huggins had a dynasty at Cincinnati in the '90s and early 2000s. The Bearcats never won a national title, but no other team in Conference USA could sniff their jocks. I remember begging my parents for a Cincinnati jersey after watching Kenyon Martin almost single-handedly lead a comeback to beat DePaul in 2000. I lived in central Indiana and was a lifelong Hoosiers fan with no ties to Cincinnati, and I suddenly wanted to be the next Kenyon Martin. That's because the Bearcats were badasses. National titles or not, nobody wanted to mess with Cincinnati.
"But," Cincinnati fans are saying, "Huggins played in a much easier conference than Cronin. If Huggins had to play in the Big East, there's no way he'd win 10 conference titles in 13 years. Hell, he's in the Big East now and isn't exactly dominating."
I agree. That's why I don't think Cronin's job should be in jeopardy. He has done a solid job returning Cincinnati to national relevance after Huggins was fired. Now, though, Cincinnati is no longer in the mighty Big East. In fact, it's basically back to being in the same conference where Huggins had so much success. With that, there can't be any excuses now, especially once Louisville leaves after this season. The expectation should be that Cincinnati competes with UConn and Memphis for conference titles year after year. Anything less than a third-place finish in the conference, even during a rebuilding season, will be unacceptable.
Most Compelling Story Line — Kevin Ware's Recovery From Shinsanity
There were a ton of memorable moments in the 2013 NCAA tournament, from Elijah Johnson's nut shot on Mitch McGary to Florida Gulf Coast's Brett Comer throwing up an alley-oop on a fast break with less than two minutes left in a seven-point game and everything in between. But 50 years from now, when I think about the 2013 tourney, the first thing to come to mind will be Kevin Ware's shin. It was the worst injury I've ever seen. I genuinely thought Ware might never walk normally again. I was certain his basketball career was over. I hugged my wife and called my mom to tell her I love her when it happened. It shook me to my core.
Now that Ware is going to dress for the season opener and will ultimately miss just one game, I'm starting to understand why my pursuit of medical school lasted exactly one semester. As it turns out, breaking your freaking shin in half is a better injury to suffer than partially tearing a little ligament in your knee. Be that as it may, don't expect the media to play down Ware's return. It's hard for us to flush out the emotions we felt when it happened and just deal with logic. In the grand scheme, it wasn't really that big of a deal, but every one of us remembers irrationally thinking his life was in jeopardy. So seeing him step back on the court for the first time, scoring his first points, and returning to his role as a contributor to Louisville's title defense is going to be a little emotional. Every college basketball fan is rooting for Ware to get back to 100 percent.
If for no other reason, I'm hoping the injury doesn't end up affecting his career because I want to be able to enjoy the [ZOOMED-IN PICTURE OF WARE'S INJURY ALERT!!!] picture of Rafiki holding up baby Simba on Ware's shin without feeling like a terrible human being.
Water Cooler Comment That Will Make You Sound Like You Really Know What You're Talking About
"Did you know Larry Brown is coaching at SMU? Yeah, that Larry Brown. When SMU plays Louisville in January, it will be the first time Brown has coached against Rick Pitino since November 2000, when Brown's 76ers beat Pitino's Celtics by 24."