The exciting thing about the 2014 American Athletic Conference Tournament is that it is the inaugural tournament. No history to look at for this tourney in Memphis, just good teams fighting to be able to say they were the first American Athletic Conference Tournament Champion.
Another intriguing thing about this tourney is that it is really wide open. Every top team has seen each other twice and the results are very wild.
Two seeded Louisville beat fourth seeded UConn and third seeded SMU each twice, but lost two games to fifth seeded Memphis, who dropped two games to both UConn and top seeded Cincinnati. The Bearcats split with UConn, Louisville, and SMU who beat UConn twice, and split with the other top three teams.
That’s a lot of beating each other up, and it proves that really anything can happen this weekend. Let’s take a look at some strengths and weakness at each of the top five teams.
Cincinnati’s biggest strength is someone named Sean Kilpatrick. Many believed Kilpatrick should have won AAC Player of the Year, but he just missed out on the honor that went to UConn’s Shabazz Napier. Kilpatrick scores a conference leading 20.9 points per game, almost three full points higher than Napier (the second leading scorer). Expect Kilpatrick to have a chip on his shoulder when Cincy plays either Temple or UCF on Thursday.
As great as Kilpatrick has been, Cincinnati strives on great defense in a conference that has players who love to score. They rank fourth nationally in scoring defense. They are top four in the conference in almost every defensive category, including rebounding, defensive field goal percentage, and three point field goal percentage. Cincinnati’s defense will keep them in games in this tournament as well as the big dance.
Justin Jackson has been quietly fantastic for the Bearcats. He leads the conference with 2.8 blocks per game and is fifth in steals and rebound respectively. He is one of the biggest threats in the paint in the whole tournament.
Where Cincinnati is great in defense they lack in scoring. They are ninth in points per game ahead of only USF. They shot under 43% from the field this season, again second worst in the American. Kilpatrick is the only player on the Bearcats that is in the top 20 in scoring, and Jackson is the only other player that averages more than eight points a game.
If Jackson gets into foul trouble, Cincinnati could really struggle in this tournament. Louisville is so deep compared to this one dimensional Bearcats team, and that may hurt them this weekend.
Most would look at Louisville’s biggest strengths as their ability to score and stop their opponent from scoring. They lead the conference in points per game at 81.8. Russ Smith is third in the conference in scoring with 17.5 a game, and they have four players averaging double figures. They give up less than 62 points per game which is second in the conference.
Louisville’s biggest strength is how efficient they are with the ball. They have a turnover margin of 6.87 per game, the best in the entire country. A 1.49 assist to turnover ratio is 11th in the country and the best in the conference. Taking care of the ball is crucial come tournament time.
Montrezl Harrell is second in the conference in rebounds per game, and the Cardinals have both of the top two conference leaders in stealing (Chris Jones, Russ Smith)
A place Louisville struggles a lot is free throws. They ranked ninth in the conference hitting only 65% of their free throws, not very good for a top five team in the country. Luke Hancock is the only player on the team that shoots over 70% from the line.
Besides Louisville, SMU has beaten everyone else in the conference at least once, so they know how to beat good teams.
This team is very efficient. They lead the conference in both offensive and defensive field goal percentages. Nic Moore has emerged as one of the conference’s top players, being named to the All-AAC First Team. He leads the conference in shooting from behind the arc, averages almost 15 points a game, and ranks fourth in assists.
Rebounding is another strength for the Mustangs. They top the conference in defensive rebounds per game and rebounding margin.
Well, they lost to Temple and USF. The Mustangs really struggle to win when they are not playing at home. At home they beat UConn, Memphis, and Cincinnati. The only good road win they have is 64-55 win in UConn. None of the tournament games are played in the Moody Coliseum, so they need to find a way to win not at home, or their probable second third round matchup with Louisville could get ugly.
Having the Player of the Year as your starting point guard is a big strength. Napier is everything for this team. He leads the team in every offensive category, steals, and even rebounds. He averages 17.8 points a game, and he makes his team better. DaAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright both average over 12 points per game.
The Huskies also play pretty good defense. They rank behind only SMU in defensive field goal percentage, as opposing teams shoot under 40%. Daniels and Amida Brimah are both in the top five of the conference in blocked shots and make the Huskies a scary team down low.
They rely way too much on Napier to win games for them. It is great for a team to have a player they know can win a game in the last possession, but Napier does not have enough help. Daniels is a decent big man, but he needs to be better if UConn is going to compete with deep teams. He averages less rebounds a game than the team’s point guard.
They also don’t get to play one of the bottom teams in their first matchup like the other top four teams do. They play Memphis on Thursday, who they needed overtime to beat at home on February 15th. Someone besides Napier needs to show up to play if this team wants to contend for the first conference title.
Memphis is a very complete team. They are strong in different parts of the floor, unlike some of the other top teams who rely on a few players. They have six players who average 8.9 points per game or more. Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols are very efficient shooters; Goodwin shoots 59% and Nichols shoots 60% from the field. The Tigers are second in the conference scoring 78.2 points per game. Joe Jackson leads the team with 14.5 points per game.
Memphis spreads the wealth with their players. They don’t have many conference leaders in many categories, but this team spreads the scoring around very well. Louisville beat every team in the conference except for Memphis.
The fact that the tournament is in Memphis has to be a strength too. Home court advantage is never a bad thing, since it’s something no other team has.
Remember all I just said about how good Memphis is about spreading the ball around? Well, that’s a weakness too. This team lacks a true leader. Shaq Goodwin was the guy early on, but since then Joe Jackson has been the Tigers’ best player. This team lacks a Russ Smith, Sean Kilpatrick, Shabazz Napier type player, and that could hurt them in a close game.
Especially if that close game is their second round matchup against UConn, who they have yet to beat this season. Memphis is a very middle of the road team defensively. They rank fifth in scoring defense, defensive field goal percentage, and scoring margin. If they want to compete with top teams, they need to be better defensively.
Early matchups to lookout for
Obviously the most intriguing matchup early on is Memphis/UConn. The Tigers know they have a tough task in slowing down the conference Player of the Year. UConn matches up well against Memphis, having a player score over 22 points in both games. Napier put up 34 points in their second matchup. Joe Jackson had 24 points and seven assists in that same game, which went to overtime. Jackson needs to be at least the second best player on the floor if Memphis is going to avoid losing to the Huskies for the third time.
A matchup that some people may look over is the Houston/ SMU game on Thursday. Houston is an underrated team, and I think they are the dark horse in this tournament. TaShawn Thomas has been stellar so far this year for the Cougars. He averages 15 points and eight rebounds per game, the only player in the conference to do so. The Mustangs have won both meetings this season, but both were by less than 10 points. I noted earlier how much SMU struggles at home; don’t be too surprised to see Houston advance to play Louisville in the semis.
This tournament is wide open. Any of the teams I’ve mentioned before could win this and it wouldn’t come as too much of a shocker. The key to winning this thing is going to have to be consistency.
I don’t see Memphis getting by UConn in the second round, I think Napier will be too much to handle late in the game and Memphis fans in attendance will see an early exit. I need an upset, so I’m going to give sixth seeded Houston a surprise win over SMU.
Louisville should easily get to the championship whether they play Houston or SMU. The other side is different, however. If my predictions work out, Cincinnati will take on UConn in the semis. These two split the season series both getting wins on their home court. It will be the POY (Napier) vs. the guy who got snubbed (Kilpatrick). This game is a complete tossup since both teams are not very deep. UConn was completely embarrassed by Louisville last Saturday, so I’m going to say Cincinnati will rise to the occasion here.
So that pits the championship between Rick Pitino’s Cardinals and Mick Cronin’s Bearcats. Both meeting this year were thrillers. Russ Smith hit a last second jumper to give Louisville the road win in Cincy. Kilpatrick was the game’s high scorer in both with 28. This is another tough one, because both teams play the other so well.
Remember when I said Sean Kilpatrick is going to have a chip on his shoulder? Well, Russ Smith will too. He is in the top three in most offensive categories and a lot of people think he was deserving of the crown. That’s what this game is going to come down to, which of these two will prove they should have been conference player of the year? I’m going with Kilpatrick