This year, the American Athletic Conference was supposed to be a battle between Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Memphis. Sure, SMU was expected to be much-improved and capable of pulling off a couple upsets, but the Mustangs were not supposed to be where they are now, even with a bad road loss on Sunday at Temple. The Mustangs still come into Monday nationally ranked with wins over the Bearcats, Tigers and Huskies.
SMU has emerged by taking care of business at home. The Mustangs haven't lost at Moody Coliseum this year, and their fans have taken notice, with attendance on the rise at the renovated arena.
They've won nine conference games with five more to go, powered by one of the nation's most efficient shooting attacks. SMU ranks eighth in the country in field goal percentage (49.5 percent) and is led by Nic Moore, who is making threes at a 46-percent rate.
With a host of young talent and five-star guard Emmanuel Mudiay coming in next year, SMU is poised to contend in the AAC for the next several years, assuming it can figure out how to win a game away from home.
But the Mustangs are surrounded by tough competition and face a tough road to further respectability unless it can knock off a top team in its own building. Defending National Champion Louisville has won eight out of nine, highlighted by a win at UConn. The Huskies, meanwhile, are fresh off an overtime win over Memphis to complete a regular-season sweep of the Tigers.
And then there's Cincinnati, still in first place in the AAC with SMU its lone conference loss. The top-five teams in the league are separated by just 3.5 games and are all ranked in the top 25. While UConn and Memphis, both at 8-4, are probably out of contention for a conference championship, either can sneak up and steal the No. 2 or 3 seed in the AAC Tournament, while SMU and Louisville still have a chance to catch the Bearcats.
Mike Rutherford of Card Chronicle
I asked the folks at Down the Drive this same question last week, so I thought I'd get your take: Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier and Sean Kilpatrick all have a shot at winning AAC Player of the Year. How would you make the case for your star guard?:
It's a pretty hard sell at the moment (and will remain a hard sell unless Russ plays really well and U of L wins over UConn, Cincy and Memphis to end the season), but I'd say the fact that Smith is the only one of the three who ranks in the AAC's top five in scoring, assists, steals and three-pointers made speaks pretty loudly. I know it's not supposed to factor into things like this, but the knowledge that he was the leading scorer on a team that won the National Championship a season ago is also out there.
I think the most impressive thing about Russ this season is that he's playing without a guy like Peyton Siva and he's still putting up huge numbers. The "Russdiculous" persona that defined him for the past two seasons is pretty much gone, and he's turned into a senior leader who can have huge scoring nights, but who also ranks in the top 10 of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Like I said, as it stands it's hard to give the award to anyone other than Napier or Kilpatrick, but I don't think either one of those guys is a valuable to their teams as Russ is to Louisville. If he continues to put up big numbers and the Cardinals wind up winning the AAC title, then he'll deserve the award.
From an outsider's perspective, Montrezl Harrell seems to have made huge strides since last year. How valuable has he been to this team, which has made a name for itself with excellent play in the backcourt?:
I think everyone knew that Harrell was going to have make a gigantic freshman-to-sophomore leap in order for this team to be a title contender, but no one could have predicted Chane Behanan's off-the-court issues and ultimate dismissal, which has obviously made Trez that much more important.
Everyone knows that Louisville's weakness this season is inside, and that fact has Harrell playing big minutes at both the four and the five spot, which is going to continue to happen. There's no way the Cards make any sort of run without him playing well and playing at least 35 minutes per night. Stephan Van Treese and Mangok Mathiang are both serviceable centers, but Harrell is the guy who needs to be the team's rim protector and double-double machine going forward. It's why Rick Pitino was more thrilled about Harrell's four blocks and 10 rebounds than he was his career-high 22 points on Friday night at Temple.
If the Cards are to repeat this year as National Champions, what is one thing that needs to change or that they need to do better?:
There are a handful of areas that need dramatic improvement, but I think the biggest is rebounding on the defensive end. Louisville's bigs aren't elite shot blockers, and that's led to a hoard of missed swat attempts that have wound up being easy put-back opportunities for opposing teams.
While it's easy to blame the Cardinal frontcourt, Pitino has said consistently that it's his team's guards who need to pick up their defensive rebounding. He wants his bigs to try and be rim protectors, which means guys like Smith, Luke Hancock, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier need to come flying in and crash the boards in order to prevent garbage points in the paint. It hasn't happened yet, and it needs to if Louisville wants to have a shot against a talented team with an elite frontcourt.
Three Big Games
Cincinnati at Central Florida (Wednesday): This one certainly isn't a marquee matchup, but it is still a big one for the first-place team in the AAC. Cincinnati has struggled over the last few weeks, losing to SMU on Feb. 8, then barely holding off a weak Houston team at home. Before that, the Bearcats' previous four wins were all by five points or less. Those struggles alone would be a big reason why Cincinnati would want to bounce back against the Knights. But add in that the Bearcats face Louisville, UConn and Memphis in their three games after this one, and Wednesday's game quickly become critical for Mick Cronin's team.
Louisville at Cincinnati (Saturday): Cincinnati has played two more games than Louisville, but the two teams are separated by just one game in the loss column. With the season winding down, it's possible that this game could determine the AAC regular-season champion and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. These two met in Louisville on Jan. 30 and the Bearcats came away with a huge road win, 69-66.
SMU at UConn (Sunday): This one is between two teams currently tied in the loss column, making the AAC Tournament implications huge as the season hits its home stretch. Add to it that the Mustangs upset UConn in Dallas earlier in the season, and a sold-out Gampel Pavilion should be rocking on Sunday. SMU needs to first rebound from that loss at Temple by beating upon Houston at home on Wednesday, while the Huskies have won six out of seven and face the Owls in Philadelphia on Thursday.