MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The first regular season of American Athletic Conference (AAC) men’s basketball has been a smashing success, as five teams are currently ranked in No. 5 Louisville, No. 13 Cincinnati, No. 19 Memphis, No. 21 UConn, and No. 25 SMU. The AAC Tournament has the potential to rival any of the other major conference tournaments being played this week as it pertains to showcased talent, as each of the conference tournament’s top five seeds has an honest chance to take home the title. Below, SportsWatch’s AAC bloggers came together to make bold predictions on four categories: champion, tournament MVP, darkhorse contender, and the most anticipated potential matchup of the tournament. The AAC Tournament tips off Wednesday with the first round games before concluding with the championship game Saturday.
Here is a look at our championship bracket pic.twitter.com/dx7CoUklWi
— American MBB (@American_MBB) March 8, 2014
Brittany Romano’s Picks:
Champion: No. 2 seed Louisville
In their first and last season in the conference, the Cardinals showed their dominance in the AAC. The team finished regular-season play strong with a crushing 81-48 defeat over UConn that sent a message to the rest of the country that Louisville is rounding in to form as they look to capture a second straight national championship. Under head coach Rick Pitino, Louisville finished the regular season 26-5, which is the same record the team ended the season with last year before walking away with the national title.
Tournament MVP: Russ Smith, Louisville
Russ Smith has had another standout season with the Cardinals. He has refined his play to make the difference in countless games this season. “Russdiculous” ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 17.5 points a game, which makes him a favorite to take home recognition as the AAC Tournament MVP.
Darkhorse contender: No. 5 seed Memphis
Memphis finished the regular season with a 23-8 overall record, and if all goes as expected in the conference tournament, the Tigers will meet Cincinnati on Friday. The Tigers’ four senior guards have propelled Memphis to finish the regular season fourth in the conference standings, which gives head coach Josh Pastner’s team favorable position to move forward in the tournament.
Most anticipated potential matchup: No. 5 Memphis vs. No. 1 Cincinnati (Semifinals)
This potential matchup would take place Friday in the AAC semifinals. Memphis ended its season with a big win against Louisville followed by a tough loss at Cincinnati, which has the ability to fuel the Tigers through the tourney. On the other end, Cincinnati posted a tremendous 26-5 overall record during the regular season, yet inconsistent performances against UConn and a loss to Louisville on February 22 leave the Bearcats with a questionable future in the tournament despite sharing the regular season conference championship.
Mikey Pavlik’s Picks:
Champion: No. 2 seed Louisville
Mark it down. Louisville and Cincinnati will face each other for the AAC Tournament Championship. It may seem bold, but none of the other teams coming into this tournament have the skill-set and/or momentum to knock-off Cincy or Louisville in a one-and-done format.
Louisville, however, is my pick to take come the tournament crown. The Cards are hot coming into this tournament after smashing then-No. 19 UConn this past Saturday. They will steamroll the winner of the USF-Rutgers game before facing much stiffer competition coming from the winner of the SMU/Houston matchup.
The Bearcats will make their run as the tournament’s No. 1 seed, starting with their inevitable takedown of the winner between UCF-Temple in the AAC Tournament’s opening round. Cincy’s shaky performance against Rutgers (70-66 Cincinnati) in the season finale, however, shows that the Bearcats could be vulnerable – particularly on offense – heading into the conference tourney.
Louisville’s Russ Smith is in a giving mood lately, and if he facilitates as well in the tournament as he did in Louisville’s season finale against UConn (13 assists), no one will be able to contain the Cards on the offensive side. Forward Montrezl Harrell will have a critical game, and, given his recent play, Louisville should expect it from the big man in the championship game.
Tournament MVP: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons with that big red monster, so imposing and menacing to the wily rabbit? Louisville has its own “Big Red Monster” in the form of Montrezl Harrell. Standing 6’8″, Harrell has so much tenacity around the rim that his presence in the paint gives you goosebumps on either end of the floor. He’s put down a few big-boy dunks that surely rattle the fillings of any poor defender unfortunate enough to be nearby when he goes to the rim.
He also stuffs people like Thanksgiving turkeys, making opponents think twice before putting up a baby hook or teardrop shot anywhere near the space he occupies.
Harrell had a big game in Louisville’s dismantling of No. 19 UConn, putting up 20 points and going 8-of-15 from the field, as the sophomore was the high scorer on the Cardinals’ Senior Night with forceful slams punctuating the beat down of the Huskies.
Coming into the AAC Tournament with the hot hand for Louisville, look to see how often Harrell is the first scoring option for the Cards. If Smith and other Louisville players get him going early, the Cardinals and their Big Red Monster will breeze through to the conference finals in Memphis.
Darkhorse contender: No. 6 seed Houston
Out of necessity, Houston is the team that needs to believe that they are this tournament’s darkhorse team. After all, it is the only way they could squeak into the NCAA Tournament. After winning four in a row, including a win against then-No. 21 Memphis, the Cougars lost their season finale at UCF; not exactly how you want to close out a season if you are on the tournament bubble.
But that’s one of the few pluses of conference tournaments.
Teams like Houston get that final chance to prove they are worthy of a nod to the Big Dance in one last rodeo. Consider it a season finale where Houston has to keep their audience – in this case the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee – captivated and wanting more. They have the goods to do it too, as long as they show up on the boards and keep taking high-percentage shots. Houston is ranked 54th nationally in assists, a testament to their unselfish play and solid team field goal percentage (45.8 percent). Look for TaShawn Thomas to set the pace for the Cougars, as the 6’8″, 240-pound forward leads the team in six major categories, including points (15.5), rebounds (8.0), and field goal percentage (.590). For this darkhorse to get any kind of AAC Tournament (and consequently NCAA Tournament) traction, Thomas has to stand up and deliver.
Most anticipated potential matchup: No. 4 seed UConn vs. No. 5 seed Memphis (Quarterfinals)
The conference tournament’s most anticipated potential matchup, is one that is already scheduled to be played. A five-seed beating a four-seed isn’t exactly headline news, but this one should be. UConn was just embarrassed on the road at Cincinnati, something that surely deflated the team heading into the AAC Tournament. The Senior Night atmosphere might have been difficult for UConn, but they’ll be facing a similar challenge when Memphis takes the court for what will feel like a home game for the Tigers.
Shabazz Napier has to control the game for UConn to keep the crowd out of it, but I don’t see it happening for the Huskies. They will be too low on morale from the thrashing they received in Cincy to overcome an energized Memphis squad.
Coming off of a win against a gritty SMU defense, the Tigers look to disrupt Napier’s command on the court and turn up the heat on the defensive end with traps and tight pressure on ball-handlers.
Prediction: 64-57 Memphis
Nick Odermann’s Picks:
Champion: No. 1 seed Cincinnati
The Cincinnati Bearcats will break their season series tie with Louisville with a victory over the Cards in the AAC Tournament Championship. The Bearcat program will get the last laugh on conference rival Louisville, as the Cards move to the ACC following the season. After achieving a 15-game winning streak earlier in the year, the Bearcats lost their mid-season “mojo”, dropping three of five games. The Bearcats appear back to their winning ways after back-to-back wins to end the season, securing a co-AAC regular season championship with Louisville.
Tournament MVP: Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Senior guard Sean Kilpatrick averages 20.9 points per game for the Bearcats and will earn MVP honors in Memphis as his team celebrates the conference tournament championship. Kilpatrick has scored 28 points in each meeting against a now top five team Louisville. Combined with the fact that Kilpatrick will get a quarterfinal match-up against lowly Temple or UCF gives him chance to further pad his stats.
Sean Kilpatrick saying thanks to the fans on senior night. Gotta give it to him. He’s a player. pic.twitter.com/ZPvmM5x4Uv
— Grant Milner (@GrantMilner) March 7, 2014
Darkhorse contender: No. 5 seed Memphis
The Tigers get a tough first game draw in the quarterfinal round against UConn. However, they are due for a win after losing the first two matchups against the Huskies during the regular season, with one of the games being settled in overtime. The Tigers have been battled test and are ready for a run after finishing the regular season against three ranked opponents. If the Tigers win the AAC Tournament, it will probably be due to improved three-point shooting. Tigers shoot an average of 33.7 percent from beyond the arc this season, but during their 72-66 upset win over then No. 7-Louisville, the Tigers shot an outstanding 66.7 percent from distance, showing they are plenty capable of catching fire against quality opponents. Another key factor in a run is by Memphis is that they host the AAC Tournament and will have thousands of fans behind them when the Tigers tip-off action Thursday.
Most anticipated potential matchup: No. 2 seed Louisville vs. No. 1 seed Cincinnati (Championship)
It’s a shame that Louisville and Cincinnati aren’t guaranteed to play each other, as the first two games this season have been epic. Only four points separated the two teams in the first two meetings. After splitting the first two games, this potential matchup would be the decisive game in the season series. Be sure to cross your fingers, as this potential AAC title game has all the makings for what makes March Madness exciting.