College Basketball Nation: American Athletic Conference

Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 21: SMU's Larry Brown. On Monday, we release No. 20.

At the time, many thought former SMU athletic director Steve Orsini “botched” SMU's coaching search. Orsini, who was dismissed shortly after he hired Larry Brown in 2012, didn’t chase Brown as much as Brown was just one of the few quality candidates who seemed interested in latching onto a program that hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament in nearly 20 years.

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Mudiay
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsEmmanuel Mudiay's athleticism will allow SMU to use him in a variety of ways.
Brown hadn’t coached college basketball since 1988. And who knew how long he planned to stay. Brown quickly added Tim Jankovich, who left his head-coaching position at Illinois State to accept an assistant's role with SMU as the coach-in-waiting.

SMU won 15 games in Brown’s first season. Last season, the Mustangs earned 27 victories, contended for their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1993, and lost to Minnesota in the NIT championship.

And now, Emmanuel Mudiay is coming. Emmanuel Mudiay is coming!

The five-star prospect’s arrival (No. 5 in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation) is significant.

“For his size, he has an elite athleticism,” said Marland Lowe, Mudiay’s AAU coach. “He’s got a great feel for the game. He gets anywhere he wants to go with the ball. He’s a great teammate, a great individual. … He’s smart and intelligent, understands X’s and O’s.”

Most figured Kentucky had the edge over the other blue-chip programs that recruited the Dallas prep star, but Brown convinced the 6-foot-5 hybrid guard to stay home. The Mustangs had the infrastructure (Moody Coliseum is a great venue when it’s full) and a strong returning cast to attract him. Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and six of the team’s top seven scorers from last season are back. Plus, former Xavier standout Justin Martin (11.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG and 37.3 percent from the 3-point line) will be eligible next season, too.

The pieces are there.

They just needed Batman. And Mudiay might be what SMU needs. The same program that won just 13 games three seasons ago will enter 2014-15 as the American Athletic Conference favorite and a national title contender. Mudiay means that much.

“One of the best things that he’s not given credit for is his defense,” Lowe said. “He is willing to guard the best player on the team. And if he’s guarding somebody else and another player is guarding him, he has no problem saying, ‘Let me get him.’”

Mudiay is technically a point guard. But that’s not the proper tag for a player with his skill set, especially with Moore returning and likely playing next to him. Mudiay is just simply a playmaker.

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP PhotoWith incoming talent, and several big-time returnees, Brown could have SMU in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.
Brown could make Mudiay the team’s primary ball handler, but he will also be effective in space as a matchup quagmire for every team the Mustangs face. He’s explosive and balanced. He has a strong midrange attack, and he’s dangerous in traffic. Expect a multitude of ball screens that lead to "SportsCenter" moments for the young talent.

And he’ll shake up defenses. Not many teams can match up with a combo guard who has that kind of size without employing a small forward or a big wing. Mudiay could see a lot of zone, traps and imbalanced schemes to account for his abilities.

“He can elevate over people,” Lowe said. “He’s an excellent passer and he’s a good finisher.”

SMU ended the 2013-14 season ranked 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. The Mustangs will continue to lock down opponents due to a lineup that features the speed, length and versatility to adapt against various offensive attacks. But they averaged 71.4 PPG (166th nationally) and were 68th in adjusted offensive efficiency.

They need scorers. Martin will help. Mudiay, too.

An elite athlete like Mudiay could elevate SMU into the nation’s top tier and boost an offense that could use a spark.

“He is very good,” said Tyus Jones, a McDonald’s All-American point guard who will play for Duke next season. “[He] can really get to the rim, extremely athletic.”

In two wins over SMU last year, Louisville’s Russ Smith combined for 49 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists and six steals. Smith won many games for Louisville during his four years. When the Cardinals needed something, he could give it to them.

That’s the fabric that links America’s best programs each year. They all have one or more players who are capable of rising above the rest.

The Mustangs had a capable program last year. With Mudiay, however, they have a squad that’s equipped to compete with the best in the country.

“He can change a team just because of his skill level, talent and awareness,” Lowe said.

Botched hire? Nah. Brown was the perfect hire. Mudiay proves that.

3-point shot: Locking down coaches

May, 20, 2014
May 20

Andy Katz talks about the American’s scheduling plans, Chris Mack’s extension at Xavier, and why UConn had to step up and lock down Kevin Ollie.

Look back, look ahead: American

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
As I exited the court in Arlington, Texas, on Monday night, confetti from Connecticut’s national championship celebration still stuck in my shoe, Tom Odjakjian walked up beside me.

“What do you have planned for an encore?” I asked the American Athletic Conference senior associate commissioner.

As rookie years go, the American’s inaugural season ranks right up there with the Beatles. A creation born solely out of conference realignment, the league that seemed little more than the safe landing pad for teams that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, put four teams in the NCAA tournament.

Two lost in the first weekend.

One made it to the Sweet 16 and one won the whole thing, the first time that a member of a brand-new conference was crowned the national champion.

Oh, and the NIT runner-up is an American member, too.

The irony, of course, is really too delicious. The league formed only because a handful of schools had nowhere else to go and the program that now stands as the conference’s face -- UConn -- is a reluctant member at best. Yes, the American has been good to the Huskies, but fed a dose of sodium pentothal, administrators would admit they’d jump to safer harbors in a heartbeat were the phone to jingle.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsShabazz Napier and UConn did wonders for the American Athletic Conference's profile by winning the national championship.
Maybe even more delicious, though, is the fact that while schools scurried and lobbied to find new conference homes, the one born out of the mess and the school left on the roadside won the whole thing.

What we saw this season: A top-heavy league that could play with anyone and a bottom-heavy league that could be forgotten by everyone. The American boasted a core of teams that would be the envy of any conference -- Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati and Southern Methodist.

The first four, of course, don’t qualify as news-breaking.

The Cardinals, Huskies, Tigers and Bearcats have a long history of success to draw on, regardless of conference affiliation.

But maybe the best thing to come out of this season for the American was the emergence of SMU. The fast-tracked Larry Brown experiment turned the Mustangs into a hot ticket and a legit national threat.

Most expected Brown to turn things around in Dallas, but certainly no one anticipated the quick return on SMU’s investment. The Mustangs are exactly what this fledgling league needs.

Still the league suffered the price of being a newbie. When Selection Sunday came around, the American was penalized for both its lack of history and the bottom feeders that ruined the league’s overall impact.

SMU should have gotten into the field and did not. Louisville wasn’t a 4-seed and UConn, as it turns out, wasn’t exactly your typical 7-seed. Certainly you could chalk that up to some terrible overall seeding on behalf of the committee, but also there’s no denying the American suffered worse than most other “power conferences.”

Still, when all was said and done it didn’t turn out too badly for the conference.

The national championship trophy will reside in the new league’s office, and that’s a pretty good way to get things started.

What we expect to see next season: Change, some for the better and some not so much. Will anyone miss Rutgers? Uh, no. But losing Louisville will be a big blow. The Cardinals brought not only legitimacy (albeit temporary) to the league, but another viable opponent to boost the league’s strength of schedule and image.

That puts even more onus on the other core four of Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis and SMU to carry the league.

The Huskies and Mustangs likely will start in most folks' top 25 thanks to the return of Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels for UConn and the addition of Emmanuel Mudiay for the Mustangs.

But it’s not those four that the conference has to worry about. It’s everyone else. In order for this league to be viable long-term, it needs other teams from the netherworlds of the basement to get better.

Houston might be the best bet for the immediate future. Hiring Kelvin Sampson has the potential for the same invigoration as bringing Brown to SMU. Sampson, let’s not be confused, is not the coach that Brown is, but his name has some cachet and with a hot recruiting bed in Houston to choose from, he could be the shot in the arm the program needs.

In Louisville’s place, the American adds Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa. Only one of those -- Tulsa -- was in this year’s tournament field and the Golden Hurricane lost head coach Danny Manning to Wake Forest. The rest don’t exactly have a long history of success to count on.

Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati will always be in the national conversation, but in order for the American to be a viable threat and not just a one-hit wonder going forward, it needs other teams to be equally reliable.

That’s what this next season will be about.

2013-14 hoops season in review

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10

Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.

With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:

Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.

Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikScoring machine Doug McDermott was one of the many seniors to make an impact on this season.
Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.

Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by for a second straight season.

Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.

Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.

Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim's jacket-removing, court-sprinting rant against Duke earned his first regular-season ejection.
Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.

Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.

Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).

3-point shot: UConn's historic run

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8

Andy Katz discusses the historic nature of UConn's national championship, what it means for the American Athletic Conference and the next step for Kentucky's pro prospects.

NEW YORK -- They call the NCAA tournament the Big Dance, and the Connecticut Huskies danced their way onto the Madison Square Garden floor Thursday.

It was a brand-new floor -- the NCAA installs its own court at each tournament site -- but everything else looked familiar to the Huskies, who played here twice earlier this season and 13 times in the past four years.

No wonder No. 7 seed UConn looked so comfortable as it prepared for its noon 50-minute open practice, with several players shimmying on the sidelines before the team was introduced.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier and the Huskies believe they will have a home-court advantage Friday versus Iowa State.
“I told the guys, this came full circle,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know we came down here and played in the 2K Classic and won that Classic. But to come down here this time, and our guys not able to play in the last Big East tournament that was here last year, it’s all full circle.”

It’s UConn’s 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but this one is extra special. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament last season because of poor academic performance and ruled ineligible for the Big East tournament as well.

It’s also extra special because these will be the first NCAA tournament games at Madison Square Garden since 1961.

Star guard Shabazz Napier, one of several Huskies who elected to stay at UConn despite the postseason ban, admitted Thursday he couldn’t bring himself to watch a single game of the 2013 tourney.

A huge fishing fan, Napier consoled himself by watching shows such as "River Monsters" on Animal Planet instead. “I didn’t want to watch [the tournament] because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed,” he said.

Napier has been one of the best shows in college basketball this season. A likely first-team All-American, the 6-foot-1 senior leads Connecticut in scoring (17.8 PPG), rebounding (5.9 RPG), assists (4.9 APG) and steals (1.8 SPG), and he has a penchant for making plays when it counts.

He hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against Florida in early December, scored nine of his 24 points in overtime in UConn’s win over No. 10 seed St. Joseph’s to open this tournament, and followed that up with 25 points in a victory over second-seeded Villanova two days later.

Napier also scored 20 and 27 points in the Huskies' 2K Classic wins over Boston College and Indiana here back in November, and he believes his team has a definite advantage Friday night against No. 3 seed Iowa State, despite being the lower seed.

“The thing that would help us is our great fan base coming down and supporting us, like they always do,” Napier said. “When we are down and when we’re up, they are still cheering. They give us the support, they give us that sixth man that we need to push us forward.”

Teammate Ryan Boatright believes UConn’s familiarity with the Garden will be a big plus, too.

“It just feels like a second home to us,” Boatright said. “If you’ve never played here before, it’s definitely a different feeling -- the background, the rims ... the whole crowd is dark, just the court is lit up. Everything is different than playing in a regular college stadium.”

It is expected to be a heavily pro-Huskies crowd, with the Connecticut campus just 135 miles away. UConn has always drawn well at the Garden, making this historic ticket even hotter than it already would have been.

The Metro-North commuter railroad is adding an extra express train from New Haven, Conn., to Grand Central Terminal on Friday afternoon, and extra cars to other trains departing New Haven for New York as well (and vice versa at the end of the night).

As of late Thursday afternoon, the cheapest single ticket available on StubHub for Friday’s regional semifinal doubleheader (also featuring Virginia versus Michigan State) was $594.05 -- for a bar-stool seat no less.

Ollie and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, good friends and former teammates with the Chicago Bulls, have both played at the Garden many times.

“It’s special. I can’t say it’s not,” said Ollie, who later called it “the greatest arena alive for basketball.”

The Garden was the first thing Hoiberg brought up in his pregame news conference.

“I’ll start out just by saying how excited our team is to be out here in New York City,” he said. “Our guys get the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget my first time here when the announcer comes on and says, ‘Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.’”

Iowa State is used to playing in front of large crowds -- the Cyclones were ranked No. 22 in Division I home attendance this season, averaging 13,393 fans per game. But Ames, Iowa, is more than 1,000 miles away, and the Cyclones have played at the Garden only three times in school history, the last being an 84-81 loss to Rutgers in the semifinals of the 2004 NIT.

Heck, Iowa State forward Dustin Hogue, a native of nearby Yonkers, N.Y., had never even set foot in the Garden before Thursday’s open practice.

Hoiberg admitted some concern. “To come out and experience this is just awesome for our guys,” he said. “[But] you try to get the ‘wow’ factor out of the way as quickly as possible, so they can focus on the task at hand.”

The Cyclones did look a little more like tourists than the Huskies did when they walked on the floor two hours later. Hogue asked someone to take a picture of him at center court. Reserve forward Daniel Edozie pointed up at the giant overhead scoreboard in apparent glee.

But Hoiberg sounded confident that come Friday night, his team will be good to go.

“That’s been my message to them -- enjoy this day, in a very casual setting to go out there and get used to the shooting background and the rims,” he said. “Then tomorrow it’s all about business.

“Once that thing goes up tomorrow at 7:27, our guys will be ready to play.”

ORLANDO, Fla. -- After Louisville guard Russ Smith went 1-of-5 from the floor and turned the ball over five times against Saint Louis in the first half on Saturday, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino pulled him aside in the locker room at halftime.

“Russ, there’s a lot better coaches than me in the other locker room, but picture if I was in the other locker room,” Pitino told him. “Do you think I would even let you breathe any time down the court? Do you think I would let you breathe?”

“No, Coach,” Smith told Pitino . “You would double me, you would trap me.”

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
AP Photo/John RaouxThough he struggled with his shot (3-of-10), Louisville guard Russ Smith scored 11 points and had seven assists in the Cardinals' win over Saint Louis.
“So don’t you think the other coaches are doing the same thing?” Pitino asked him. “All the great ones from Michael Jordan to Kobe [Bryant], they don’t try to score 20 points in the first quarter. They get everybody else the ball and they let the game come to them, and then the other team fatigues and things open up.”

Smith, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., must have listened to Pitino’s advice because he played much better in the second half, leading the No. 4 seed Cardinals to a 66-51 rout of the fifth-seeded Billikens in a round-of-32 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament at Amway Center.

The Cardinals, the defending national champions, will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Wichita State and No. 8 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis on Friday.

Smith finished with 11 points and seven assists, and he didn’t try to force things against Saint Louis’ suffocating defense as much as he did in the first half.

“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player,” Pitino said. “But he still has one thing left, and I tried to explain this to him at halftime. He has a very difficult time because he’s a distracted young man. His last lesson is to play like he did in the second half. He doesn’t understand the scouting of the other teams. He’s all Michael, all Kobe. He doesn't get it. So we're going to give him shock treatment on Monday."

Smith said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the Cardinals move forward in the tournament.

“I agree with anything [Pitino] says,” Smith said. “He’s gotten me to the point of being an All-American. Everything he says is correct. I’m just playing to win. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

Against Saint Louis, less from Smith turned out to be more in the second half. Pitino warned his team that Saint Louis’ slow pace and stingy defense would frustrate them.

“They watched the Pitt-Florida game, and I said, ‘Guys, that’s the exact game you’re going to be in. You’re going to have to be the prettiest team in an ugly game because that’s the way it’s going to be,'" Pitino said.

Pitino’s comments were prophetic because the Billikens and Cardinals slugged their way through a forgettable first half. Louisville shot 40.9 percent in the first half; Saint Louis shot 28.6 percent. The Billikens went 0-for-15 on 3-pointers in the game.

After taking a 25-16 lead over the Billikens at the half, the Cardinals couldn’t make anything at the start of the second. Louisville went nearly six minutes without making a field goal -- its only points came on a pair of free throws on a Saint Louis technical foul. But after the Billikens went ahead 29-27 on forward Rob Loe’s layup with 14:17 to go, Smith ended Louisville’s drought with a basket and then made two foul shots on the next trip for a 31-29 lead.

After Louisville forward Luke Hancock made 3-pointers on consecutive trips a few minutes later, the Cardinals finally seemed to be back in rhythm.

[+] EnlargeLuke Hancock
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsLuke Hancock led the Cardinals with 21 points, including four 3-pointers.
“The emphasis we put on taking the 3-point shot away was big, and we just wanted to grind out a ‘W,’” Pitino said. “It’s not every game that you can play up and down, like if it’s Houston or Connecticut, the teams that run. This is a team that will turn you over, they’ll grind you out, and they play everybody close. We were real proud of our effort defensively. We grinded out a win, and that’s what the NCAA tournament is all about.”

Maybe that’s why Smith was trying to force things so much early against Saint Louis. During Louisville’s run to a national championship last season, the Cardinals breezed through their region in reaching the Final Four. They beat North Carolina A&T by 31 points, Colorado State by 26, Oregon by 8 and Duke by 22.

Then Louisville won close games over Wichita State and Michigan to earn Pitino a second national championship.

“[This year] feels good,” Smith said. “Nothing is going to feel like last year. We were clobbering teams. Last year’s team is incomparable. The new guys are hungry, but this team is different. This is our first year playing together. Last year, we’d been playing together for three years. We all have new roles this year and there’s different chemistry. I feel good about our guys and where they are.”

After the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, the defending national champions have as much of a chance as anyone else to win another title.

“Obviously, they’ve got a chance to repeat,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “They’re going to be in the final 16, so they’ve got a better chance than the other 314. [Their chances] are a lot better than us."

ORLANDO -- Florida hardly looked like the No. 1 overall seed Thursday night in its opening-round game of the NCAA tournament.

And Louisville didn’t look much better in its first NCAA tournament game in defense of its national championship.

Both will be looking for redemption when they play round-of-32 games Saturday, with another trip to the Sweet 16 on the line:

South Region: No. 1 seed Florida (33-2) vs. No. 9 seed Pittsburgh (26-9), 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

[+] EnlargeCasey Prather
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackCasey Prather and No. 1 seed Florida must play better in order to beat No. 9-seeded Pittsburgh.
Florida, which has won a school-record 27 games in a row and hasn’t lost since Dec. 2, had to work much harder than expected in a 67-55 win over No. 16 seed Albany in a second-round game of the South Region.

The surging Panthers walloped No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48 Thursday.

“It was good enough to win, but is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “But I’m proud of our guys because they found a way to win when they didn’t play their best. And you know what? They’ve always been really good at being able to learn valuable lessons in a lot of ways. So hopefully they’ll be able to come back and correct that and do a little bit better.”

The Gators will probably have to be much better against Pittsburgh, which is a lot bigger and more physical than the Great Danes. Albany, which had to win a first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday night to earn the trip to Orlando, trailed UF by only six points at the half and tied the score at 39 with about 14 minutes to play. The Gators finally pulled away with a 9-0 run in the final 10 minutes.

“I think in this tournament you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life, and the goal is just to survive,” Gators center Patric Young said. “Moving forward, we have to make sure we do whatever it takes just to survive and every team is going to be trying to keep that same mindset of just moving on to the next round. Hopefully, we can keep it going, as well.”

Pittsburgh, which led Colorado by 28 points at the half and committed only three turnovers in the game, seems to be hitting its stride. The Panthers won 16 of their first 17 games this season, then dropped six of 10 after losing sixth man Durand Johnson to a season-ending knee injury.

Pittsburgh has played better lately, though, winning four of five, including an 80-75 victory over North Carolina in the ACC tournament.

Pitt was 1-7 against ranked opponents this season and is 2-15 all time against the country’s top-ranked team.

“I think we feel like we’re playing really good basketball,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We think we’re playing our best. We played well in the ACC tournament. We didn’t win it, but we thought we were playing better and we played good the other day. I think all that matters is not so much the seed but how you feel like you’re playing and how you are playing.”

Midwest Region: No. 4 seed Louisville (30-5) vs. No. 5 seed Saint Louis (27-6), 2:45 p.m. ET Saturday

Louisville and Saint Louis were in even more trouble than Florida on Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
David Manning-USA TODAY SportsRuss Smith and fourth-seeded Louisville struggled against No. 13 seed Manhattan. The Cardinals face No. 5 seed Saint Louis on Saturday.
The Cardinals trailed No. 13 seed Manhattan 58-55 with less than 3 minutes to go. But then Louisville stars Russ Smith and Luke Hancock bailed out their team by scoring 14 of their final 16 points, leading the Cardinals to a 71-64 victory over the upstart Jaspers.

The Billikens trailed No. 12 seed NC State by 14 points with 5 minutes to go, and eight points with 90 seconds to go, but somehow won the game 83-80 in overtime.

Louisville and Saint Louis will meet on Saturday, with the winner advancing to next week’s Midwest Region semifinals in Indianapolis.

“We won the game, but any team in this tournament [can win],” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Albany played Florida to the mat. Because of everybody leaving so early, that’s what makes March Madness so much fun. I think we’re a very good basketball team. I thought Manhattan was the better team [Thursday night] until 4 minutes to go in the game, and then we were the better team.”

Manhattan’s familiarity with Louisville -- Jaspers coach Steve Masiello played for Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville -- made things more difficult for the Cardinals. Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half.

But Saint Louis and Louisville also are very similar. The Billikens have started five seniors in all but three games this season, and they’re built on defense. Saint Louis ranks eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 91.4 points per 100 possessions. Louisville, which starts three seniors, ranks sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency (90.6 points).

"It's like watching one of [SMU] coach Larry Brown's teams," Pitino said. "You weren't quite sure whether his team executed better on offense or defense, and that's indicative of Saint Louis and Jim [Crews]' teams. They execute at both ends of the floor in a terrific fashion. Obviously they've got seniors, and seniors execute very well, and they're very impressive."

One group of seniors will be together on the court for another chance Saturday.

“We’ve been the underdog pretty much my entire time at Saint Louis, so it’s nothing new,” Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans said. “But to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and obviously Louisville won it last year. I think we have the team to do it."

ORLANDO, Fla. -- For more than 36 minutes on Thursday night, it seemed as if No. 13 seed Manhattan knew exactly what defending national championship Louisville was going to do.

When the Cardinals tried to find shooters on the wing, the Jaspers were there to cut them off.

When Louisville tried to toss the ball inside, Manhattan’s swarming defenders surrounded the post players.

“We played the best we could,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “Manhattan knew us and anticipated everything we were going to do. They played a perfect game and couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

[+] Enlarge Luke Hancock
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLuke Hancock finished with 16 points for Louisville.
Led by coach Steve Masiello, who played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville, the Jaspers wrote the perfect script, putting the Cardinals on the ropes time and again in the second half of a Midwest Region second-round game at Amway Center. But while Manhattan had the perfect game plan, the Cardinals had the better leading men.

Smith and fellow senior Luke Hancock scored 14 of the Cardinals’ final 16 points, helping them erase a late deficit in a 71-64 victory. Louisville advanced to play No. 5 seed Saint Louis in Saturday’s third round.

“It was big,” Hancock said. “Nobody wants to go home on the first day. We’re trying to build a legacy. This is another step and it would have been tough to go home tonight.”

Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half and fell behind 58-55 with less than 3 minutes to go. But then Smith, who bruised his thumb early in the first half, made a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the score at 58. He scored 18 points on 3-for-9 shooting, with 11 points coming at the foul line.

“I finally got open after 36 minutes of stifling defense,” Smith said. “I’m just happy winning. I wasn’t trying to do too much, but I also didn’t want to lose. For me to get a look like that and knock it down, after Manhattan defended me so well, was pretty big.”

After the Jaspers went back in front 60-58 on Tyler Wilson’s layup with 2:34 to go, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear made a bank shot to tie the score at 60. Then Hancock stole an ill-advised, cross-court pass in Manhattan’s backcourt and was fouled driving to the rim. He knocked down two foul shots, and then drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Louisville a 68-62 lead with 27.2 seconds to play.

“We just played a great team and needed a couple of bounces to go our way,” Hancock said. “Luckily, I found myself open in that matchup zone they run so well. I got two good looks at the end and they went in.”

Hancock, who was the Most Outstanding Player of last season’s Final Four, scoring 22 points in the Cardinals’ 82-76 win over Michigan in the championship game, wasn’t aggressive enough early in Thursday’s game, according to Pitino. Hancock finished with 16 points on 4-for-10 shooting, going 2-for-5 on 3-pointers.

“He was passing up some shots, and we need him to shoot the ball,” Pitino said. “I told him, ‘If you don’t shoot the ball when you’re open,’ and then I said some other expletives. But I said, ‘You shoot that ball because they’re all going to come after Russ. Russ obviously had one of his off nights, and when you see Russ play that way, it’s because the defense made him have an off night. I knew they would do it to him.”

The Cardinals got everything they needed from their stars when it mattered most.

“Coach Masiello was one of the designers of our defense,” Smith said. “It was very frustrating because he knew everything we wanted to run. Every opponent scouts you, but it’s different when they run the same system. They knew the counter to our counter.”

But the Jaspers had no answer for Louisville’s one-two punch at the end.

“We needed this type of game,” said Pitino, who was pleased his team did not tense up. “Winning by 60 and 40 doesn’t make you a better basketball team.”

Video: Louisville wins AAC crown

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

Montrezl Harrell had 22 points and 11 rebounds in No. 5 Louisville's 71-61 win over No. 21 UConn.

Video: Napier On Nail-Biting Win

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

UConn guard Shabazz Napier, who led all scorers with 15, talks about his performance in a 58-56 win over Cincinnati.

Video: Pitino, Smith talk win

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14

Louisville coach Rick Pitino and guard Russ Smith talk about Smith's performance in the Cardinals' victory over Houston.

3-point shot: The American's future home

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14

Andy Katz discusses the future of the American Athletic Conference tournament, Houston coach James Dickey’s future and Rick Pitino’s thoughts on conference tournaments' impact on the NCAA tournament.

Tournament preview: American

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
The regular season in the American Athletic Conference was so tight, it came down to a coin flip. Cincinnati and Louisville won on each other’s home courts in games decided by a combined four points. They shared the regular-season title, but the Bearcats took the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament after winning the coin toss.

There’s not much that separated the top five finishers in the conference. In fact, fifth-seeded Memphis swept its meetings with Louisville. Both No. 4 seed UConn and No. 3 seed SMU beat Cincinnati. It would come as no surprise if any of those teams won the league tournament.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMemphis coach Josh Pastner, who is 1-3 coaching in the NCAA tournament, needs a big showing from his team in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
The 10-team league has what promises to be one of the best quarterfinal matchups of any league tournament when the Tigers face UConn. The Huskies swept the regular-season matchup but needed overtime to win at Memphis.

As for the bottom five teams, March doesn’t contain enough madness to describe the reaction if Houston, Rutgers, Temple, UCF or USF emerge as champion. At 16-15, the Cougars are the only team among the five with a winning record.

The inaugural AAC tournament is held at FedEx Forum in Memphis, meaning the Tigers will have the unofficial advantage of being on their home court. As a member of Conference USA, they won the last five league tournaments that were held in Memphis. The last time the Tigers didn’t win a league tournament they hosted was in 2005, when they lost in the title game to Louisville.

What’s at stake?

Defending national champion Louisville, short of winning the American tournament and defeating two more ranked teams in the semifinals and title game, can expect to get a seed that won’t match the way it’s currently playing. The Cardinals didn’t have any marquee nonconference wins, and they lost their first four games against ranked opponents. Now they’ve won three of their past four against ranked foes, including an 81-48 smashing of UConn in the regular-season finale. Could it be too late for the tournament committee? Possibly. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had the Cards listed as a No. 4 seed, which isn’t entirely bad. Coach Rick Pitino guided the Cards to the Final Four while seeded fourth in both 2005 and 2012.

SMU got a wakeup call with its loss to Louisville in the home finale. The Mustangs had been unbeaten at home this season, but they showed signs of inexperience from a program new to winning. It’s not enough for an early lead and a raucous crowd to win games. SMU has been free of expectations and winning big for some time now. But its third-place finish in coach Larry Brown’s second season is clearly a sign of progress. The looming question for the Mustangs: Will they be content with what they’ve already achieved?

Teams with most to gain

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and Memphis coach Josh Pastner could both use a little momentum going into the NCAA tournament. Cronin and the Bearcats advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012. Pastner, who has a 1-3 NCAA record, has yet to get the Tigers out of the first weekend. Both teams seemingly have the main ingredient for success in the postseason -- experienced backcourts. Winning the American tournament could be a springboard for NCAA success.

Some have loosely compared UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier to former standout Kemba Walker for his ability to come through in the clutch. If Napier really wants to cement his legacy with the Huskies, he’ll need to come through in the postseason.

Walker carried the 2011 Huskies on an unprecedented run winning five games for the Big East tournament title before winning six games to capture the NCAA title. Napier’s job isn’t nearly as tough. He’d only have to win three games for a conference title. Napier has the ability to make his teammates better and take control of a game when needed. And the Huskies will be looking to rebound after their most lopsided loss in more than two decades.
The national player of the year race is all but over, the anointing of Doug McDermott a mere formality of ballot tabulation and news-release mailing.

But tucked in the undercard, some of the conference POY races could very well end up a pick 'em.

Case in point: the first installment of the American Athletic Conference hardware. Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, Louisville guard Russ Smith or Cincinnati forward Sean Kilpatrick. Who do you take? How do you pick?

It’s impossible, really, the difference between the trio almost nonexistent, a most subjective pick of taste.

The edge might go to whomever wins the conference crown, which is why Saturday’s game between Connecticut and Louisville might be so critical. The Cardinals could take a piece of the American pie by beating the Huskies in Smith’s final home game.

Those are some serious stakes.

Smith, who a few weeks ago decided it was time to stop playing like he thought people (read: NBA scouts) wanted him to play and instead play like he wanted to, has been Russdiculous-ing again, to impressive results. His 26 points against SMU -- complete with trips to a nearby garbage can to vomit -- was just the latest in a string of incredible performances that have put Louisville back in the national title-contender conversations.

He’s been getting help with the emergence of Montrezl Harrell as a steady and powerful post presence, giving the Cards the inside game they had been sorely lacking in the early part of the season.

Though the Napier-Smith tango will get the eyeballs, Harrell might actually be the difference-maker. As good as Napier has been -- and he has been Kemba Walker-like sensational -- his supporting cast can’t match Louisville’s.

But you’re forgiven if you watch the two guards for the sheer pleasure of it. They’ve earned it.

Both Smith and Napier, who finished his home career with 26 points against Rutgers, have enjoyed their share of bumps and bruises along the way but have managed to do what few great college players have the time or chance to do anymore -- grow and mature as people and as players.

What you see on the floor now are players who, along with Kilpatrick, don’t see the responsibilities of leadership as a burden but instead welcome them. Big moments are never too big for them. Slow starts are there to eventually be remedied.

Somehow, some way, the conference will have to split hairs to hand out its first player of the year trophy.

The bad news -- two players will have to lose.

The good news -- the league can’t go wrong.