College Basketball Nation: Cincinnati Bearcats
Here's a question: What happens when you mix two teams that average 29 percent shooting from 3 and 46 percent shooting from 2 on offense, both of which play some of the sport's best and most physical defense, both of which rank among the 20 slowest teams in the country?
Wednesday night, we got something like the best-case scenario -- and an optimistic sign for Cincinnati moving forward.
The Bearcats' 71-62 overtime win against San Diego State was never going to be an aesthetic marvel, not with these two teams. It was always going to be decided by defense, by strength, by weak-side rotations and boxouts and long-armed players doing athletic things around the rim.
And so it was: San Diego State shot 5-of-25 from 3, and was 2-of-17 before a late, ahem, flurry. Cincinnati went 4-of-11 from long range. Both teams were held well under a point per possession for much of the game; it wasn't until overtime, and a parade of free throws (another flurry!) that the Aztecs inched over the efficiency benchmark. Together, on 49 made field goals, the two squads combined for just 21 assists. Fluid offense, this was not.
Much of this would have been true last season, too, when the Bearcats had Sean Kilpatrick and the Aztecs had Xavier Thames, two of the best and most important guards in the country. This time around, both teams are again playing masterful, ball-killing defense. But both have huge holes where a capable perimeter leader -- a scorer with range and the passing to make teammates better -- so recently stood.
First was the demonstration of the known. Cincinnati went toe-to-toe with a team that is in some ways its mirror image on the defensive end, trailed at various points throughout a tight second half, and pulled in front just enough at the end to require a minor miracle from SDSU.
That late 3-pointer flurry from the Aztecs? That came as they were chasing Cincinnati in the closing minutes, desperately cutting two-possession leads and hoping for missed free throws on the other end. The penultimate play of the game, the one that forced overtime, was courtesy of help from the officials: With three seconds left, Winston Shepard's drive to the left baseline ended in a flail that seemed due less to any contact than Shepard's own lack of control. But the officials whistled it, and Shepard made both free throws. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin went ballistic all the way through his own team's final attempt. He had his reasons. That his team pulled it together so comprehensively in an overtime it probably didn't deserve to deal with was itself a testament to its toughness.
Defense, toughness -- those are the knowns. There were also some hints at the unknown. Coming into Wednesday, just two members of Cincinnati's rotation could be said to be playing efficient offensive basketball. One was freshman Gary Clark, who finished with 10 hard-earned points and five equally hard-earned rebounds. The second was Farad Cobb. Cobb, a junior, is the closest thing Cronin has to a 3-point specialist -- he's shot 37 3s this season (at a 35 percent clip) to just 17 attempts inside the arc. In the first half against San Diego State, he was 0-for-3 with zero points. In the second, he contributed all 12 of his points. His ball handling -- and one especially big shot down the stretch -- were major keys in overcoming one of the nation's least forgiving defenses.
These were not overwhelming statements of purpose. Just hints. But they did point to a reasonably bright immediate future for a Cincinnati team ostensibly decimated by departures -- a team no one talked about as a possible American Athletic Conference title contender this season.
The American looks different now than it did in October. Memphis has fallen flat. SMU is missing Markus Kennedy. UConn lost three games in a row in recent weeks, including a home loss to Yale. Tulsa, a sleeper contender, saw the Huskies' defeat to Yale and raised them a home loss to the Southeast Oklahoma State Savage Storm, which is a (totally real!) Division II program.
But Cincinnati looks different, too. Before Wednesday, it already had a stout defense and a brutal home-court atmosphere, and those might have been enough to push to the top of the American alone. But on Wednesday night, it flashed maturity, toughness, and just enough offensive acumen to look truly intriguing going forward. Is it the prettiest team in America? Not even close. But it might just be the best team in the American.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: At this point, it's getting hard to come up with material for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker. Well, OK, that's not exactly true. McDermott is doing plenty of awesome things. But it's just like, come on guys, do I really need to recap the statistics and individual milestones this week? Do we have to go through this whole process every time? You're on board by now, right?
This week, McDermott scored 39 points on 13-of-17 shooting in Creighton's 101-80 rout of Villanova, and afterward, Wildcats coach Jay Wright, honorary member of ACDMcAT Nation, said this:
“I think he’s as complete a player -- and I do not use that term loosely -- with size, as I’ve ever seen. With 6-8, 6-9, there’s nothing he can’t do. He can take you off the dribble. He guards, he’s tough as hell guarding. He defends. He rebounds. He moves without the ball. He seals. He’s the best post player that we’ve played against and he’s the best perimeter player, and maybe one of the best passers, and he’s 6-8, 6-9. I think he’s as good a basketball player as I’ve seen.”
I'd say that just about sums it up.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Now that the weather has cleared and friend of the Watch Dickie V isn't looking quite so bummed out on Instagram, we can finally get back to the business of Parker’s first and likely only trip to the Dean E. Smith Center, which, as you might have heard, happens tonight. If there was some possible way McDermott could have lost the POY award, eight days ago I would’ve said this was the chance for Parker to put on a case-bolstering show with all eyes watching. But that window is now closed, so instead, you'll have to settle for watching one of the most gifted offensive players in years -- and still a crucial anchor for the Blue Devils on the defensive glass -- play on the road in the best rivalry in the sport. So there's that.
3. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): So Cincinnati beat the daylights out of Houston and UCF this week, and Kilpatrick jumps from No. 10 to No. 3? What gives, Brennan? What gives is that Kilpatrick's sensational play in both games (9-of-16 from 2, 8-of-18 from 3, 51 points, seven assists, six rebounds, one turnover, 146 offensive rating, need I go on?) was indicative of his immense individual season writ large. Among players who use more than 28 percent of their team's possessions, only two -- McDermott and Canisius' Billy Baron -- are more efficient offensively. Neither plays the kind of defense Kilpatrick plays. It's high time we put him near the top of this list. He's been great.
4. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: This wasn't Thames' greatest week, but whatever: He's still using 28.1 percent of his team's possessions and putting up a 120.1 offensive rating, which is positively McDermottian (or Kilpatrickian). He creates assists, he doesn't turn the ball over, he plays great defense, and all of the above is utterly priceless to a San Diego State team that still doesn't have another reliable offensive weapon. Where would the Aztecs be without him?
5. Russ Smith, Louisville: Can y'all just let the Based King live?
"I have two Final Fours, I have Big East championships, a national championship. I have all the accolades. Now they're saying I'm under the radar. If you want me to get 30 and 40, I can do that. But I don't need to do that. Now I'm getting my teammates involved, I'm being solid, I'm being efficient. Now everybody thinks Russ is bad now.
"I'm efficient, I'm getting guys the ball, I'm averaging five assists, having the best assist-to-turnover ratio of my life. I'm good. I could care less about who they think is better than me. Guys have to do more on other teams, I have to do less. All I have to do [is] put guys in the position to do good, and that's what I'm doing."
You know what? In his own way, Smith is exactly right! He's having the best and most efficient statistical season of his life, and he was already way better last season than most people gave him credit for. Russ, you're not under the radar here, man. Also, stop reading Twitter. Your coach doesn't like that.
We're going to stick to our corner-cutting guns, and include Fair and Ennis as a tandem, for at least one more week. Maybe we'll have to decide between one of the two eventually, but that process didn't get any easier even as Syracuse barely survived NC State and then fell at home to Boston College on Wednesday night. The Orange are still 25-1, and Fair is still Fair, and Ennis is still Ennis, and the workhorse-finisher combo should still hold the Orange in good stead in the weeks to come.
7. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): How did Shabazz fare this week? Um, well: He made five 3s and went 10-for-21 from the field for 34 points in 37 minutes (with five assists, four rebounds and four steals) in a huge UConn home win over Memphis. Find a replay of that game if you can. It was a lot of fun.
8. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Would Early be on this list if Wichita State weren't undefeated? That's a good question. I'm not sure. He'd be really close either way, of course, but his individual numbers don't quite stack up with a handful of players here. You could argue that has more to do with the Shockers' balance than anything else -- you might also take Ron Baker or Fred VanVleet here -- and that's kind of my point: Wichita State is undefeated, and minimizing that fact or Early's contributions to it would be a mistake.
9. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle is ho-humming his way through some typically dominant interior performances, but his best contribution this week was whatever explanation he offered John Calipari that led to one of the greatest college basketball gifs of all time. May we cherish it forever.
10. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It's probably time to downgrade Nick Johnson a bit, if not take him off the list, after Friday's 5-of-20, three-turnover performance in Arizona's loss at Arizona State. It's not like Johnson doesn't deserve to be here. Let's not get crazy. But he hasn't been a top-five player in the country lately.
Honorable mentions: Casey Prather (Florida), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Gary Harris (Michigan State), T.J. Warren (NC State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Jabari Brown (Missouri)
It seems like the Hall of Fame coach has SMU making history each time it wins a game.
Talk about progress. The Mustangs have received votes in the latest Associated Press poll. The last time that happened in one of the two major polls was during the 2003-04 season. You know what possibly gets them in? A win over No. 7 Cincinnati on Saturday.
The newly renovated Moody Coliseum has all of a sudden become a tough place for opponents. The Mustangs are 12-0 this season at home including 6-0 in Moody. Check with Connecticut and Memphis, which both notarized SMU's legitimacy, on just how tough the Mustangs are at home. They beat the Huskies by nine and the Tigers by 15 in the comfy confines of home.
They'll try and make it three wins over ranked teams when Cincinnati comes to town (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU). SMU hasn't beaten three ranked teams in a season since 1984-85, which is also the only time since 1959 in program history that it was also ranked.
Just a warning, if you want offense, you're probably watching the wrong game. SMU entered the week with the nation's third-ranked field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shot just 37.2 percent. The Bearcats ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense allowing just 56.7 points per game.
Cincinnati is running away with the American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats have a 16-game winning streak and have a flawless 12-0 record in the league. But their play is far from pristine. They generally out-tough their opponents for wins.
They did it in Louisville despite the Cardinals' rally from a 17-point deficit to take a lead with five minutes left. They did it to SMU too. In the first meeting this season, a 65-57 Cincinnati win, SMU trailed by four with four minutes left.
It's a simple formula really. If the Bearcats are in a close game late, they rely on their defense and experience to pull them through. Not many teams have a trio of seniors like Sean Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. And not many teams can defend as well as Cincinnati.
The Mustangs know that and will show a different starting lineup than their first meeting. Brown is using 6-foot-9 forward Markus Kennedy, a Villanova transfer, to give them a scoring boost. And every point matters against the Bearcats.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As a 17-point lead evaporated against a hail of turnovers and dunks the other way, Cincinnati found its motto for resolve:
Keep calm, and get the ball to Sean Kilpatrick.
Senior guard Kilpatrick's steady hand and unflappable free throw stroke carried the No. 13 Bearcats to a 69-66 road win over No. 12 Louisville on Thursday night. In a place where so many other teams had wilted under the Cardinals’ pressure and big runs, Kilpatrick helped turn what could have been an excruciating blown lead into a key American Athletic Conference victory.
“He’s calm in big situations,” backcourt mate Troy Caupain said, “and that’s the best thing about him.”
Cincinnati (20-2, 9-0 AAC) saw its composure suddenly come undone after building a 44-27 lead early in the second half. A moribund Louisville offense sprung to life after the first media timeout of the half, allowing the Cardinals’ full-court pressure to finally do its thing. A technical foul on Titus Rubles helped fuel the 14-0 Cardinals run that cut the lead to three points in just 3:13 of game time. The KFC Yum! Center crowd roared its thirst for more blood.
That’s when Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin subbed Kilpatrick back in after a short rest, and Kilpatrick said he told his team, “OK, everybody calm down.”
Kilpatrick went 11-for-11 from the foul line, all in the second half, including four in the final nine seconds. Other than muttering to himself before each shot, his free throw stroke was an artwork of minimalism, with no wasted movements and hardly any rim involved.
“I always tell myself to focus, to really lock in,” said Kilpatrick, who scored a game-high 28 points. “That’s something that really helped me on those free throws, when there were 22,000 fans against me.”
Louisville might be the defending national champions, but Cincinnati showed more mettle during crunch time. A prototypical Russdiculous moment gave the Cardinals their first lead since the opening minute, when Russ Smith drained a 28-footer with several ticks left on the shot clock to make it 64-61.
But the Bearcats’ defense, which mostly locked Louisville into a half-court slog, didn’t allow a field goal the final five minutes. Justin Jackson, who gritted through an ankle injury and turnover problems, made the key stop of the game by stripping Montrezl Harrell near the basket with 38 seconds left.
“A killer mentality is all I have,” Jackson said.
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he told Rick Pitino before the game that “I’ve got three guys like Peyton Siva,” referencing the senior leader who guided Louisville to the NCAA title last season. When the game threatened to spin out of control, Cronin said his best coaching move was simply to make sure he put Kilpatrick, Jackson and Rubles on the floor.
“They’re the best three senior leaders in the country, period,” Cronin said. “They’re why we have the record we have.”
That record now includes 13 straight wins, plus road victories over the other top two American Athletic Conference contenders -- Louisville and Memphis. Cincinnati has a two-game lead over the rest of the conference, with the Cardinals and Tigers still scheduled to come to Fifth Third Arena.
“We’re up there,” Kilpatrick said. “Being able to come in and win in the Yum! Center, which is a great building and a great environment, was a test for us. But we came in and answered the bell.”
And it was another failed response for Louisville, which continued its pattern of feast (on weak competition) and famine (versus strong opponents). The Cardinals are now 0-4 against ranked teams this season and have an uphill climb in the AAC with home losses to Cincinnati and Memphis.
“We had them rattled and we let the game get away from us,” Pitino said.
It was almost as if the Louisville head coach could sense what was coming midway through the second half, when Smith committed a reach-in foul on Kilpatrick more than 30 feet from the basket. “Eighty-six percent!” Pitino yelled at Smith. “And you just fouled him.”
Kilpatrick actually entered the game shooting 84.9 percent from the line on the season, but Thursday’s performance raised his numbers to Pitino’s estimate. Kilpatrick said he has made as many as 22 in a row during practice, but he stopped trying to count free-throw streaks because it took too much time away from other drills.
Having forged his game the past three years in the heat of Big East battles, the AAC’s top scorer stayed cool while playing 37 minutes and running the point against Louisville’s press.
“People think he’s not an NBA player, but I don’t know how they can think that,” Cronin said. “He does so much.”
People didn’t think much of the Bearcats coming into this season, but this winning streak is changing that. They play defense as well as anybody, with an eraser like Jackson in the middle -- “the most valuable defensive player in the country,” Cronin said. Cincinnati has struggled in recent years on the opposite end but showed that is changing by shooting 63 percent in the second half against Louisville.
“We’re very different offensively than what we were just from a month ago,” Cronin said.
With a scorer like Kilpatrick, the Bearcats can keep this streak going for a while and angle for a top seed in March. But their floor leader says respect can wait.
“We’d rather keep that chip on our shoulder,” Kilpatrick said. “That lets us stay humble as a team and stay focused.”
Good things tend to happen when Cincinnati keeps an even keel.
College basketball reporter Andy Katz gives injury updates at Cincinnati and New Mexico and takes a look at a situation at Iowa State involving the Cyclones and the state Supreme Court.
Game Plan is our Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.
Do Michigan State’s injuries matter? In the words of Orlando Jones’ magazine salesman in “Office Space”: that all depends.
On Saturday, when the Spartans fell at home to hated rival Michigan -- a hard-fought and thrilling game that included a “Just-in Bei-ber” chant, Mitch McGary’s brilliant coaching advice (“win the game”) and a loving Nik Stauskas farewell -- they did so without forwards Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne. Payne, foot be-booted, missed his fifth straight game. Dawson, who broke his hand in a self-inflicted outburst during an apparently intense Thursday film session, missed his first, with many more to come. Tom Izzo found himself plunging deep into his frontcourt reserves: Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling made appearances. Matt Costello’s 28 minutes were a season high. Russell Byrd, who hadn’t played more than five minutes in any non-guaranteed blowout all season, ran for 13.
It was tempting, then, to attach an asterisk to the entire affair, a temptation ESPN’s Chantel Jennings discussed -- and convincingly dismissed -- Saturday night. The Wolverines were missing McGary, after all, and the adjustments they’ve made since December have been stunning. Besides, Izzo wouldn’t hear of it.
The real question is how these injuries will affect Michigan State in the long run. For starters, there is the Big Ten race, where the Spartans are now staring down a one-game deficit and a much more difficult remaining schedule than John Beilein’s team. But the most interesting fallout could be in the NCAA tournament seeding.
The selection committee weighs a team’s performance during and after injury, and does its best to take the “true” measure of a team based on the gulf between the two. If Michigan State doesn’t slide too far in Dawson’s (and Payne’s) absences, and then looks brilliant upon their various returns, they’ll be seeded accordingly. But if the Spartans nosedive for the next two weeks? Or the next month? The committee can apply only so many asterisks. It’s unlikely, but what happens then?
On Tuesday, Michigan State faces Iowa’s offensive onslaught in Iowa City. On Saturday, they play an even-more-hobbled Georgetown. How the Spartans look next time this week should tell us a lot about just how important their injuries will look in March.
ICYMI: TOP STORIES
Arizona shrugs off Utah, moves to 20-0. Just after the Wildcats finished their 65-56 brush-off of Utah Sunday night, the Fox Sports 1 crew placed the rosters of the greatest Arizona teams of all time next to Sean Miller’s team -- Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton, Miles Simon, Richard Jefferson and all the rest. It was a sobering comparison: On paper, this Arizona team now ranks above the greatest Wildcats teams of all time. On the floor, it’s hard to argue otherwise, something the dominant final few minutes of an otherwise so-so performance showed. (It was also, for what it’s worth, a pretty impressive performance from Utah, which continues to look miles removed from the six-win disaster of 2011-12.)
Cincinnati keeps winning. Sshh. You can look at Cincinnati’s 80-76 win at Temple Sunday night one of two ways. You could note that the Bearcats were outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes against a bad team. Or, you could note that Cincinnati was outscored 29-15 in the final 10 minutes and went ahead and won anyway. You should also note that the Bearcats have ever so quietly jumped out to an 8-0 AAC record, are 19-2 overall, suffered their last loss Dec. 14 against Xavier, beat Pitt three days later, rebound 40 percent of their own misses and have one of the stingiest per-trip defenses in the country.
North Carolina avoided ignominy. Given North Carolina’s horrendous January -- which included a road loss to Wake Forest, a home loss to Miami, a 45-point effort at Syracuse and a throttling at Virginia -- and Clemson’s surprisingly capable defense, you could practically hear people getting ready to laugh at UNC when it inevitably lost its first-ever game to the Tigers at home. Giant clouds of schadenfreude were gathered on the horizon. It was going to be a thing! And then Roy Williams had to go and reminded his team it beat Louisville and Michigan State. North Carolina scored 80 points in 61 possessions Sunday, and the storm broke apart in the atmosphere.
THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE
(For two more in-depth previews of big games week to come, check back for Monday morning’s “Planning for Success” series.)
Michigan State at Iowa, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: How’s this for a quick Saturday-Tuesday turnaround? As we discussed above, Michigan State’s road trip week starts in Iowa City and ends vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, and the first fixture is the more challenging by a factor of 10. The Hawkeyes, who rank with the nation’s best by every meaningful statistical measure, drilled Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., after Wednesday’s loss in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Iowa State at Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For most of the season, Iowa State’s offense ranked among the nation’s best; it was certainly, in all its shape-shifting uptempo glory, one of the most entertaining. Since the start of Big 12 play -- and roughly coinciding with DeAndre Kane’s sprained ankle at Oklahoma -- the Cyclones’ offense is scoring just 1.06 points per trip, ninth best in the Big 12. What better time for a trip to Lawrence?!
Cincinnati at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: For all its travails this season -- the bad nonconference slate, the loss at rival Kentucky, the departure of Chane Behanan -- the Louisville Cardinals have, for the most part, played pretty excellent basketball. (The latest? A 41-point win at South Florida Saturday.) Cincinnati can identify with the whole “good basketball going largely unnoticed” thing. Thursday’s winner should get everyone’s attention.
Arizona at Cal, 10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network: Before we get all crazy: Arizona still has to play at Stanford on Wednesday. It still has a back-to-back road trip to Arizona State and Utah in mid-February. It still has two dates against Oregon. And now, with those important caveats out of the way, if the Wildcats win at Cal on Saturday, it is conceivable -- not likely, not probably, barely possible, but conceivable -- they could run the regular-season table. Gird loins accordingly.
Duke at Syracuse, 6 :30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Two weeks ago, this game would have been a harder sell, because two weeks ago the Blue Devils were coming off back-to-back losses against Notre Dame and Clemson, and freshman star Jabari Parker looked like his face had become intimately acquainted with the notorious freshman “wall.” No more: Duke has won four straight, the latest, a 78-56 rout of Florida State (in 63 possessions) its most complete performance of the season. OK, so it’s Duke-Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. It was never actually a hard sell. But now the Orange don’t look quite so likely to dominate.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
1. In a game that could be most politely described as extremely, almost cruelly hard to watch, Cincinnati won because it deserved to. The Bearcats won a few essential statistical battles -- 35 boards to 27 (with a critical 16 offensive boards, including on Titus Rubles’ game winner), three made 3-point field goals to two (yes, that’s a win -- pathetic, but a win), and 37 percent shooting to 31. More important, Cincinnati at least scored from the field occasionally, unlike Pitt. The Panthers hit exactly one field goal in the final 14:54 of the game.
2. Call this the counterpunch to the rule-change boost in scoring. Cincinnati was whistled for 20 fouls, yet not even what turned into a 19-1 made-free throw edge was enough for the Panthers to near the 50-point plateau.
3. The Panthers’ loss will rouse the critics who wondered if the 10-0 start was faux, and rightly so. Pitt has beaten one team with an RPI better than 75, and that’s Penn State, sneaking in at 71. Overall, its opponents' RPI average is 180.5.
4. Silver-lining time. Justin Jackson had a terrific game for Cincinnati -- 12 points and nine rebounds, and that’s exactly what the Bearcats need. Sean Kilpatrick can’t win games alone, and if Jackson can remain a steady presence inside, that will pay big dividends down the stretch.
5. If the Selection Committee were filling out its field right now, neither of these teams would pass the eyeball test. They’d get an A for effort and grit, but both are severely limited offensively and just not very good right now. Could they get better? Sure, and each will have chances to prove it is better as both head into conference play next month, but right now, they remain works in progress.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: What The American really means.
The conference realignment wave that hit these past few years left a lot of detritus in its wake. It turned athletic directors and universities into pimply high school kids approaching their would-be prom dates. It proved that football is an unstoppable entertainment force. It cemented the skyrocketing status of live sports in the current marketplace. It left hundreds of schools scrambling to find shelter. It terraformed the college basketball landscape in profound ways. But its crowning achievement -- the one result that says just about everything you need to know about just how fungible these silly collegiate athletics really are -- is the American Athletic Conference.
The American, as it's abbreviated, is not to be confused with that middling George Clooney movie from a few years back (even if Google disagrees). It is instead the conference -- or "conference-like" substance -- derived equally from Big East leftovers.
No one seems particularly happy about it. "Cincinnati and Connecticut, I know, aren't leaving, but they tried like hell to leave just like us," Louisville coach Rick Pitino told ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil Tuesday, and he's right: Bearcats' and Huskies' brass are saying all the right things now, but they wanted out of the American long before that name was focus-grouped. Memphis and Temple eagerly signed up for admission into something like the old Big East, where the "Catholic 7" -- the schools that broke off to form their own basketball-centric league with Butler, Creighton and Xavier -- would have still made the league a truly formidable basketball entity. Louisville is leaving. Rutgers, too.
Which would make it easy to poke fun at the American -- if the sight of a once-proud league split and stripped to the bone wasn't so sad.
And yet, for a league hastily constructed to ward off the impending doom of a football status downgrade, the American provides plenty of basketball interest, at least this season. Louisville is a national title contender. Memphis and UConn are both immensely talented, veteran teams led by good young coaches. Temple is Temple, which is to say it's a consistently strong program under Fran Dunphy; the same goes for Cincinnati under Mick Cronin. The Cincinnati-Memphis-Louisville triumvirate carries over some fun regional rivalry familiarity from the golden days of Conference USA, and the rest of the league around it -- up-and-comers at Houston and SMU, a marquee UConn program, etc. -- is a step up from the C-USA in nearly every way. It's not hard to conceive of a world in which the American was a long-standing, viable basketball league. It certainly will be this season. Why not?
Because Louisville doesn't see it that way. Neither do many of its current members, public pledges of allegiance excepted. These are huge questions about the future viability of the league, and what happens next.
The only certainty -- and it should make UConn fans feel a lot better -- is that in 2013, conference affiliation is barely half the battle. You don't have to be from the ACC or Big Ten to get to the tournament every season. Ask West Coast Conference member Gonzaga. Ask Xavier. Ask Wichita State. Ask Memphis! For as much as we debate which league is strongest every year, conference identity is still a secondary concern in college hoops. There may be more movement ahead; I have no idea what the American will look like in five years' time. That doesn't change how many top-50 wins Memphis needs to get to the tournament this season. There's solace in there somewhere.
Toughest: at New Mexico (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: NC State (Nov. 12), Xavier (Dec. 14), Pittsburgh (Dec. 17 in New York), Nebraska (Dec. 28)
The rest: North Carolina Central (Nov. 8), Appalachian State (Nov. 16), Campbell (Nov. 20), UMass Lowell (Nov. 26), Kennesaw State (Nov. 29), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 21), Chicago State (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This schedule could turn out better than it's currently ranked, but that will depend on how the unknown quantities of Pittsburgh and NC State turn out. For now it’s relatively toothless, especially because the Bearcats play just twice outside of Cincinnati.
Toughest: Florida (Dec. 2), Harvard (Jan. 8 )
Next toughest: Maryland (Nov. 8 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 22), at Washington (Dec. 22)
The rest: Yale (Nov. 11), Detroit (Nov. 14), Boston University (Nov. 17), Boston College (Nov. 21 in New York), Loyola (Nov. 26), Maine (Dec. 6), Stanford (Dec. 18), Eastern Washington (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The Huskies come back from postseason purgatory with a bang this season and have a pretty decent schedule for a showcase. The Gators will be a top-15 team and Harvard ought to be (no, that’s not sarcasm). Throw in the 2K Sports, where UConn will open with improved BC and then either Indiana or Washington, and the Huskies have plenty to sink their teeth into.
Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next toughest: at Texas A&M (Dec. 4)
The rest: Texas State (Nov. 8), at UT-Pan American (Nov. 11), UT-San Antonio (Nov. 14), Lehigh (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 21), Texas-Corpus Christi (Nov. 30), San Jose State (Dec. 7), Alcorn State (Dec. 9), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 14), Rice (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- Conference commissioner Mike Aresco might want to let the Cougars know that playing every directional university in the state of Texas does not a good schedule make. Playing Stanford at the Legends (and then either Pitt or Texas Tech) is OK, but if Houston is serious about stepping up its class, it has to beef up its schedule.
Toughest: Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 23-24 in Uncasville, Conn.), at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Western Kentucky (Dec. 14)
The rest: Charleston (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 12), Hartford (Nov. 19), Cornell (Nov. 15), Southern Miss (Nov. 29), UMKC (Dec. 4), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 7), Missouri State (Dec. 17), at Florida International (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- More than likely, the Cardinals will face North Carolina at Mohegan Sun. That game, partnered with the Kentucky grudge match in Lexington, makes for two pretty sensational games. Beyond those two headliners, though, this top-5 team doesn’t have a whole lot of games to turn your head.
Toughest: at Oklahoma State (Nov. 19), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), Florida (Dec. 17 in New York), Gonzaga (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: N/A
The rest: Austin Peay (Nov. 14), Nicholls State (Nov. 23), Northwestern State (Dec. 7), Arkansas-Little Rock (Dec. 13), Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 21), Jackson State (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- With the addition of Michael Dixon, Josh Pastner could have the best backcourt in the country. This schedule offers more than enough to test that theory. Along with the Gators and the semi-annual date with the Zags, the Tigers could run headlong into Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State for a second time in two weeks in the Old Spice Classic final.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27-29 in New York)
Next toughest: at George Washington (Dec. 4), Seton Hall (Dec. 8)
The rest: Florida A&M (Nov. 8), at UAB (Nov. 11), Yale (Nov. 14), William & Mary (Nov. 23), UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 14), Army (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- It’s honestly hard to judge this schedule, as the NIT Season Tip-Off schedule isn’t entirely set. The Scarlet Knights theoretically could run into Duke, Arizona or Alabama. Aside from that, the rivalry game against Seton Hall is good to see on the schedule.
Toughest: Oklahoma State (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Next toughest: at George Mason (Dec. 4), Alabama (Dec. 7), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 17)
The rest: Tennessee Tech (Nov. 9), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 12), at Bowling Green (Nov. 15), Stetson (Nov. 22), Detroit (Nov. 30), Florida A&M (Dec. 19), at Bradley (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 with the potential for a 7 -- The potential boost comes in Las Vegas. If the Bulls can get past Mississippi State, they’d likely take on host UNLV. Regardless, any schedule that features Marcus Smart and Dunk City isn’t too shabby.
Toughest: at Arkansas (Nov. 18), Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30)
Next toughest: at Wyoming (Dec. 20)
The rest: TCU (Nov. 8 at American Airlines Arena), Rhode Island (Nov. 11), Arkansas Pine Bluff (Nov. 24), Sam Houston State (Nov. 26)
Toughness scale (1-10): Incomplete -- The Mustangs are in the process of finalizing their nonconference schedule. As of right now, Larry Brown’s squad does get a nice ACC bump against Virginia in Corpus Christi, and playing at Arkansas always carries bonus points.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), Villanova (Feb. 1)
Next toughest: Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 4), La Salle (Jan. 18 at the Palestra)
The rest: at Penn (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 11), at Towson (Nov. 14), Texas (Dec. 7), Texas Southern (Dec. 18), LIU-Brooklyn (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The rebuilding Owls will have their hands full here, especially in Charleston. Temple faces a similarly reconstructing team in Clemson in the first game, with a potential matchup with New Mexico looming. And then there is the Big 5. Never easy and getting harder, what with the re-emergence of La Salle and and improving Penn.
Toughest: Florida State (Nov. 13), at Miami (Nov. 21)
Next toughest: at Valparaiso (Nov. 26)
The rest: Tampa (Nov. 8), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 17), at Florida Atlantic (Dec. 3), Stetson (Dec. 7), Howard (Dec. 11), Jacksonville (Dec. 17), Rio Grande (Dec. 21), Valparaiso (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- A home and home with Valpo? In the same season? That’s … interesting. Otherwise, Central Florida is getting Florida State and Miami a year too late. Both will still be a challenge for the Knights, no doubt, but they won’t be what they were a year ago.