The American Athletic Conference so far is performing like a league born from a diverse group of programs with different resources and expectations.
Not that we’d expect anything else, since this is a league smashed together among programs with different resources and expectations.
On one end, there’s Louisville, Connecticut and Memphis who are continuing on what all three programs did last season.
The defending national champion Cardinals get the benefit of the doubt given the returning cast, but they’ve played only one major opponent and lost to North Carolina. Now that Connecticut has a chance to play for the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies are relishing in the opportunity, despite obvious limitations. And Memphis has flipped the narrative after earning redemption from a blowout road loss to Oklahoma State with a win over the same Cowboys in Orlando.
On the other end is a team like SMU still striving to prove it belongs among the upper echelon of the league with Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. To do that, SMU may have to prove what it’s not and that means separating itself from Rutgers, UCF, USF and Houston.
Early Season Report Card: American Athletic Conference
NCAA teams as of today: Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis
Bubble watch: Cincinnati, SMU
Best win: Memphis 73, Okla. State 68
Worst loss: FAU 75, UCF 64
Power rankings so far
Important non-conference games remaining
Cincinnati at Xavier (Dec. 14)
Florida at Memphis (Dec. 17)
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (Dec. 17)
Stanford at Connecticut (Dec. 18)
Connecticut at Washington (Dec. 22)
Louisville at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
MVP so far:
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
The AAC’s leading scorers Russ Smith and Sean Kilpatrick deserve mention, but Napier has been the clear do-it-all player for the Huskies. Drawing comparisons to Kemba Walker, Napier has been huge in the Huskies’ top wins with 26 points against Florida, 27 against Indiana, 20 against Boston College and 18 against Maryland. The only question is if he’ll need to keep up this torrid pace (15.3 points, seven rebounds and 5.9 assists per game) for UConn to remain an AAC contender. And then there was
Top freshman: Austin Nichols, Memphis
Nichols has stepped in to give Memphis the inside presence the Tigers need in their guard-heavy lineup. The 6-8, 212-pound forward has averaged 5.9 rebounds per game including a 19-point and eight-rebound performance against LSU in the Old Spice Classic.
Top newcomer: Chris Jones, Louisville
Taking over for Peyton Siva is no easy task, but Jones has assumed the point guard role successfully with the Cardinals. He’s second to Russ Smith in scoring (14.9 ppg) and has played relentless defense. One of the more interesting games of the season will be when the junior college transfer Jones returns to his hometown of Memphis to face the Tigers and to play in the AAC Tournament.
Surprise player: Justin Jackson, Cincinnati
Justin Jackson had been a steady contributor on the defensive end as shot blocker, but he didn’t have a developed offensive game. That has changed in his senior season. Before this year, he’d never averaged more than 5.1 points per game in a season. He’s up to 10.6 points while averaging 3.3 blocks.
Early season flop: Louisville’s loss to North Carolina
Let’s forget that North Carolina has been wildly inconsistent this season and just count Louisville’s 93-84 loss to the Tar Heels as a loss to a solid team on a neutral court. Even then, how do you account for the dismal performance of Louisville’s supporting cast, a group that came up huge in the Cardinals’ title run last season. Montrezl Harrell was 2 of 5 (but with 10 rebounds). Luke Hancock was 1 of 8. Wayne Blackshear was invisible, missing his only shot in 17 minutes. Louisville still has a game at Kentucky on Dec. 28, but of the top 10 or so preseason teams, we know the least about Louisville. After North Carolina, Lousiville has faced only two other top-100 opponents on KenPom (Southern Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette).
Lingering concerns: Connecticut’s inside presence
Napier, a 6-1 guard, leads UConn in rebounding at seven per game. The next best player, forward DeAndre Daniels, averages 4.7. The Huskies have managed to start 9-0 despite ranking 240th in defensive rebounding percentage and 182nd in offensive rebounding percentage. That can’t hold up over the course of the season.
Best NCAA resume: Connecticut
No one is comparing the 2013-14 Huskies to the 2010-11 team that won the title, but a hot start has been a big part of both. Defeating Florida on a buzzer beater at home is nice, defeating Indiana on a neutral court is just as good. Maryland and Boston College might not be NCAA teams, but the Huskies beat both on neutral courts as well.