I don’t think anyone will find this too shocking, but the American Athletic Conference is a long way from being one of the nation’s best basketball leagues. Ten teams in this league, and six of them would find it difficult to play .300 ball in the Big Ten or Big XII.
That leaves you with the four top schools in the AAC: Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut. These would be four pretty good teams in any conference; but they are head and shoulders above everyone else in this league. I guess that’s what made the lack of fanfare surrounding last night’s UCONN – Memphis game so shocking.
It seemed, at least to me, as though the UCONN Huskies arrived in Memphis under cover of darkness, and the Memphis Tigers wanted to keep their opponents’ arrival a complete secret. We’re talking about two outstanding basketball programs here. Memphis came into the game at 12-3 (2-2, AAC), and ranked 17th. UCONN arrived in Memphis unranked (find me 25 better teams than the Huskies; these polls are a joke), due primarily to a couple of strange road losses to a pair of below-average Texas schools: SMU and Houston. Even still, the Huskies were 13-3, 1-2 in conference play. This was a big game, and though ESPN did its due diligence in promoting it, it still seemed as though it was ‘just another game’ to most people. Maybe it’s just me.
The simple fact about this new age of college hoops is that these are now the rivalries. UCONN’s annual trips to places like Louisville (leaving for the ACC next year) and Cincinnati are the modern day equivalent to the Georgetowns and St. Johns’ of yesteryear. And now visits to Gampel Pavilion from schools like Memphis and Temple, will take the place of visits from age old rivals like Syracuse and Seton Hall. It’s sad. It’s true. It’s the reality of college basketball in the 21st century.
In any event, I watched this game last night. I had seen both clubs play prior to last night’s contest, and given how good both teams are, I figured I would be in for a good one. I was right.
Connecticut’s backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright is as good as any guard combo in the nation. In games past, I’ve seen Napier score more points and be more aggressive going to the hoop, but I’ve never seen him play as complete a game (17 points, 10 assists) as he did last night in Memphis. UCONN shot a mind-blowing 57% from the field; and Napier was the reason why. Napier’s ten assists are evidence that he spread the ball around to his teammates. But what was even more impressive was the fact that he seemed to get the ball to them on-time and in their scoring areas. No Husky appeared to need to step into his range; Napier (#13) simply got the ball to them when/where it was needed. I knew Shabazz Napier was good, but last night was as impressive a performance as I’ve seen from a lead guard in quite some time.
Napier’s backcourt partner, Ryan Boatright, is another supremely talented guard. The junior entered last night’s game with a heavy heart – with his 20-year-old cousin, Arin Williams, shot to death Monday in their hometown of Aurora, Illinois. Understandably, Boatright didn’t play up to his standards (7 points, 4 assists); but I think his mere presence in the lineup provided a spark for the Huskies.
Outside of Boatright’s heartbreaking storyline, and Napier’s passing clinic, 6’9″ junior DeAndre Daniels’ performance was the thing that had to stand out to Huskies fans. Daniels poured in 23 points, and was a monster on the glass with 11 rebounds. But, in my opinion, the really impressive part of Daniels’ game last night was on the defensive end of the floor. This kid was everywhere; hedging out on the pick and roll, altering shots with his immense wingspan, and just being an all-around pest. For a team in desperate need of an interior force to complement their fantastic guards, Daniels’ performance in Memphis has to have UCONN fans – and coach Kevin Ollie – thinking they may have found something.
UCONN won the game, 83-73, and it really struck me as the kind of win that spurs a team on to bigger things. The Huskies did turn the ball over 15 times, and they allowed 15 offensive rebounds, so there will be plenty for Kevin Ollie and his guys to work on. But Memphis is a very good team, and UCONN got a very big win in their building. A very big win no one seems to think much of. And I have no idea why that is.
Connecticut is currently unranked, and this probably bothers them on some level. After all, this group of Huskies have already beaten Maryland, Indiana, Washington and Florida. Now a big win in Memphis, and there’s no doubt in my mind this is one of the 25 best teams in America. Like I said, the polls are a joke. So, who knows.
If Coach Ollie (above) and his young men do, in fact, take offense to the pollsters’ apparent snub, tomorrow is their chance to do something about it. Rick Pitino and his defending national champions – the Louisville Cardinals (15-3, 4-1 AAC) – visit Storrs tomorrow. I already think UCONN is good, so they don’t have to beat Louisville to prove anything to me. But maybe after a huge win last night, this team feels differently about the ‘brilliant’ writers who vote on such things.