Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The American Athletic Conference: Great Coaches, Greater Guards. Should Be a Fun Season

The hallmark of the American Athletic Conference in its first year of existence looks to be two things: great coaches, great guard play. (And atrocious football, but let's stick to men's hoops).

The league features two Hall of Fame coaches (Rick Pitino, Larry Brown), another with NBA experience (Eddie Jordan), others who are well-respected in the game (Fran Dunphy, Josh Pastner, Mick Cronin) and, of course, up-and-comers like Kevin Ollie.

As for guards, UConn, Louisville and Memphis could all lay claim not only to the best backcourt in the conference but possibly even in the nation. And all three do lay such claims, as you'll soon find out.

Here are some notes, quotes and video from today's AAC Media Day:

(on the league's great guards):



“It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be more of a guard-type of game, which I (thrive) in. I love those type of atmospheres … it’s gonna be uptempo in a lot of games. It should be a lot of fun, because, who doesn’t want to play a game like that? I don’t want to play smashmouth basketball.”
“I respect all the guards – the Memphis guards, the UConn guards. They do a lot of things well that I try to emulate and put into my game. If I don’t respect their game and love their game then it’s not gonna make me a great competitor.”

“Shabazz is one of the more fundamental guards in our league. He shoots the ball really well, he has a great IQ, he understands the game well, and he’s a student of the game. I understand how explosive Boatright is, how competitive he is. Joe Jackson’s extremely athletic, extremely fierce. The same can be said about Geron Johnson – fierce competitor … and you can’t sleep on the Cincinnati guys. Sean  (Kilpatrick) is a New York native, I’m very familiar with his game … Anthony Collins, the way he operates and runs his team, that inspires me a lot.”


 “The backcourts make it exciting for the fans. This league has a lot of great guards. Everybody talks a lot about Louisville, Memphis, UConn. I don’t think a lot of people talk about South Florida – they’ve got good guards. Houston’s got good guards, SMU’s got good guards, Rutgers has a few guys that are eligible now, Cincinnati … From top to bottom, this league is filled with really good guards. And when you have really good guards, that means every time you step on the floor, any night, somebody could beat anybody at any point.”

So who's got the best backcourt in the league? Pitino said his is "one of the best backcourts I've coached in my 35 years ... maybe the best."
Napier: "I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t think we had the best guards. I’m a competitor, so I’ll put my guards up against anybody."
Jackson: “Tell you the truth, I feel like we have the best backcourt. We’ve got Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson, Mike Dixon. They can shoot the ball, they’re seniors. We’ve got a good backcourt, and it’ll be very competitive."

Smith? Surprisingly, he wouldn't join the fray: “We just play, man. I just play basketball. If I want to talk about how good I am in the backcourt, I’d just get into the media.”
But he later added: “Our backcourt is great, too. It should be reckoned with.”
*** Not a bad batch of coaches, either:

How many leagues have two Hall of Fame coaches in them? Obviously, the ACC’s got there’s, but … I think this and the ACC are the two best basketball leagues in the country. I’d be shocked if six teams aren’t in the NCAA tournament. I think it’s going to be a heck of a deal from the start of the season to the finish.”
“It’s gonna be hard for a lot of guys who had success in their leagues to try to duplicate it because of the great coaches (in the AAC)."

 “You’ve just got great coaches from top to bottom. It’s just great to be here in the midst of greatness. Hopefully, for me, I can touch the hem of their garments one day."
Indeed, Ollie plans on learning from some of the great coaches he'll be going up against this season.

“One of the greatest attributes of a great coach is always being coachable. I’ll ask advice. If it wasn’t for the advice of Larry Brown, I wouldn’t have made it to Connecticut. That was the first person I called when I had the decision of going to Oklahoma City or coaching UConn. He said, without a shadow of a doubt, go back to your love, go back to your heart. That’s why I made the decision, because I really valued his opinion.”
*** Brown dropped this interesting nugget on us today: the first head coaching job he was offered was at UConn, back in 1967. Fred Schabel had left for Penn, and new AD Jim Hickey offered the job to Brown, who was then the freshman coach at North Carolina. He turned down the offer.
“I didn’t know if I was ready. I loved being at Carolina with Coach Smith. Then, lo and behold, I left and started playing again. But I’ve always loved Storrs.”
Burr Carlson took the job instead, went 16-32 in two seasons, and Dee Rowe replaced him in 1969.
Brown, who coached Ollie in the NBA, will always have a special place in his heart for him.
“Seeing the respect people have for him. Generally, guys get respect because they’re great and they play a lot. Kevin got respect because of who he was and what he was about. You could see that early on. I’ve been around great players, and so many guys of the guys I coached taught me how to coach. He was one of them. He always did it in a respectful way. I valued things he said, and I always thought he was a great example for young kids.”
Brown added: "I don’t look forward to playing against him, but I’m proud he’s doing what he’s doing.”
The respect is mutual, not only from Ollie but from Ollie's players:
“Larry Brown, a coach that I always watched because growing up, I enjoyed watching Allen Iverson," said Napier. "I’ll be happy to walk up against Larry Brown’s team and play them and then shake his hand. That’s somebody I thought I’d never be able to play against. It’s a good feeling to have a lot of good coaches (in this league).”
*** DeAndre Daniels didn't make preseason first or second team, but he's not bothered by it.
“I don’t really focus on individual awards and stuff. Basketball is a team sport, so all I’m worried is how I can do things I can do to make my team better – rebounding, scoring, all the little things.”

Maybe Daniels didn't notice, but Ollie did.
“People aren’t noticing him – he knows that, we know that, that only adds fuel to his fire. For something to come out to say he’s not one of the top basketball players in America, I want to see who wrote that. We’re going to show ‘em, that he is a great basketball player and a force to be reckoned with this season.”

*** Ollie noted that he's played for three of the league's coaches: Brown, Jordan and Pitino. For Pitino, it was just in an NBA summer league some 15 years ago when he was trying to make the Celtics as a free agent. It was between Ollie and Kentucky alum Wayne Turner, and Pitino went with Turner.
"Of course he picked the Kentucky guy, but it’s alright," Ollie said with a smile. "It made me who I am."
Said Pitino: “In the end, I had to be a little partial.”
*** UConn received the only other first-place vote other than Louisville. Obviously, it came from Pitino, since coaches can't vote for their own teams.
“I was trying to decide between Memphis and UConn, and to be quite honest, it was 1 and 1A," Pitino said. "I just think that their backcourt is awesome. Memphis’s backcourt is awesome. I wanted to vote as a tie, they told me I couldn’t do it, so I just picked UConn because of more familiarity with them.”
What does Pitino like most about UConn?
"I think they have a great backcourt, a terrific front court. They have a coach that is not only a terrific young coach, but there’s not a living room in the country that he will walk into, where when he leaves, that family won’t want to put him in the top three choices to go to school. I’ve been with Kevin Ollie for the last 10 years."

*** I asked Shabazz Napier who's surprised him most so far in practices. His quick response: "Amida (Brimah). Defensively, he's incredible. Offensively, he needs a little more work."

Napier believes all the team's big men will contribute "by committee" this season. Boatright also praised Niels Giffey's recent play in practice.

*** Interesting tidbit: the back of the AAC media guide highlights the league's NCAA championship teams -- 2013 Louisville, 2011 UConn, 2004 UConn, 1999 UConn, 1986 Louisville, 1980 Louisville, 1962 Cincinnati and 1961 Cincinnati. Of course, none of those teams were AAC teams when they won, and it's worth noting that the league is operating from a brand-new slate in terms of statistical records, etc.

The current Big East, meanwhile, is keeping its record book intact -- even though that league is actually the new league. The AAC is actually considered the same conference as the Big East, only with a different name and a largely new set of teams.

Conference realignment is confusing, eh?


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