American shows strength
MEMPHIS - UConn coach Kevin Ollie and senior Shabazz Napier were two of the few who believed in the strength of the newly established American Athletic Conference prior to its inaugural season.
It may have sounded outrageous at the time, considering the departures of schools like Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Notre Dame from the original Big East Conference, but now with five teams in the American ranked in the AP poll to conclude the regular season, Ollie and Napier's beliefs sudden seem much more convincing and are spreading through the rest of the conference.
"We got some great teams and great coaches," Ollie said. "[The season] was great all the way through... It's just a great league and we got five teams in the top 25, that's pretty amazing."
Leading this group is the defending national champion Louisville, who jumped six spots to No. 5 in the rankings this week after its 33-point blowout victory over UConn on Saturday.
The Cardinals, however, will move to the ACC next season, but coach Rick Pitino still had high praises for the American, calling it a "very strong, very competitive and a very well-run conference" in a teleconference call on Monday.
Louisville also shared the regular season conference title with Cincinnati, who came in at No. 13 in the polls this week. The Bearcats possess one of the best guards in the nation in Sean Kilpatrick, who led the American with 20.9 points per game during the regular season.
Kilpatrick, along with Napier and Louisville's Russ Smith were all unanimous selections to the conference First Team and are all likely candidates for All-American nods as well. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin gave credit to the trio for creating a competitive season for the conference.
"We've been real fortunate in this league to have some great players performing at an unbelievably high level," Cronin said in the teleconference. "That's really helped it, no doubt about it."
Josh Pastner, coach of the No. 19 Memphis Tigers, agreed with Cronin and confidently called the American the "best league in the country" and firmly believes in his statement.
"This league is loaded," Pastner said. "If you don't bring your 'A' game, there's a good chance you'll lose."
One of Memphis' six losses in the conference came at the hands of SMU, who rounds out the AP ranking at No. 25 this week.
"Our league has some incredible players," said SMU coach Larry Brown. "I can't imagine a league having three better guards [than Kilpatrick, Napier and Smith]."
Napier acknowledges the caliber of the guards, as well as the coaches in the American and believes that the combination of the two creates winning cultures within a team.
"Tremendous guards all around in this conference, from the top team to the bottom team," Napier said. "You win games with the guards. This conference definitely has those guards and it has great coaches as well. When you have great coaches and great guards, good things can happen for your team."
The AAC tournament is scheduled to begin on Wednesday with first-round matchups between Temple-UCF and Rutgers-USF. Fourth-seeded UConn, meanwhile, is set to take on the host and No. 5 seed Memphis on Thursday night at 9 p.m. at the FedExForum.
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