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AAC Player of the Year debate decided Wednesday

By Tim Fontenault
On March 12, 2014

MEMPHIS - "I felt like it was going to be a good conference," UConn senior Shabazz Napier said before the No. 21 Huskies travelled to Memphis for the inaugural American Athletic Conference Men's Basketball Championship. "Tremendous guards all around in this conference, from the top team to the bottom team. 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."

A couple months ago, Napier was one of a select group that believed in the strength of the American and its ability to compete with the top basketball conferences in the country.

Today, as the conference prepares for the first two games of its inaugural postseason championship, there are five conference representatives in the AP Top 25, more than any other conference.

"Obviously, for a first-year conference, it's been unbelievable, the quality of play," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said during Monday's teleconference with the coaches of the American.

Not only that, but there is a legitimate chance the American has three players - three of those big-time guards Napier was talking about - selected to the five-player All-America First Team.

Napier, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville's Russ Smith have helped put the AAC on the map in its first season. The three star guards are on about every watch list imaginable in their senior seasons, having been named finalists for the Wooden Award, Naismith Award and the Oscar Robertson Award.

"I can't imagine a league having better guards than our conference," SMU coach Larry Brown said.

On Wednesday, the ongoing debate about which of the three players - each named unanimously to the All-AAC First Team Tuesday morning - stands above the others will be decided, as the AAC Player of the Year will be announced at a luncheon prior to the start of the first game of the conference tournament.

Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell and SMU forward Nic Moore join Napier, Kilpatrick and Smith on the All-AAC First Team, but the competition for Player of the Year is clearly between the three senior guards.

Kilpatrick is the heart and soul of the Bearcats, who will be the No. 1 seed in the tournament after sharing the regular season title with Louisville. He led the conference in scoring at 20.9 points per game this season. Kilpatrick carried Cincinnati through the AAC this year, notably scoring 28 and 26 points in wins over Louisville and UConn respectively.

"Big time players step up in big time moments, and that's what Kilpatrick does," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.

Smith, a key cog in Louisville's run to the national championship last season, has been equally impressive this year, averaging 17.5 points, 4.8 assists and two steals per game.

The senior was quiet offensively in his final home game, an 81-48 blowout win over the Huskies, but his 13 assists and four steals made up for his meager three points.

As for Napier, he leads UConn in nearly every major statistical category - 17.8 points per game, 5.2 assists, six rebounds, 1.8 steals. Napier has redefined what it means to be clutch in his senior season, taking the reigns in tight games against the likes of Maryland, Boston College, Indiana and Memphis to guide UConn to victory.

Of course, there was also the buzzer-beating shot against Florida, a team that has not lost since and is now No. 1 in the nation.

Just about everybody in the conference is being asked who they think should win the award, including Napier. But as always, Napier, the captain of the Huskies, only wants to worry about things he can control, like UConn's matchup with No. 19 Memphis in Thursday's Quarterfinals.

"I don't care," Napier said. "I'm more invested in winning championships. I'm not into individual awards. I'd rather win a championship."

As is often the case, Napier got asked about how his situation is similar to Kemba Walker's in 2011. Walker, the driving force behind UConn's run to the Big East and NCAA titles that year, finished runner-up in Big East Player of the Year voting to Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough and second in the National Player of the Year voting to BYU guard Jimmer Fredette.

"They gave it to Jimmer that year," Napier said, "and Kemba was happy to have the championship when Jimmer doesn't have that, so it's okay."

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