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AAC's No. 1 backcourt? It's an intriguing debate

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published October 17. 2013 4:00AM
Lance Murphey/ AP Photo
UConn's delegation of (from left) coach Kevin Ollie, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Shabazz Napier pose for a photo during ACC media day on Wednesday at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn.

Memphis, Tenn. The great debate will likely rage deep into the regular season.

Which American Athletic Conference men's basketball team has the best backcourt?

AAC coaches bounced around the topic during the inaugural media day on Wednesday at the FedEx Forum.

Of course, it's difficult for coaches to reach a consensus given their built-in biases. But they agreed that the conference is home to some of the country's top backcourts.

They narrowed the best-in-the-AAC list to a select handful.

"If you asked me right now who has the best backcourt between Connecticut, SMU, Memphis, Louisville, I couldn't tell you," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I know we have an outstanding backcourt, as good as I've ever coached.

" Cincinnati has a very good backcourt as well, maybe not as deep but still very, very talented. I think, without question, it's the conference in America with the best backcourts."

UConn's dynamic duo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright certainly has to be in the conversation. Napier earned unanimous preseason first-team honors and could challenge Russ Smith for conference player of the year at the end of the season. Boatright made the second team.

The Huskies are the only team to place two guards on the preseason all-conference squads.

Their backcourt has experience and competitive spirit on their side, according to Boatright. And depth, too, when you add Omar Calhoun, the third member of the starting guard trio.

"I never sell myself short, or sell my teammates short," Boatright said. "I think we're one of the best teams in the country let alone the best backcourt. We've been playing together for three years.

"When we go out there and step on the floor our goal is winning, and we'll do whatever we need to do to win."

Smith, All-American candidate, AAC preseason player of the year and leader of the defending national champion Cardinals, politely declined to state a case for his backcourt. The Cardinals will improve their depth with the addition of junior college All-American Chris Jones.

He studies film of different guards, from the college to the NBA level. He's picked up a few tips from UConn's backcourt.

"I learned that Shabazz is one of the more fundamental guards in our league," Smith said. "He can shoot the ball really well and has a great IQ. He understands the game well. He's student of the game.

"I understand how explosive Boatright is and how competitive he is. I watch Boatright in transition and like how he kind of glides with the basketball. I told him that I looked at that and took that."

Memphis certainly has a strong argument, returning seniors Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson who all averaged double figures for a team that won 31 games and qualified for the NCAA tournament. Missouri transfer Michael Dixon Jr. is another talented guard to watch.

The Tigers were picked third just behind UConn in the AAC coaches' preseason poll. Jackson made the preseason first team.

It's no coincidence that the top three teams in the preseason poll feature talented backcourts.

"We've got four senior guards, and three of them had over 100 assists last year," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "We were fifth in the country in assists. We were very unselfish. We're excited going into this year. You've got a better chance of winning with good guards.

"That's what makes this league great, any game anyone can win because everyone has great guards."

Other quality guards on the preseason all-conference teams include Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick (first team), South Florida's Anthony Collins (second) and Central Florida's Isaiah Sykes (second).

g.keefe@theday.com

AAC MEN'S BASKETBALL

PRESEASON POLL

1. Louisville (9) 81

2. UConn (1) 69

3. Memphis 68

4. Cincinnati 58

5. Temple 40

6. SMU 39

7. Houston 28

8. USF 27

9. UCF 24

10. Rutgers 16

PRESEASON AWARDS

Player of the Year

Russ Smith, Louisville

Rookie of the Year

Keith Frazier, G, Fr., SMU

All-AAC

First Team

Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati; Shabazz Napier, UConn; Chane Behanan, Louisville; Russ Smith, Louisville; Joe Jackson, Memphis.

Second Team

Isaiah Sykes, UCF; Ryan Boatright, UConn; TaShawn Thomas, Houston; Montrezl Harrell, Louisville; Anthony Collins, USF; Victor Rudd, USF.

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