<
>

Weekend Homework: Smith, Napier to tango

The national player of the year race is all but over, the anointing of Doug McDermott a mere formality of ballot tabulation and news-release mailing.

But tucked in the undercard, some of the conference POY races could very well end up a pick 'em.

Case in point: the first installment of the American Athletic Conference hardware. Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, Louisville guard Russ Smith or Cincinnati forward Sean Kilpatrick. Who do you take? How do you pick?

It’s impossible, really, the difference between the trio almost nonexistent, a most subjective pick of taste.

The edge might go to whomever wins the conference crown, which is why Saturday’s game between Connecticut and Louisville might be so critical. The Cardinals could take a piece of the American pie by beating the Huskies in Smith’s final home game.

Those are some serious stakes.

Smith, who a few weeks ago decided it was time to stop playing like he thought people (read: NBA scouts) wanted him to play and instead play like he wanted to, has been Russdiculous-ing again, to impressive results. His 26 points against SMU -- complete with trips to a nearby garbage can to vomit -- was just the latest in a string of incredible performances that have put Louisville back in the national title-contender conversations.

He’s been getting help with the emergence of Montrezl Harrell as a steady and powerful post presence, giving the Cards the inside game they had been sorely lacking in the early part of the season.

Though the Napier-Smith tango will get the eyeballs, Harrell might actually be the difference-maker. As good as Napier has been -- and he has been Kemba Walker-like sensational -- his supporting cast can’t match Louisville’s.

But you’re forgiven if you watch the two guards for the sheer pleasure of it. They’ve earned it.

Both Smith and Napier, who finished his home career with 26 points against Rutgers, have enjoyed their share of bumps and bruises along the way but have managed to do what few great college players have the time or chance to do anymore -- grow and mature as people and as players.

What you see on the floor now are players who, along with Kilpatrick, don’t see the responsibilities of leadership as a burden but instead welcome them. Big moments are never too big for them. Slow starts are there to eventually be remedied.

Somehow, some way, the conference will have to split hairs to hand out its first player of the year trophy.

The bad news -- two players will have to lose.

The good news -- the league can’t go wrong.