Conventional thinking about the American Athletic Conference race in the preseason figured Louisville, Memphis and Connecticut would compete for the crown. Through five games, they’re all chasing Cincinnati.
The Bearcats’ 5-0 start in the conference means Louisville game at UConn on Saturday just got real. Should the Cardinals lose, they’ll likely fall two games back of the Bearcats, who play at USF on Saturday. Should the Huskies lose, they’ll be looking at three conference losses just a third of the way through the AAC schedule.
On paper, the game will be a matchup of two of the nation’s best guards, Louisville’s Russ Smith and UConn’s Shabazz Napier. Both seniors can now be described with words no one associated with them as freshmen: mature and reliable.
Smith is averaging 18.1 points, 4.8 assists and has increased his shooting percentages to what would both be career bests from the field (45.3) and from the 3-point arc (38.8).
Napier averages 16.1 points, a league-leading 6.2 assists and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds. He’s the only player in the nation who leads his team in all those categories, in addition to steals and minutes played.
But this game might not be decided by either player. It might be tipped by the play on the wing.
For Louisville, it’s possibly Wayne Blackshear. The junior guard/forward entered Thursday night’s game having scored a combined five points in his past two games. Louisville coach Rick Pitino opted to bring him off the bench for the first time this season instead of starting him. Blackshear responded with a career-high 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting and had seven rebounds.
Blackshear has had a tendency to go silent in the Cards' big games this season. He was scoreless against North Carolina, had five points against Kentucky and just two against Memphis. But if he can make his presence felt against UConn, Louisville will be that much harder to defend.
For UConn, it’s possibly Lasan Kromah. He has reached double-figure scoring in only four games this season. But one of those was his 13 points Thursday night in the win at Memphis.
The Huskies can be overly reliant on Napier, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels to score. Kromah averaged double figures in each of his three seasons at George Washington before transferring to UConn, so he can be a difference-maker.
Louisville could again be without junior guard Chris Jones, who injured his right hip and missed Thursday’s win over Houston. If he’s unable to play, freshman Terry Rozier will probably get the start in his place. Rozier had a career-best eight assists and one turnover against the Cougars.
The Cards have won six of their past seven matchups with UConn, with the last Huskies victory coming in the 2011 Big East Tournament championship game.