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Insider

Contenders, challengers in AAC

6/6/2013

The American Athletic Conference is without question a conference in transition, but make no mistake about it: This league has teams with rich basketball traditions.

No, this is not the ACC, the Big Ten or your father's Big East, but it is a league that will put a minimum of four teams in the NCAA tournament this season, with the potential for more. The biggest question for this conference moving forward is whether it can establish an identity once Louisville departs for the ACC and Rutgers leaves for the Big Ten.

In the meantime, let's take a look at the contenders and potential surprise teams from the AAC this season in what should be a competitive conference race.


The contenders

Louisville Cardinals

Rick Pitino's team is looking to make the Final Four for the third consecutive season, and while this season's edition will miss Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, there is a ton of returning talent.

Backcourt: The key to the Cardinals' talented backcourt will be how Russ Smith and junior college All-American Chris Jones coexist. Both are explosive off the bounce but need the ball to be effective, so someone needs to manage the game and be a facilitator.

That's why freshman Terry Rozier could play a valuable role. He is a pure pass-first point guard, and he and NCAA Final Four MOP Luke Hancock will bring high basketball IQs and versatility to the Cardinals' perimeter game. Wayne Blackshear has been inconsistent but has the potential to have a breakout junior season. If Kevin Ware returns this season, Louisville will have one of the deepest backcourts in the country.

Frontcourt: Chane Behanan should be one of college basketball's best power forwards. His play in the national championship game showed his potential. Although undersized, he is physical and a relentless rebounder and plays through contact. He is joined upfront by Montrezl Harrell, one of the hardest-playing players in the nation, and Stephan Van Treese, a 7-footer who has developed into a solid defender and rebounder. My only question for this group is whether it has the ability to protect the front of the rim.

Bottom line: If Smith and Jones coexist, Behanan fulfills his potential and Harrell continues his meteoric improvement, the Cards will not only win the first AAC championship but will once again compete for a national championship.