The American Athletic Conference often flies under the radar, but today is not one of those days. It is conference championship day, and the AAC game pits the defending champion Connecticut Huskies against coaching legend Larry Brown and the surprising Southern Methodist Mustangs.
The stories of both teams this weekend are polar opposites. Unranked UConn is fighting for its tournament life after coming out of nowhere to win the title as a No. 7 seed last season, while No. 20 SMU is out to prove itself after getting robbed of a tourney bid last year en route to being the NIT runner up.
As we should with any game preview, especially a conference championship game, let’s start with the coaching matchup. At age 74, Brown is a veteran on both the college and professional levels, and has proven himself in the former by leading Kansas to a national championship in 1988. In his third season at SMU, he has turned the Mustangs into a team that nobody even thought about to a legitimate contender, and is now poised to bring them to their first NCAA tournament since 1993.
UConn’s Kevin Ollie is a different story. After playing at UConn for four years and going undrafted in 1995, he played in the now defunct CBA for two years before bouncing around the NBA as a backup guard for 13 seasons. Ironically, he spent a season and a half playing for Brown when the Hall of Famer was coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Ollie returned to UConn after retiring and immediately became an assistant under the legendary Jim Calhoun, his own head coach from his college days. Upon Calhoun’s retirement in 2012, in the wake of sanctions being levied against the school due to recruiting violations, Ollie was named head coach and led the team to a 20-10 overall record but did not make the tournament due to poor academic performances from the team the prior year.
Sure enough, the 2014 team played with a chip on its shoulder and surprised everyone en route to winning the title, Ollie’s second with the school after helping lead them to his first as an assistant in 2011. Sure enough, this game is going to be a coaching chess match in a classic instance of youth vs. experience.
Now let’s talk about the team’s performance against each other during the regular season. Their first meeting was back on Valentine’s Day, at Moody Coliseum in Dallas, where a raucous Texas crowd pushed the Mustangs to a dominating 73-55 win. On the back of 13 points and 10 boards from senior center Yanick Moreira, Brown’s signature conservative, efficient approach and commitment to tight defense held Connecticut to 34 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers.
Such was not the case two weeks later, on March 1. In Hartford, in front of some rabid fans, UConn came out swinging and made it very clear that the second matchup would not be the same as the first. With Ollie’s fast-paced approach flowing, the Huskies shot just over 53 percent from the field and 45 percent from three-point range, with sophomore Rodney Purvis leading the way with 28 points. Senior Ryan Boatright also chipped in with 23 of his own. The final score was 81-73 in favor of UConn, and they proved that they could play their game well against Brown’s tight defensive squad in an absolute must-win.
That said, look for lots of fireworks in today’s rubber match, which kicks off at 1 pm on ESPN. SMU’s ticket to the big dance is punched after being the AAC regular season champion, so today’s game is more about drawing a favorable seed. They are 26-6 overall this season and went 15-3 in conference, so it’s not like winning is an absolute must today, though it would certainly be welcome.
Connecticut’s story is the exact opposite. They went just 20-13 overall and 10-8 in conference, finishing tied for 4th in the AAC with the Memphis Tigers. This comes after going 32-8 (12-6 AAC) last year, and this year’s performance can largely be chalked up to losing key players like Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels to the pros, plus tougher competition in the conference.
Thus, the fact that UConn is back in a position to make the NCAA tournament after such an up and down season is amazing. Given how they defeated SMU in their last meeting and today’s Hartford crowd will largely be pro-Huskies, this game will NOT be one to be missed.
*Section Photo credit to Mike Stobe, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jim Cowsert, USA Today Sports