By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
A coin flip decided the top seed for the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament. The competition to determine the league’s player of the year also looks like a toss-up.
Not only does the American have the most teams ranked in Top 25 with five, the conference also will be a showcase for some of the nation’s best guards. Shabazz Napier at UConn, Sean Kilpatrick at Cincinnati or Russ Smith at Louisville could be the player of the year, and all have helped their teams to strong seasons.
Smith played a key role in helping Louisville win the national championship a year ago. As a freshman, Napier helped Connecticut win the 2011 NCAA tournament.
Here’s a Pick Six of the key guards trying to help their team win a title starting Wednesday night in Memphis.
SHABAZZ NAPIER, UCONN: The senior is the Huskies’ leading scorer averaging 17.8 points and is second in the league with 5.2 assists a game. Napier hit a career-high seven 3-pointers last week against Rutgers, and he has been the American’s player of the week a league-high five times. Napier has help from junior Ryan Boatwright, who is averaging 12 points and 3.5 assists. Napier also has added motivation _ UConn was barred from last season’s Big East tournament.
RUSS SMITH, LOUISVILLE: Smith seems to be at a higher level since the calendar flipped to March. He hit all six of his 3-pointers and scored 26 points to help the Cardinals give SMU its only home loss. He had a career-high 13 assists to help beat UConn 81-48 for a share of the league championship. Smith ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 17.5 points a game to go with 4.8 assists.
SEAN KILPATRICK, CINCINNATI: The 6-foot-4 senior is a big reason why the Bearcats go into the tournament with that No. 1 seed after winning a share of its first conference title since 2004. Kilpatrick has been Cincinnati’s leading scorer for 17 straight games. He averages a league-high 20.9 points a game. Kilpatrick scored a season-high 34 points in a March 6 victory over Memphis and followed that with 24 points at Rutgers.
THE MEMPHIS FOUR: Coach Josh Pastner has not just one, two or three senior guards but four. Joe Jackson is wrapping up his career with the Tigers. Jackson ranks fifth in the league with 4.6 assists a game, and he also is scoring 14.4 points a game. He is joined by 3-point shooter Chris Crawford and a pair of transfers. Geron Johnson is averaging 3.7 assists in his second season in Memphis, while Michael Dixon Jr. is the Tigers’ second-leading scorer behind Jackson. If guard play is key in March, the Tigers certainly have numbers.
NIC MOORE, SMU: The sophomore guard had to sit out his transfer season last year, and he’s making up for the lost time. Moore, who came to SMU from Illinois State, is the Mustangs’ leading scorer with 13.9 points a game. He ranks fourth in the league with 4.7 assists per game Moore also is dangerous from beyond the arc where he averages 45.7 percent, second best in the league.
LARRY BROWN, SMU: Yes, he’s a former point guard and now is in his 39th season as a coach. Brown is the only coach to win both a NCAA championship with Kansas in 1988 and an NBA title with Detroit in 2004. The Hall of Fame coach is the biggest reason SMU has 23 wins this season, the fifth most in the Mustangs’ history.
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