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AAC is up for grabs after Louisville loses Chane Behanan

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

Shabazz Napier(USATSI)
Shabazz Napier and Connecticut may have a better chance at an AAC title after Monday. (USATSI)

Louisville's one-year stopover in the American Athletic Conference was supposed to be a coronation.

The Cardinals returned a number of key pieces from the their team that won a national title last March, and figured to roll through college basketball's newest conference before they jumped to the ACC next season.

That all seems less likely after the past few days.

Louisville looked out of sync, especially on the interior in a loss to Kentucky on Saturday and then took a hit on Monday when veteran power forward Chane Behanan was dismissed due to a violation of university policy.

What does this all mean?

Year One of the American Athletic Conference is going to be a lot more wide open than people anticipated.

Louisville still has Rick Pitino and Russ Smith, but the Cards' baseline will now lean on unproven commodities like freshman Mangok Mathiang and veteran Stephan Van Treese for significant stretches of games.

Pitino even admitted on Monday that he'll likely go smaller now more than usual, and opt for a quicker lineup featuring Smith, point guard Chris Jones, and Luke Hancock with Wayne Blackshear possibly sliding down to power forward.

"Our front court is the weak point of our team," Pitino told reporters on Monday. "It may be like when we used Kyle Kuric at power forward a few years ago."

What about the contenders?

UConn has a terrific perimeter led by Shabazz Napier (15.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.9 spg) and Ryan Boatright, along with two capable wings in Lasan Kromah and Niels Giffey.

The big key for the Huskies will be if they can get DeAndre Daniels to be the type of consistent threat they need him to be on a nightly basis.

Memphis meanwhile has four senior guards and a pair of young big men in Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols that really complement each other up front. The Tigers have also gotten good production recently from fifth-year transfer David Pellom, a junkyard dog type of forward that gives Josh Pastner's team an edge they didn't have up front the past few seasons.

What about the contenders to be the contenders?

Cincinnati and SMU are two elite defensive teams that will square off on Wednesday in each team's conference opener, and while both squads are still somewhat unproven, playing each of them will be worse than going through a root canal.

The Bearcats (11-2) have held their last 20 opponents to under 70 points and have three proud seniors in Sean Kilpatrick, Titus Rubles, and Justin Jackson, who with each passing game is looking like one of the nation's most improved players.

The 6-8 Jackson scored 115 points in total last season as a junior. Through 13 games this year, he's already scored 148 and is averaging 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per contest.

What is the key for Mick Cronin's team moving forward?

Freshmen Troy Caupain, Kevin Johnson, and Jermaine Lawrence.

Cincinnati has regularly struggled to score in the half court and this trio has to give the Bearcats mileage in reserve.

And what about the team they're going to play on Wednesday?

If you haven't seen SMU yet, you're missing out on one of the elite interior defenses in the country.

The Mustangs have two high-level big men in Yanick Moreira and Markus Kennedy that make it virtually impossible to get a high percentage look around the basket.

Larry Brown also has a gem of lead guard in Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, a heady player that's averaging 13.8 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting a phenomenal 55 percent from three-point range.

Brown has also used hockey-like substitutions early in an effort to wear out the opponent, and has 10 players averaging in double-figure minutes for SMU, who is 10-2 after 12 games.

This league was initially thought to be an afterthought in college basketball this season.

That couldn't be further from the truth now.

There will be no coronation for Louisville before they move on to greener pastures.

In fact, the Cards will likely be a bit black and blue once they get there.

With the teams that comprise the top of the American this year, it would be hard to expect anything less.

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