Memphis, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - A surprising matchup will get the American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals started, as the Louisville Cardinals receive a challenge from the Houston Cougars.
In a major upset in the tournament, Houston knocked off SMU, 68-64, in the quarterfinals on Thursday. Both teams had received a bye in the first round, but the Cougars, who were routed in a 104-83 final in the regular-season finale by UCF, were the better unit, earning their fifth win in the last six games overall.
The second-seeded Cardinals, who actually tied for the regular-season title, but lost out on the top seed due to a coin flip, made quite a statement in the quarterfinals, blowing past seventh-seeded Rutgers, 92-31. They have now won 10 of their last 11 games, with the only loss in that time being a 72-66 setback to Memphis at FedExForum.
An already uphill battle is made that much tougher for Houston, considering it was defeated by an average of 27 points in a season series sweep versus Louisville this season. The Cardinals have won 15 of 20 all-time encounters, with the victor this time advancing to the AAC title game against either Cincinnati or Connecticut.
Houston trailed by 10 points early in the second half against SMU, but it clawed its way back and claimed a five-point lead with 4:37 to play on a Thomas jumper. The advantage was dropped to three with 31 seconds to play following free throws from SMU's Nic Moore. The Mustangs fouled on the ensuing inbounds play, but Danuel House missed the front end of a one-and-one, opening the door for SMU. However, TaShawn Thomas shut it at the other end when he blocked Markus Kennedy's layup attempt.
Thomas (15.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 86 blocks) is normally the force that powers the Cougars, but he was out of sorts at the end of the regular season, finishing with only eight points in the final two contests. He woke up for 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks to lead the way against SMU. Lending scoring support are House (13.7 ppg) and Jherrod Stiggers (11.2 ppg). L.J. Rose (9 ppg, 5.6 apg) is also an important part of the offensive attack, as he leads the AAC in assists. Rose had 16 points against the Ponies, and House chipped in with 11.
Louisville was devastating on defense against Rutgers on Thursday. The Cardinals outscored the Scarlet Knights 44-5 off of turnovers, collecting 19 steals and forcing 31 miscues in all. Chris Jones scored 18 points and Russ Smith added 16 to lead five players in double figures.
Smith (17.5 ppg, 4.8 apg) is extremely dangerous as a scorer, finding ways to get shots off from all over the court. He was an important piece of last year's national title run and has excelled this season, ranking fourth in the AAC in scoring and third in assists, showing great strides in sharing the ball. Montrezl Harrell (14 ppg, 8.2 rpg) has been dominating opposing teams in the paint all season, hitting a league-best 61.1 percent of his shots from the floor. The talent-rich squad, which leads the league in scoring (82.1 ppg), also gets plenty of help from Luke Hancock (11.9 pg) and Jones (10.5 ppg). The Cardinals are much more than an offensive juggernaut, however, limiting teams to 60.8 ppg on just 39.3 percent field goal efficiency.