BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The SMU Men’s basketall team blew out UT-Rio Grande Valley to finish November with a 6-2 record. The Mustangs were a perfect 5-0 at Moody Coliseum, extending their home winning streak to 27 games. They went 1-2 in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas.
In home games, there was never a question as to the outcome. None of the opponents were capable of beating SMU. The Mustangs margin of victory was more than 10 points in all five.
The three games in the Bahamas were close. Oddly, the underdog on the betting line for all three games won. The Mustangs beat then number two ranked Arizona by six points and lost by three to Northern Iowa and by two to Western Kentucky.
The Mustangs were disappointed they didn’t win a second game, but if they were to win only one, they picked the right one. SMU has never beaten a team ranked number one, and has only once previously beaten a team ranked second in the nation. They beat Louisville, led by All-Americans Butch Beard and Wes Unseld, in the 1967 NCAA Tournament back in the days of Denny Holman and Bob Begert.
It’s still amazing the Mustangs beat Arizona. Coaches often point to shooting percentage as the determining stat. The Mustangs shot 31.4%, while Arizona 46.8%. SMU won despite the disparity in shooting percentage largely because of turnovers. Arizona turned it over 20 times to only eight for SMU. That led to the Mustangs taking 23 more shots (70-47).
Hats off to Head Coach Tim Jankovich. Arizona is a really big team led by 7′-1″ Deandre Ayton, who could easily be the number one pick in next year’s NBA draft. Jankovich countered Ayton by going with a smaller, quicker lineup for much of the second half that created the turnovers.
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted after the game, “Hard to win 30 and be underrated, but @coachJankSMU lost 3 pros & has young team & beats Arizona. Great coach.”
By the numbers, the Mustangs lead the American Athletic Conference and are fifth in the nation in scoring defense at 56.5 points allowed per game. 67 points are the most any opponent has managed to score. The Mustangs also lead the conference in turnover margin at plus 4.2 per game.
Offensively, SMU averages 74.3 points per game and is averaging 17.5 assists per game. Three Mustangs are scoring in double digits. Shake Milton, the preseason pick for conference Player of the Year, leads the way with 18.3 points per game. He has scored in the 20′s three times and is deadly at the free throw line, where he has hit 42 of 47 attempts.
Junior Jarrey Foster is next averaging 14.9 points. Three times he has hit his career high of 19 points in a game. Freshman Ethan Chargois is the third double digit scorer at 12.5 points per game. He is the only Mustang, besides Milton, to crack the 20 point mark, which he has done twice.
The other two starters are averaging close to double digits. Ben Emelogu is averaging 9.9 points per game with some strong three point shooting. He is hitting 54.3% of his long rangers, which leads the conference. Whitt is averaging 9.1 points per game after setting his career high against UT-RGV with 18 points. Whitt also leads the conference with 5.4 assists per game.
The starting lineup that Jankovich envisioned before the season began included his three returning scolarship players from last year’s team – Milton, Foster and Emelogu. Whitt sat out last year, per the transfer rules, but was able to practice with the team. He was slotted for a fourth starting spot. Akoy Agau, the 6′-9″ center that transferred from Georgetown, was plugged in to be the fifth. That left a bench of four scholarship freshmen. Chargois and Everett Ray are inside players, and William Douglas and Elijah Landrum are guards.
Unfortunately, Agau has suffered from an infection and has not been able to practice to any great extent. He has made very brief appearances in the last three games, but is a long way from being healthy and in shape to play starter minutes.
Agau’s absence has opened the door for Chargois and Ray. Chargois grabbed the bull by the horns, scoring 14 points with nine rebounds in the first game. He continues to start and gets the lion’s share of the inside minutes, but both have shown tremendous poise and presence. Jankovich says that Chargois grew late, so was a guard as a youngster and has guard skills. He is especially proficient at shooting the three ball, which makes him a matchup nightmare for opponents
Emelogu talked about the dimension Chargois brings to the game, “He can shoot the ball. He can score in bunches. After the Arizona game, we started calling him ‘microwave’. He can heat up the game scoring the ball so much. He brings a very tough matchup for opposing teams, because he can pop it for a three.”
The Agau injury may have been a blessing in disguise.
Douglas and Landrum seem to improve literally every game. The big scores against lesser teams has made a good number of minutes available – quality minutes on the floor with the team’s leading players, not just throwaway minutes when the bench is cleared late in games. Consequently, all four freshmen have their feet solidly on the ground.
Certainly, many fans thought after losing three NBA quality players from last year’s team that this edition of the Mustangs would take a step back from the last four years of winning at least 25 games. Not so fast! The four upper class veterans are playing to their expected level. Agau will at some point be healthy enough to be a significent contributor. The freshmen are solidly in the playing rotation. Jahmal McMurray, another transfer who is a very good player, will be eligible to play later this month. No decision has been finalized on McMurray as to whether he’ll play this season or red shirt to give him two more full years of eligibility, but as good as this team is shaping up to be, he likely plays.
A year ago, the Mustangs were 4-3 in November. At that point, there were definitely thoughts among close followers of the team that the Mustangs would be fortunate to make the NIT. Last year’s team was in many ways similar to this year’s team. They were missing three All-Conference quality players, including one All-American – Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy. Much of November was making the new players mesh. We all know how last year worked out. The Mustangs lost just two more games after that 4-3 start and set the school record for wins in a season.
That’s not to suggest that this team will do the same. However, this team has more depth than last year’s. It’s very talented. Mustang fans should fully expect this year’s team to contend for the AAC championship and make the NCAA Tournament.
There is perhaps no more important stretch of the schedule than the next two games. The Mustangs host Southern Cal Saturday, and travel to Ft. Worth to play TCU next Tuesday in their first pure road game of the season. The Trojans are 14th in the AP and 18th in the Coaches poll, while TCU is 23rd in the AP. It’s a great opportunity for these Mustangs to start December with wins that will make a difference when the NCAA selection committee finalizes the field next March.
There is for sure excitement for the USC game. It’s the highlight of the non-conference Moody schedule. The Trojans accounted for two of last year’s five losses including the one that eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re a very difficult team to prepare for,” Jankovich said. “We’re almost a whole new team. They’re their same whole same team. It’s certainly not a rematch. They’re all back, and we’ve got three guys back.”
The Trojans return eight of their first nine players from last year. It’s definitely a game the Mustangs badly want to avenge last year’s two losses. Emelogu speaks for all the players when he said, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t amped up more for this game than other games.”
As for the team itself after the first month of play, Jankovich added, “(I’m feeling) very good. I’m really pleased. I like our progress. I think we’re much better today than we were a month ago. Hopefully, a month from now we’ll be saying we’re a much better team a month from now. I’ll be surprised if we don’t just keep walking up the stairs.”
Larry Brown built a culture with the SMU program based on playing tough defense, sharing and taking care of the ball. He always said it would be nice to rebound too. That mind-set has been passed down from players like Nic Moore to Milton and Foster, who have in turn passed it down to this year’s freshmen. It’s a formula for not only a great season, but a great program year after year.
* A survey of six Las Vegas betting lines Saturday morning have the Mustangs favored to beat USC by 2-1/2 to 4 points.