ANOTHER GOOD ONE

BY:  Richard W, Humphrey

It was another good week for the SMU Men’s basketball team.  They played just one game, but what a game it was, as they overcame a 10 point deficit in the final 14 minutes to beat the Temple Owls by nine.  The current winning streak is up to four games, and the Mustangs have won 12 of their last 13, and 20 of their last 22.

The slow start against Temple was probably predictable, and perhaps should have been expected.  First, Temple is good.  They have beaten Kansas, and rolled into Moody Coliseum on a seven game winning streak.  With the Mustangs coming off the overwhelming blowout win in the previous game against the defending National Champion Connecticut Huskies, a let down was perhaps inevitable.  Fortunately, the Mustangs found a way to win and maintain their grip on first place in the American Athletic Conference with a 13-2 conference record.

The lead is down to one-half game after Tulsa beat Temple Sunday evening to improve to 12-2 in conference play.  Temple looked spent after Thursday’s tough loss to SMU, and was really hurt by their leading scorer and assist man – Will Cummings – getting into foul trouble.

It’s essentially a two team race for the AAC championship at this point.  Six teams have already been mathematically eliminated, including Connecticut.  Temple, Cincinnati and Memphis trail SMU and Tiulsa in the standings with five losses, so the best any of those teams can do is tie SMU for the championship.  I.E., one more SMU win eliminates everyone but Tulsa for the conference championship.

The championship could well come down to the final game of the season when Tulsa and SMU square off in Moody Coliseum March 8.  Both teams however have some bumps in the road to get to that final regular season game with the championship on the line.  Tulsa hosts Tulane and travels to Memphis this week.  Their last home game is against Cincinnati next week, before travelling to Dallas for the finale.

SMU has a pair of road games this week, neither of which are a walk in the park.  They play Thursday at Memphis and Sunday at Connecticut, a game that will be televised on CBS, the Mustangs first regular season appearance on CBS since the 80′s.  They then get a full week off prior to hosting Tulsa.

SMU moved up from 25 to 21 in both polls last week and stayed at 21 this week.  That’s not surprising as there weren’t many losses last week among Top 25 teams.  The Dallas Morning News does their own poll of the top 10 teams in Texas, and for the second week in a row, SMU is number one in that poll, with Baylor, which is currently ranked ahead of the Mustangs at 19th and 20th in the national polls, at number two.

The personality of this Mustang team continues to take definition.  The inside game with big men Yanick Moreira, Markus Kennedy, Cannen Cunningham and Ben Moore is proving to be too much for most teams to handle.

With Nic Moore as the point guard, this team has all the offensive weapons to go far.  Moore is the team’s best three point shooter now that Keith Frazier is no longer eligible.  He leads the Mustangs in scoring and leads the conference in assists.  He is a serious candidate to be the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and he should be in the conversation for being the national college Player of the Year.

The other two starters – Ryan Manuel and Sterling Brown – are strong defenders that are capable of double digit scoring on any given night.  Both are showing more offensive prowess of late.  Manuel made two three point shots late against Temple, which the Owls’ head coach Fran Dunphy said were “crushers” to them.

The bottom line is that this is a great passing team with tremendous offensive weapons that can run with any team in the country and it plays good defense.  The picture of what this team is has emerged, though there is still much improvement left to attain.

Head coach Larry Brown said recently, “This team is different.  It’s different from what we thought it would be, and it’s different from last year’s team.”  Of course, he thought that the team it would be included Emmanuel Mudiay and Frazier; and Brown says that the team would be in the top five and the biggest story in college basketball if those two were here.  But they aren’t, and the team continues to improve.

Winning the regular season championship assures only an NIT post-season bid.  However, SMU will likely have an NCAA bid locked no matter what happens in the conference tournament if they hold off Tulsa for the regular season title.  ESPN’s Joe Lunardi published a new bracket prediction today.  He has SMU projected to be a six seed in the East facing 11 seed LSU in Louisville.

Of course, the Mustangs were ranked in the top 25 last year at tournament time and didn’t get a bid, so this is no time for the Ponies to feel smug with what they’ve accomplished so far.  The regular season championship is in their grasp, and the conference tournament championship with the automatic NCAA bid is within reach too.

WORST AND BEST

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

It was the worst and best of times for the Mustangs’ men’s basketball team last week.  The extremely disappointing loss to Cincinnati on Thursday was followed by a crucial win at Tulsa Saturday.   The week started on an upbeat note as the Mustangs re-entered both major polls at number 23 on Monday after being out since the second week of the season.  Two wins for the week would move the win total to 20, not the magic number it once was; but still a fine accomplishment, especially if reached in early February.  Also, two wins for the week would push the Mustangs past Tulsa into first place in the conference.  There was a lot to be accomplished last week.

Unfortunately, hopes were dashed on Thursday.  Cincinnati ended the Ponies eight game winning streak with a strong second half that overcame a five point halftime deficit.  Certainly, the Bearcats are a difficult task for any team.  They play rugged, physical defense that slows the pace.  Most of their games are played in the 50′s.  The Mustangs are averaging 69 points per game, but scored 50 and  54 in the two games against Cincinnati this year.

The most disappointing part was the players’ reaction to the Bearcats physical style of play.  Certainly, it wasn’t a good shooting night as SMU shot just 36.5%, the second lowest of the year.  (Gonzaga on the road at 31.1% in the second game of the season was the lowest shooting percentage game.)  A good team like the Mustangs is supposed to shoot far better at home.  It was a good shooting night for Cincinnati – 56.8%.  Again, that’s not supposed to happen to a good defensive team like SMU playing at home.

Then there was the fact that it was played at home.  Good teams need to defend the home court.  There have now been 28 home games since Moody Coliseum reopened a year ago.  The only two losses before Thursday night’s was against Louisville last year, which was ranked in the Top 10 at the time, and against Arkansas earlier this season.  It was simply disappointing to see the team cower at the physicality of the games.

After the game, head coach Larry Brown took the blame for not having the offense prepared to play.  Usually, coaches make these statements to take the pressure off players.  In this case though, it might be true.  At this point in the season, there has to be plenty of game film available.  Surely, Cincinnati didn’t surprise with a 1-3-1 match-up zone defense.  The Mustangs though didn’t have good spacing offensively.  They often looked confused about where they were supposed to be on the court.  The overall offensive execution was poor.  Certainly, Cincinnati’s intimidating defense had much to do with the Mustangs’ performance, but the Ponies could have been better prepared.

The Cincinnati loss made bouncing back Saturday at Tulsa imperative.  The Golden Hurricane was undefeated in conference going into Saturday’s game, such that a win would put them three games ahead in the loss column with just seven to play.  Even at 10-0 going into the game though, there was a question as to how good Tulsa really is.  Their best conference wins were over contenders Connecticut and Memphis at home.  They also beat Temple on the road, a team that is marginally in the championship race.

Tulsa faces Cincinnati just once this year, and that game is at home next month.  They also still have to play Connecticut, Memphis and SMU on the road.  In other words, with Tulsa’s remaining schedule, this conference championship is there for the taking for SMU..

SMU responded with a well played game Saturday.  Surprisingly, they led almost the entire game, scoring five points after Tulsa opened the game with four.  SMU never trailed again.  Still it was a contest until the last five minutes when SMU finished off a 15-0 run after Tulsa had tied the game at 43.

The 68-57 win was good enough for the Mustangs to stay in the Top 25 this week.  They slipped two notches to remain ranked at 25th in both polls.  All five losses on the season are to teams that received votes in the polls this week.

Nic Moore was fantastic against Tulsa, leading all scorers in the game with 23 points.  He added seven assists.  His two performances were good enough to be named to the American Athletic Conference Honor Roll – the five top players after the Player of the Week, which last week was Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright

The Mustangs’ rugged week against two good opponents answered one question fans have been asking.  This team needs Keith Frazier.  It’s become apparent that even on days when he didn’t shoot well, opponents still game planned around him.  It’s a near certainty that the Mustangs would have beaten Cincinnati with Frazier.  Without him, the Bearcats were able to clamp down on Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore, who played perhaps his worst game of the season.

This week’s schedule has the Ponies in Houston on Thursday against UH and back home on Saturday against Connecticut.  On paper, the Mustangs will be favored by a double digit margin on Thursday.  The Cougars however are usually tough in Hofheinz Pavilion, and they won their first conference game of the year 10 days ago over Connecticut.  The Mustangs can’t overlook Houston.

This Saturday promises to be a special day in SMU basketball history.  ESPN’s GameDay will be televised from Moody Coliseum Saturday morning.  It’s a tip of the hat from the center of the sports universe for the wonderful atmosphere the Moody Coliseum redo has fostered as well as to the Mustang fans that have supported their team since Larry Brown arrived to give them a team to support.  Admission is free and the Moody Coliseum doors will open at 8:15.  GameDay is televised from 9:00 – 10:00 (Central) on ESPNU and from 10:00 – 11:00 on ESPN.

The Mustangs need to win both games this week.  The latest bracket projection from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has SMU receiving a bid as a seven seed, playing 10 seed Texas A&M in Portland in the West Region.  The goal is to get into the NCAA Tournament and hopefully do some damage when they get there.  Before March Madness though, there is still a conference championship and a conference tournament to be won.

THE ROLL CONTINUES

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The SMU Men’s team picked up two more wins this week over South Florida on Wednesday and Central Florida on Saturday.  That extends the current winning streak to eight games, as the team has not lost since January 3 at Cincinnati.  That loss came on the heels of another eight game winning streak, such that the Mustangs have won 16 of their last 17 games.  Never before has an SMU team had two eight game winning streaks in a season, and in case you’re wondering, the school record is a 20 game winning streak set in the 1955-56 season, a streak that ended with a loss in the Final Four.

Saturday’s home game was a festive occasion as the 1971-72 team coached by Bob Prewitt was honored.  A number of players from that team attended Saturday and were recognized at halftime, including David Miller, Larry Delzel and Bobby Rollins.  That team went 16-11 for the season and 10-4 in Southwest Conference play, which tied Texas for the conference championship.

The Mustangs wore throw-back jerseys with a script “SMU” on the front and numbers only (no names) on the back, akin to the jerseys that SMU wore in 1972.  The game worn jerseys are being auctioned over the internet.  Bids can be made on the SMUMustangs.com web site, and the bidding ends Tuesday at 5:00 PM.  Not surprisingly, the highest bid at post time is $1,510 for Nic Moore’s jersey.

There were other ’70s touches, such as a re-configured scoreboard and ’70s music.  Students were given red head bands as they entered the arena, and many chose to dress in garb of the time.  The Mustang Band for sure was dressed right out of Haight-Ashbury.

The Ponies were favored by 18.5 Saturday on three Las Vegas books and won by 19.  It was a much closer game than that score would indicate, as the Knights crept within three twice in the second half, and the Ponies’ lead didn’t reach double digits until about 8.5 minutes remained in the game.

Ryan Manuel, who had his best scoring game of the season with 20 points, said that the team really turned up the defense over the final seven – eight minutes.  I recently asked head coach Larry Brown if this year’s team is better defensively than last year’s.  He said flatly no, and spoke about missing the two seniors on last year’s team – Nick Russell and Shawn Williams.

With all due respect to Brown, I have to wonder if there’s some “coach-speak” in his response.  He likely wants to keep pushing this year’s team to get better.  It does seem like this team is pretty darn good defensively.  They have held their opponent under 70 points in 17 of 22 games (and have a 16-1 record in those games).  They have held their opponent to a 40% or less shooting percentage 15 times, and are 14-1 in those games.  They have out-rebounded their opponent 20 times, and are 18-2 in those games.

It’s a defense with four solid players for the four and five positions to go head-to-head with literally anyone.  With the rebounding strength, it doesn’t allow many second chance basket opportunities and it also can create turnovers that lead to offense.  Against Central Florida for example, the Mustangs scored 21 points off 16 Knight turnovers.

The bottom line is that this is a very good defensive team.  It gets stops and creates offense.

The playing rotation is down to eight players with the losses of Keith Frazier and Justin Martin.  Saturday, Sterling Brown started and was limited to 12 minutes of playing time because of foul trouble.  The team seems to have great continuity with just eight in the rotation, but the bench gets really short if someone gets into foul trouble.  Heaven help if there is a significant injury.

Sterling Brown’s situation opened up an interesting opportunity for coach Brown.  He took a look at a jumbo lineup that had three of the four big men on the floor at once.  Usually, Ben Moore, who is a very good ball handler, played the three along with two of Markus Kennedy, Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham on the court with him.  Brown said that he in part tried the lineup to match up with a big lineup the Knights had on the court, but perhaps Mustang fans will see more of the jumbo lineup on the court.

Sterling Brown’s foul trouble also presented the opportunity to insert Jonathan Wilfong into the lineup in the first half when the game was certainly a contest.  Wilfong is a sophomore walk on that had only played late in decided games.  He handled the ball while he was in the game and didn’t turn it over.  Brown had indicated recently that Wilfong is better than people think and that he could see meaningful playing time.  He wasn’t in long Saturday, but he gave a good account of himself.  Perhaps, Mustang fans will see more of Wilfong.

Cincinnati is the next opponent.  They lost to East Carolina Sunday and will arrive with 15-6 record for the season and 6-3 in conference, as they trail the Mustangs by 2.5 games.  Memphis and Temple are also 6-3 in conference to create a three way tie for third place.  Connecticut suffered its fourth conference loss Sunday in the Bayou City as UH won its first conference game.  UCONN is now 4-4 in conference play.

The schedule is tough the rest of the regular season.  Houston is the only remaining opponent with a record under .500, and that game is in Houston.  UCONN twice, Tulsa twice, Memphis, Temple and Cincinnati are the other opponents.

But then again, Brown pointed out that practice is pretty tough too.  The regulars scrimmage a second team with Keith Frazier and transfers Jordan Tolbert and Semi Ojeleye.  They would start on any team in the conference and are better than any starter on some of the teams in this conference.

 

MEN’S BASKETBALL ON A ROLL

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

SMU easily won a pair of games last week, beating Tulane in New Orleans comfortably and blowing out Houston at home.  The streaks are now six wins in a row for the first time since the 1992-93 season, and 14 wins in the last 15 games.  The voters in the polls are taking notice.  SMU received votes in both polls for the third straight week.  Essentially, the Mustangs are tied with Ohio State for 28th in the AP and are 30th in the Coach’s poll.

Nic Moore had spectacular games, leading the Mustangs in scoring in both wins.  In Saturday’s game, he tied his career high with 28 points as he hit eight three point shots and four free throws.  The eight threes tied the SMU record and set an American Athletic Conference record.  Moore was named AAC Player of the Week for in the first time in his career, after previously being named to the weekly honor roll 12 times including four this season.

Last week’s games were the second and third the Mustangs have played without sophomore Keith Frazier, whose final appeal to overturn his academic ineligibility was denied.  With Justin Martin leaving the team a week earlier, the Mustangs playing rotation is down to eight players.

SMU has won the last three easily after playing strong second halves.  The team looks to be coming together, and a team personality is emerging.  The big men underneath are dominant.  The team routinely out rebounds and out scores opponents in the paint.  The ball movement on offense continues to improve leading to a large percentage of assists on made baskets.  The team plays strong defense.  It’s relentless and it wears opponents down.  That’s the big reason for the strong second halves.

With the success on the court and the feeling that the team has fallen into place, it raises the question:  “Is this team better without Frazier?”

The answer is probably both yes and no.  Frazier has become an outstanding player.  He’s the best pure shooter on the team, and he’s developed defensively, on the boards and his ball handling skills.  He’s good enough to start on any team in this conference, and he’s just a touch of consistency away from being considered for All-Conference honors.  There is no question that his loss puts a hole in the program.

On the other hand, the team has developed more consistency with the playing rotation shortened to eight players.  Sterling Brown is the biggest beneficiary minutes-wise.  He was averaging 15 minutes per game until Frazier’s departure, and has played 33 minutes on average in the last three games.  Brown started 26 of 37 games last season as a freshman, and despite losing three starters – two seniors and Kennedy to academics last fall - he lost his starting job this year.  No complaints out of Brown.  He just kept practicing and playing hard.

Now that opportunity has knocked on his door, he’s taking full advantage.  He’s scored 27 points in the three games, as he reached double digits twice.  He’s also been a strong rebounder averaging more than seven per game since becoming a starter again.  Brown is a superior defensive player, so the team defense is strengthened.

Cannen Cunningham is another player that is getting more minutes and responding positively.  The 6′-10″ senior would start on most teams in this conference, but comes off the bench with Yanick Moreira and Ben Moore starting, and with Markus Kennedy eligible again.  That foursome is awesome under the basket.  Teams have to game plan around the Mustangs’ inside game, and with four top players for two positions, foul trouble is rarely a problem.

In fact, Ben Moore has fouled out of a game twice this year (Gonzaga and Arkansas).  That’s the only two foul outs on the team this season.

Ben Emelogu is the other player that has gotten more minutes.  He’s been an enigma.  Head coach Larry Brown says he sees a lot in practice from Emelogu.  He’s got the physical tools to be really good.  He’s listed at 6′-6″, 205.  The Grand Prairie native was elected a captain at Virginia Tech last year and averaged 10.5 points per game in the ACC.

For whatever reason, it’s not translating into solid play here.  He’s shooting just 24% on the season.  After 20 games, you have to wonder if it’s going to get better.  The problem is mental.  Larry Brown says he needs to get Emelogu playing with more confidence.

As long as the Mustangs don’t sustain a significant injury among the eight man rotation, this team will be fine.  If they lose any of those players though, Keith Frazier’s absence will be noticed by everybody.

The conference schedule reaches the halfway point this week, and the race to win the conference has boiled down to four teams.  Tulsa is undefeated in conference play at 7-0, followed closely by SMU at 7-1.  Cincinnati at 5-2 and Connecticut at 4-2 are the third and fourth place teams.

This week, the Mustangs should have little difficulty extending their winning streak to eight games.  They play both Florida teams – South in Tampa on Wednesday and Central at home on Saturday.  Those two teams have collectively won three conference games so far, and SMU will be favored on the betting line by double digits in both contests.

However, the second half schedule is more challenging.  The Ponies face the other three contenders twice each in conference play, and so far have played just one of those six games.  That leaves five games with contenders along with a contest with Memphis in Memphis that won’t be a day at the beach.  The bottom line is that six of the final eight games will be difficult.

The schedule turns tough next week, as the Mustangs host Cincinnati on Thursday and travel to Tulsa on Saturday, the 5th and 7th of February.  If the Mustangs can win those two to run the winning streak to 10, they almost surely will be ranked in the Top 25 again.

FRAZIER TO THE SIDELINES

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

The Mustangs easily beat East Carolina Saturday77-54 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.  SMU led for the entire game except for the first 21 seconds, led by as many as 33, and played walk-ons the last two minutes.  Certainly, East Carolina is not a strong opponent, but the win was still significant.

The news broke on Friday that Keith Frazier has been ruled ineligible and lost to the team for the rest of the season.  Frazier, a starting guard that has averaged 10.5 points and four rebounds per game, is generally considered the best pure shooter on the team.  He was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, the first ever recruited at SMU.  His commitment in Larry Brown’s first year has brought credibility to the program and helped reel in other top players.  On top of his offensive prowess, he has worked hard to become a complete player.  At this point in time, he for sure is a valuable player even on the nights when his long range jump shot isn’t falling.

Brown issued a statement Friday indicating that Frazier would be attending the funeral of a family member and would not be in attendance at the East Carolina game.  He added that the school has filed an appeal on the ruling and is hopeful that Frazier will be back on the court soon.

In Saturday’s game, the Mustangs dressed just eight scholarship players and two walk-ons.  Brown has from time to time talked about his dilemma of finding playing time for a rotation of 10 players.  With Justin Martin leaving the team a week ago and the Frazier situation, Brown did not have the problem Saturday.  Starting center Yanick Moreira was the scholarship player that recorded the fewest minutes (15) as he was limited by foul trouble.  He scored eight points, falling two shy of giving the Mustangs six players in double digits for the game. 

The two most likely candidates to start in Frazier’s place if he in fact is not allowed to return are Sterling Brown and Ben Emelogu.  Brown started Saturday.  Brown played in all 37 games as a freshman last year, starting 26.  Coming into Saturday’s game he had played in all 17 games this season, averaging 2.9 points per game while playing 17 minutes per game.  Against East Carolina, he played 32 minutes and scored 10 points, which included two made three point shots.  Brown is regarded as a superior defensive player.

Emelogu saw 21 minutes of action against ECU and scored five points on 2-8 shooting.  One of the made baskets was a three pointer.  As a freshman last year at Virginia Tech, Emelogu averaged 10.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, numbers that are similar to Frazier’s so far this season.  There is the feeling that Emelogu is a much better player than he’s shown so far, and hopefully Mustang fans will see the player he’s expected to be if his playing time increases.

It’s entirely possible that the Mustangs may not miss a beat if Frazier doesn’t return.  The problem is really in the team’s depth.  An injury and/or foul trouble could punch a big hole in the team.

But the Frazier situation is why Saturday’s dominant win was so important.  The team played an outstanding game without him.  The general attitude among the players, who of course want Frazier back, is that they have to go on and play well irrespective of what happens with his eligibility.

Coach Brown says he wants to see good ball movement, to have the team “share the ball” as he puts it.  The Mustangs did that well against East Carolina as they recorded 21 assists on 30 made baskets.  The assists were spread out through the lineup as seven different players recorded at least two.

Jeff Lebo, East Carolina’s head coach, said that SMU and North Carolina are the two best passing teams the Pirates have faced this year.  He was especially impressed with SMU’s interior passing game.

One of the baskets that did not result from an assist received the largest ovation of the game.  Jonathan Wilfong, one of the two walk-ons, stole a pass and took it in for a dunk with five seconds left.  When the clock ran out, he was mobbed by his teammates as if he had scored the winning basket in overtime.

Even Brown said in his post game meeting with the press that he was surprised to see the dunk.  He did say though that Wilfong is better than most people think and may see more playing time.  Unsaid was the caveat “if Frazier doesn’t come back”.

Another good sign from Saturday’s game was Markus Kennedy.  He played 22 minutes, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds.  He also had three assists and two blocks.  Brown again said that Kennedy is not in shape yet.  However, he’s been back for almost a month and has played in eight games.  If he isn’t in shape yet, he should be soon.

After Saturday, Kennedy is averaging 10.3 points per game, a total boosted by a pair of 21 point games.  He deserves consideration to start, but Brown reiterated Saturday that Kennedy has come to him and asked not to be a starter.  That included last Wednesday’s game against Temple in Kennedy’s home town of Philadelphia.  Kennedy feels that the chemistry that developed among the starters in the first 10 games should not be upended, and he is confident the minutes will work out fine if he plays well.  Who knows, he may become the rare non-starter that makes an All-Conference team. 

SMU officially has given no indication of the nature of the problems that have caused Frazier to become ineligible.  Coming off Kennedy’s situation, the natural assumption was that it was an academic problem this past semester.  That however may not be a good assumption.  In a development that may be related, assistant coach Ulric Maligi took a leave of absence for personal reasons.  Maligi is known as a strong recruiter and was involved in recruiting Frazier to the Hilltop.

There is no timetable for a resolution of Frazier’s situation, but a final decision should be known soon.  This is a team capable of realizing its objectives without Frazier; but make no mistake about it, the Mustangs are a much better team with Frazier than without.

AND ALSO:

Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye began practicing with the team last week and will begin classes this Monday.  Ojeleye is a 6′-8″ forward that was the Parade Magazine National High School Player of the Year two years ago.  In his senior year, he averaged 38.1 points per game as he set a Kansas state record for scoring in a season.  The total points he scored in high school is also a new Kansas state record.  He averaged 8.5 rebounds per game, and his team won the state championship for the fourth year in a row.

He also had a 4.0 GPA in high school and is a member of the National Honor Society.

He was introduced to the crowd prior to Saturday’s game against East Carolina and received a warm welcome from the crowd.  He fills a need as the Mustangs lose post players Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham to graduation.  Ojeleye, who played in six games at Duke this season and 17 last year as a freshman, will be eligible after the fall semester and will have 2-1/2 years of eligibility remaining.          

DISAPPOINTING LOSS

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

Last Saturday’s 56-50 loss to Cincinnati ended the Mustangs’ eight game winning streak and evened their conference record at 1-1.  SMU went into conference play as the favorite to win the conference, while Cincinnati appears to be the biggest threat to win if the Mustangs don’t.  Road teams often lose in evenly matched road games, which this game was.  Five Las Vegas betting lines last Saturday morning had SMU favored by one over Cincinnati, Cincinnati favored by one over SMU, and three “pick ems”.

Still this was a disappointing loss.  After a slow start, SMU put together a 14-3 run to take an eight point lead at 20-12.  However, Cincinnati finished off the half with a 7-2 run of their own to close the gap to three at the half (22-19).  Head Coach Larry Brown said afterward that he thought the team’s play at the end of the first half was the difference in the game.

Pony Rap reader Ryan Phillips put together betting lines for every conference game a week or so ago before the first conference game with South Florida.  He utilized the Sagarin ratings to compute the lines, and based upon those figures, SMU was a 1.8 point underdog last Saturday in Cincinnati.  That was the ONLY conference game that the Mustangs were NOT favored.

The team does look to be rounding into shape despite last Saturday’s loss.  The eight game winning streak began with a lineup change that Brown says is paying dividends.  Ryan Manuel is now the starting two guard.  Brown says the move has taken the pressure off Nic Moore at the point.  Manuel has been described by a national writer as a “freaky good” athlete.  He’s 6′-5″ with long arms.  His entrée into the lineup improves the defense.  He can shut down just about any guard and most forwards.

As his playing time has increased, Manuel’s offense has developed.  He scored 14 last Saturday, all in the second half and most after SMU fell behind.  He essentially led the charge that cut the Bearcats’ lead from as  many as 10 to three in the final 30 seconds.  The bottom line:  he improves the ball handling and defense and can help the offense.  What’s not to like?

Markus Kennedy is back.  He’s played four games since becoming academically eligible.  Brown said last week that Kennedy is in terrible shape.  He’s going to have a difficult time re-capturing the form that earned him second team All-Conference honors last year.  In the first place, the bigs have been pretty darn good without him.  Yanick Moreira is averaging 12.1 points per game, second on the team to Nic Moore’s 14.6.  He’s tied with Ben Moore, the other big man under the basket, for the team lead in rebounds with 6.4 per game.  Cannen Cunningham is the number one big man off the bench, and he’s averaging 5.8 points and 3.5 rebounds.  Kennedy will get his chances and an injury could open the door to a big year; but he’s going to have a tough time duplicating last season’s numbers.

With Kennedy back and with Justin Martin healthy, the Mustangs have a deep playing rotation of 10 solid players.  They should be able to withstand bad games or foul trouble from starters.  Brown’s problem is really passing around the playing time to keep everyone sharp, while keeping his hot hands on the court to win games.

In the end, a close game often goes to the home team, as it did last Saturday.  The disappointing part though is the import of the game.  A win last Saturday would have set SMU apart as the clear cut leader of the conference.  The Ponies now have four losses.  Gonzaga is understandable.  They’re perhaps the most talented Gonzaga team in head coach Mark Few’s tenure.  The game was played in their arena where they are double tough.  Kentucky would have difficulty beating Gonzaga in Tacoma.  The Bulldogs are 14-1, with the only loss coming against Arizona (sixth and seventh in this week’s polls).  The other three losses though -Indiana, Arkansas, and now Cincinnati – were all winnable, but the Mustangs just couldn’t step up on the big stage to win one of these.

Certainly, all four losses will be viewed in early March as “good losses” as all four teams are receiving votes in the polls and  Gonzaga (six and seven) and Arkansas (23 and 25) are ranked this week.  However, if the Mustangs are to become the team fans believe they can be – a team that can not only make the NCAA Tournament, but go deep into the Tournament once they get there – they need to win some big games.  The chances are running out as this conference is not shaping up as a strong one.  No team is currently ranked in the Top 25 and only Cincinnati and Temple received votes this week – both in the coach’s poll only.

The season continues Thursday when the Ponies host Memphis.  The game begins an hour later than usual – 8:00 PM (Central) and will be televised on ESPN2.  Three betting lines are posted tonight, and all three have SMU favored by 8.5 points.

 

FINALS BREAK

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

The Men’s basketball team is back in action tonight after a nine day break for finals.  Fans, coaches and players are feeling much better about the team after they beat UC-Santa Barbara last week for their fourth win in a row, which improved this season’s record to 6-3.

Usually, a team on a winning streak wants to keep playing.  In this case though, the break from games was welcome from an injury standpoint.  Nic Moore actually injured his knee two games ago.  He played against UCSB even with a slightly detectable limp.  Unfortunately, he hit the knee in the same spot early in the second half and was not able to return.  As of yesterday, Moore’s return for tonight’s game was questionable.

Also, Justin Martin has been nursing a bone bruise.  He missed four games completely, before logging 13 minutes of playing time against the Gauchos, and looked rusty doing so.

There are undoubtedly other nagging injuries that need the rest too.  In the case of Moore though, the injury may have been a blessing in disguise.  In past games, the offense bogged down when Moore was on the bench.  The result is that head coach Larry Brown has been forced to play Moore more than desired.

Against UCSB, the Ponies held a 14 point lead shortly after Moore departed, but with the Mustangs’ offense turning sluggish and a suddenly hot three point hand, the Gauchos steadily ate into the lead.  They caught the Mustangs and three times took the lead.  SMU finally got the offense together and seemingly took charge of the game with Ryan Manuel doing most of the ball handling.  The Bens - Emelogu and Moore - also helped.

The game should have been won in regulation, but the Mustangs missed some critical free throws in the final 90 seconds that allowed the Gauchos to send the game into overtime with a three point shot at the 10 second mark.

UCSB’s three point magic (they made nine in the second half alone to overcome the nine point halftime deficit) vanished in overtime.  They were 0-6 from behind the arc, and scored just six points.  SMU took the lead early, with four critical points coming from Emelogu on two free throws and a basket.  UCSB was forced to foul late to stop the clock, and this time SMU was sharp from the charity stripe.  They made nine of nine and outscored the Gauchos 13-6 in overtime for the nine point win.

It had to be a confidence builder to win without Nic Moore at the critical time of end game and overtime.

Before the winning streak, the feeling was that this team simply wasn’t as good as last year’s.  That sounds illogical as eight key players returned from last year’s team that learned how to win.  The experience of last year had to be a positive for this season.

The team looks considerably different now, perhaps just as good as last year’s at this point.  This team plays outstanding defense.  Against the Gauchos, with the Nic Moore on the bench and the offense sputtering, it was the defense fueled the offense late in the game, as the Mustangs came up with stop after stop.  Seemingly, all the hustle balls went the Ponies’ way.

Indeed in the last two games, the Mustangs have held two top post players well below their average; a critical element in both wins.  Wyoming’s Larry Nance, Jr. led the team in scoring and rebounding, but was held to just four points on 1-4 shooting.  UCSB’s Alan Williams will certainly be playing in the NBA next year.  He came into the game averaging more than 19 points and 13 rebounds, but failed to reach double digits in either category.  UCSB’s coach said that it was the best defensive job any team had done against Williams in the four years he’s been with the Gauchos.

With finals in the books, the fate of Markus Kennedy should be known soon.  A check with the Sports Information Department this week indicated there was no update yet.  Word on the street is that his return from academic excommunication is not assured.  He may be lost for the rest of the year.  Hopefully, that won’t happen.  The inside play has been good in his absence with Yanick Moreira, Ben Moore and Cannen Cunningham playing well.  But Kennedy was second team all conference last season, and his absence has been felt already.  Hopefully, he pulled out the grades to regain his academic eligibility.

Tonight’s game against Illinois-Chicago starts at 7:00 PM (Central) and will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.  A check of eight Las Vegas betting sites has the Mustangs favored by 18-1/2 to 19 points.  The Mustangs then hit the road to play Michigan Saturday in Ann Arbor.  Game time is noon Eastern and 11:00 AM Central, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.

IT’S OVER

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

SMU’s tackle football season mercifully came to an end yesterday in East Hartford, Connecticut.  Surprisingly, it came to a positive end, as the Mustangs won for the first time this season, beating UCONN 27-20.  The win ended the Mustangs’ 13 game losing streak and averted the fourth winless season in SMU history.

The Mustangs looked well on their way to that winless season at halftime, as they trailed the Huskies 20-6.  The temperature was in the lower 40′s when the game began.  It hadn’t changed much by the half, but the precipitation had increased.  It would have been easy for the players to throw in the towel and play just to get the last half of football in this season over.

Much to their credit, they rallied for three touchdowns and the win.  They most improbably did the damage on the ground.  All three touchdowns were rushing TDs; two by Prescott Line and the other by Matt Davis.  Davis set a new SMU quarterback rushing record as he ran for 191 yards.  Line added a career high 90 yards on 20 carries.  Davis also threw for 145 yards completing 15-33.  Darius Joseph was his favorite target, catching nine passes for 108 yards.

SMU almost doubled Connecticut’s first down total 20-11.  They led in total yards 422 to 318.  The most telling stat though was the turnovers.  SMU benefitted from five takeaways (four fumbles and one interception), while giving up three.  Indicative of this miserable season is that the total takeaways for the year, including five against UCONN, was just 12.

When the win is coupled with the hiring of Chad Morris as the new head coach as announced last Monday, this turned out to be the best week in SMU football in a long time, probably years.  Morris has already named the bulk of his coaching staff and has initiated the recruiting effort.  The consensus is that SMU got a steal in Morris, who may well have been a candidate for a higher profile job had he waited a bit longer.  He most surely wanted to return to Texas though, and doing so with a $2 million annual salary and living in the Park Cities may well make up for the lesser profile of SMU football.

There has to be some misgivings for Tom Mason.  He reluctantly took over the head coaching job when June Jones unexpectedly resigned two games into the season.  It may be career suicide.  As the losses mounted, it became clear that Mason would not be getting the job on a permanent basis.  There is no place for him on Morris’s staff, nor should there be.  Morris has promised a complete cultural change in the program, and keeping any of the former staff in place is counter productive to that goal.  Mason however improved the team over the season despite a spate of injuries.  He deserves a better fate, but this stop as interim head coach is unfortunately a black eye on his resume.

Make no mistake about it, the days of SMU football success won’t be arriving soon.  The talent cupboard is bare after years of lackluster recruiting efforts by Jones.  We’ve all been pleased, indeed thrilled with the rapid turnaround in basketball under Larry Brown; but football takes a lot more bodies.  The turnaround won’t happen overnight.  There is no question though that the Mustangs’ football future looks and feels a lot brighter today than it did just before Thanksgiving.

FOOTBALL SUNDAY

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

The University of Houston beat SMU Friday 35-9 in a game of tackle football to run the Mustangs’ 2014 record to 0-11.  Connecticut next Saturday is all that separates the Ponies from the second 0-12 season in school history.  If the Huskies prevail, and they are favored by 11.5 points on the Las Vegas betting line, it will be the fourth winless season in SMU history – the others being 2003 (0-12), 1960 (0-9-1) and 1916 (0-8-2).  The Mustangs have now lost 13 games in a row, two short of the school record set in 2003 and 2004.

SMU held a 9-7 halftime lead against UH; but in the second half, SMU failed to score and the Cougars romped to four touchdowns for the win.  Perhaps the Mustangs’ best chance for a win vanished two weeks earlier against South Florida when SMU led in the fourth quarter.  It seemed like a magical night early as the Ponies took a 3-0 first quarter lead.  All 10 of SMU’s other opponents scored in the first quarter.

The Mustangs expanded the lead to 13-0 by the end of the third quarter.  However, the last four possessions of the game could not have gone worse for SMU fans.  SMU was three and out in their two possessions, while South Florida switched quarterbacks and drove for touchdowns in both of theirs.  The final score came with four seconds remaining in the game, and the extra point was good for a 14-13 South Florida win.

The big news about Mustang football broke late in the week before the UH game.  There are reports that Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris will be named as the next head football coach on the Hilltop.  Some reports have the deal already done, with an annual salary of around $2.0 million.  The Dallas Morning News has recent quotes from Morris and SMU President Gerald Turner that a deal has not been finalized, though Morris admitted that he has spoken with SMU, and that his ultimate goal is to be a head coach.

Morris is one of the highest paid assistants in college football with a reported salary of $1.3 million as Clemson’s offensive coordinator.  He has been linked to head coaching vacancies at Texas, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt and Louisville in recent years.  He is regarded as a very good offensive coordinator and a very good recruiter.  Clemson’s offense averaged 507.7 yards and 40.2 points per game a season ago as Morris was named as the AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year.

He has Texas roots spending 16 seasons coaching high school football in the state, most notably at Stephenville and Lake Travis.  His high school record as a head coach was 169-38, an 81.6% winning percentage.  His teams won three State titles and participated in six State Championship games  Two of those State Championships came at Lake Travis with former SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert at the helm.

Morris turns 46 this Thursday.  He is married and has two children.  He graduated from Edgewood High School in Edgewood, Texas and earned a bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M in 1992.  He also coached at Tulsa in 2010 as the offensive coordinator under Todd Graham prior to taking the Clemson job.

The final Mustang football game of the season is next Saturday at 11:00 AM (Central).  It will be televised on CBS College Sports (DirecTV channel 221).

ROUGH WEEK

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The second week of the season proved to be a rough one for the SMU Men’s basketball team.  They lost two tough road games before finishing with a win Saturday night in Moody Coliseum.  SMU evened their record at 2-2 with a 77-68 win over Eastern Washington after losing in Spokane and Bloomington to Gonzaga and Indiana.  The two losses dropped the Mustangs out of the Top 25 in both major polls.

Saturday, SMU jumped out early, doubling up Eastern Washington 24-12 over the first seven minutes.  EWU cut the deficit to eight points at half time, but the Ponies seemingly took charge of the game for good by starting the second half with a 13-4 run.  Keith Frazier, the most prized recruit in Larry Brown’s reign as head coach, spearheaded the charge, as he scored nine of the 13 points.  He finished the night with a career high 17 points as he made seven of eight shots.

Brown said later that Frazier “shouldn’t be getting eight shots.  He deserves more.  He’s our best shooter.”

Frazier for sure seemed to hit a stride.  He had earlier passed up makeable shots, but something clicked in Saturday.  He was simply seeing the basket and shooting the ball without hesitation.  He was the Keith Frazier that Mustang fans have been looking for since he arrived on the Hilltop.

Hopefully, it’s a permanent turnaround.  The Mustangs have been strong inside with Ben Moore and Yanick Moreira, but they need the outside threat to complement the posts.

Eastern Washington shot 36 three point shots on the night out of 60 total.  They made 11 for a 30.6% shooting percentage.  This comes on the heels of Indiana shooting 33 threes (out of 58 shots) on Thursday in their 74-68 win over the Mustangs.

Brown was asked Saturday if the word is out that the way to attack SMU is with a plethora of threes.  Brown said no, that the three point shot was the staple of EWU’s and Indiana’s offenses.  He especially likened Eastern Washington’s style of play to European teams that rely on outside shots.

Eastern Washington did close to within five points with about 1:30 left in the game, but the Mustangs sank six of six free throws the rest of the way to secure the win.  Brown was pleased, saying that the Eagles “are really well coached.  They have great guards.  I think this is a good win against a quality team.”  It was Eastern Washington’s first loss of the year after reeling off three wins to start the season.

Their guard Tyler Harvey led all scorers in the game with 24 points.  12 of those points came from beyond the three point arc.

Mustangs’ point guard Nic Moore had his best scoring and assist game of the season with 22 and six.  Sterling Brown put in 23 minutes off the SMU bench and grabbed a career and game high 11 rebounds.

The week started with a 72-56 loss to Gonzaga.  The Bulldogs have been an elite basketball team for a number of years, and some college basketball followers believe this is the most talented Gonzaga team since Mark Few became head coach.  They totally out classed the Mustangs on Monday night.

They have solid big men under the basket and guards that can shoot the three.  Their point guard Kevin Pangos scored a game high 17 points, which included five three point baskets.  They hustle, and on their home court, they are extremely difficult to beat.  They are solid in all aspects of the game and moved into the Top 10 in both major polls this week at 10 (AP) and eight (Coaches) with a 4-0 record.

The loss at Indiana was more disappointing.  The Mustangs were actually slight favorites on the betting line even with the game played in Bloomington.  The Mustangs took a 12 point lead in the first nine minutes of the game.  Unfortunately, 12 proved to be the Mustangs largest lead of the game and relatively short-lived.  Indiana roared back to lead by five at the half 38-33.

The Mustangs came out hot though in the second half, outscoring the Hoosiers 17-8 over the first eight minutes to take a 50-46 lead.  They looked poised to take control of the game, but Indiana rallied with a 7-2 run to regain the lead at 53-52.  SMU never led again.

The Mustangs relied on it’s inside game and outscored Indiana 42-14 in the paint.  The improbable statistic though was the fouls.  SMU was charged with 23 while Indiana committed just 17.  Despite SMU shooting inside shots and Hoosiers largely outside jump shots, Indiana made 20 free throws while the Mustangs shot just 10.

On paper, this Mustang team looks similar to last year’s, but there is a considerable difference.  Starters Nick Russell and Shawn Williams have graduated.  Markus Kennedy is lost until at least next month for academic reasons.  That’s three starters gone from last year’s 27-10 team.  Brown is trying to blend in newcomers Justin Martin and Ben Emelogu, plus give Frazier a more meaningful role.

Martin however came out of Saturday’s game with a leg injury.  He needed assistance to leave the court.  Martin was fully examined on Sunday, and he’s out for two to four weeks with a bone bruise.  However, he said the early indications were that Martin would be out for a while.

“We’ve gone from being real deep and now we have a short bench,” Brown said in reference to Martin’s and Kennedy’s absences.

This week the Mustangs are home for three games.  The big one is Arkansas, which broke into the Top 25 this week at 25 in the AP poll, on Tuesday night, followed by Texas Southern on Wednesday and Monmouth on Sunday.  Tuesday’s game begins at 6:30 PM (Central) and will be televised on ESPN News.  It will be the 155th meeting between the former Southwest Conference rivals.

NOTABLE:

*     The SMU Women’s team beat Eastern Washington Saturday afternoon in Moody Coliseum, 69-53 to even their record at 2-2.  Destynee Hives-McCray led the Mustangs with a double-double as she scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.  It was her second double-double of the season.