DEVASTATING

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

UCLA plays Gonzaga tonight in Houston in the NCAA round of 16.  The Bruins had little difficulty dispensing with Alabama-Birmingham after the controversial goal tending call provided the winning points over SMU in their tournament opening game.  It’s been more than a week since the Mustangs bowed out of the tournament, but the disappointment, which was described by one SMU fan in Louisville as devastating, hasn’t gone away.

The call is surely the most controversial one from the first 56 games in the tournament.  When the last 11 games have been played, that will likely still be true.  Opinions of the so called expert commentators run the gamut.  Some tell us it was the right call under the rules.  Others think it’s one of the worst calls in NCAA Tournament history.

I don’t claim to know the nuances of the goal tending rules.  However, irrespective of the view from the camera above the basket, I believe there is serious doubt the shot would have hit the rim, which seems to be the basis that the call was correct.

We now know that a goal tending call is not reviewable on video.  However, referees frequently huddle to discuss a call among themselves.  Often, calls are reversed.  It is disappointing that the referees didn’t huddle in this case.  The ref that made the call was a good 30 feet from the basket.  Perhaps one of the other two closer to the basket would have had a different opinion.  From the referees’ standpoint, given the importance of the call, it’s amazing they didn’t huddle to discuss it just for appearance’s sake.

The bottom line though is that I’m not joining other SMU fans in Houston to see the Mustangs play Gonzaga tonight.  People from Los Angeles have taken our place.

The call aside though, this game was clearly in the Mustangs’ control, and they let it get away.  The crushing play was the errant pass with 25 seconds remaining.  SMU had the ball and a two point lead.  Getting the ball to Nic Moore, an 88% free throw shooter was imperative.  Instead, the pass was thrown away, not even close to the intended target, and UCLA had the ball with the opportunity to take the lead.  They were just a goal tending call away from taking the lead for good.

Even after UCLA scored on the goal tending call, there were 13 seconds left in regulation.  Nic Moore got two good looks at the basket, but neither shot fell in.

For sure, it was one of the poorer games played by the Mustangs this year.  For much of the game, the Ponies looked lethargic and unenergetic.  Both teams seemed to have the jitters at the start.  More than two minutes elapsed before either scored.  The second half started even more slowly.  Neither team scored in the first three minutes, and SMU didn’t score for 5-1/2 minutes, when Markus Kennedy hit a pair of free throws.  The Mustangs scored just five points over the first 10 minutes.

However, after UCLA took their largest lead of the game (10 points) with 12:56 remaining, the Mustangs paradoxically scored the next 19 points to take their biggest lead of the day at nine, as UCLA didn’t score for more than eight minutes.  The game looked all but in the bag for the Mustangs holding a seven point lead with 1:25 remaining.

We all know what happened from there.  As bad as we all feel about it, we can only look toward next year.  Three seniors depart from the eight man playing rotation that finished the season – Ryan Manuel, Cannen Cunningham and Yanick Moreira.  They were significant contributors and will be missed.

However, the other five return – Nic and Ben Moore, Markus Kennedy, Sterling Brown, and Ben Emelogu.  They’ll be joined by Keith Frazier, who surely will regain his eligibility, and transfers Jordan Tolbert (Texas Tech) and Semi Ojeleye (Duke).  Tolbert and Ojeleye are inside players listed at 6′-7″ and 6′-8″ respectively.  Particularly, Ojeleye will be expected to fill the gap left by Cunningham and Moreira’s departure.

The Mustangs have signed three freshmen:  Shake Milton, Sedrick Barefield and Jarrey Foster.  Milton is the most highly regarded, but Barefield is a terrific long range shooter.

That leaves two available scholarships.  The coaches are surely looking for another inside player.

This year’s team was better from last year’s experience.  Failing to make the NCAA Tournament proved to be positive motivation.  Last year’s team had bad losses at Temple and South Florida in conference play and to Houston in the conference tournament.  Winning perhaps just one of those games might have made the difference in receiving an NCAA bid.  This year’s team took care of business in the trap games.  They had no bad losses.  They probably had the bid in hand after winning the regular season conference championship, but made sure by taking the conference tournament.

The experience of finishing second in the NIT helped this year’s team too.  The NIT provided three extra weeks of games and practice.  It provided three more home games in the newly renovated Moody Coliseum to bond with Mustang fans.  There were quality wins over teams from the ACC, PAC 12 and SEC.  The NIT experience was undoubtedly more beneficial to this year’s team than a one and done scenario in the NCAA Tournament would have been.

Likewise, this year’s NCAA Tournament experience should benefit next year’s team greatly.  Getting in the tournament was a worthy goal this year.  Next year though, an NCAA bid is expected, and a one and done scenario in the tournament will be a disappointment.  Going farther into the tournament is an expectation, not a hope.

SMU basketball has come a long way in the three years since Larry Brown accepted the head coaching job.  The best part is that the good times have just begun.

ONE AND DONE

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

SMU’s trip to the NCAA Tournament proved to be a short one, as they lost to UCLA Thursday afternoon 60-59 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.  The Bruins went on an 8-0 run over the final 1:25 of the game to erase a seven point Mustang lead and advance to Saturday’s round of 32.

The final UCLA basket was scored on a controversial goal tending call.  The hectic shot from Bryce Alford, who had already hit eight three-point shots in the game, appeared to be short and to the right of the rim, but was called goal tending when Yanick Moreira swatted it away.  The rules do not allow for a television review of a judgment call.  There were still 13 seconds remaining in regulation play, and the Mustangs got two shots at the end for the win, but neither fell.

SMU finishes the season with a 27-7 record.  27 wins ties last year’s team for the second most in a season, and 54 wins over two consecutive seasons is an SMU record.  All seven losses were to teams that received bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Nic Moore’s 24 points led the Mustangs.  Six of his seven baskets were three-point shots.  He was 4-4 from the free throw line.  Markus Kennedy also scored in double digits with 16 and led the Ponies with nine rebounds.

Alford, the son of Bruins’ head coach and former Dallas Maverick Steve Alford, hit nine three-point baskets on 11 tries to set a new UCLA record for three-point shots made in a game.  His 27 points led all scorers in the game, and Norman Powell was the other Bruin in double digits with 19.  Kevon Looney was the game’s leading rebounder with 10.

Larry Brown was suffering from bronchitis.  He considered turning over the reins for this game to Associate Head Coach Tim Jankovich, but decided to tough it out.  Brown looked bad on the SMU bench and had little voice when interviewed at halftime.  He did not appear on the local radio broadcast after the game as is customary.

The Mustangs trailed by four points at half time (34-30) and started slowly in the second half.  UCLA built a 10 point lead by out-scoring SMU 6-0 over the first 5-1/2 minutes after intermission.  A pair of free throws ended UCLA’s scoring run, but the Mustangs still looked sluggish and trailed by 10 points at the 13 minute mark.

Suddenly, the Ponies came alive.  They went on an improbable 19-0 run that erased the 10 point deficit and built a nine point lead, their largest of the game.  Nic Moore scored 11 of the 19 points to spearhead the surge.  They appeared to have the game well in hand when a Ryan Manuel dunk gave SMU a seven point lead at 59-52 with 1:25 remaining.

Over that 1:25, the Mustangs missed three shots and threw the ball away on another possession to open the door for the Bruins.  Powell hit a pair of free throws and Alford hit two three point shots with the second one being ruled good on the controversial goal tending call.  The win that had looked to be in hand with little more than a minute remaining, was suddenly gone and SMU’s season was over.

It’s a bitter ending for all the Mustang nation, but especially for three seniors – Moreira, Manuel and Cannen Cunningham.  They’ll be replaced next year by hopefully an academically eligible Keith Frazier, and transfers Jordan Tolbert (Texas Tech) and Semi Ojeleye (Duke).  The Mustangs also have three freshmen committed, all of whom could contribute.  Shake Milton from Oklahoma is the most highly regarded on the trio.  SMU still has two scholarships available assuming everyone returns.  Returning players include Nic Moore, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Markus Kennedy, a second team All-Conference selection for the second year in a row.

 

ON TO THE NCAAs

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

SMU claimed complete dominance of the American Athletic Conference Sunday afternoon by adding the post-season tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to the regular season championship they earned last Sunday.  They won the rubber match over Connecticut, 62-54 at the XL Center in Hartford, after the teams had split the regular season series with the home team winning each game.

The Mustangs seemingly had this game in hand all the way.  They ran the lead into double digits at 20-10 with 6:20 remaining in the first half, led by 14 at halftime, and held a 17 point lead in the second half with less than 14 minutes left in regulation.  That’s when momentum shifted to the Huskies, who cut the lead to as a few as five points.  The Mustangs however made 10 of their final 11 free throws over the final two plus minutes to salt the win away.

Head Coach Larry Brown said after the game, “I just want to admire what Connecticut was able to do after we got such a big lead and the character they showed to come back.  It’s never easy playing against Kevin (Connecticut Head Coach Kevin Ollie), and it’s amazing when you play in an atmosphere like this and you realize the tradition they have and you understand why.”

As for his team, Brown continued, “These seniors have been amazing.  Matt Doherty should be up here with me because he left me with an unbelievable group of guys.”

Markus Kennedy led the team in scoring with 14 points and was named tournament MVP.  Nic Moore and Yanick Moreira were also double digit scorers with 11 points.  They made the All-Tournament team.  Ben Moore was the fourth Mustang in double digits with 10, and Sterling Brown was the top rebounder in the game with 12.

SMU’s record improved to 27-6, tying last year’s team for the second most wins in school history.  The 1987-88 team won 28.  Connecticut finished at 20-14 and became the sixth defending National Champion that failed to receive a tournament bid in the following year since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

SMU was placed in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament with a six seed.  They will open play next Thursday at approximately 2:15 PM (Central) against 20-13 UCLA in Louisville, Kentucky. The game will be televised on TruTV.  The American Athletic Conference claimed one more bid with Cincinnati getting the eight seed in the Midwest Region.  Temple (one seed), Tulsa (two seed) and Connecticut (four seed) received bids to the National Invitation Tournament.

The Mustangs viewed the NCAA Selection show as a group with family and friends from a private room in the XL Center. This year they watched to see where they would be playing in the NCAA tournament as they were assured of a bid from winning the conference tournament.  It was a stark contract from last year, when they were joined by fans in Moody Coliseum to sadly watch the selection show in which an NCAA bid never came.

Head Coach Larry Brown issued a statement to Mustang fans after the game, saying, “I don’t know that there’s a whole lot to say except that SMU is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993 because of these guys.  I am very proud of this team and I know you are too.  Thank you for your support.  It means a ton to me and the whole team.”

There is no question that the American Athletic Conference does not receive the respect it deserves from the selection committee.  Last season, AAC Champion Louisville was ranked in the top 10 for most of the season and received just a four seed.  This year, Louisville has moved on to the Atlantic Coast Conference.  They have lost four impact players from last year’s team and are clearly not as good, yet Louisville again received a four seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The AAC should have received at least one more bid, if not two.  Temple and Tulsa can’t be feeling very chippy about the selection process at this point in time.

But that’s another story for another time.  This weekend, if the Mustangs beat UCLA, and they will most surely be favored on the betting line to take the Bruins, they will face the winner of three seed Iowa State and 13 seed Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday.  The Mustangs need to win both games to set a new school record for wins in a season, not to mention to reach the “Sweet 16″ in Houston.

Despite what the selection committee thinks, this team has a realistic chance of going deep into the tournament.  They have a front line of four big men that present problems for most teams, and with four post players, they are not sidetracked by foul trouble.

“We have four big people that we feel can contribute.  They all can catch, they all can pass, they’re all a post presence,” Brown said.

Guard play is also extremely valuable in the NCAA Tournament.  SMU is led by point guard Nic Moore, their leading scorer and assist man, who is also the AAC Player of the Year, and a first team All-Conference selection for the second year in a row.  The other two usual starters – Ryan Manuel and Sterling Brown – are good athletes that are very good defenders and have some offensive skills.

This team is good, and it’s balanced.  They will present match-up problems for a lot of opponents.  The tournament isn’t always won by the best team.  For evidence thereof, look no further than last season.  Connecticut ran the table taking six games despite being a seven seed.  SMU beat them twice in the regular season last year and didn’t even get an invite to the tournament.  They probably weren’t even a top 20 team, but they came home with the championship trophy.

When Ron Washington was the manager of the Texas Rangers, he said about post-season play that the best team doesn’t always win.  A team just needs to be the best team on the day they play.  For SMU, the message is clear.  They need to be the best team on six days to bring the NCAA Tournament Championship back to the AAC this year.  It’s a long shot, but it is in the realm of possibility.  Larry Brown has coached an NCAA champion before.  He could do it again this year.

OFF TO HARTFORD

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

The Mustangs’ Men’s basketball team departed for Hartford, Connecticut after practice Wednesday.  They open the American Athletic Conference post-season tournament this morning at 11:00 Central against East Carolina, 81-80 first round winners over Central Florida in overtime.  Hopefully, the Mustangs’ stay will extend through Sunday evening’s NCAA selection show, as the plan is to return to Dallas immediately if they lose Friday or Saturday.

There was definitely excitement over capturing the regular season championship last Sunday.  Nic Moore admitted he had enjoyed the celebration.  “I had my family here, so that was always fun to be able to celebrate with them.  I guess it was a good night afterwards.”

However, by Tuesday the team was definitely focused on the task at hand – this weekend’s conference tournament.  They are still haunted by last year’s loss to Houston in the Mustangs’ opening game in the conference tournament, which likely cost them an NCAA Tournament bid.  Moore noted, “It just shows that anybody can be beat if you don’t have the right focus.  If we don’t have the right focus, that it could be the same thing as last year.  Hopefully, we’ve got that mind set where we can play together and be positive.  We’re stoked.”

Certainly, this Mustang team has continued to improve even with the loss of Keith Frazier.  Markus Kennedy attributed the improvement to attitude, “I think the bonding that we’re doing.  We’re spending a little bit more time together.  Everybody is becoming more of a family.”

He says the team needs solid contributions from the Bens – Moore and Emelogu – with the possibility of three games in three days this weekend in the conference tournament.  “We’re going to need everybody.  Both Bens are capable of having great games offensively and defensively.  We only go eight deep.”

Head coach Larry Brown was also asked about the loss to UH in last year’s tournament and said, “I don’t know if I’m going to harp on what happened last year.  I don’t think this is the time and the place.  I think what we gotta talk about is what we need to do better.  The hope is that we build on the things that are important.”

Brown echoed Kennedy’s thoughts on the bench, “We need to get Ben Moore and Ben Emologu more involved where they become a factor.  If we play two or three nights, your bench becomes more critical.”

As for this weekend, Brown mentioned a familiar theme, “We gotta rebound, defend, share the ball, take care of the ball.  I think that is critical.”

If the Mustangs do those things, they likely win games not only this weekend, but the next one too.

SMU has all but officially wrapped up an NCAA bid with 24 wins, no bad losses, and a regular season championship.  However, there is much to play for this weekend.  Winning the conference tournament will most certainly improve the team’s seeding and up SMU’s chances of advancing in the big dance.

AWARDS:  On Tuesday, the AAC announced All-Conference teams.  Nic Moore joined Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright as unanimous selections to the first team.  The other three were Austin Nichols (Memphis), Will Cummings (Temple) and James Woodard (Tulsa).

Markus Kennedy and Yanick Moreira were named All-Conference second team.  The other three were Cincinnati’s Octavia Ellis, Tulane’s Louis Dabney, and Tulsa’s Shaquille Harrison.

A day later, Kennedy won the Sixth Man of the Year Award.  Moreira also won the Conference Most Improved Player award.  Other awards went to UConn center Amida Brimah for Conference Defensive Player of the Year and to Shaq Goodwin (Memphis) for the Conference Sportsmanship Award.

On Thursday, the AAC announced that Nic Moore was the conference Player of the Year.  Moore averaged 14.4 points and 5.3 assists per game to lead the Mustangs.  Those figures were fourth and second in the conference.  He also led the conference in free throw shooting percentage (87.5%).  His importance to the Mustangs; regular season championship was probably the difference maker in winning the award over Connecticut’s Ryan Boatright, who had superior scoring figures.

NOTABLE:

*     There will be no NCAA Selection Show watch party with fans this year, as there was last season at Moody Coliseum.  Obviously, if they win the first two games and play in Sunday’s tournament finals, they will watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show in Hartford.  If the team loses either Friday or Saturday and returns to Dallas, they will gather privately to watch the selection show on Sunday.

*     Cannen Cunningham started last Sunday instead of Ben Moore on Senior Day.  He played extremely well turning in a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.  When asked if Cunningham would start this Friday, Brown said, “I will think about it.  I look at Markus and Cannen as starters just like Yanick and Ben, so I don’t know.  Cannen was great.  It’s his senior year.  Who knows?”

*     NCAA rules provide for players that are eligible to play to travel with the team.  Consequently, Keith Frazier (academic ineligibility), Jordan Tolbert and Semi Ojeleye (transfers) did not make the trip to Hartford.

*     In addition to East Carolina, the first round winners in the conference tournament were Houston, 66-60 winners over Tulane for their fourth win in a row, and Connecticut, which routed South Florida 69-43.  Houston plays two seed Tulsa and UConn plays three seed Cincinnati in the second round.

THE LAST TIME – A REMEMBRANCE

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

UNIVERSTIY PARK, Texas – Sunday afternoon, confetti filled the Moody Coliseum air shortly after the game clock wound down to zero with the scoreboard reading SMU 67 – Tulsa 62.  The Mustangs had won their first conference championship in 22 years.  Fans filled the court mixing with the players as nets were cut and the championship trophy was presented.  It was a great accomplishment for this team from which so much was expected.

The American Athletic Conference’s automatic bid goes to the winner of this weekend’s post-season conference tournament, but with 24 wins, no bad losses, and a conference championship; this team is all but in the NCAA Tournament.

Bryan Ballowe is a Dallas business man, an SMU grad with undergraduate and graduate degrees earned on the Hilltop.  He watched Sunday’s game from section 203.  Like most in the arena, he was adorned in SMU garb, but his was a bit different than most, if not all in the crowd.  He was wearing a ring from the last SMU conference championship in 1993.

As a freshman in 1992, Ballowe walked on and made the SMU basketball team.  It was not a team that greatness was expected.  They opened the season with a 6-4 record before starting conference play.  Two of the losses were to ranked teams at the time of the game; #20 Tulane on the road in overtime, and #13 Arkansas at home by 19 points.

SMU opened conference play with a 102-92 win over Texas in Austin.  The game wasn’t as close as that score indicates, and Ballowe said the win was a turning point.  “We realized we were good.”

It turned into a three team race, with Houston and Rice being the other teams in contention.  The Mustangs split with both opponents, winning in Dallas and losing in Houston.  The UH games were 10 point margins each time, and Rice won easily in Houston.  The Rice game at Moody Coliseum was special though.  Chad Allen hit a three at the buzzer to tie the game and send it to overtime, and SMU pulled out a one point win.

Just like this year’s edition of the Mustangs, the conference championship came down to the last day of the season.  SMU and Rice were both 11-2.  SMU played first and beat Texas 86-80 to secure no worse than a tie for the championship.  Rice played Texas A&M later.  The Aggies were not very good that season under head coach Tony Barone, but the Aggies were good enough on March 6.  They tagged Rice with their third conference loss to give SMU the title.

John Shumate was the SMU head coach, and he was named Southwest Conference Coach of the Year.  He was never a fan favorite, and his tenure as head coach lasted just two more years.  He’s never been a head coach again and retired as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns in 2010.  Ballowe has a different point of view.  “I liked John Shumate.  He gave me a chance to play.”

The key players on that Mustang team were Seniors Tim Mason, Gerald Lewis and Mike Wilson.  The least any of the three played was 865 minutes, while no one else on the team played as many as 700.  Lewis was the point guard.  Wilson “was a great athlete, but he couldn’t shoot.  Tim (Mason) was the heart and soul of our team,” Ballowe said.

Wilson and Lewis won first team All-Conference accolades.  Mason was named to the second team, and Lewis made the All-Defensive team.

Junior Chad Allen and Senior Greg Kinzer were usually the other two starters, so it was a veteran team.  Ballowe said it was a really balanced team with quality ball handling from the guards and size inside.  Counting two more non-conference wins after opening conference play, the Mustangs finished the regular season with a 20-6 record.

The rest of the year didn’t go so well.  As the conference champion, the Ponies went into the SWC post season tournament as the number one seed, and their first game was against eight seed TCU, which had won just five games during the regular season.  The Mustangs had beaten them both times, 79-65 at Daniel Meyer Coliseum and 70-63 in Moody.

“We laid and egg,” Ballowe said about the game.  TCU somehow pulled out a 72-71 win to knock the Mustangs out of the tournament and the chance for the conference’s automatic bid.  He admitted the team was mentally already in the NCAA Tournament.

There was some doubt that SMU would receive an NCAA bid with their 20-7 record, but on selection Sunday, they were tabbed a 10 seed facing seven seed Brigham Young at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago, home of the DePaul Blue Demons.  (The Rosemont Arena is now known as Allstate Arena).

Ballowe admitted there was some intimidation from the surroundings.  “Rosemont was bigger than any place we had ever played in.  We got lost in the moment.  We were the better team.  We had better athletes.”  Unfortunately, Brigham Young came away with an 80-71 win to end the Mustangs season at 20-8.

Still, he says the whole experience was great. “It was the best experience of my life to play with some of the best athletes I’d ever seen.  It was exciting in that one year I was watching the tournament on TV as a senior in high school and the next year, I was playing in it.”

Hopefully, the current Mustangs can learn from their predecessor champions.  The goal is not reached.  This year’s Mustang team, which came in at 21 in the AP and 22 in the coach’s poll this week, is too good to just go to the NCAA Tournament.  Tulsa coach Frank Haith said after Sunday’s game that SMU is one of the top teams in the country and can go far.  As he put it, “they have a great point guard, great post players, and a Hall of Fame coach.”  That’s all the elements to even win it all.

This week is important.  Winning the conference tournament will likely improve their NCAA seeding by one or two lines.  These Mustangs have worked hard and overcome considerable adversity to get into this position.  They need to take advantage now.  These days have arrived seemingly suddenly, less than three years since Larry Brown accepted the position as head coach.  They can go away just as fast.  The time is now.

TWENTY-TWO THIS WEEK

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

Sunday’s 81-73 loss to Connecticut dropped the Mustangs a notch in both polls this week as the Mustangs came in at 22.  SMU also dropped a notch to second place in the Dallas Morning News’ poll of the top 10 teams in Texas.  Baylor, ranked 14th (AP) and 16th (Coach’s), took over the top spot in the Morning News’ poll, and then promptly lost to Texas Monday night.

Certainly, Sunday’s loss was disappointing for SMU fans.  The team played poorly in the first half.  They were seemingly out of character offensively as they did not get the ball inside, which is their biggest strength.  With Nic Moore having an off day shooting the three point shot, the Mustang’s offense was ineffective early. It was definitely a game that the Mustangs missed Keith Frazier.

In the second half when the Mustangs used almost 12 minutes to overcome the six point halftime deficit and take a two point lead, the offense was back to normal – they got the ball inside.  Markus Kennedy had a big second half, scoring 16 of his team leading 18 points after intermission.  Getting the ball inside, and then kicking it out makes the three point shooting more effective too.  All four of the Mustangs made threes came in the second half.

Head coach Larry Brown noted after the game, “We scored enough points to win.”  He blamed the loss on the defense, and for sure the 81 points UConn scored are the most for any SMU opponent this season.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi published a new bracket projection on March 2 updated for the results of the weekend  SMU is still projected to be a six seed in the South Region playing Boise State in Louisville in game one.  Lunardi still has the American Athletic Conference getting four bids, with Temple and Tulsa as 11 seeds, and Cincinnati in a play-in game with Purdue for another 11 seed.

Announcers at the SMU games of late feel that the Mustangs are a lock for the tournament.  Certainly the non-conference schedule with Gonzaga, Indian, Michigan and Arkansas is tougher than last year.  There are no bad losses like last year’s Mustangs had in conference to South Florida and Temple.

It’s sobering to remember though that a year ago, the Mustangs had the same 23-6 record and was ranked between 20 and 25 in the polls.  They finished with regular season losses to Louisville at home, Memphis on the road, and Houston in the second round of the conference tournament after earning a bye as the third place team.  On NCAA tournament selection Sunday, there was no bid.  An NCAA bid is not a lock at this point.

The good thing for this year’s team is that they have the regular season championship in their control.  A win over Tulsa this Sunday does it, and it would be difficult to keep the Mustangs out of the tournament as the regular season champion, though the conference’s automatic bid goes to the winner of the conference tournament. .

This weekend’s loss should serve notice that Connecticut is not to be counted out of the NCAA Tournament.  The Huskies are currently in fifth place with a 10-6 record, one game behind Cincinnati and Temple at 11-5.  Their overall record is 17-11.

The tournament will be played at the XL Center in Hartford with UConn as the host.  They have already tagged the top two teams in the conference record-wise – SMU and Tulsa – with losses when playing at home.  It’s not a stretch at all to see the Huskies running the table and to grab the conference’s automatic bid.  Connecticut hosts Memphis Thursday and plays at Temple on Saturday; so they have two more chances to add to their tournament resume before the conference tournament.  Winning those two games and a couple in the conference tournament may be enough to get the defending national champions invited back to the big dance.

Thanks to reader Ryan Phillips for recommending a wonderful web site – teamrankings.com.  The site currently has a mathematical calculation of the chances for each team in the conference to win the post-season tournament.  SMU of course has the best chance – 31.71%.  Connecticut though is second out of deference to playing at home at 27.25%.  Cincinnati (14.28%), Tulsa (10.84%),  Memphis (8.12%) and Temple (6.12%) round out the top six.  Each of the other five teams have less than a 1% chance to win.

It was less than three years ago that Larry Brown was introduced to media and fans as the new head coach of the Mustangs.  It was a beautiful April day for the gathering on the plaza just outside Moody Coliseum’s west entrance.  It was gala event with luminaries such as Kansas head coach Bill Self in attendance to support Brown.  There was mention of the renovation to Moody Coliseum, which was already underway.  Brown promised good things on the court.  Hope filled the hearts of SMU fans.

Now fast forward to March 8 when the Mustangs will take the court to win a conference championship. Moody Coliseum’s renovation is complete, and it’s a show palace.  It’s nice to know that those dreams three years ago have at least partially come true.  SMU has the opportunity to win a conference championship for the first time in more than a decade, and Mustang fans have hopes and dreams, not to mention reasonable expectations for even bigger accomplishments.

 

 

 

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.