BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – SMU’s basketball team missed a golden opportunity to step up and be recognized as one of the top teams in the country when they lost to Louisville Wednesday 84-71. The Mustangs had risen to 18th in both polls this week. They had played Cardinals to an eight point game in losing at Louisville in early January in just their third conference game. This young Mustang team has seemingly been growing and maturing with every game. The losses on the road to South Florida and Temple were set backs for sure, but that’s to be expected with a young team such as this one.
Louisville is the defending national champion and they came into the game having won seven of their last eight games. A Mustang win would have been the fifth this season over a ranked team. It would not only improve their standing in the eyes of college basketball, but would go a long way toward receiving a better seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
SMU came out with tremendous energy, running up a 10 point lead over the first seven minutes, which they stretched to14 six minutes later. This edition of Mustang basketball has been noted for their defensive prowess, and the defense led the way early. Louisville is one of the top ranked teams in the country in turnover margin largely because they don’t turn the ball over much, averaging just 10.3 per game. SMU forced 10 turnovers in the first half alone, most of which came in the first 13 minutes as they built that 14 point lead at 26-12.
Unfortunately for Mustang fans, the rest of the game was pretty much Louisville’s. The Cardinals closed out the half with a 20-4 run to actually take a two point lead into the halftime dressing room. The Mustangs made an early charge in the second half by opening with a 7-1 run to take a 37-33 lead; but once Louisville overtook them at 39-37, the Ponies never led again.
Cardinals guard Russ Smith was absolutely on fire in the second half. Smith is one of three strong candidates for the AAC Player of the Year Award, and he showed Mustang fans why. After a quiet first half in which he was held to four points, he exploded to score 22 in the second half. He was 6-6 from behind the three point arc. Afterward, even Larry Brown said, “He was phenomenal.”
The pace of the game was furious. It started fast and never really slowed down. It was also an extremely physical game. The referees called 46 fouls in the contest, but the physicality never backed off. There were some sore bodies Thursday morning.
After losing the early second half lead, the Mustangs made a run to close the gap to one point at 55-54 on a Keith Frazier three point shot with 8.5 minutes left in the game. From there, the teams seemingly traded baskets, but Louisville pulled away as theirs were three point shots, and SMU’s were twos.
This seemed like a perfect place to play Frazier. He’s a solid three point shooter, and it was obvious that SMU needed to make some threes to keep up with the Cardinals. However, Frazier sat most of the balance of the game, and Louisville ran the lead to 10 points with 4:22 remaining.
From there, Louisville worked the clock; SMU was forced to foul and hope for Cardinal misses. Louisville didn’t miss enough and finished with the 13 point lead, their largest of the game to tag SMU with their first home loss of the season.
Brown sounded dejected in the post game meeting with the media. He has mentioned a number of times how his team looked intimidated when they went to Fayetteville to play Arkansas, looked intimidated in their first conference game in Cincinnati, and looked intimidated when they played in Louisville. They lost all those games. Brown was hoping that the experience of beating the ranked teams and competing for the conference championship would have brought the confidence to avoid being intimidated.
It didn’t happen though. Physically, SMU matches up fine with Louisville. The athletes are in place to win. However, Louisville still has the mental edge. When the Ponies ran out to the early double digit lead, the Cardinals never panicked. They had the poise and confidence to overcome SMU’s fast start. They played hard, made a couple of defensive adjustments and took control of the game.
Once the momentum turned, there was bad body language with the Mustangs. They continually griped about referees’ calls, and a couple of times looked to be fighting among themselves over mistakes on the floor. Nic Moore was especially disappointing. As the team leader, he sets the tone. He got himself into foul trouble with two early fouls in the game that limited his first half play to nine minutes. In the second half, he picked up two foolish fouls in the space of 10 seconds and was out of the game four minutes into the half. He finished with just 19 minutes played. Three of those fouls were senseless. He’s been the team’s most important player this year, but he isn’t much help sitting on the bench. If he is to be the leader of the team, he needs to be more prudent in his play on the court.
Most people assume that the Mustangs have done enough to receive an NCAA bid with 23 wins, no worse than a 12-6 conference record in a very good conference, and four wins over ranked teams. However, that may not necessarily be true. The regular season concludes with an 11:00 AM (Central) tip at Memphis tomorrow. A win secures the third seed and a second round matchup with Houston in the conference tournament. A loss will likely doom them to the four or five tournament seed, where they would face either Memphis again or Connecticut after their first round bye. Both are ranked in the AP top 20 this week.
One more win should seal the deal for a bid. However, losses in both the conference finale and conference tournament opener would present a resume to the NCAA selection committee with three consecutive losses to end the season. Even if they make the tournament, they are likely to be seeded eight, nine or 10 with a locational assignment far from San Antonio, the preferred first round NCAA site.
This Mustang team has accomplished much in a breakout season. For many they have already exceeded expectations; but there is still much to play for. Two or three more wins over the next week will improve the team’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament and give the Mustangs a great chance to win a couple of games to reach the Sweet 16. The opportunity is there. The talent is there. The poise and confidence of the team will determine the final epitaph of this season.
In any event, this team has just two seniors. A marvelous nucleus will return next year for what should be an even better season.
* On the Women’s team, three players received All-Conference recognition this week. Keena Mays was a unanimous selection to the All-Conference first team after averaging a league high 20.8 points per game. She scored at least 20 points in 17 of 29 games this year, and scored at least 30 points in four games, an SMU record. Akil Simpson earned second team All-Conference honors. She averaged 13.7 points per game and led the team with 8.3 rebounds per game. Kiara Perry was named to the All-Freshman team. She averaged 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
* The Men’s team will stay in Memphis after tomorrow’s game and await their second round conference tournament game next Thursday.