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.