BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – SMU’s season opening winning streak came to a halt at 18 victories Sunday when the Temple Owls blitzed the Mustangs with a barrage of three point shots to spearhead an 89-80 win. The Owls made 14 three point shots to just three for the Mustangs in a game that was delayed 16 hours because of the tremendous snow storm that hit the East Coast last weekend. The 18 game winning streak is the longest in school history to open a season and two shy of the school record. The Ponies at 18-1 dropped to number 13 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
Almost from the beginning, the Mustangs looked a bit out of sync. They uncharacteristically threw up poor shots early in the shot clock rather than throwing the extra pass to get a better shot. It was a game that Keith Frazier could have made a difference. His three point capability would have stretched Temple’s defense and opened up the inside players for shots under the basket, which has been the backbone of SMU’s half court offense. Instead, Ben Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy got the ball underneath, but had difficulty getting off their shots.
However, give the Owls credit. They played a very good game and deserved to win. The Mustangs didn’t play great, but they didn’t play badly either. When the game ended, Temple fans stormed the court to celebrate a victory over the number eight team in the nation. It was a sign of how far the SMU basketball program has come in Larry Brown’s four years. It’s been a long time since a win over SMU was cause for fans to rush the floor
There is no question that the SMU players were conscious of the streak. Radio announcer Alan Stone mentioned recently how intently the players watched the South Carolina game at the airport when they experienced a flight delay after the East Carolina game. South Carolina lost that game to make the Mustangs the lone remaining undefeated team in division I at that point in the season.
Tolbert told the media last week “I just like to think about the next game, but we all know the ultimate goal.” Perhaps the pressure of the streak was getting to them. There is no question they were not clicking on all cylinders in the previous two games at Tulane and at home against Houston. The Mustangs trailed for much of both games, but finished strong to win.
This time, the Temple lead was too big to overcome with a strong finish. The Owls’ lead ballooned to as many as 19 points with about 5.5 minutes left in the game. So the question is will this team rebound from the loss now that the carrot of the unbeaten season is no longer available?
One thing this ban on post season play has done is put the emphasis on the regular season for SMU. There is still the regular season league championship to defend, which in reality is the superior accomplishment than winning the post season tournament. It takes 10 weeks. Half the games are on the road, often in front of large, hostile crowds. There are injuries to deal with, not to mention academics to maintain. Winning the regular season championship is a far bigger accomplishment than winning three or four games in the span of four or five days at a neutral site in the conference post-season tournament.
On the other hand, conference tournaments are money makers, and the conference automatic NCAA Tournament bid has to be on the line to make the conference tournaments viable. These tournaments aren’t going away.
At this point though, the Mustangs are the only division I team with just one loss. In fact, there are just four two loss teams in this week’s AP poll. Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s bracketologist, said Sunday that the Mustangs would be on the two line if they were eligible to go to the NCAA Tournament. The Temple loss probably didn’t do much to change that.
This loss may actually prove to be a positive. The pressure to go undefeated is now off. The Mustangs hold a 1.5 game lead in the conference race over Temple and Tulsa, both at 5-2. Connecticut and Central Florida also have just two losses, so there is a race for the conference championship. Candidly, I expect the Mustangs to come out with a tremendous effort this Saturday night when they host Memphis at Moody Coliseum. Game time is 7:00 PM, and the game will be televised on ESPN News.
SMU did get good news on Monday evening. Harry Froling committed to play for SMU next year. Froling is a 6′-10″ post player from Australia, thought to be the best high school senior in the country. He was in the U. S. last week to visit schools. On Monday night, he saw his first NBA game, in which the Dallas Mavericks beat the Boston Celtics in overtime. On Tuesday, he saw the Mustangs’ come from behind win over the University of Houston. He also saw the magic of Moody Coliseum with the rowdy student section and star studded crowd.
He must have liked what he saw as he announced his decision shortly after returning to Australia. Note: He has twin sisters that play for the SMU Women’s basketball team. Froling should have the opportunity to play immediately. Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert have no more eligibility after March 6. The other two recruits signed in November are guards, so the Mustangs definitely needed to recruit some size. They got their man in Froling.