BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The SMU Men’s basketball team headed to Tulsa Wednesday afternoon. For the second time in three years, they are in the NCAA Tournament, seeded sixth in the East Region. They are set to play Friday afternoon at 2:10 PM against Southern Cal, which beat Providence in Wednesday night’s play-in game.
Much has been made locally about the Mustangs getting slighted with “only” a six seed after turning in a 30-4 record that included winning both the regular season American Athletic Conference championship and the AAC post-season tournament championship. Mick Cronin, the head coach of the Mustangs’ closest conference pursuer Cincinnati, even said that SMU got short changed. For sure, the conference does not get the respect it deserves.
Also, the conference was not as good this season as it has been in the past. A year ago, the AAC placed four teams in the NCAA Tournament, which did not include 25-5 SMU because of NCAA sanctions. This season, SMU and Cincinnati are the only two.
While the media continues to bait the “six seed” hook, SMU Head Coach Tim Jankovich has a different take. First of all, he really wanted a Friday/Sunday venue. His short handed team played three tough games in three consecutive days last weekend to win the AAC post-season tournament. He said Sunday, “This team needs rest more than practice.”
“I could get all negative, but I’m not going to,” Jankovich said about the six seed. “First of all, this is something we should all enjoy very much. So much goes into just getting here. And! I don’t feel cheated at all. We got Friday, which I thought was so important. And we got to go to Tulsa. We got our closest venue. I’m thankful for all we got.”
He’s right. He had a good crowd on campus Wednesday afternoon to send the team off. He’ll have a good crowd this weekend in Tulsa. This is a much better situation than playing Thursday in Milwaukee as a five seed instead of Minnesota or in Buffalo instead of Notre Dame.
Candidly too, at this point, a seed doesn’t matter. For a team to win the tournament, it needs to win six games. As a six instead of a four or five, the first two opponents may be more difficult. However, if SMU does win twice this weekend in Tulsa, they effectively become the three seed. SMU actually getting under seeded is really more of a problem for Baylor. Assuming SMU and Baylor win on Friday, the Bears will face a far tougher opponent than a three seed normally gets in game two.
Semi Ojeleye has been the Mustangs’ best player winning the conference Player of the Year Award. It’s been a magical season for the transfer from Duke. He talked about the season this week, saying, “I’m blessed to be in this position. The guys (teammates) that made possible this season for me. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Ojeleye is not bothered by the six seed. He’s pleased to have the opportunity to do something special in the tournament. “The seniors on our team, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown. This is their last go around, so we want to send them out on the right note. It’s my first time around. Everything is a joy for me. You have to take one day at a time. Try to block out the noise. I think at the end of the day, it’s basketball. Same ball, same hoop, same rules. So at the end of the day, there night be a few more lights, but we have to stick to what we’ve done all year long.”
He’s certainly pleased with Coach Jankovich. “He’s been a players’ coach all year. I really love him. He really helps us adapt to whatever challenge we face. Putting in new offenses, new schemes, new plays, try to attack mis-matches. Even during games, he really adapts to whatever we have coming up.”
Two players that are especially pleased to be playing in Tulsa are Shake Milton and Dashawn McDowell. Milton is from a Tulsa suburb, while McDowell is from Oklahoma City. “It’s a blessing,” McDowell said. “It’s great to have a bunch of fans here.”
Milton echoed many of the same thoughts. “It’s something that I’m thankful for, and it’s an opportunity.” I want to make the most of it.”
Milton has performed well in his hometown so far. In the two games he’s played in the Reynolds Center against Tulsa University, he’s knocked down 12 three point shots. Hopefully for Mustang fans, he’ll find the BOK Center baskets equally inviting.
Jarrey Foster is especially excited about the SMU fan support. “We’re not far away from Dallas. I know that we’re going to have a big turnout. Our fans are so supportive. They have been all year.”
This will be the second meeting of the year between SMU and Southern Cal this season. The Trojans beat SMU last November 25 78-73 in Los Angeles. The Trojans are 25-9 after beating Providence Wednesday night 75-71 in one of the largest come backs in the history of the tournament. Providence led by 15 at halftime and by as many as 17 before USC turned the tables.
A survey of eight Las Vegas betting sites has the Mustangs favored by 6-1/2 points over Southern Cal on every one. This team really believes it can win six games. Mustang fans will get the first card indicator Friday in Tulsa.