BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The SMU Men’s basketball team beat Houston last Saturday night 76-66 to win their third game in seven days. It was the second game in a row that the Mustangs came back from a double digit deficit for the win. All three were hard fought wins with a short bench. It was a great week of basketball and a week that changed the season for SMU.
It started on Sunday with a win over Cincinnati, the 11th ranked team in the nation at the time. It is by no means a stretch to say that this win is one of the most important regular season wins in school history. Cincinnati arrived with a 22-2 record overall and was undefeated in conference play, having tagged SMU with the Mustangs’ only conference loss in January. It has been apparent for weeks that the race for the regular season conference championship was down to two teams. A Cincinnati win would all but mathematically have clinched that championsip.
The Mustangs got behind early, but rallied with an 8-0 run to end the first half with the score tied at 28. After the Bearcats opened the second half with a 12-3 run to grab a nine point lead, the Mustangs took charge of the game with a 15-0 run of their own. The Bearcats stayed close, but never got the lead back before losing 60-51.
The game was televised on the mothership of the ESPN networks, ESPN itself. It was the prime time basketball game of the day. It was billed as the “Game of the Year” in the American Athletic Conference, and it lived up to the billing.
In the afterglow of the great win over Cincinnati, players and coaches reveled in the Moody Coliseum crowd. The official paid attendance was 7,518, the largest crowd since Moody Coliseum was remodeled. “It was an unbelievable atmosphere,” Associate Head Coach K. T. Turner said the following Monday on the KAAM 770 AM Monday night coaches show. “Our guys fed off of that.”
SMU had cracked the top 25 earlier that week slipping in at number 25 in the AP poll. The Cincinnati win thrust them into both polls, and after winning two more games last week, the Ponies are up to number 17 in the AP and 22 in the USA Today Coaches’ poll this week. Cincinnati has dropped to 15th and 16th in the AP and USA Today polls respectively.
Head Coach Tim Jankovich has been non chalant about getting ranked in recent weeks. He essentially said that he just worried about winning the next game, and that winning games would ultimately take care of getting into the polls. Now that his team is ranked in both polls, he has admitted that he wanted it to happen as a reward to his players that have worked so hard to make this a successful season.
A let down for the Tulane game that followed last Wednesday was inevitable. The win over Cincinnati was so emotional. Tulane arrived fighting South Florida to stay out of last place. It was easy to see where players and fans alike would take the Green Wave for granted.
However, it was far worse than even the most pessimistic SMU fan could have imagined. Tulane played great. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they arrived with just one conference win. They have an outside shooter – Cameron Williams – that can hit the three, and he did. He scored 23 points to lead all scorers in the game. They have Ryan Smith inside at the five. He’s listed at 6′-10″, 250 and he gave SMU fits on both sides of the ball. They have Mike Dunleavy as the new head coach, the same Mike Dunleavy that has coached more than 2,000 NBA games.
Despite the shoddy record of 4-20 coming into the game, this Tulane team has not thrown in the towel on the season. They played hard! They hit shots early. Dunleavy had a good game plan. The bottom line is that amazingly, Tulane took a 15 point lead to the halftime dressing room!
The Mustangs did come back to win it, but it wasn’t easy. More than five minutes of the second half were played before SMU got the lead into single digits. More than 10 minutes of the second half had been played before SMU took their first lead of the game. Once the Mustangs got the lead though, they never gave it up.
80-75 was the final score. The 75 points Tulane scored are the most any team has scored on the Mustangs since November.
Semi Ojeleye had a big week last week with 18 points against Tulane and 18 more Saturday to lead the Mustangs in scoring against Houston. Surprisingly, that was NOT good enough to earn Ojeleye the AAC “Player of the Week” award or even mention on the AAC Weekly Honor Roll.
After the Tulane game, Coach Dunleavy told the media how difficult Ben Moore is to deal with. He has the length to deal with opponents’ big players defensively despite being only 6′-8″, while at the same time has the quickness and agility of a guard to give those big men fits trying to defend him. He was named to the AAC Weekly Honor Roll after notching double-doubles in rebounds and points in both the Tulane and Houston games.
The Mustangs have three regular season games left. Team Rankings, a mathematically oriented site, gives the Mustangs a 56% chance to win all three games. That’s comprised of a 65.5% chance to beat Connecticut this Saturday, a 95.4% chance of beating Tulsa at home next week on Thursday (March 2), and a 90.3% chance of beating Memphis at home in the regular season finale on March 4.
The regular season championship is at stake. No team in the conference has beaten Cincinnati or SMU besides Cincinnati and SMU. The Mustangs may well need to win all three games to be co-champions of the regular season.
SMU is one win away from 25 for the year. They’ll surely win another game, probably this Saturday, and when they do, it will mark the fourth consecutive season in which the Mustangs have reached the 25 win plateau. In the previous history of SMU basketball, the Ponies have never won 20 games in a season more than twice in a row. 25 or more over each of four consecutive years is a milestone!
The Mustangs are a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Even Coach Jankovich has departed from the typical coach speak (We’re just focused on the next game.) to say that the team is playing for a better NCAA Tournament seed in these final regular season games.
The seven days that ended last Saturday though have definitely brought national prominence to the SMU basketball program. Saturday’s win over Houston mathematically eliminated all teams in the AAC not named Cincinnati or SMU from the conference championsip. This Saturday’s game against Connecticut will be televised by CBS. Game time is noon Eastern (11:00 AM Central). It’s another great opportunity to show the nation that SMU is a top program in college basketball.