BY: Richard W. Humphrey
SMU easily won a pair of games last week, beating Tulane in New Orleans comfortably and blowing out Houston at home. The streaks are now six wins in a row for the first time since the 1992-93 season, and 14 wins in the last 15 games. The voters in the polls are taking notice. SMU received votes in both polls for the third straight week. Essentially, the Mustangs are tied with Ohio State for 28th in the AP and are 30th in the Coach’s poll.
Nic Moore had spectacular games, leading the Mustangs in scoring in both wins. In Saturday’s game, he tied his career high with 28 points as he hit eight three point shots and four free throws. The eight threes tied the SMU record and set an American Athletic Conference record. Moore was named AAC Player of the Week for in the first time in his career, after previously being named to the weekly honor roll 12 times including four this season.
Last week’s games were the second and third the Mustangs have played without sophomore Keith Frazier, whose final appeal to overturn his academic ineligibility was denied. With Justin Martin leaving the team a week earlier, the Mustangs playing rotation is down to eight players.
SMU has won the last three easily after playing strong second halves. The team looks to be coming together, and a team personality is emerging. The big men underneath are dominant. The team routinely out rebounds and out scores opponents in the paint. The ball movement on offense continues to improve leading to a large percentage of assists on made baskets. The team plays strong defense. It’s relentless and it wears opponents down. That’s the big reason for the strong second halves.
With the success on the court and the feeling that the team has fallen into place, it raises the question: “Is this team better without Frazier?”
The answer is probably both yes and no. Frazier has become an outstanding player. He’s the best pure shooter on the team, and he’s developed defensively, on the boards and his ball handling skills. He’s good enough to start on any team in this conference, and he’s just a touch of consistency away from being considered for All-Conference honors. There is no question that his loss puts a hole in the program.
On the other hand, the team has developed more consistency with the playing rotation shortened to eight players. Sterling Brown is the biggest beneficiary minutes-wise. He was averaging 15 minutes per game until Frazier’s departure, and has played 33 minutes on average in the last three games. Brown started 26 of 37 games last season as a freshman, and despite losing three starters – two seniors and Kennedy to academics last fall - he lost his starting job this year. No complaints out of Brown. He just kept practicing and playing hard.
Now that opportunity has knocked on his door, he’s taking full advantage. He’s scored 27 points in the three games, as he reached double digits twice. He’s also been a strong rebounder averaging more than seven per game since becoming a starter again. Brown is a superior defensive player, so the team defense is strengthened.
Cannen Cunningham is another player that is getting more minutes and responding positively. The 6′-10″ senior would start on most teams in this conference, but comes off the bench with Yanick Moreira and Ben Moore starting, and with Markus Kennedy eligible again. That foursome is awesome under the basket. Teams have to game plan around the Mustangs’ inside game, and with four top players for two positions, foul trouble is rarely a problem.
In fact, Ben Moore has fouled out of a game twice this year (Gonzaga and Arkansas). That’s the only two foul outs on the team this season.
Ben Emelogu is the other player that has gotten more minutes. He’s been an enigma. Head coach Larry Brown says he sees a lot in practice from Emelogu. He’s got the physical tools to be really good. He’s listed at 6′-6″, 205. The Grand Prairie native was elected a captain at Virginia Tech last year and averaged 10.5 points per game in the ACC.
For whatever reason, it’s not translating into solid play here. He’s shooting just 24% on the season. After 20 games, you have to wonder if it’s going to get better. The problem is mental. Larry Brown says he needs to get Emelogu playing with more confidence.
As long as the Mustangs don’t sustain a significant injury among the eight man rotation, this team will be fine. If they lose any of those players though, Keith Frazier’s absence will be noticed by everybody.
The conference schedule reaches the halfway point this week, and the race to win the conference has boiled down to four teams. Tulsa is undefeated in conference play at 7-0, followed closely by SMU at 7-1. Cincinnati at 5-2 and Connecticut at 4-2 are the third and fourth place teams.
This week, the Mustangs should have little difficulty extending their winning streak to eight games. They play both Florida teams – South in Tampa on Wednesday and Central at home on Saturday. Those two teams have collectively won three conference games so far, and SMU will be favored on the betting line by double digits in both contests.
However, the second half schedule is more challenging. The Ponies face the other three contenders twice each in conference play, and so far have played just one of those six games. That leaves five games with contenders along with a contest with Memphis in Memphis that won’t be a day at the beach. The bottom line is that six of the final eight games will be difficult.
The schedule turns tough next week, as the Mustangs host Cincinnati on Thursday and travel to Tulsa on Saturday, the 5th and 7th of February. If the Mustangs can win those two to run the winning streak to 10, they almost surely will be ranked in the Top 25 again.