BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The Final Four will be played in Phoenix this weekend, and for the 62nd consecutive season, SMU will not be a participant. This year’s team was the sexy darkhorse pick to win the four games needed to get to Phoenix. Instead, they failed to win even one game as they dropped a heartbreaker to Southern Cal by one point in their tournament opening game in Tulsa.
It was clearly a very winnable game for the Mustangs. Both teams came out shooting with a hot hand, but the Mustangs were just a bit hotter. SMU led by as many as 10 points in the first half and took an eight point lead to the halftime locker room at 38-30.
SC came out smoking to start the second half, hitting the first two baskets, both threes, to pull within two points. SMU didn’t surrender the lead at that point though. They built it back to 10 points at 53-43 with 11:32 remaining in the game. Unfortunately, the Mustangs finished the game by playing 11 plus minutes of forgettable basketball.
Southern Cal closed the gap playing a two-three zone that confused the Ponies. The men of Troy shot well too – 58% in the second half, while holding SMU to 38.5% from the floor. The Mustangs simply could not get the ball inside against the zone, and often settled for hurried shots late in the shot clock.
The Trojans took their first lead of the game with 2:09 remaining on the clock at 63-62. Shake Milton answered with a three pointer to put the Mustangs back in front at 65-63 with 1:30 remaining. The win looked almost in hand when SC followed with a turnover at the one minute mark, giving the ball to SMU with the lead.
It wasn’t to be. Sterling Brown stepped out of bounds on the sideline to give the ball back to the Trojans, and they claimed their second lead of the game with a three pointer with 37 seconds left.
Sterling Brown missed a shot for SMU, but Ben Moore got the rebound and was fouled. He missed the front end of the one-and-one. The Trojans got the rebound, and SMU quickly fouled. USC opened the door for an SMU win by missing their free throw shot.
SMU had one last possession trailing by a point with 11 seconds left. SMU Head Coach Tim Jankovich chose to let the half play out. He explained after the game, that he knew what the SC defense was and he could call a play from the sideline. He had control over both sides of the equation. Had he called time out, he feared SC may well have thrown a defensive wrinkle that would have foiled whatever play he called in the huddle.
The Mustangs did not execute well though. They looked unsure of what they were trying to do, and in the end, Milton put up a hurried shot from around the foul line that clanked off the front of the basket. It was taken so late in the clock that there was no time left for a put back on the rebound.
The bottom line on this season is very simple. The Mustangs lost from last year’s 25-5 team, an All-American point guard, two All-Conference quality post players, and a Hall of Fame Head Coach. And the result this year was a team that set a new school record for wins in a season. While the first round loss in the NCAA Tournent is extremely disappointing, it was a fantastic season.
This week, more accolades came in. Semi Ojeleye, who had already been named the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, was named an Honorable Mention All-American by the Associated Press. It marks the third straight year that a Mustang player has received this honor as Nic Moore was Honorable Mention All-American in each of the last two seasons. Ojeleye averaged 19 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He is the ninth All-American at SMU.
Also, seniors Ben Moore and Sterling Brown were selected for the West team in this weekend’s Reese’s Division I College All-Star game. The game will be played this Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix as part of the Final Four activities. Game time is 5:35 PM Central time, and the game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.
As for next year, the Mustangs have six of the eight scholarship players eligible to return. Semi Ojeleye may or may not come back. He has declared for the NBA draft, but is not engaging an agent such that he has the option to return. Decision day is May 24.
The returning players include Jimmy Whitt, a transfer from Arkansas who sat out this season per the transfer rules. Whitt (6′-2″) is a combo guard that was considered a four-star prospect coming out of high school. He averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds per game in 32 games as a freshman at Arkansas. He will have three years of eligibility remaining.
SMU has announced one more transfer – Jahmal McMurray. As a freshman in South Florida, McMurray played in all 33 games, starting 26 and averaged 15.2 points per game. He is a deadly three point shooter making 73 that season. He played at a junior college this season and will be eligible after the fall semester.
The Ponies have signed four freshmen. That brings the scholarship total to 11 if all of the scholarship players eligible to return do come back next year. The progran still has to forfeit four scholarships over the next two seasons pusuant to the NCAA penalties assessed prior to the 2015-16 season. It is assumed two will be forfeited this season and two more next to complete the penalty.
The sum total of all this is that if Ojeleye returns, the Mustangs will be a very good basketball team. They likely will be the favorite to win the conference again. Even if Ojeleye leaves, they will be expected to compete for the conference title and an NCAA Tournament bid. Four straight years of winning at least 25 games and finishing in the AP Top 25 has put the Mustangs on the NCAA Division I basketball map.