BY: Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The SMU Men’s basketball team opened conference play last week with two solid road wins. They finished the month of December undefeated on an eight game winning streak that brought their overall record to 12-3. They are giving signs of being solidly in the race for the American Athletic Conference championship.
There are seven players on the roster that were in the program last year, so it’s easy to assume that this team is similar to the teams that won at least 25 games and finished in the AP Top 25 in each of the last three years. Surprisingly, that’s far from the truth. The last three years have had a classic roster with a solid floor general at point guard, inside players with size and depth, and quality athletes in between on the wings.
This year’s team however doesn’t have a point guard like Nic Moore nor does it have big bodies in the paint. Coach Jankovich has looked at Shake Milton as the point guard, but in actuality, it’s been point guard by committee. In the middle, Ben Moore at 6′-8″ is the tallest Mustang, and his slender body is not built to bang with the real big centers in the conference. This team is basically five athletic wing players.
Amazingly despite the size differential, this is a GREAT rebounding team. They have been out-rebounded just once in 15 games. They have a rebound differential of plus 12.7 per game, which ranks fifth in the country.
“I’ve never seen rebounding numbers like these guys at pounding the glass,” Head Coach Tim Jankovich said during his post-game radio interview after the Mustangs beat East Carolina last Saturday.
Moore leads the team at 7.9 rebounds per game, but Semi Ojeleye is close behind at 7.6, and Sterling Brown is third at 6.9.
Scoring is balanced. All five starters scored in double digits this week in a surprisingly easy 75-44 win over East Carolina. It was the third time this year that five players have scored in double digits, and at least four players have scored in double digits in 11 games. Four players led by Semi Ojeleye, the transfer from Duke University, are averaging in double digits. He’s averaging 17.6 points per game. The other three are Milton at 11.9, Moore at 11.5 and Brown at 11.1 points. The Mustangs are averaging 72 points per game.
Jankovich usually runs a man-to-man defense, though he has utilized zones more often recently in an attempt to deal with foul trouble. The Mustangs’ defense has yielded 58.3 points per game over the first 15 games, which ranks sixth in the nation. The point differential is 14 points per game. During the current eight game winning streak, Delaware State scored exactly 60 points, while the other seven teams scored fewer.
The roster though is painfully short of depth. Right now, Jankovich is utilizing a seven player rotation. The normal starting lineup is Ojeleye, Moore, Brown, Milton and Jarrey Foster. Junior Ben Emelogu and freshman Dashawn McDaniel are the two bench players. Those are all the scholarship players eligible to play this year. The two freshmen recruits from Australia – Harry Froling and Tom Wilson – have opted to transfer. Neither showed much in the non-conference games in which they participated, but Froling at least had the size to offset the bigger centers in the league.
Jankovich could be expanding the rotation to eight. Walk-on senior Jonathan Wilfong is playing more since Wilson left the team. He’s a smart player that won’t hurt the team on the court. Courtland Sutton is a talented wide receiver on the football team. He joined the basketball team last season for the spring semester. He is still listed on the roster, though there has been no definitive decision as to whether he will actually join the team again this year. For sure, there is a fear that he could sustain an injury on the basketball court that would curtail a promising NFL career. He is “only” 6′-4″, but by virtue of last year’s practice he could possibly be an asset.
At the conference media day, the picks to win were Cincinnati, Connecticut and SMU in that order. Cincinnati has lived up to the billing. They are currently ranked 22 in both of the major polls this week. The Sagarin ratings rank every division I team. There are six from the AAC in the top 100. There are two surprises. UCONN is not one of the six, while Central Florida is. The top AAC rankings are Cincinnati (15), SMU (31), Houston (36), Central Florida (66), Memphis (74) and Temple (84). Connecticut has fallen to 109 after being ranked in the Top 25 earlier in the season. This promises to be a delightful race for the regular season championship, which could go down to the last day as it did last year.
The Mustangs’ 30th ranking in Sagarin’s latest rating should comfortably get them into the NCAA Tournament if they maintain that level. Betting lines on the current Sagarin ratings have the Mustangs favored to win 13 of the remaining conference games, while being the underdog in two. The Cincinnati game in Dallas would be a pick.
SMU finished non-conference play at 10-3. The best wins were over Pittsburgh at neutral site Madison Square Garden in the 2K Classic semifinals, and at home over TCU and Stanford. All three were solid wins with Jankovich clearing the bench in the final minutes.
There are no bad losses. The three came at the hands of Southern Cal, which is ranked 25th in this week’s AP Poll with a 14-1 record. That game was played in Los Angeles. Michigan in the finals of the 2K Classic also in Madison Square Garden and Boise State on the road are the other two losses. Boise State may not have a great record, but they rarely lose at home with an altitude of more than 7,000 feet above sea level.
To sum up the results so far, the Mustangs are undefeated in nine games at home, 2-2 in true road games, and 1-1 in neutral site games.
In short, if the Mustangs take care of business in conference play, they should have no problem earning an NCAA Tournament bid no matter what happens in the conference post-season tournament. Depth remains the problem. A significant injury could derail the train, but if they stay healthy, this team will have a good chance of hitting the 25 win plateau for the fourth straight year.
* On the football front, quarterback Ben Hicks and wide receiver James Proche received Honorable Mention to the Freshman All-American team by Campus Insiders. Hicks threw for 2,930 passing yards after taking over for starting quarterback Matt Davis, who was injured in the first game. Hicks threw for 19 touchdowns and ran for two more. Proche caught 57 passes for 709 yards and six touchdowns.