SMU Men closing in on NCAA bid

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, February 25th, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The SMU men’s basketball team is
closing in on a 25 win season and a likely bid to the NCAA basketball
tournament. They play Connecticut this weekend in a game that will be
nationally televised on CBS. The Mustangs are 24-4 for the season and
14-1 in America Athletic Conference play. They are tied for first
place with Cincinnati in the race for the regular season conference
championship after the Bearcats beat Memphis Thursday night, 87-74.
All the other teams in the AAC have been eliminated from winning the
The Mustangs go into the weekend with three games remaining in
the regular season. They may need to win all three just to keep pace
with Cincinnati for the championship. Over a period of seven days
starting February 12 and ending last Saturday, February 18, the
Mustangs won three games to thrust themselves into the national
spotlight. They are ranked this week: 17th in the AP poll and 21st
in the USA Today Coaches’ poll, indicative of a five or six seed in
the NCAA Tournament.
With three regular season games remaining, and very possibly
three more post-season games in the conference tournament, that rank
in the polls and the seeding in the tournament could well improve.
The Mustangs have won 10 games in a row, their second 10-game winning
streak this season. They have won 20 of their last 21 games. The one
game they lost between the two double digit win streaks was by two
points to Cincinnati.
It is definitely an outstanding coaching job by new Head Coach
Tim Jankovich. From last year’s team, the Mustangs lost an
All-American point guard – Nic Moore – and two big men inside – Markus
Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert – both of whom continue to play basketball
professionally. They also lost Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.
Despite the losses, the team is on the cusp of a 25 win season for the
fourth year in a row.
Coach Jankovich started the season with questions at the point
and little height inside. The one traditional big man on the roster –
freshman Harry Froling – never got in shape, never showed much on the
court and transferred after the fall semester.
They started the year with 10 scholarship players, but that
included Jimmy Whitt, a transfer from Arkansas who has to sit out the
year per the transfer rules. One of the other freshmen, Tom Wilson,
also transferred at the semester, such that the Mustangs have been
playing their conference schedule with just seven scholarship players.
Concussion injuries have limited the team to six scholarship players
in four games.
Despite the short bench, the Mustangs have avoided serious foul
trouble and season ending type injuries to hang together for the
outstanding record.
The Mustangs face Connecticut in Hartford this Saturday. SMU
beat the Huskies in the first meeting between the two in Moody
Coliseum on January 19,
69-49. Game time is Noon Eastern/11:00 AM Central, and it will be
televised on CBS (Channel 11 in Dallas).
The Ponies are allowing 58.9 points per game to lead the
conference and rank third in the nation in scoring defense.
Amazingly, the Mustangs have a plus 10.9 rebound margin per game,
despite having no true center and no player taller than 6′-8”. The
rebound margin is first in the AAC and second in the country. They
also rank ninth in the nation in field goal defense at .387. This team
can play defense and get stops! That leads to scoring runs that have
made the difference in the more contested games.
Offensively, the Mustangs have the weapons. Four of the five
starters average in double digits led by Semi Ojeleye at 18.3 points
per game. That’s third best in the conference. Ojeleye is a slam
dunk for All-Conference recognition and a strong contender for Player
of the Year. Shake Milton (13.1), Sterling Brown (12.2) and Ben Moore
(11.6) are the other three starters scoring at least 10 points per
game. Jarrey Foster is close at 9.6 points per game. At least four
players have scored in double digits in 20 of the 28 games.
It’s a balanced attack that is problematic for opponents to stop.
The Ponies are shooting 46.1% from the field including 39.1% from
beyond the three point line. It’s an offense that averages 73.1
points per game for a scoring margin of plus 14.2 points per game.
In recent weeks, Jankovich has been outspoken about the
importance of winning the conference regular season. It is clearly a
more difficult task to accomplish than winning a post season
tournament. The regular season lasts 10 weeks. Teams have to deal
with travel, sometimes in difficult weather conditions, as well as
injuries. Over the course of eighteen games, there are off
shooting nights, and occasionally unexpectedly good performances by
It takes just three or four wins to win a conference tournament.
A hot team at the right time can overcome a host of regular season
woes with a couple of breaks. Jankovich says he prefers the
conference automatic bid go to the regular season champion. That is a
worthy thought, but not practical. Post-season tournaments make money
and create interest. They need the automatic conference bid being on
the line to make the tournament viable. It’s essentially not a
problem for the nine or 10 conferences that get multiple tournament
SMU is already dealing with ticket priorities for the NCAA
Tournament. They have contacted season ticket holders to explain how
the process of distributing whatever tickets they are allocated.
The regular season is drawing to a close. There are just two more
home games next week. Fans will undoubtedly miss the excitement of
the games at Moody and the thrill of watching what amounts to a
well-oiled machine do what it does so well – execute good basketball
and play to win.
Certainly this has been a very satisfying season for the SMU
fans. Backing a winner is always fun! What has set this team apart?
The most obvious is the athletic talents of the players, who have
honed their skills to become very versatile and proficient at their
game. Perhaps even more important though is their mental toughness.
They stay focused. They don’t panic when games don’t go well. “They
have the hearts of lions,” Jankovich says.
Another key factor is Jankovich’s coaching style. Intellectual
and calm. He motivates his players by encouragement and temperate
instruction, rather than by anger or disparagement. Jankovich is a
good role model for these young men. This team has been trained
to keep looking ahead and not to cloud their minds over past mistakes.
That is a practical recipe for success on the basketball court and
for the rest of the players’ lives.
A factor regularly mentioned by the SMU players in post-game
press conferences is what a positive impact the home crowd enthusiasm
does to energize them.
Home attendance has once again exceeded 100,000 for the season
with two home games still to play. Even for nearby away games, such
as Tulsa and Houston, fans traveled to cheer for the Mustangs and the
players remarked that those voices in the stands encouraged them.
Another very positive aspect of this team, that might not be
apparent to most fans, is the bond of brotherhood among the players
mentioned repeatedly in team interviews off the court. They have each
other’s back and play for the team win – not for personal glory.
Whatever the outcome of the remaining games, it has been a
thrill to watch. Beyond that, it is satisfying to see a group of
young men work together and grow in so many positive ways and, as a
fan, to feel like a participant in a group effort. Thank you for a
job well done.


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