By Richard W. Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – It was a sad day for Mustang fans at Moody Coliseum Sunday afternoon. The doors opened at 4:00 PM for an NCAA Selection Show Watch Party. Two hours later, SMU fans left disappointed, as the Mustangs were not picked. Just a day earlier, ESPN’s expert “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi listed SMU as one of five “locks” for the Tournament from the American Athletic Conference. Obviously, Lunardi missed this one.
The first clue came when Louisville was announced as the number four seed in the Midwest Region. Louisville was the first team from the American Athletic Conference to be named, and the Midwest was the third region to be identified. It didn’t seem logical that five teams from the conference would get jammed into two regions. Plus, Louisville surprisingly received a four seed. They have won 12 of their last 13 games including the conference tournament to claim the automatic bid. They are the defending national champions, and many experts thought they deserved consideration as a one seed. They are clearly one of the top dozen teams in the country and should have been seeded no worse than a three.
“When I saw Louisville was selected as the four seed, I figured that they (the selection committee) didn’t have a lot of respect for our conference,” head coach Larry Brown said afterward. Realistically, he noted, “…when we didn’t beat Houston (in the conference tournament), I kind of thought this could possibly happen.”
That’s how it wound up. In the East Region, Cincinnati received the fifth seed, Connecticut was selected as the seventh seed, Memphis was the eighth seed and SMU got left out.
Clearly the opportunities were there for the Mustangs. They lost their final three games. Winning one of those games probably was enough to take the bid. Two of the three losses were against ranked opponents, and only one was played at home; but the bottom line is the Mustangs didn’t play very well in those three games. Shot selection wasn’t as good, the opponents’ shooting percentage was better, and the Mustangs missed too many free throws. Most of all, the team did not react well to adversity on the court. All three of the games were winnable, and losing to Houston in the tournament was the death knell. Houston’s RPI was more than 150.
Later in the evening, SMU announced they had accepted an invitation to the NIT Tournament. The field of 32 has four regions, and the Mustangs are a number one seed, obviously indicating they are one of the four best teams that did not get selected for the Big Dance. They will host UC-Irvine Wednesday night at 8:00 PM (Central); and should they win, they’ll face the winner of LSU-San Francisco in the second round. Arkansas is the three seed in the region and California is the two. One of those two teams could be the third round opponent if SMU wins the first two games.
The other three number one seeds in the NIT are Minnesota, St. John’s and Florida State.
Candidly, the NIT may be a better situation for SMU. They may end up hosting as many as three more games for their fans in Dallas. If they win three games, the semi-finals and finals are played in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Garden is the Mecca of basketball, literally analogous to Yankee Stadium in baseball. While not making the NCAA Tournament is a disappointment, there is still a marvelous opportunity for the Mustangs to finish this season on a high note.
The Ponies have a very good nucleus returning and will likely be ranked next year from the start of the season. All of the returning players are likely to play in the NCAA Tournament before they graduate. It is regretful that this year’s seniors Shawn Williams and Nick Russell will not have the honor of appearing in an NCAA Tournament, but if the Mustangs can return to the level of play they achieved just two or three weeks ago, they can win the NIT. That’s no small consolation prize for the disappointment of the NCAA snub.