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SMU forward Markus Kennedy is one of three transfers that have led to the Mustangs turnaround this season
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Jennifer Thorsen Photography for Rattle and Hum Sports

SMU Basketball begins stretch run with showdown against Louisville

BY:  Richard W. Humphrey

PonyRap.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas - The major polls for week 18 of the basketball season were published this afternoon, and SMU moved up to 18th in both.  Rising five places in the AP and six in the Coaches’ Poll was not a surprise as 11 ranked teams lost this past weekend, nine of which were to unranked teams.  Meanwhile, the Mustangs took care of business in their lone game of the week, besting a scrappy Central Florida team 70-55.

The win ran the Mustangs’ record to 23-6 overall and 12-4 in the American Athletic Conference.  It has become apparent that this edition of Mustang basketball will be invited to the NCAA Tournament, but Saturday’s win against a lesser opponent was a must for seeding purposes.

Last Saturday, the Ponies came out smoking, as they raced out to a 14 point lead with an 18-4 run over the first 8.5 minutes of the game.  Central Florida coach Donnie Jones essentially scrapped his offensive game plan of pick and rolls, went small with his lineup, and got his team back into the game.  The Knights put together a 17-7 run of their own to climb within four points of the Mustangs at 25-21 with just over four minutes until halftime.  That was as close as they would get, though.  The Mustangs stretched the lead back to 11 points by intermission, and pushed the lead to as many as 18 in the second stanza.  The Knights were able to cut the lead into single digit territory just twice.

After the game, head coach Larry Brown told the media, “I didn’t like the way we played.  We didn’t play like a ranked team.”  He particularly noted an inconsistent defensive effort and poor shot selection at the offensive end.

On the surface, this may sound like coach speak, but this team has evolved into a team that even Brown probably did not foresee.  Certainly, there was tremendous optimism when the season began.  The addition of three transfers and four talented recruits added to the returning starting five from last year promised a much better year than in the past.  Indeed there was a strong hope that this bunch could garner an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

Now it’s March.  The team has just gotten better and better, almost on a per game basis.  The loss of last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, Jalen Jones, who decided to transfer to Texas A & M, hardly caused a blip on the radar screen.  This team has 11 scholarship players that can contribute night in and night out.

Brown gave a small insight Saturday, when he said, “The ranking doesn’t mean anything to me right now.  We have a lot of things ahead of us, a lot of opportunities.  We have to do better than we did today.”

He made the point that American Athletic Conference this year is a far superior basketball conference than Conference-USA was last year.  Five of the 10 member schools are ranked in the Top 25 this week, and all five are generally considered to be locks for a bid to this year’s NCAA Tournament.  Despite the upgrade in quality, this year’s Mustang team has won eight more games than last year’s with the season still in progress.

Last week in the piece that aired on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”, Brown didn’t back away from the idea that this team could win the national championship.  He believes the team will win a national championship in his tenure.  He thought that was a year or two away when the season began, and it may still be.  But with the tremendous depth that Brown has developed, he sees the possibility of doing serious damage in the NCAA Tournament this year.  Winning the whole thing isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  He’s trying to get better play out of his players to accomplish what they are capable of doing.

As for the opportunities Brown mentions, fans need to look no farther than this week’s schedule, as the Mustangs host number 11 (AP) and nine (Coaches’) Louisville Wednesday in the home finale at Moody Coliseum.  Louisville was one of the ranked teams that lost over the weekend, as did Cincinnati.  The bottom line is that the Ponies are back in the regular season championship picture as they are in third place alone, trailing the Cardinals and Bearcats by one game with two to play.  A win over Louisville Wednesday will give the Mustangs a share of second place.  (Cincinnati plays at Memphis Thursday.)

The regular season ends this Saturday with a trip to Memphis.  The Tigers are ranked 20th in both polls.  The Ponies have already beaten four ranked teams this year, but this week provides the opportunity for two more.

After Saturday’s game, the Mustangs stay in Memphis for next week’s conference tournament, which should provide at least one more opportunity to beat a ranked team.  Winning this year’s national championship is for sure a long shot, but if the Mustangs play to their capabilities over the next two weeks, Mustang fans and college basketball fans will recognize that this is a team that should at least go to the “Sweet 16″.

 TIDBITS

*     The Mustangs rank 41 in RPI this week.

*     The Mustangs rank 1st in the conference and 2nd in the nation in opponents field goal percentage.

*     SMU leads the conference and is 9th in the nation in offensive shooting percentage.

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