By Dic Humphrey
Both the SMU men’s and women’s teams were one and done in the Conference-USA postseason basketball tournaments in Tulsa this week. The men’s team lost 53-52 to Alabama-Birmingham last Wednesday, while the women’s lost a day later 70-66 to Central Florida.
The men’s team finished the season with a 15-17 overall record. The record is somewhat disappointing, but there was no question that the team was in a transition year. A season ago, the men played primarily a slow-paced Princeton offense and a match-up zone under Matt Doherty. With Larry Brown at the helm this year, the team shifted to an up-tempo offense and primarily a man-for-man defense. The SMU players were largely recruited to play the former and suddenly had to adjust to new concepts on both sides of the ball.
This is a season that will be looked upon as one of what could have been. The 15 wins are not a shabby total, as they represent the second most wins for a first year coach at SMU ever. The team was 10-5 in non-conference games, the best non-conference record in six years. It was fitting that the team lost by one point in the final game of the season, as all season long, this team was so close, yet could not pull out the wins. Eight of 11 conference losses were by fewer than 10 points, with five of those being by five or fewer points. With some breaks this team could have easily won more than 20 games.
The starting five on this team was strong, but the main problem was depth. There simply wasn’t any. The starting five was the same for 31 of 32 games – Nick Russell and Ryan Manuel at the guards, Jalen Jones and Shawn Williams at the forwards, and Cannen Cunningham at the post. (London Giles, the only senior on the team, started on Senior Night.) There were just four scholarship players on the bench – three freshmen and Giles. Giles fought through a knee injury that limited his play all year, while none of the freshmen stepped up to make a meaningful contribution. The starters played record minutes, and at the end of games the Mustangs simply ran out of gas.
Next year should be different. To begin with, the starting five are back. The other four scholarship players that did not see action this year included three players that sat out the season as transfers, and a 7’-0” freshman who was redshirted because of shoulder surgery. Those four plus three highly regarded recruits will join this year’s starting five. Depth will not be a problem going forward. This is a team poised for a tremendous turnaround next season, even with an upgraded conference schedule as SMU moves into the Big East.
The women’s loss was less predictable and more disappointing. The Mustangs won the regular season championship with a 12-4 record, received a first round bye, and played a Central Florida squad that not only had played a game the day before, but came into the game with a losing record for both the season and conference play. In short, the Mustangs were expected to win and should have. They led by as many as 10 points in the first half, and still led by seven with 9:31 left in the game. UCF outscored the Ponies 25-14 from there to nab the win.
SMU dropped to 21-9 for the season. It’s a team limping to the finish line, as they have lost three of their last four games and five of their last eight games. Thursday’s loss cost the Mustangs the chance for an NCAA Tournament bid. By virtue of winning the regular season championship, SMU is assured a WNIT bid, the pairings for which will be announced Monday night. They will most assuredly be playing on the road. Moody Coliseum is no longer available, as the interior is under construction as part of a $47 million renovation that is expected to be completed for the start of conference play next season.