The SMU Men’s Basketball team has risen beyond most expectations, but not their own, as they set sight on a National Title
By Richard Humphrey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas – The AP Top 25 for this week was announced mid-day, and for the first time in 29 years, it included SMU. The Mustangs are ranked 23rd this week after Saturday’s impressive win over number seven Cincinnati, which dropped to 10th (11th in the USA Today coaches poll). SMU received 37 votes in the USA Today poll, leaving them only three spots away from cracking their Top 25.
After Saturday night’s overwhelming win over Cincinnati, Cannen Cunningham told the media, “Our goal is to win the National Championship this year, which might have sounded crazy a couple of months ago, but I think people are really starting to believe in it.”
Head Coach Larry Brown has echoed those thoughts.
The Mustangs are making the college basketball world realize that SMU is the real deal. Saturday’s win was the third over a ranked opponent this year. The first over Connecticut in the opening game at the newly renovated Moody Coliseum, was won by a nine-point margin. The second win came against Memphis by 13, and Saturday’s win over Cincinnati was by 21.There has been no doubt at the end of those games as to the outcome. .
What has become evident is that this Mustang team is as physically talented as any team in the nation. That includes Syracuse. They beat Cincinnati, owners of a 15 game winning streak coming into the game, on a night when SMU’s leading rebounder and one of their top two players – Markus Kennedy - scored four points and brought down just three rebounds.
Cincinnati lost the game largely because one of their top two players – Justin Jackson – was basically neutralized by SMU’s stifling defense. SMU has the depth and a variety of offensive weapons to win when one of their top two players has a sub-par night. Cincinnati did not. With Kennedy limited to six minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, Cunningham came off the bench to score 11 points and hold Jackson to five.
With the return of Mustang center Yanick Moreira, who started the first 14 games before getting shelved with a knee injury, the Mustangs have 11 quality players that can contribute. This depth makes the team almost immune to foul trouble and off nights. When one player has an off night or is out, there’s another in waiting to play quality minutes.
This team has also proven to be a defensive juggernaut. SMU leads the conference and is second best in the nation in opponent’s shooting percentage at 33.9% after Saturday’s win. One thing about the defense is that it shows up virtually every night. The Offense may have a bad night, but the defense is usually good every game.
Brown was asked recently if he still considered his three freshmen as “freshmen” (experience-wise) with about two-thirds of the season under their belts. He surprisingly replied that he never considered them as freshmen, meaning players that were mistake prone because of their newness to the college game.
“None of these kids really are freshmen when you consider AAU games and all their exposure.” Essentially what Brown is saying is that if they’re on the court, they’re expected to contribute irrespective of their class.
The corollary is true too. If they make mistakes, they won’t be on the court.
Keith Frazier was the most highly touted of the three freshmen on SMU’s roster. He was the first McDonald’s High School All American ever to commit to SMU. He’s been good. He’s a very good outside shooter, and he excels at passing the ball. Surprisingly, he is the third best freshman on the team.
One of the other freshmen, Sterling Brown, has claimed a spot in the starting lineup. The 6′ – 6″ forward is a superior defender, and his offense is coming along. Ben Moore, a 6′ – 8″ forward, is a force off the bench. Saturday, he scored 15 against Cincinnati to lead the Mustangs in scoring. He grabbed five rebounds, blocked two shots, had two assists and one steal. Today he was named the American Athletic Conference’s “Rookie of the Week” for the third time this year.
Ryan Phillips is a great Mustang fan. After Saturday’s game, he texted “We beat number 7 by 21 … and there is no way that was our best game.” He’s right! The Mustangs turned the ball over 16 times, and were out-rebounded for just the fourth time this season. Add to that a few ill-advised fouls and some poor shooting on the part of a couple of Ponies, and it’s easy to see how this team can play a much better game. Despite not playing their best, SMU still beat the number seven team in the land by 21 points.
This edition of the Mustangs is a very good team that is getting better every game.
As for the regular season conference championship, Cincinnati has the inside track. They are 11-1, two games ahead of Louisville (one in the loss column), 2.5 ahead of SMU (two in the loss column) and three ahead of Memphis. The top five teams in the standings are all ranked this week in the AP poll. Cincinnati is 10th, Louisville 13th, Memphis 20, SMU 23 and Connecticut 24. All five should make the NCAA Tournament.
As far as the National Championship, there is a lot of basketball to be played. Physically this team has the talent to do it. Their success will hinge on their hearts and minds, and little luck wouldn’t hurt either.