Mus­tangs could be dark horse in NCAAs

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASH­IN­TON­POST.COM/SPORTS - BY MATTHEW GILES sports@wash­post.com

The SMU men’s bas­ket­ball team en­tered the week­end hav­ing last lost on Jan. 12, rid­ing a 14game win­ning streak that in­cluded Fri­day’s tougher-than-ex­pected win over East Carolina in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence quar­ter­fi­nals in Hart­ford, Conn.

(The win streak in­creased to 15 with Satur­day’s vic­tory over UCF).

Dur­ing that time, the Mus­tangs posted one of the high­est con­fer­ence ef­fi­ciency mar­gins in the na­tion, plus-0.29 points per pos­ses­sion. The cap­per was their 103-62 vic­tory over Mem­phis in the reg­u­lar sea­son fi­nale; the Mus­tangs con­nected on 71 per­cent of their two-point­ers and scored 1.45 points per pos­ses­sion.

But SMU (27-4) is be­ing fore­cast as hav­ing a fairly mid­dling seed in the NCAA tour­na­ment.

It calls for a reeval­u­a­tion: Is SMU un­der­val­ued? If so, here are the fac­tors that have led to the trans­for­ma­tion of Coach Tim Jankovich’s squad:

The re­vival of Semi Ojel­eye Af­ter leav­ing Duke, the on­ce­heralded re­cruit didn’t play for nearly two years. This sea­son, the ju­nior has been the Mus­tangs’ of­fen­sive force. His rat­ing — 1.32 points per pos­ses­sion, ac­cord­ing to Col­lege Bas­ket­ball Ref­er­ence — leads the AAC by a wide mar­gin.

Ros­ter com­po­si­tion SMU is a uni­corn in Di­vi­sion I. The Mus­tangs rarely use their back­ups; only Ne­vada and Ari­zona State use a lower per­cent­age of bench min­utes. Yet SMU re­lies on an ag­gres­sive, trap­ping manto-man de­fense in the half court. It works be­cause the squad is full of play­ers with­out set po­si­tions.

Those play­ers are adept at de­fend­ing guards along the perime­ter while us­ing their length to dis­rupt an op­po­nent’s of­fen­sive flow. To wit, Ben Eme­l­ogu is the only player shorter than 6 feet 6 who av­er­ages more than 20 min­utes.

The Mus­tangs also use a zone press de­fense to drain time each pos­ses­sion.

Shake Mil­ton’s evo­lu­tion The sopho­more guard had a pro­duc­tive first sea­son, but with­out a true point guard, Jankovich has had to rely on the 6-6 Mil­ton. So far, the tran­si­tion has been seam­less: he is as­sist­ing on 24 per­cent of the team’s bas­kets. A par­tic­u­lar strength is the pickand-roll.

With es­sen­tially five main play­ers, SMU has ac­com­plished a rar­ity: It has blended an ag­gres­sive de­fense with an of­fense that has yet to be dis­rupted in con­fer­ence play. So it is strange that the Mus­tangs have been over­looked. This is a team built to ex­cel in one-and­done sce­nar­ios, and per­haps will earn some de­served na­tional at­ten­tion.

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