Mustangs could be dark horse in NCAAs
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.