Being ineligible for post-season play and no longer undefeated, there were some here in the DFW Metroplex wondering if the SMU Mustangs had anything left to play for as the season comes to an end. The 69-60 victory over Gonzaga showed that the team does and its a thing called pride.
Effort is everything
As teams progress through the later parts of the season, you will see more players nicked up and just tired, but the good teams are able to push through the fatigue and do the small things that it takes to win games.
Against the Zags, SMU showed the grit of a championship-caliber team and their effort was rewarded in the victory.
Despite the height disadvantage, the Mustangs outrebounded Gonzaga 35-31, outscored them in the paint 34-22, and had a +2 advantage in 2nd-chance points. Those three categories alone helped determine the game, and it wasn’t because SMU was a more-talented team… they just wanted it more.
Maybe part of that wanting it more derived from not wanting to lose two consecutive home games or just wanting to prove to the nation that despite the recent struggles, that SMU still is one of the top teams in the nation… and it worked.
SMU learned to help one another on defense
The help defense against Tulsa was terrible — and that’s putting it nicely. Too often there were Golden Hurricane players that were wide open because SMU defenders did not want to leave their man to help. Going into the game against Gonzaga, we later found out that the coaches and the team came to the realization that in order to stop the twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, everyone would have to help.
And it worked.
Even though Sabonis finished the game with a team high 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting, he was constantly harassed by one or two defenders coming to help Markus Kennedy or Jordan Tolbert. The help defense was a lot more successful against Wiltjer who had his worst shooting night of the season, and maybe career, as he only made 2-of-17 shot attempts for four points — including a possession where he missed three consecutive open three-point attempts. Guard Kyle Drangins had open looks but wasn’t able to capitalize on the open looks as he missed eight shots in 11 attempts.
If Nic Moore was four inches taller, he would be a surefire lottery pick
Now this isn’t to say that he can’t have a productive NBA career at 5’9 — as we have seen the likes of Earl Boykins, Mugsy Bogues, and more recently all-star Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics have productive professional careers despite their height deficiency — but if Nic Moore had the NBA height to go along with his NBA-ready game, his draft stock would be through the roof. Against Gonzaga, Moore took advantage of the Bulldogs in a number of ways; he led the team in scoring with 25 points, set up his teammates nicely with 11 assists, and was also the team’s best defender as the Mustangs limited the Bulldogs to 37.7% shooting on the night.
If an NBA team is willing to take a chance on the senior, they will not be disappointed by the quality of player they get in Moore.
The Mustangs travel to Connecticut to face the UConn Huskies (18-7, 9-4) in the first match-up between AAC powerhouses. The Huskies are coming off a 75-73 victory over Tulsa and were led by senior guards Sterling Gibbs (14 points and five assists) and Omar Calhoun (14 points and three rebounds.)
The last time these two teams faced off was in the AAC Championship game — a 62-54 victory for the Mustangs. Markus Kennedy led the team with 15 points and six rebounds and the frontcourt will once again be the determining factor for who gets the victory on Thursday night. UConn big man Amida Brimah is still trying to work himself back into his old form after missing 11 games and is only averaging 3.8 ppg and 2.0 rpg while playing 15.2 minutes per game. If the duo of Tolbert and Kennedy can force the issue at both ends of the court, this should be a winnable game in a tough road environment.