SMU’s Road To The NCAA Tournament

Bryan Altman

In 2015, SMU finally emerged from the dark days of Mustang basketball, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993. Famed NBA and college basketball coach Larry Brown set the stage for SMU’s revival when he became the team’s head coach in 2012, but his abrupt resignation last July left many wondering once again about the Mustangs’ future.

This season, SMU and new head coach Tim Jankovich have proven that they plan to continue this new era of Mustang basketball. And their 30-4 overall record (17-1 in the American Athletic Conference) is definitely strong evidence.

You may know that they locked up a No. 6 seed in the East Region of this year’s NCAA Tournament, but you may not know how they got here.

Here’s a look back at SMU’s road to the NCAA Tournament.

>>MORE: NCAA Tournament Coverage

Preseason Expectation: 

Even with Brown’s departure, SMU was seen as an NCAA Tournament contender after returning three starters — Ben Moore, Shake Milton and Sterling Brown — from a 25-win season. In the preseason AAC media poll, SMU was voted to finish third in the conference behind Cincinnati and UConn.

Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye, a forward who hadn’t played in an actual game since 2014, went largely overlooked by the media and college basketball cognoscenti. The one-time top-40 high school recruit couldn’t get off the Blue Devil bench, so he transferred to SMU and then redshirted a semester. Would his scoring touch and uncanny skill find him success in the college game?

>>MORE: Rising Star: SMU Guard Shake Milton

November 18: The Mustangs roll to a 3-0 start out of the gate, easily handling three inferior opponents to get the Jankovich era off on the right foot. Their fourth game of the year, however, comes against the Michigan Wolverines in the annual 2K Classic Benefiting Wounded Warrior Project championship game. The Wolverines, who would prove to be the best out-of-conference team they would face all year, handle the Mustangs with ease, winning 76-54.

Still, there are some positives to take away for the Mustangs. They severely out-rebound the Wolverines — especially on the offensive end of the floor — 41-24 overall and 18-2 on the offensive glass.

Michigan, also, doesn’t miss. They shoot 52.9 percent from the field as a team, putting the Mustangs on the ropes early and often.

>>MORE: Michigan’s Road To The NCAA Tournament

December 27: After suffering a tough road loss to Boise State on a poor shooting night from the three-point line and the foul line (1-11 from three, 11-22 from foul line), SMU rattles off six straight out-of-conference wins at home before jumping into their conference schedule.

Their season’s first conference matchup comes on the road against an upstart Memphis team that doesn’t go quietly. Memphis leads 41-40 midway through the second half before Shake Milton and Sterling Brown hit back-to-back three-pointers to give SMU a 54-48 lead. They hold onto this lead to secure their first in-conference win.

January 12: After besting South Florida to win their 10th straight game (third-longest streak in school history) the Mustangs head to Cincinnati for a showdown with the No. 22-ranked Bearcats, the AAC’s preseason conference favorite.

Ultimately, the Mustangs come up short, losing 66-64, but they have ample opportunity to win. In the game’s closing moments — down two — Sterling Brown heaves up a three-pointer that rolls off the rim and into Ben Moore’s hands. Moore’s put-back to tie misses, and time expires.

January 25: After losing to Cincinnati, SMU rebounds nicely with a road win over Tulane followed by wins at home of UConn and Houston — two of the top four teams in the conference going into the year.

A tough road matchup with UCF threatens to derail SMU’s recovery, but the Mustangs hold off a second-half run by the Knights to win 65-60 and keep their near pristine conference record intact.

February 13: The Mustangs’ grudge match at home with the Bearcats is one of their biggest regular-season games in quite a while. Cincinnati enters the contest 11-0 in conference play and riding a 15-game winning streak. SMU, on the other hand, desperately needs a win to keep alive any shot at winning the AAC title.

SMU uses a 15-0 run in the second half to put things out of reach for Cincinnati, giving them an extra win on their conference schedule and the top spot in the standings.

The Mustangs have made their mark across college basketball this year thanks to their stingy defense (59.9 points allowed on average, third in the nation). And in this game, they play “the best defense” they have all year, according to coach Jankovich.

March 12: The Mustangs, seemingly on a collision course with the Bearcats, breeze through the first few rounds of the AAC Tournament. When Cincinnati and SMU meet for the third time in Hartford, Connecticut, an automatic NCAA Tournament berth and an AAC Tournament championship are on the line.

On neutral ground, with the stakes as high as they’ve been all year, SMU delivers.

The Mustangs win their 16th straight game and their third ever conference tournament thanks to an 18-point effort from Sterling Brown and a 14-point game from Semi Ojeleye, who is named tournament MVP. Jarrey Foster adds 13 points, and Ben Moore adds 12, providing the Mustangs with yet another well-rounded effort on the offensive end.

The win seals the deal for the Mustangs on multiple levels. First and foremost, it locks up an NCAA Tournament berth. But the win also gives the 2016-17 Mustangs a place in history as the winningest team in school history with a record of 30-4.

The Road Ahead: The Mustangs, a six-seed in the East, will square off against No. 11-seeded USC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. USC erased a 17-point deficit against Providence in their first four matchup on Wednesday night.

If SMU beats USC, it’ll be their first tournament victory since 1988, and they’ll face the winner of No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 14 New Mexico State.

>>MORE: 2017 NCAA Tournament: East Region Game-By-Game Picks

 

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