One of the better stories in college basketball this season has been what veteran head coach Larry Brown has done to turn around the fortunes of the SMU Mustangs.
Long an afterthought or a team never thought of at all on the national scene, the Mustangs have enjoyed a resurgence in 2013-14. Heading into Thursday’s AAC tournament quarterfinal against their old Southwest Conference rivals Houston, SMU was 23-8 had a short stint in the Top 25, and a owned a fifth-place finish (12-6) in what turned out to be a pretty strong AAC in the conference’s first season.
Losses at the end of the regular season to Louisville and Memphis, two of the top four teams in the AAC, weren’t a major concern for SMU. But after Thursday’s 68-64 loss to the Cougars that bounced the Mustangs from the conference tournament, you have to wonder just how much this SMU team has to offer now in the NCAA tournament. The losses to Louisville and Memphis weren’t likely to harm SMU’s NCAA Tournament seed all that much. Both were ranked in the Top 25 and the Memphis game was on the road. But Thursday’s loss to Houston will affect SMU’s seed, which in turn will make its path through the c that much more difficult.
Two major issues for SMU in the Houston loss were first the shooting of guard Nic Moore, who went 0-for-9 from the field and only managed to salvage a somewhat decent game by going 8-for-10 from the free-throw line and dishing eight assists. Moore must be a lot better from the field for the Mustangs to be any kind of threat to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. The poor shooting was uncharacteristic for Moore, who went 8-for-14 in the games against Louisville and Memphis.
Also troubling was center Cannen Cunningham. Off the bench, he had 12 points and five rebounds in the first half, after which the Mustangs had a 38-29 lead. In the second half, however, Cunningham scored just two points, didn’t get a rebound, and SMU managed just 26 points over the final 20 minutes. Cunningham’s 14 points still led SMU in scoring, which tells you that too many other players stepped up when necessary. Forward Markus Kennedy did have 13 points and nine rebounds.
You could excuse SMU’s prior two losses in this streak based on the competition. But losing to Houston on a neutral site isn’t acceptable given how far Brown has brought this Mustangs club this season. They’ve beaten the likes of Connecticut (twice) and Cincinnati. But regular-season losses to South Florida and Temple, and now Thursday’s loss to Houston, have to make one wonder if SMU isn’t a higher-seeded team you look to have upset in your March Madness brackets when the tournament starts next week.