Conference: AAC (At-Large/Auto-Bid)
Record: 30-4 (17-1)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 6 (East)
How they got to the Big Dance
The SMU Mustangs had a pretty impressive regular season, but at the start it did not look they were going to finish the regular season as the best team in the AAC. The Mustangs began the season at 4-3 with non-conference losses to Michigan, USC and Boise State. However, after being defeated by the Broncos, SMU went on an incredible run, winning 23 of its remaining 24 games, with the only loss coming against Cincinnati. During their torrid stretch, the Mustangs compiled win streaks of 10 and 13 games. They finished the regular season as the outright AAC regular season champions with a remarkable 18-0 home record, and earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Mustangs beat East Carolina and UCF to advance to the championship game, where they beat Cincinnati to take the crown. They will take on the winner of a play in game between USC and Providence in the round of 64.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
The Mustangs play on both sides of the court makes them a scary matchup for any team. On offense, SMU averages 74.6 points per game with four players averaging double figures. Both its front and backcourt can contribute to the scoring attack with sophomore guards Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster averaging 13.3 and 9.9 points per game, respectively and senior guard Sterling Brown contributing 12.8 points per game. Not to be overlooked, senior forward Ben Moore put up 11.8 points and 8.2 rebounds and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye averaged 18.5 points per game during the regular season. On defense, the Mustangs only give up 59.4 points per contest, which ranks third in the country in scoring defense. They also rank sixth in scoring margin at plus-15.2. SMU’s strengths on offense and defense will allow it to compete with any team in the country, and it would not be surprising to see this team in the second week of the tournament fighting for a trip to Phoenix.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
SMU’s strength of schedule could be a problem come tournament time. According to cbssports.com, its SOS is 87th in the nation. The Mustangs have one of the best records in the nation, but they have only beaten and played one AP Top-25 ranked team. It is clear that Tim Jankovich’s squad has the tools to go far in this tournament, but a deep, experienced team such as North Carolina or Kansas could give the Mustangs some problems. It is also important to note that all four of SMU’s losses this year came on the road. Now, they will be forced to play in neutral settings that could feel like away games depending on who the team is matched up against. Playing away from Moody Coliseum could be a challenge for SMU in March.
Player to watch; F Semi Ojeleye
This year’s AAC Player of the Year has been the centerpiece of this SMU team, and his play in March will determine how far this team will go. The Duke transfer will control the paint for SMU and open up opportunities for other scores on the team. Ojeleye, the team’s leading scorer, will draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses, giving players like Milton, Foster and Moore easier looks at the basket. Even if Ojeleye is not putting up 18 points per game in the tournament, him being on the court will greatly impact how the SMU offense performs.
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