SMU and Expectations: Beware The Tag of “Team On The Rise”Posted by mlemaire on October 24th, 2013
If you were thinking of making a late jump on to the SMU bandwagon, act quickly, because if the Mustangs win their first few games to start the season, there won’t be any room left. In the course of just one summer, SMU has gone from an also-ran program with a famous coach to a “team on the rise” and trendy sleeper pick to make the NCAA Tournament. Kudos to Larry Brown who has proven that all you need to do to make people forget that you went 5-11 in Conference-USA last season is to use the phrase “all five starters returning” as often as possible, land a few high-profile transfers, and convince one or two high-profile recruits to commit (heck, it doesn’t even matter if one of them won’t be on campus for another year).
The strategy has worked on plenty of media members and pundits who have spent most of the offseason pumping up the influx of talent and experience in Dallas and last week it worked on the conference’s coaches as SMU slotted 6th in the preseason coaches’ poll, one spot ahead of former conference foe Houston, who beat the Mustangs twice last year and finished two games ahead of them in the conference standings. It’s hard not to understand the optimism. The Mustangs do project to be a significantly better team than they were last season if only because Brown can actually build a real rotation this season. The Mustangs were one of the thinnest teams in the country last year and primarily used a six-man rotation, so you can tell Brown is excited to have more depth to work with.
“Last year, somebody could have walked in off the street and picked our starting lineup,” Brown said. “This year, I don’t know who’s going to play, where they’re going to play or what style we’re going to play, but I love our team.”
The talent level will be better in Dallas as well as a trio of talented transfers is now eligible and recruits Keith Frazier and Yanick Moreira are expected to be immediate contributors – if not starters – right away. Certainly the outlook on this year’s squad is rosier than what fans and pundits have come to expect from SMU’s basketball program, but there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered.
For starters, the reinforcements will help the team on both ends of the floor, which is a good thing, because SMU was not very good in any facet of the game last season. Late-game fatigue is a valid excuse for some of the team’s struggles, but last season the Mustangs were not very good at stopping the other team and they were even worse at putting the ball in the hoop. Brown was forced to play a more deliberate offensive style because of the depth and talent issues, so the team rarely created easy baskets in transition and they didn’t have the shooters or the ball-handlers to make up for it. They turned the ball over at an alarming rate (313th nationally in TO%), rarely attempted any three-pointers (345th nationally in 3-point attempted %), and exacerbated the problem by shooting a below-average percentage on shots inside the arc.
Defensively they were slightly better, but they still allowed too many extra opportunities and gave opponents free reign to chuck it up from behind the arc, which opponents did with good success. It’s fine to expect players like the playmaking Illinois State transfer Nic Moore and the sharpshooting Wright to help speed up the offense and add shooting. It’s also fine to expect big men like Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy and Moreira to help solidify the interior on both ends of the floor.
But Moore had turnovers issues as a freshman with the Redbirds and Wright still needs to prove he can make an immediate impact (outside of recruiting). Both will be unproven talents competing in a conference loaded with backcourt studs and the same can be said for Kennedy and Moreira in the frontcourt. Both players are long on upside and short on experience and the acclimation process won’t be easy.
This isn’t to say that all of these players aren’t good enough to help take SMU to the NCAA Tournament, but this crop of newcomers isn’t like Kentucky’s group of newcomers, there will be a learning curve and it will be especially steep as Brown tries to figure out the team’s rotation and style of play. It’s a nice luxury to have nine or 10 players worthy of a spot in the rotation, but no one believes that Brown will actually stick with a nine- or 10-man rotation for very long, and finding the right mix of players should not be underestimated.
The early success of freshmen and the ability of teams like Kentucky and Kansas to reload with mostly new rosters have inflated immediate expectations when a program like SMU spends all summer building a buzz about its newcomers. The Mustangs are going to be better; after all, it would be nearly impossible not to be. But let’s wait to actually see this team play together in a game that counts before anointing their arrival on a national stage.