Every year in college basketball there are some programs who are simply overlooked. They play great basketball and simply do not get the recognition or praise for it like they should. Those are the types of teams who are very likely to outperform their seed number when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
This season, that team is the SMU Mustangs. Tim Jankovich’s team is playing tremendous basketball right now. They are currently on a nine-game winning streak, which they will look to extend to ten games tonight with a road game at Houston at 6:00 EST.
As of this writing, the Mustangs sit at the very top of the American Athletic Conference with a 13-1 conference record to go along with an impressive 23-4 mark overall. What makes their first place standing even more impressive is the fact that they share a conference with the 18th ranked Cincinnati Bearcats.[Kenny]
Now that leads me to the point about how this SMU team has been given little respect this season. While their records are virtually identical, both in and out of conference play, the Bearcats are 18 while SMU is 19. In Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology, Cincy is a five seed, while SMU is a six seed. Over at CBSSports, Jerry Palm had SMU as a seven compared to Cincinnati at a five in his latest bracket. Yet, it is SMU currently atop the conference.
Now, I know the margin is only slight. But there is simply no denying Cincy is getting all the buzz from the conference. Almost every time I turn on the tv to watch a college basketball show, they are talking about how Cincinnati is going to be dangerous this season come tourney time. Now I am not saying that is not the case. All I am saying is where is the love for SMU?
When looking over the numbers, SMU wins out. The two teams have played each other twice this season, with each team winning their respective home game. But when I run the numbers through a prediction formula I wrote, it tells me SMU would come out on top by two in a head-to-head matchup on a neutral court. Pretty impressive considering Cincy has some impressive numbers in their own right.
Now let’s take a closer look at some of those SMU numbers. For starters, they outscore their opponents by nearly 15 points a game, which is well above the 10 points I look for. Even more impressive is their created possession margin, which sits just above 12 (5 is the benchmark). This is thanks to the teams tremendous rebounding ability, as they pull down about 11 more rebounds a game than their opposition.
Their field goal and three point percentages, both offensively and defensively, are certainly up to par. They fall just shy of the number I look for from the free throw line however, coming in around 69 percent, instead of the desired 70. This is offset a bit by the fact that the team does not commit many fouls. In fact, they are the best team in the country at not fouling their opponents, with only 14.1 fouls per game.
One final note on the Mustangs, they have several guys who they can truly count on in the clutch. I would deem sophomore guard Shake Milton (come on, how could you not like a team with a guy named Shake) as their top player as he leads the club in minutes and assists. Their leading scorer, junior forward Semi Ojeleye, averages over 18 points per game to go along with 6.6 boards a game. Then there is senior guard Sterling Brown, who does a little bit of everything.
All three of these guys can be counted on late in the game, which is essential for a team to make a deep run. They all shoot free throws at a 77 percent rate or better. They all drain three-pointers at at least a 40 percent clip. And they all simply know how to score while playing over 30 minutes a game. When a close game comes down to the wire, you can feel good with any one of these three getting the ball.
So let everyone else talk about how Cincinnati is going to be the big team to come out of the American Athletic Conference this season. It is always nice to fly under the radar and prove everyone else wrong. That will most certainly be the case when the SMU Mustangs start rolling through the competition in the NCAA Tournament come March.