Coming into this season, it was natural and perfectly fair to wonder just how SMU would be affected by the postseason ban this year that was part of NCAA sanctions against the program this summer.
Would the Mustangs suffer for motivation? Would they wallow in pity for themselves over their fate, which is and always will be a controversial one and, at the very least, is a real bummer for seniors and a team that was really set up for this year? Would their play fall off with coach Larry Brown suspended for nine games to start the season?
So far, the Mustangs are doing exactly what teams like them should: playing their tails off and making the entire regular season their postseason. In fact, early on it looks like this year’s SMU team is markedly better than even last year’s, which won the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles before losing to UCLA in controversial fashion in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mustangs drilled Michigan on Tuesday, scoring a surprisingly easy 82-58 win Tuesday night for their most impressive win yet on the young season. Jordan Tolbert was a one-man highlight reel with 23 points including nine dunks, and SMU shot 57%, held the Wolverines to 35% shooting and pummeled their guests on the boards 45-20.
Early on, this year’s Mustangs are considerably better offensively than last year’s. SMU is averaging 81.9 points per game and shooting 53.1% from the field, well ahead of the pace of last year’s team that shot a decent 47.5% but scuffled at times, including famously for stretches in that loss to UCLA. Five players-including newcomer Tolbert-are averaging in double figures though seven games, and two more are not far off that pace.
SMU also is playing its usual solid defense. The team also is among the leaders nationally in rebound margin-a monstrous +14.1 per game.
It’s unfortunate we won’t get to see this team in the NCAA Tournament, because it may well be one of the top 16 or so teams in the country, and perhaps the best in school history since the 1956 team made the Mustangs’ lone Final Four appearance, losing to eventual champion San Francisco and Bill Russell.
That isn’t meant to tell a sob story for SMU. The school earned its probation from the NCAA, and postseason bans are one of the few sanctions with the true teeth to make schools think twice about breaking rules. Scholarship reductions, fines and suspending coaches all sound nice, but the best way to scare schools straight still remains the postseason ban.
Postseason play is a privilege, not a right. Even so, many will wonder just what might have been. The irony is this team may be Brown’s best yet, but it will have to continue to make its statement in the regular season. So far, the Mustangs look primed to do just that.
- The main event Tuesday night was the Jimmy V Classic, which featured a pair of quality games. West Virginia led Virginia at halftime, but the Cavs outscored the Mountaineers 40-18 in the second half for a convincing 70-54 win. In the nightcap, Maryland ran out to a big lead before Connecticut closed within three points late. That’s when Huskies coach Kevin Ollie picked up a technical foul, and the Terrapins went on to a 76-66 win.
- In a gut-check state rivalry game, Miami (Fla.) took care of Florida 66-55. The Hurricanes have responded nicely since the home loss to Northeastern, winning three straight.
- West Virginia was one undefeated team to go down Tuesday night; Houston was another. The Cougars lost on the road at Rhode Island 67-57.
- Baylor had some trouble with 1-7 Northwestern State before pulling away for a 75-62 win. Rico Gathers was not the problem; the wide body scored a career-high 31 points and added 21 rebounds.
- Gonzaga has hit a little bit of an air pocket in December. The Bulldogs struggled to put away Montana at home, finally holding off the Grizzlies 61-58. The Zags shot just 40%, continuing their struggles from the floor that sprung up late against Arizona.
- Notre Dame ran away from Stony Brook 86-61, a game many thought would be closer. The Fighting Irish shot 55%, dominated the glass and had all five starters in double figures. This is a win that will likely look better as the season goes on.
- South Dakota State drilled Minnesota 84-70 in a game that wasn’t that close. While the Golden Gophers losing to the Summit League favorite Jackrabbits isn’t alarming, two things should be: 1) the ease of SDSU’s dominance and 2) the Jacks were playing without guard George Marshall, one of their top players who is out for about a month with a broken foot. If the Gophers can’t at least keep it competitive at home against any team missing one of its top players, then this could be a very, very long year for Richard Pitino’s team. As for South Dakota State, though-don’t be surprised if this team is a serious candidate on the at-large board in March.
- Finally, chalk up decent road wins for Northern Iowa and Harvard. UNI won at George Mason 73-65 while Harvard built on its scare of Kansas on the weekend, winning at Boston University 75-69.
- Start your night off early with Niagara playing at St. John’s (5 p.m. EST, FS1). The Johnnies are still in serious rebuilding mode but have done a good job of winning games like this thus far.
- Kentucky has been quiet of late and plays for the first time in nearly a week, since its loss to UCLA. The Wildcats host state foe Eastern Kentucky (7 p.m., ESPN2), which is off to a 7-2 start
- Purdue hosts Howard (7 p.m., ESPNU) in what at first looks like a layup, but the Bison are a solid team, one that should finish near the top in the MEAC and could give the Boilermakers a run for a while if they aren’t on point.
- Providence and Boston College will go on as scheduled, as reports Tuesday were all previously sick Eagle players were back at practice. Also in the East will be some Big 5 goodness at The Palestra as Temple is at Pennsylvania.
- Radford looks to knock off another football school when it gets a rare opportunity at home, hosting Virginia Tech.
- The battle for the state of Nebraska resumes as the Cornhuskers are at Creighton (7 p.m., CBSSN). Also, another fight for supremacy in Utah as Utah State is at BYU.
- Put Illinois on upset alert at home again as the Fighting Illini host Yale.
- Get your remote control warmed up, as there are two excellent games on at the same time: UNLV is at Wichita State (9 p.m., ESPN2) and Dayton goes to Memorial Gym to play Vanderbilt (9 p.m., ESPNU).
- Finally, fresh off a big road win, Arizona can’t let down when it hosts improved Fresno State.
Have a great Wednesday.