As I sit here writing this preview, I’m staring out the window of my hotel room at Caesars Palace onto the dancing Bellagio fountains across the street.
Yes, I’m in Vegas. And yes, I’m crazy. Well, that’s what some people would probably call it. Me? I just call it being a dedicated fan.
No matter what invitational SMU would have scheduled, I would have made a great effort to be there. Being there to support the Mustangs always comes first.
That being said, this location doesn’t hurt. In fact, it’s pretty magical.
SMU is red hot right now. The Mustangs are 9-0. As of late, SMU dominated Michigan before demolishing both Nicholls State and Hampton in the first rounds of the Las Vegas Classic at home. SMU currently ranks 23rd in the nation in points per game (84.9), 18th in points allowed (60.4), 5th in assists per game (20.9) and 7th in rebounds per game (44.3). The Mustangs also boast the best rebound margin in the nation at +18.0.
Jordan Tolbert has been a nightmare for other teams as of late, and just won his second consecutive conference player of the week honor. He’s currently tied for 11th on the rebound leaderboard. He has also been scoring too….it’s a pretty simple formula:
Tolbert + ball + near basket = points
As a team, SMU is shooting .532 percent from the field, led by Sterling Brown, whose .723 percentage is good enough for 3rd in the NCAA.
6 Mustangs are averaging double figures in points per game (Nic & Ben Moore, Tolbert, Frazier, Milton, Brown). Without Markus Kennedy’s ankle injury which took him out of action in the first minute of the Michigan game, he would most likely be on that list as well.
SMU has made big statements with wins over Michigan and Stanford. They have grinded out victories against pesky teams like Yale and TCU. The Mustangs have looked spectacular so far, and are starting to play complete games consistently.
The Mustangs have been doing all of this without their head coach. Guess who’s back?
With Larry Brown’s brilliance back on the sideline, we’ll get to see how good this team really is. Tim Jankovich has done an outstanding job filling in for Brown, and is the main reason why SMU finds itself in the place it is now. Praising Jankovich is another article for another time (and yes, I plan to give him praise), but I think even he would say that having Larry Brown back is a great thing.
The light portion of the schedule is over. The Mustangs find themselves preparing for a slate of quality teams here in Vegas, and then of course, conference play. Being one of the last undefeated teams still standing, the Mustangs have a big target on their backs. Everyone moving forward will be gunning for them. Let’s take a look at SMU’s first Vegas opponent: Kent State.
Projected Starting Line-up for the Mustangs
Nic Moore – point guard
Jordan Tolbert – forward
Ben Moore – forward
Sterling Brown – guard
Keith Frazier – guard
*note on injuries:
We’re all aware of how short-handed SMU has been playing lately. Thankfully, more depth is on the way. Coach Brown said in his Monday press conference that Keith Frazier (knee) will be available and that we can expect to see him play at a high level. Markus Kennedy (ankle) is still questionable for both games here in Vegas. Kennedy is progressing, but considering how critical his contributions will be down the stretch, SMU isn’t taking any chances. Considering Jordan Tolbert’s current level of play, if we see Kennedy this week, it will be for limited minutes.
Brown gave no specific updates on Sedrick Barefield (flu), though I expect he travelled with the team. If I had to guess, I would say he would be available for the stay in Vegas.
What do the Golden Flashes bring?
Kent State is 7-2. Best win? Considering that NJIT has beaten St. John’s and competed with Providence and Albany, I’d go with NJIT. Who else have they beaten? Youngstown State, Marist, St. Francis, Cleveland State (barely), ULM (barely) and Canisius (barely). Losses? Pittsburgh and Southern Illinois. Neither of these losses are atrocious. Pittsburgh is a good ACC team and SIU leads the Missouri Valley right now.
Kent State isn’t the best shooting team. The Golden Flashes shoot .448 percent from the field and .311 percent from behind the arc. Kent State brings a balanced attack, but tends to rely more on their post presence than outside shooting.
6’8 forward Jimmy Hall is Kent State’s main scoring threat, averaging 15.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Hall does struggle with turnovers, but serves as a major catalyst for the Golden Flashes’ offense.
Guards Kellon Thomas and Xavier Pollard average 13.8 and 12.1 ppg respectively, and also serve as Kent State’s main threats to score from outside. Pollard is long at 6’4, and shoots .440 precent from 3-point range.
6’9 center Khaliq Spicer averages 6.9 rebounds per game. This will be an interesting match-up for Tolbert.
As we’ve seen all year, teams attempt to beat SMU from long range – they’re almost forced to. With SMU’s ability to score and allow the other team nothing, launching 3-balls has been the only legitimate chance for some teams. It has come close to working a few times. SMU has become accustomed to this, but they will need to make some adjustments against Kent State. I don’t believe the Golden Flashes will look to depend on their 3-point shooting to keep them in this one. I expect them to give the ball to Hall and try to battle inside. The Mustangs haven’t seen a frontcourt-oriented team in awhile, and will need to adapt.
There’s more wild cards here too. For one, we’re in Vegas. SMU will be competing at a neutral location for the first time this season (unless you count TCU’s temp gym as neutral) – anything can happen. The Mustangs also know this is the only tournament they get to play in all year – I don’t expect this to be a distraction, but rather a source of motivation.
Also, Larry Brown is back. Though most of these players have been with Coach Brown for some time, Tolbert, Milton, Foster, and Barefield have never played a game with him on the sideline. How active will Jankovich be and how much catching up will Coach Brown need, if any?
Wrap It Up
Kent State certainly isn’t a pushover and will come to play, like I’ve mentioned already. That being said, SMU has played better, more explosive teams. If the Mustangs play like we know they can, they’ll be able to overpower the Golden Flashes. I expect to see SMU continue to build on the strides they’ve made so far, and with Coach Brown back, playing the right way is always paramount.