After SMU’s big win against UConn Thursday and the loud, passionate and emotional response from the fans, nothing could ruin this season for SMU. Sure, there’s been a lot of controversy, but I think everyone has enjoyed seeing the Mustangs play for themselves. In a year where their hopes of playing in the postseason were taken away, playing for each other, playing for the fans, was really the only option.
But SMU still has the AAC regular season championship to defend. And they must defend it in Cincinnati.
The Bearcats are not the ones pursuing the title however. If someone would have told me that SMU and Temple would go into their respective final games of the season tied for the conference lead, I would have laughed, hard. But that’s where we find ourselves. After losing the commanding conference lead they had built, the Mustangs once again find themselves playing for the championship on the final day of the season.
When the conference schedule came out, I feared this scenario. Ending the season with such a tough stretch including a final game in a hostile environment isn’t exactly a recipe for success. SMU has never won in Cincinnati. Defending their title in Fifth Third Arena will be challenging, but at least Cincinnati won’t be trying to take it from them. The Bearcats sit two games back with just one game to play.
The Bearcats will be playing for revenge. After letting a road upset slip through their fingers in Moody Coliseum, Cincinnati will try to not be embarrassed by SMU twice in one season.
SMU, who somehow rallied to beat the Bearcats in Dallas, will try to bring some Moody Magic with them. Let’s preview Cincinnati:
Predicted Starting Line-up for the Mustangs
Nic Moore – point guard
Jordan Tolbert – forward
Ben Moore – forward
Sterling Brown – guard
Shake Milton – guard
What do the Bearcats bring?
This will not be an easy win for SMU. Cincinnati is a good basketball team, much better than most people give credit for. The Bearcats may not score a lot of points, but are one of the most offensively efficient teams in college basketball. But Cincinnati’s defense is their bread and butter. The Bearcats can choke even the best scoring teams, and come in ranked 8th in the nation in points allowed.
If SMU defends, SMU wins. Cincinnati may be offensively efficient, but SMU has a top defense too. The Mustangs’ last game against the Bearcats would not have been as close if SMU would have put more emphasis on defending the perimeter. I know Cincinnati is great in the post, but Farad Cobb and Troy Caupain are deadly from outside. Cobb, who is a great shooter off the catch, shot 6-for-11 from the arc in Moody. SMU cannot allow him to shoot that well again. The Mustangs need to make a concerted effort to challenge outside shooters and stay within arms reach of them at all times.
Playing against an offensively efficient team means rebounding is especially important. SMU cannot give the Bearcats second looks at the basket. Kennedy, Tolbert and Ben Moore were all over UConn on Thursday and took the offensive glass away from the Huskies. They must do the same in Cincinnati.
Ball movement. SMU seemed to get stuck passing the ball around the perimeter in their last meeting with Cincinnati. Like I’ve mentioned already, Cincinnati is an elite defensive team. The Mustangs must find a way to get the ball inside. This starts with getting the ball moving. The only way to penetrate a defense of this caliber is to create disruption. Get the ball moving, make smart passes.
SMU has to want it more. Big games have been the bright spots for SMU this season. All of SMU’s losses have come in games where the pressure has been off. The pressure is on now. There’s a title to defend. If SMU plays against Cincinnati with the same effort and electricity they with against Michigan, Gonzaga, and UConn last Thursday, winning is possible. They’ll have to do it in front of a hostile crowd, but we’ve seen this team do that before.
Clean up the slop. SMU needs to play tight, by the book, Larry Brown basketball. The wild, lofty across the court passes cannot happen. Theatrics in transition need to go away. It’s just not the time or place for it. If SMU is going to lob the ball, they will need to pick their spots. SMU plays very solidly when they want to, but those who follow the team closely know the Mustangs can sometimes have too much fun. With so much on the line, playing solidly should be fun.
Wrap It Up
SMU’s last two trips to Fifth Third haven’t gone the Mustangs way. Then again, those games came early in SMU’s conference schedule and there was no title on the line. I imagine this game will feel similar to last year’s AAC Tournament final: everything on the line in front of a hostile rival crowd. If the Mustangs play like we know they can play, like they know they can play, the heart of this team can prevail. In a season that has been all about the seniors, this game is for more than a title. This game is for the memory of a group of guys who gave SMU something to be proud of again. This game honors their sacrifices.