A Closer Look At The Hyper-Efficient SMU Basketball Squad, The Last Undefeated Team In The Country.
SMU's already improbable start to the 2015-2016 NCAA men's basketball season feels all the more improbable now that the 16-0 Mustangs are the lone undefeated team in the whole country.
On Wednesday, the same night when the No. 10-ranked Mustangs made easy work of conference foe East Carolina with a 79-55 victory, the similarly unbeaten-till-then South Carolina Gamecocks were blown out 50-73 by the Alabama.
In what feels like a big middle finger back at the NCAA, the Mustangs are the talk of the college basketball world — and, this time, it's for all the right reasons. After hearing about the sanctions that banned them from NCAA postseason play — followed by announcement after announcement of players departing the team, which has left SMU with just seven scholarship players left — this team could've been expected to fold early. Instead, this resilient bunch has faced each new adversity head on, all while turning into the best SMU basketball team that's ever touched the hardwood.
Winning 16 games in a row with resiliency and a chip on your shoulder isn't this team's secret weapon, though. It's remarkable and mind-boggling, the efficiency with which the Mustangs have played this season.
After nearly every game, players preach in post-game interviews that they're just following the directions from their Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown's basketball fundamental teachings. Those efforts have not been made in vain.
The first fundamental that's led to the success of this team is passing. The Mustangs move the ball so often and so efficiently, they could make the Hoosiers and Spurs blush. A full 63 percent of the Mustangs' field goals this season have come on assists — that's 10 percent higher than most of the other top 10 teams in the country, not counting the Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State, which boasts a percentage of 72. During Wednesday night's ECU game, ESPNs broadcasters continually noted how much and how well SMU passes, calling them the best passing team in the country on several occasions.
In general, the Mustangs play some of the most efficient basketball in the country — arguably the most efficient. Five players are shooting over 50 percent from the floor and five players average double-digit points scored per game. SMU is also second in the nation in offensive rating, scoring 124.5 points per 100 possessions. In effective field goal percentage, which takes into account that three pointers are worth more than twos, SMU (58 percent) is sixth in the country.
Point is, most Mustang rotation players can shoot. And while senior point guard Nic Moore gets all the attention for being the heart, soul, leader and sharpest shooter on the squad, junior guard Sterling Brown is quietly having one outrageous shooting season: His lower volume keeps him from being considered among national leaders totals, but he's sinking 70 percent of this threes and has a total field goal percentage of 73 percent.
Not to be overstated, either, is how clutch junior forward Ben Moore has been for the team. So many times throughout the season, Moore has come through with big shots, rebounds and blocks late in the game. He's certainly one of the most improved players in the country too, nearly doubling his points, rebounds and blocks per game from last season to this one, now averaging 13 points, 8 boards and 1.5 blocks per contest in 2015-2016.
Meanwhile, senior forward Jordan Tolbert is still more efficient. Throughout his highlight reel of a season — in one game in this season, he dunked nine times — his rebounding and defense efforts stands as his biggest contribution. SMU as a whole is number one in the country in total rebound percentage (59 percent), and Tolbert is is second in the nation in individual offensive rebound percentage (20 percent). Those boards then set up his offense, with Tolbert ranking as the 15th most efficient offensive player in the country. His defense deserves praise, too: In SMU's big win against Cincinnati, Tolbert not only scored the game-winning basket but also secured the game-winning block to keep the Bearcats at bay. Furthermore, his presence in the paint alongside forwards Ben Moore and senior Markus Kennedy has given SMU the confidence to let opponents shoot all they want from beyond the arc, which hasn't gone well for opponents trying to win games with the three.
It'd be fair to question if the team can keep this efficient pace up. Because it only boasts seven scholarship players, fatigue is a real concern as this Cinderella season continues. Earlier this season, Nic Moore laughed that the minutes these players carry are no big deal compared to the rigor of Larry Brown's practices, although it's questionable how well that argument would hold in the court of law.
If there's one benefit to this smaller rotation, though, it's that it has opened up playing time for players like true freshman guard Malik “Shake” Milton to really put their talents on display. With that time, Milton has not only played himself into the starting shooting guard role where he's replaced the departed junior Keith Frazier, but, in the win against Cincinnati, he played all 40 minutes of the game. (Reports now have Frazier transferring to UNT.)
And yet this is perhaps the best indicator of how well-prepared and well-coached this team is: SMU commits the second fewest fouls in the country. When you're only working with seven scholarship players, it's imperative to stay out of foul trouble — and, miraculously, the Mustangs have not only done just that, but they've done so while playing tough defense, too.
Presuming the Mustangs pull off a win on Sunday on the road against the 8-10 Tulane Green Wave to remain undefeated, expect the Mustangs to only improve upon their national ranking. From there, who knows how high this team will climb before NCAA regulations force an early end to the seasons?
One thing's for sure: What the team's been responsible for to date probably deserves more acclaim than it's been receiving. This lost season, turns out, has become a downright incredible one.