Led by transfer Semi Ojeleye, SMU is poised to make a run at a conference championship and more this season.
The SMU basketball program is in flux.
First came the punishments imposed on the program by the NCAA for multiple violations including academic fraud and “a lack of head coach control.”
Head coach Larry Brown was suspended for the first nine games of the 2015-16 season, the program was placed on three years probation, SMU lost nine scholarships over the course of three years, and the Mustangs were banned from last year’s postseason.
SMU battled through those sanctions and, all things considered, ended up having a successful year. The Mustangs started the season 18-0 and ended up finishing 25-5 overall and 13-5 in the AAC, the second-best mark in the conference.
Then came more change.
Brown resigned as head coach and Tim Jankovich, Brown’s associate head coach during his four seasons at SMU, was hired as the new boss. Star guard Nic Moore graduated. Embattled guard and former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier — the centerpiece of the academic fraud scandal — transferred mid-season.
With all the instability surrounding the program, it was difficult to see how exactly SMU would turn out this year. Would the Mustangs be able to overcome having just nine scholarship players? Could they find a way to come together and compete effectively despite the negative cloud hanging over the program?
Although it may be early in the season, a definitive picture of the new SMU has emerged. This team is talented, it’s gritty, and it looks like the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference in 2016-17.
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SMU has plenty of talent on its roster. Amid all the chaos and turnover, the Mustangs did return three starters from last season. Its best player, though — the one who raises SMU from pesky nuisance to legitimate conference contender — is the one who, prior to this season, last played a college basketball game November 30, 2014 for the Duke Blue Devils.
Semi Ojeleye was a highly sought-after recruit in the Class of 2013. A Kansas native, Ojeleye committed to Duke, but after being used sparingly by Mike Krzyzewski during his freshman season, he chose to transfer to SMU early during his sophomore campaign.
And there began the waiting.
Ojeleye sat out the remainder of the 2014-15 season and the first half of last season due to the eligibility restrictions of his transfer, then elected to sit for the rest of 2015-16 in order to redshirt the year and earn two full years of playing time in Dallas.
For 23 months, Ojeleye bided his time on the SMU bench, but he didn’t waste that time simply watching. Jankovich said that Ojeleye spent all of that time working. At practice, after practice, in the weight room, it didn’t matter. Ojeleye worked anywhere he could improve himself.
“Semi is one of the most outstanding young men you could ever be around,” Jankovich said. “We’ve been around a lot of hard-working guys, but [none like him]. He’s a machine.”
And now that he finally has a chance to play, Ojeleye is taking advantage of every minute he gets on the floor.
Through four games, Ojeleye is averaging 33.5 minutes, 20.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.8 blocks per game. His size and strength give him the unique ability to impose himself in the post and on the low block, to drive to the basket and finish with finesse or authority, and to play around the perimeter as a three-point threat. He’s also a relentless defender with enough athleticism and a long enough wingspan to switch between opposing guards, wings, and forwards, a useful skill in SMU’s man-to-man scheme.
Despite his new role as the focal point of this team and his success to start the year, Ojeleye remains humble.
“It’s been great [getting back on the court],” Ojeleye said. “The confidence Coach has in me and my teammates, that really helps me play well. The system we have is about sharing the ball and that’s why I get so many good shots.”
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Ojeleye’s abilities and character have had a permeating effect on the rest of his team.
From a basketball perspective, because Ojeleye is such a multifaceted threat on offense, he demands more attention from opposing defenses. That opens up space on the floor for teammates to work. Guards Shake Milton and Sterling Brown can penetrate the lane or work the pick and roll with more ease. When Ojeleye is stalking the perimeter, it affords forward Ben Moore the opportunity to get more one-on-one chances down near the basket.
Outside of the purely schematic and ability-based enhancements Ojeleye provides, his work ethic and self-efacing attitude emanate from him and transfer to his teammates. If you watch SMU play, you will constantly see examples of all the intangibles that coaches throughout sports laud: heart, grit, and hustle.
The Mustangs sprint back to defend a fast break. They work through tough screens to avoid having to switch into mismatches defensively. They dive for loose balls. These are the staples of teams that win, and SMU does all of them and more.
It helps, too, that the players around Ojeleye are talented in their own right. Brown, though temperamental at times, is averaging 10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game and is shooting 50.0 percent from three-point range. Milton is putting up 12.0 points, 4.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Moore, the second dominant force in the paint for the Mustangs, is averaging 9.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
SMU has an eight-man rotation that includes several other strong players off the bench including wing Jarrey Foster, guard Ben Emelogu II, forward Harry Froling, and guard Dashawn McDowell. Thus far, Jankovich has deftly maneuvered his players on the floor and distributed the minutes out well.
“I really enjoy this team,” Jankovich said. “I really trust their commitment, their work ethic, their competitiveness, their camaraderie, their chemistry. They are high-level in all those areas… and when you have a team like that [you can be great].”
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Of course, like every other team in the nation, the Mustangs still have kinks to work out as the season continues.
SMU has a tendency to get streaky shooting the ball. This was evident in the first half of Thursday’s 76-67 win against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. Down five halfway through the period, the Mustangs went on a 16-0 run over five minutes to take a commanding lead. Unfortunately for SMU, its shooters ran cold, allowing Pitt the opportunity to answer with a 13-0 run of its own to close the half.
The Mustangs went on to win and controlled the game relatively comfortably for the majority of the second half, but that streakiness early on in games is something they will need to iron out before conference play starts.
They also can get lost in switches along the perimeter, leaving shooters open deep. That weakness was exploited frequently Friday night in SMU’s loss to Michigan during the 2K Classic championship game. The Wolverines were 8-for-17 from three in the first half and finished 13-for-31.
But those are issues that can be worked out in practice and should be addressed fairly quickly by Jankovich and his staff. Even during that loss to Michigan — a 76-54 beatdown — the Mustangs never quit despite an off night. They still fought for loose balls, and they still competed for every rebound. SMU finished with 18 offensive rebounds compared to Michigan’s two, and had 18 second-chance points to Michigan’s five. They still exhibited the talent and grit that this team knows it possesses.
“We’ve got to learn,” Jankovich said. “We’re a work in progress… so I don’t care what happens, we need to learn lessons if we’re going to get better and grow as a team by the year’s end.”
Despite the transition this program is going through, SMU will be a force to be reckoned with in the AAC this season. Led by Semi Ojeleye, this team has the combined athleticism, poise, and skill to legitimately compete for a conference title, and is dangerous enough to make a run come tournament time.
Not every game will be pretty, but the Mustangs aren’t afraid to slog it out when they have to, and they can run away with a game quickly if an opponent lets its guard down.
It takes a certain type of team to not fold or stumble during a transitionary period. Don’t be surprised when you see the Mustangs competing with the nation’s best come March.
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