UConn Men’s Basketball Opponent Scouting Report: SMU Mustangs
By: Mike McCurry
While covering a high school hoops tournament over the weekend, I had the great honor of meeting SMU head coach Larry Brown.
Much more affable and grandpa-like than I thought he’d be, Brown and I chatted for a solid five minutes, with the exchange turning ever more fascinating when I brought up that I graduated from UConn in 2014.
An instant smile spread across the Hall of Fame Coach’s face, as he proceeded to talk about the guy he mentored and coached on the Eastern Conference-winning 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, UConn’s Kevin Ollie.
"I always hate going up against Kevin’s teams," Brown told me.
Clearly, he was alluding only to the relationship the two share, because Brown has won four of five meetings with his protégé, including the AAC Tournament final last March.
The sixth meeting between teacher and pupil takes place Thursday in Hartford (8:00 p.m., ESPN2), as the #21 SMU Mustangs (21-3, 9-3 AAC; #19 per KenPom) visit the UConn Huskies (18-7, 8-4 AAC; #24 per KenPom).
If there’s one thing I’m sure of in this highly unpredictable season on the hardwood, it’s this: The fact that SMU is banned from postseason play this year is a damn shame. A veteran-laden squad, the Mustangs are an offensive juggernaut that would have been a trendy Final Four pick had a former administrative assistant not completed online course work for shooting guard Keith Frazier (who has since left the program), rendering SMU ineligible for both the AAC and NCAA Tournament once the powers-that-be found out.
With no seeding to play for, the goal became the unthinkable: an undefeated regular season. SMU started off 18-0, getting as high as #8 in the AP Poll while outlasting South Carolina as the lone unblemished team remaining. Their first loss came at Temple on January 24th; starting with that game, SMU has now dropped three of its last six.
On the surface, SMU no longer has anything to play for, and a dip in motivation certainly has played a role in the Mustangs’ current 3-3 stretch. But there are still days like Saturday—when SMU rode do-everything point guard Nic Moore (much more on him below) to a 69-60 win over Gonzaga—that amount to nothing more than a huge tease of what this team could have been next month.
It was a major whiff on the NCAA Tournament resume for Gonzaga, who is projected as a 9-seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology. UConn is also projected as a 9-seed at the moment.
So, as it turns out, SMU does still have something to play for. They can play spoiler with the best of them.
The Numbers Game
Put lightly, SMU came out flat against Gonzaga on Saturday. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga’s star sophomore, was doing anything he wanted in the paint, and when Sabonis wasn’t scoring he was kicking out to wide-open shooters. It was early in the second half when SMU’s 5’9", 170-pound senior point guard Nic Moore (16.7 PPG, 5.2 APG) took over and completely changed the atmosphere in Moody Coliseum. Moore finished with 25 points and 11 assists, with 18 and 7 coming after halftime, respectively. Moore’s most impressive number was 1, as in the number of turnovers he committed.
Moore, who began his journey at Illinois State, is the reigning AAC Player of the Year, one of 20 finalists for the John Wooden Award, and one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award (presented to the nation’s top point guard). A 42% shooter in his three-year career at SMU, Moore has elite vision, is good for a few incredible pocket passes every night, and plays with an edge rivaled by very few. What’s not to love? Moore is the American’s version of Tyler Ulis.
SMU’s Adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, is 5th-best in the entire country. That’s higher than the likes of offensive machines Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Virginia. Remarkably, the Mustangs’ entire starting five of Nic Moore, Sterling Brown, Shake Milton, Ben Moore, and Jordan Tolbert rank within the Top-100 in Offensive Rating. SMU ranks 9th in Effective Field Goal% (56.0%), 2nd in Offensive Rebounding Rate (41.5%), 3rd in 3-point % (42.3%), and 32nd in two-point field goal % (53.1%), while also leading the AAC in all of those categories.
Playing at the 286th fastest tempo (out of 351 D-1 teams), SMU’s high-powered offense is often underappreciated. Make no mistake, though—UConn’s 8th-ranked Adjusted defensive efficiency has its hands full on Thursday.
6-foot-9, 245-pound senior Markus Kennedy is a fascinating case study. Originally a Villanova Wildcat, Kennedy was a monster in his sophomore year (2013-2014) after transferring to SMU, averaging 12.4 PPG and 7.1 RPG. Declared academically ineligible for the first half of last season, Kennedy bounced back to win the AAC’s Sixth Man of the Year award. This year, he was replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Shake Milton (10.9 PPG, 43.2% 3FG), and his numbers are down across the board.
Lately though, Kennedy has flourished off the bench, essentially playing the role of a sixth starter. Over his last nine games, the AAC’s 3rd-best defensive rebounder (per his 21.8% Def. Reb. Rate) and 4th-best shot blocker (per his 5.8% Block Rate) is averaging 11.0 PPG and 8.1 RPG.
Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer (21.1 PPG, 48.9% FG) was completely shut down by the combination of Kennedy, Tolbert, and Ben Moore on Saturday, finishing with just 4 points on 2-17 FG and posting his lowest single-game Offensive Rating (41) since back in his Kentucky days.
Shonn Miller, you are officially on alert. Miller, who has quietly been one of the best graduate transfers in recent memory, currently sits at #18 in national Offensive Rating (he was #5 just a few days ago). He connects on over 60% of his two’s, 78% on his free throws, and has even gone 7-of-16 from behind the arc. But continuing to defy the odds of efficiency against SMU’s versatile defensive frontcourt will be no small task.