G Shake Milton (So.)
G Jarrey Foster (So.)
G Sterling Brown (Sr.)
F Semi Ojeleye (Jr.)
F Ben Moore (Sr.)
Bench: G Ben Emelogu (Jr.), C Harry Froling (Fr.), G Tom Wilson (Fr.), G Dashawn McDowell (Fr.)
Look around the college basketball early season forecasting landscape, and one team you won’t find mentioned in the top 25 conversation is SMU, as the Mustangs seem to be lost in the shuffle. Playing in the American Athletic Conference and being relatively new to the whole “relevance” ordeal, SMU is rarely going to grab national headlines, and when Larry Brown is at the helm, there is a more-than-slight chance that when they do, a couple of those headlines wind up being negative. This past summer, Larry Brown vacated his throne in Dallas in the most Larry Brown way possible: out of nowhere, on his own terms, and riddled with NCAA allegations and penalties. This is, perhaps, the reasoning behind the national media writing off the 2016-17 Mustangs, figuring SMU will dearly miss the journeyman czar who is the only coach to hoist the trophy at both the college and professional level. In steps his assistant, Tim Jankovich, and what many will rapidly realize is Jankovich is the man to lift the SMU program to new heights. Certainly Brown is a legend and a hoops mastermind, but his old school philosophies had overstayed their welcome, conceivably being SMU’s foremost barrier since their meteoric rise three seasons ago. On their way to an 18-0 start and a fabulous 25-5 finish, the 2015-16 Mustangs sank a mind-numbing 42% of their three-point attempts, good for third in all of college basketball. However, their three-point attempt rate was 15th-lowest nationally. Imagine the damage that could have been done. Brown, still trapped in 1975, has a track record proving he simply does not believe in the long ball, even when he is armed with the personnel.
SMU was the final remaining unbeaten last season, and let’s not forget that half of those games were won when Tim Jankovich slid over six inches to the head coaching chair during Larry Brown’s suspension. Jankovich’s offensive philosophy, safe to say, will be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Brown’s. In turn, Jankovich will be able to fully utilize his players’ skillsets. Analytics guru Ken Pomeroy puts it candidly:
The most important of those players is irrefutably Shake Milton, who slides over from the 2-guard slot to direct traffic as the Mustangs’ point man. Milton, without question, is one of the nation’s true breakout candidates. Measuring in at 6’7” with a 6’11.5” wingspan this summer at the Nike Skills Academy, no point guard in the country will have more disruptive size and length than the Mustangs’ floor general. In spite of playing 80% of possible minutes in 2015-16, Milton will still undertake a massive leap in responsibility. Last year’s diminutive, but tough-as-nails point guard Nic Moore was very ball-dominant, especially late-clock, contributing to Milton’s microscopic usage rate. Nonetheless, Shake using a meager 15% of possessions is probably more in conjunction with his feel for the game. Milton was as patient of a freshman offensively as I have ever seen. He rarely took poor shots, resulting in a 53/43/73 slash line, used size to his advantage when operating out of the PnR, and fully understood the value of the extra pass, averaging nearly 3 assists a game. Thus, the transition to point guard will be seamless for him while also giving him ceilingless potential. Luxurious length will, additionally, allow Jankovich to implement some zone with emphasis on turnover creation if he so desires. The possibilities are endless. Milton is not the only Mustang whose game is demarcated by uber-efficiency. It is, in fact, an omnipresent theme up and down the SMU roster, which further begs the question of this team’s potential given the increased leeway from the perimeter Jankovich provides. Another beneficiary from the new system is senior wing Sterling Brown, who quietly put together a wacky set of percentages last season (63/54/86). His 71.6 true shooting % landed him third in the entire nation. He however, dissimilar to Milton, is unlikely to see a huge spike in usage. While these blistering numbers will be a tall task to duplicate, we should at least expect going in that Brown be the same explosive athlete, defensive enforcer, and efficient offensive player that he was.
Semi Ojeleye primarily transferred to SMU due to the presence of Larry Brown, but he will nonetheless be a feared scorer in the AAC, prospectively leading the Mustangs in that category. Ojeleye understandably never found a niche in Durham with the surrounding talent, which included five first round picks. Having not played in a meaningful game in approximately two years, there will exist a copious amount of hunger for the former 5-star to prove his worth. He’ll be harmonized in the frontcourt by senior Ben Moore, who has seen himself ascend from energy guy to importantly efficient two-point scorer during his time in Dallas. As mentioned, the lofty percentages are across the board for the most part. This particular amalgam quite conceivably could form an offensive juggernaut. The personnel is there for Jankovich to mobilize more drive-and-kick and there will be a favorable size mismatch at the most important position on the floor on a nightly basis. The lone deterrent to SMU attaining the skyscraping goals I have outlined would be depth, partially due to NCAA-imposed scholarship reduction (point, Larry Brown). The Mustangs will bring very little experience off the bench. Players will quickly need to grow accustomed to Australian accents, as Aussie freshmen Harry Froling and Tom Wilson would figure to see some important minutes if foul trouble ever looms. Froling, a skilled lefty big man, owns soft touch and has range beyond the three-point line, nestling right in with the theme of the day, while Wilson’s feistiness and outside shooting mirror that of Australian icon Matthew Dellavedova.
I am hereby trademarking SMU’s projected starters as the “uniform distribution,” as Jankovich will likely employ a lineup of 6-7/6-6/6-6/6-8/6-8 the majority of the 40 minutes. Thus, the potential for interchangeability on the defense end will give the SMU head coach plenty at his disposal. Pair this with the legitimately-possible top 5 offense as described above. Your guess is as good as mine in regards to where the SMU love is at the moment. What I am envisioning might end up being a mere figment of my imagination, but if/when the “uniform distribution” becomes one of the hottest commodities in college basketball, you’ll know where to find its roots.
An SMU Basketball namedrop very well could be the most difficult thing we do throughout this 25-team, 25-day countdown given the program’s complete irrelevance prior to the 2013-14 season, so this required some uncharacteristic digging. The only recognizable name that surfaced was Quinton Ross, who enjoyed an eight-year NBA career with five teams. Aside from accumulating some mop-up minutes in NBA Live Franchise Mode games, Ross doesn’t really have any interesting stories on the hardwood. His name popping up does, however, evoke the odd situation in which his death was randomly falsely reported, which has to be the weirdest feeling imaginable. I continue to wonder why he didn’t choose to remain hidden Hunger Games-style and stun the world by reappearing at a Rucker Park game claiming to be resurrected and putting on an Uncle Drew-type clinic.