After a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, SMU is looking to climb back to the top of the American Athletic Conference and into the NCAA Tournament.
Sports writers Phil Mayer and Jacob Prothro break down what has to go right for that to happen, and what can go wrong to prevent it from occurring.
Best Case – Phil Mayer
Here’s why SMU might be a tournament team again next season.
Let’s start with the stars. Most mock drafts see Shake Milton going in the first round of next year’s NBA Draft. The star guard told The Daily Campus that he is undecided if he will return for his senior season or enter the draft, but with his stock that high, we’ll assume that he does depart for the pro’s.
Ben Emelogu is out of eligibility, and while Akoy Agau has one year remaining, he was honored on senior night and it seems like he will be gone as well.
That leaves Jarrey Foster. The Houston native is coming off of a partially torn left ACL, the same ligament that he tore in high school. SMU’s ceiling for next season is contingent on Foster returning to school and being at full strength.
Foster is an impactful player on both ends. On defense, he has shown the ability to defend four positions, containing guards on the perimeter and limiting Arizona’s 7-1 demi-god Deandre Ayton in the Bahamas early in the season. On offense, Foster is raw but toolsy. Before the injury he showed an improved ability to attack the rim off the bounce and finish, but his jumpshot is still inconsistent.
SMU is hoping that the same Jarrey Foster who terrorized rims for the first half of the 2017-18 season returns to do the same next year.
The next key development for SMU’s best-case scenario is a step forward from its freshmen.
When Milton and Foster were healthy, freshmen Elijah Landrum and Will Douglas played inconsistent minutes, stuck behind more proven backcourt options.
Once SMU’s stars got hurt, the freshmen were forced to play big minutes and handle more responsibility on offense. While it didn’t always look pretty at the time, Landrum and Douglas were thrown into the fire as freshmen and will be battle-tested as sophomores.
“It’s gonna help a lot,” Landrum said of his increased playing time. “It gave me a lot of experience for what I can look forward to next year and what’s gonna come from that spot that I was playing.”
Landrum’s best contributions as a freshman came on defense. He was a nuisance for opposing guards throughout the season, darting around the top of SMU’s zone to cut off penetration from his opponents.
Douglas has a good frame at 6-5 with long arms. After a rough beginning to his season, he started to show some feel as conference play wore on. If he adds on some muscle, he could be a solid 2-way wing.
Both players shot less than 30 percent from the field, and showed no more than a few flashes of what they can do offensively. In a perfect world, SMU’s freshmen will turn those flashes into consistent plays, knocking down shots from the perimeter and looking comfortable driving into the paint.
Tim Jankovich is confident that the experience his players got will be useful in preparing for their sophomore seasons.
“They’re going to have a complete, much better understanding of what they have to do spring, summer, fall, to be a high-level Division-I player and not just a guy,” Jankovich said of his freshmen.
SMU’s most successful freshman was forward Ethan Chargois. Chargois lit it up in his first few games, bending defenses with his ability to hit 3-pointers and attacking creases with a heady pump-and-drive game. He slowed down in a major way mid-way through the season, losing his starting spot to Akoy Agau and missing more of his jumpshots.
The Mustangs will need 30+ games of the early-season version of Chargois next year. With Agau likely leaving the team, SMU will have fewer bigs than ever, and having someone who can pack a punch offensively is a must.
SMU’s fourth freshman, Everett Ray, missed most of last season with an injury. He has a physical, bruising body, and could be SMU’s best defensive option at the five next season.
If all goes well for SMU, both of its young bigs develop and stay healthy, giving Tim Jankovich a useful duo at the five-spot.
SMU’s constants next season are guards Jahmal McMurray and Jimmy Whitt.
If all of the pieces fall into place, Jankovich can fit the two guards into his system in a way that maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.
McMurray can give jolts of energy to a sleepy offense with his pull-up bombs, and if surrounded by plus defenders, can be tasked with only covering his opponent’s weakest offensive player.
Whitt will do best if surrounded by shooters, as the lane will be open for his herky-jerk drives. He can thrive as a fourth of fifth option on offense, free to crash the glass or score in transition while locking down a talented opponent on the other end.
SMU will also be bringing in freshmen Feron Hunt and Jahmar Young. Hunt is the more NCAA-ready of the DeSoto teammates, as his athletic game pairs well with his 6-8 frame.
If Hunt can impact the team immediately, SMU will have another valuable piece in its forward rotation that has seemed thin for an eternity.
Next season’s biggest wild card is Isiaha Mike, who will finally be ripping off his redshirt next season and taking the floor. Mike averaged 11.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a freshman at Duquesne before heading to the Hilltop.
Mike can stretch out to the 3-point line and is an explosive leaper, good for monster flushes around the rim. Mike and Foster will create quite a few posters if both stay healthy next season.
To wrap it up, SMU currently projects to roll out a starting lineup of McMurray-Whitt-Foster-Mike-Chargois. Everyone on the floor will be a threat from beyond the arc save for Whitt, and the group features plenty of length and athleticism, critical for a strong defense.
If all of the sophomores develop to the point where Jankovich is comfortable using them for long stretches and Hunt can play from day one, SMU will suddenly have a 9-man rotation.
And next year’s team may not be done. Jankovich can bring on a junior college or graduate transfer to add a final piece to the puzzle.
Steps forward for the sophomores, health for Foster and Ray, and contributions from Mike and Hunt are all things that SMU needs to happen to return to the top of the AAC. Spirits are high on what next year can look like.
“We’re definitely gonna bounce back next year and have a great team and a great season,” McMurray said.
That’s a rosy outlook on the 2018-19 season, here’s what it would look like if everything takes a turn for the worse.
Worst Case – Jacob Prothro
At this point in time, it seems that expectations are SMU’s season expectations are high enough to muster up hopes of another NCAA Tournament appearance, or perhaps another conference title. But that’s the best case. Things could get a lot worse. If a few areas don’t improve from this season, if there are a few more untimely injuries or transfers, SMU could be in for a long season, much like this one.
First, let’s say that Akoy Agau leaves the team. This much already seems likely, but it would leave SMU without an experienced, physical presence in the paint. The team would have to rely on Everett Ray to fill that role. But Ray is no sure thing – he sat for an extended period of time this past season due to a foot injury. That lack of minutes could hurt his development, and could mean that he’s not ready to step into those shoes.
This also means that Ethan Chargois and Isiaha Mike will have to be counted on for major minutes down low, both of whom are finesse players. It will mean that they will have to carry more of a load; and that’s no easy thing to ask a true sophomore in Chargois. There could be a hole on the inside here.
Mike is no guarantee either. He looked good in the Atlantic 10, but who knows how well that will translate to the superior American Athletic Conference. If he struggles, SMU will be lacking at the forward position.
The backcourt seems solid at first glance, even with Shake Milton likely leaving for the NBA. Jahmal McMurray will be a high-scoring, electric player. Jimmy Whitt will be a solid one-guard that can play good defense and distribute the basketball, but don’t count on him to be a shooter. Jarrey Foster will be a high-flying swingman who can do most everything well. But after that it gets thin.
Elijah Landrum looked good defensively in his freshman season, but his offensive game left a lot to be desired. He shot just 28.7 percent from the field and 24.7 percent from behind the arc. If he doesn’t develop as a shooter, he’s left as a defensive role player who is an offensive liability while he’s on the floor. William Douglas showed flashes of potential, but he too struggled, shooting just 24.7 percent from the floor and 30.8 percent from behind the arc. He certainly has the build of a solid player, but he doesn’t always play that way. Behind Whitt, McMurray and Foster, SMU may just have two role players and a freshman, Feron Hunt.
Then there’s the Foster question. What if his knee doesn’t hold up? What if he’s not the same player coming off of surgery? SMU’s best player would be taken off of the court, and its senior leader would be gone. SMU would also be short on sure 3-point shooters, meaning its offense could again be anemic.
If SMU doesn’t get any grad transfers, or doesn’t pick up another recruit or two, it could be hard for the team to have the bench depth to compete.
This is just the worst-case scenario. It’s not likely to happen. Look for the actual results to be somewhere in the middle. SMU should be fine next season, but then again, things can fall apart very quickly. It’s college basketball, and anything can happen. Just look at what happened this year.