SMU men's basketball set to face Owls in first round of C-USA Tournament
Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 16:11
Coming off their best season since joining Conference USA for the 2005-2006 season, the SMU men's basketball team enters the Championship as the No. 7 team in the league, the highest seed SMU has received in the four years in playing in the tournament.
Finishing 8-8 in league play and 17-13 on the season, SMU takes on the No. 9 Rice Owls Wednesday as the top team in C-USA in field goal and three-point percentage, led by senior Papa Dia and junior forward Robert Nyakundi with 18.5 and 15.1 average points per game, respectively.
Dia, in his final season with the team, is fifth all-time at SMU with 838 career rebounds and 14th all-time in scoring with 1,353 points.
The 6-foot-9-inch forward is also fifth in school history with 132 career blocks and 67 on the season. Through 30 games, Dia had an average of nine rebounds per game while shooting a team-high 58.2 percent from the field.
"[Dia] sets the tone for us. To me, he's the best player in the league," Head Coach Matt Doherty said. "He's a very imposing figure on the defensive end. It begins and ends with him and everyone feeds off that."
Nyakundi, despite getting only one shot off form behind the arc in the team's loss to University of Central Florida, continues his reign as the leading three-point shooter in the league.
In SMU's win over Rice University, Nyakundi had a career-high 26 points, including four three's against one of the worst three-point defending teams in the league.
On Monday, both players were named to the 2011 All-Conference USA Team. Dia, a first-team selection remains in the running for Player of the Year, while Nyakundi was selected to the third team.
Dia was named to the third team last season and was a preseason All-Conference USA selection and has been named Player of the Week three times in his career. He was also named C-USA Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday.
But while the Mustangs have proven their success on offense, the team struggled in the final three games of the regular season, giving up 54 points off 52 turnovers.
"We've got to take better care of the basketball," said Doherty after Saturday's loss to University Texas at El Paso. "We did not rebound the ball well enough and we didn't box out. That's a problem we have because we're not the biggest team in the world so we get beat up on the offensive boards."
On Saturday SMU faced a 59-56 loss to the University of Texas at El Paso Miners and extended the Mustangs' losing streak to three. Earlier in the season SMU strung together five conference wins, a team best in league play.
However, the players are not letting the recent derailment distract them.
"I want to see all eight teams we lost to but we'll feel comfortable with whoever we play because we don't play having 18 turnovers," senior Collin Mangrum said. "The past four or five games we've been turning the ball over like crazy so I feel if we cut that out we have a chance to win."
With two wins over the Owls already this season, including a 76-66 overtime win at Moody Coliseum on Feb. 23, SMU has experience in defending the league's leading rebounder in Arsalan Kazemi.
"It's hard to beat a team three times. It's what puts the madness in March," Doherty said.
Kazemi, the 6-foot-7-inch sophomore forward leads his team with an average of 15 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Joining Kazemi is 6-foot-2-inch junior point guard Tamir Jackson with an average of 13.9 points per game and a team-high 41 steals and 6-foot-1-inch junior point guard Connor Frizzelle with 10.6 points averaged per game.
Rice, heading into the tournament fresh off a 72-57 win over Houston, is 3-4 in the post season, including a win over Marshall in last year's opening round. The Owls lost to University of Tulsa in the following round.
Last time the teams met in the post season, SMU came away with a 61-59 win over the Owls under head coach Jimmy Tubbs.
"If you don't win the first one, you don't get the play in the second one," Doherty said. "If you don't win the first one, you don't get to cut down the nets. The first one if huge and that's the balancing act you play. You have to win four games to win it but you can't do it without winning the first game so it's one game at a time."
In last year's opening round of the tournament, the No. 8 seeded SMU lost to No. 9 University of Central Florida, 69-53. The Mustangs have not advanced past the first round of the C-USA Tournament since the 2005-2006 season when they defeated Rice 61-59. SMU lost in the quarterfinals that year to University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The winning team in Wednesday's game will face No. 2 Tulsa on Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBS College Sports.