Men’s basketball 2018-19 preview

SMU men’s basketball plays its opener Thursday against Northwestern State, beginning a 2018-19 campaign that the team hopes is different from last year’s. The Mustangs finished 17-16 last season, falling into a tailspin after losing Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster to injuries.

This year Tim Jankovich will look to lead the team back to the form of two years ago, when the Mustangs won the American Athletic Conference and made the NCAA Tournament. There are few proven entities on this year’s roster, but the team has talent. Let’s take a look at how the roster breaks down.

Who they lost: G Shake Milton, G Ben Emelogu, F Akoy Agau, G Elijah Landrum

Shake Milton highlights several players who are gone from last year’s roster. He was SMU’s leading scorer when healthy, averaging an efficient 18 points per game in the 22 contests he played in. Milton was SMU’s best shot creator last year, as well as a reliable ball handler and rangy defender on the perimeter. Milton was drafted 54th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Ben Emelogu was also pivotal in the games SMU did win. His shooting percentages shot up in his senior season, as he finished the year making three-pointers at a 47 percent clip. Emelogu is best used as a three-and-D type of wing who can knock down open triples and play defense on the perimeter. But SMU’s depleted roster forced him into more of a scoring role, where he played valiantly, but was limited in what he could do.

Lastly, Elijah Landrum and Akoy Agau both transferred away from the program. Agau is back at Louisville, where his career started. He was hindered by injuries all season, but could rebound and play post defense for SMU. Landrum was never able to find his offense, but fought hard on the defensive end all season. He transferred to a junior college. Both players played a fair amount of minutes down the stretch, but were likely not going to be long-term contributors.

Who’s returning: F Jarrey Foster (Sr.), G Jahmal McMurray (Sr.), G Jimmy Whitt (Jr.), F Ethan Chargois (So.), G William Douglas (So.), Everett Ray (So.)

SMU has solid players returning, but some will need to make jumps from last year to propel the team to where it needs to be. Two players who need to be better and have room to grow are Jimmy Whitt and Ethan Chargois. Whitt played big minutes for SMU last year, handling the ball and playing exceptional defense. His biggest flaw was his inconsistent jumpshot, which he revamped over the offseason. If Whitt can develop a consistent jumper, teams will at least respect him on the perimeter, which will improve SMU’s spacing and give him more opportunities to get to the rim. Whitt also shot just 59 percent from the free throw line last season, which needs to improve.

Chargois looked like he’d be SMU’s breakout star in the beginning of the season, but his output dipped as the year progressed. After 10 double-digit scoring games in non-conference play, Chargois posted just three such efforts against conference foes. Chargois can score inside and out, with range that extends to the three-point line and deft touch near the rim. He lost weight over the offseason, which will make him quicker on defense. Still, Chargois has to show that he can get his own shot against tough opponents; SMU needs him to be a scorer, not just someone who hits open shots when they come.

Jarrey Foster is coming back for his senior season, and his health is a question mark. He tore his ACL against Wichita State last season, and is out for the first part of this year. When he does come back, SMU will need him to be its best player. Foster has shown that he can make shots and score in transition, but he doesn’t have much experience getting his own shot on isolations or in the pick and roll. Adding that to his game would be invaluable to the SMU offense. On the other end he’s a menace, with the ability to guard multiple positions, fly in for blocks on help defense and rebound well for his size. One of Foster’s best traits was his athleticism, so SMU hopes the injury did not sap much of that.

Jahmal McMurray might be the closest thing SMU has to a sure thing. The fun-sized guard can heat up in a hurry, and is never afraid to pull the trigger on a shot, no matter how far out and how contested it is. McMurray can win games with his shooting, but he can also shoot SMU out of games if his shot isn’t falling. His defense is a concern, as his 6-0 frame makes him liable to be bullied inside. McMurray could be SMU’s leading scorer this season, but the challenges for him are to play within the offense and hold his own on defense.

William Douglas will look to improve on a tremendously disappointing freshman season. He played in every game and averaged just two points per game on 24.7 percent shooting. He made just six two-pointers all year. If Douglas doesn’t improve on that, he could see his spot in the rotation vanish. Ray is dealing with a foot injury and his timetable is unknown.

Who’s coming in: G Nat Dixon (transfer-Chattanooga), F Isiaha Mike (transfer-Duquesne), Feron Hunt (Fr.), Jahmar Young (Fr.), C.J. White (Fr.)

Trasnfers Nat Dixon and Isiaha Mike will both be leaned on heavily in their first years on the court for SMU. Dixon, a former wide receiver at Boston College who took a winding path to SMU, is a reliable shooter and has quick feet. He could be a slightly smaller version of Emelogu, hitting three-pointers and defending opposing wings.

Mike redshirted last year, and is finally ready for his SMU debut this season. At 6-8, he is likely to be the starting power forward opening night. Mike is a straight line driver who can stretch out to the three-point line. At Duquesne, Mike had some serious highlight reel dunks; he and Foster should bring a dynamic athleticism to SMU’s frontcourt.

Of the three freshmen, Feron Hunt is the one most likely to make a major contribution for SMU this year. The DeSoto product chose SMU over TCU, Arkansas, Houston and others. Hunt’s size and athleticism give him impressive versatility, which makes him a fit in just about any sort of lineup Jankovich wants to use. SMU hasn’t gotten much from its freshmen in recent years, but Hunt could be the one to reverse that trend. Jahmar Young and C.J. White are both raw prospects who will probably see limited playing time this season. Young is a bouncy and energetic big man who still needs to become more skilled, while White is a shooter who needs to improve his feel for the game.

Season outlook

SMU is a bit of a wild card heading into the season, with unknowns in Foster’s injury, Hunt and Mike’s impact and Whitt’s jumpshot. While SMU should be able to run out long and versatile defensive lineups, it remains to be seen how much offense they can manufacture.

The American Athletic Conference is not as top-heavy as it’s been in recent years, with Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State losing key players. Houston and Cincinnati will still be in contention for the conference title, as will UCF, who has players returning from injuries that they suffered last year. Memphis and UConn both made exciting coaching hires, but will be works in progress in their first seasons in the program. If SMU can put it together, the conference is wide open for the taking.

SMU has a weak non-conference schedule, with TCU, Georgetown and a possible matchup with Penn State accompanied by games against low-major teams. Between that and the AAC’s lack of noteworthy teams, SMU’s strength of schedule and lack of quadrant one wins will make them a tough sell for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. So the Mustangs will likely need to win their conference tournament or have a monster regular season to return to the big dance.