Down four to Southern Miss with just less than six minutes remaining in the game, the SMU Mustangs were in a pinch. The Golden Eagles, who were picked preseason to finish seventh in the Conference-USA and posted a losing record last season, should not be up this late in Moody, but here they were.
SMU teams of old had a Nic Moore, a Semi Ojeleye, a Shake Milton, to rescue them from disaster. This year, the team does not. The Mustangs did not score a point in the next three minutes as Southern Miss built its lead to 10, eventually winning 74-64. The Mustangs dropped to 1-1 with the loss.
The Golden Eagles were on fire from three-point range all night, hitting 13 of their 24 shots. When an SMU player was late rotating behind the arc, Southern Miss would launch immediately. More often than not, those shots went in.
“The game is the fact that they shot the ball from three as well as anybody that I can remember in a long, long time,” Tim Jankovich said.
But SMU’s problems are far beyond a hot shooting night from its opponent. Starters Jimmy Whitt and Isiaha Mike scored just two points apiece despite combining to play 62 minutes. Mike, in particular, hasn’t found his footing after sitting out a year. When he gets the ball inside the arc, he scans the perimeter for options to kick it out, rather than aggressively trying to get to his spots, even when smaller players cover him. Whitt’s offensive game is still limited, when teams take away his drives, he can’t beat them with his jumpshot. That clogs off the offense, and limits what SMU can do.
The two players that played noticeably well were Ethan Chargois and Jahmal McMurray. After a disappointing opener, Chargois led the team with 25 points and eight rebounds. His three-point shot was falling and he battled inside, making some tough baskets and getting to the free throw line. McMurray finished the game with 18 points on 7-14 shooting.
For the second straight game, more than half of SMU’s shots came from beyond the 3-point arc. The Mustangs started off hot, shooting 47 percent in the first half, but made just three of 11 triples in the second half. Shooting that many from deep is not part of Jankovich’s plan.
“It’s not by design,” Jankovich said. “We’re not trying to shoot all threes.”
The reason for the Mustangs’ three-heavy look is the defenses they’ve played against. Southern Miss switches a lot, which opens up space on the perimeter. The downside to switching is that it puts smaller defenders on bigger players, and the Mustangs weren’t able to brutalize them inside with their size because the Golden Eagles front the post effectively, taking the entry pass away. When SMU did get the ball inside, Southern Miss double-teamed and recovered quickly.
Because they switch so much, Southern Miss plays incredibly small lineups, at times going with five guards on the court at once. Head coach Doc Sadler played just one player against SMU that was taller than 6-5. However, the Golden Eagles outrebounded the Mustangs 36-31. For Chargois, the discrepancy boiled down to toughness.
“We’ve got to get tougher,” he said. “Coach says all the time, ‘the worst thing you can be called as a team is soft, and tonight we kind of played a little soft.”
Whether it’s rebounding, crunch time scoring or defending the perimeter, SMU has lots to figure out as its non-conference schedule continues.