Defense Leads SMU Into Crucial Road Trip

SMU Men's Basketball
SMU Men's Basketball | Image by SMU Men's Basketball/Facebook

The SMU men’s basketball team can claim sole possession of third place in the American Athletic Conference as it travels to Boca Raton to face Florida Atlantic on Thursday night.

The Mustangs have hit their stride, riding a six-game winning streak and sitting tied with the Owls with a 10-3 conference record, looking up at 12-1 South Florida and 11-2 Charlotte.

“We know how good they are,” SMU head coach Rob Lanier told the media of Florida Atlantic after Sunday’s 106-79 win over Memphis. “We know how good of a job they do. They’re coming off a tough loss, so we’re going to see a pretty good version of them and have our work cut out for us.”

Thursday’s game begins a crucial stretch for SMU as it tries to improve its NCAA Tournament resume by playing three of the top five teams in the AAC standings during the season’s final five games. The Mustangs already have a home win over Charlotte, but knocking off a Florida Atlantic (FAU) team that reached the Final Four last season and a first-place South Florida team would undoubtedly help the program as the season progresses.

“They’re really good teams, but we’re going to take it one game at a time,” guard Zhuric Phelps told the media on Sunday. “… Just having that mindset to be prepared coming into these games is big for us and letting our defensive effort win the games for us. I think before we go, defense is going to be a big part of us being prepared for them.”

SMU’s defense has been a significant reason for the team’s improvement this season, ranking 16th in the NCAA in opponents’ shooting percentage and 32nd in points allowed, and the offense has come together over the last few games — scoring more than 80 points four times in the last six contests.

“We’re very versatile,” guard Ricardo Wright told the media. “We like playing defense, and our defense leads to our offense. We like playing together, and it shows.”

While some across the conference consider SMU an NCAA Tournament team, it still has plenty of work to do to enter the picture. In the latest “Bracketology” reports from national experts, the Mustangs are nowhere to be found, largely because of a lack of Quadrant 1 wins (home wins against the top 30, neutral site wins against the top 50, and road wins against the top 75 in NET rankings).

“It’s an NCAA tournament team for sure,” North Texas head coach Ross Hodge said of SMU after the Mean Green’s win over the Mustangs in Denton in January. “They have elite coaching, elite guard play, elite length, elite athleticism, and they’re really a complete package.”

The lack of depth in the conference is another significant factor against SMU’s tournament resume. While there are teams with good records and the standings appear to be jumbled, SMU, FAU, and North Texas are the only AAC teams ranked in the top 75 in NET, leaving few opportunities for Quad 1 wins across the board.

Regardless of the result by season’s end, the Mustangs have displayed remarkable improvement between years one and two under Lanier, winning just 10 total games during the 2022-23 season and already winning 10 games in conference-play alone with five remaining.

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