With college basketball season less than a week away, fans have been bombarded with rankings, previews, and any sort of way to attempt to predict one of the most unpredictable sports on planet Earth.
As I’m sure many SMU fans noticed over the past few weeks, the Mustangs are picked to finish third in the American Athletic Conference, behind Cincinnati and UConn, in many of these previews. Additionally, the Mustangs were absent from the preseason editions of the Coaches’ and AP Poll, only receiving votes in the Coaches’.
While this may seem discouraging to the Mustang fan base, it simply ignores the extremely fickle nature of college basketball. Furthermore, this SMU team has a very legitimate shot to win the AAC.
Off last year’s 25 win team, the Mustangs return three starters: seniors Ben Moore and Sterling Brown, as well as sophomore Shake Milton. Brown has quietly become one of the best defensive guards in the conference, and could become a knock down shooter under Tim Jankovich’s more open system. Sterling has always thrived in catch and shoot situations, making him a perfect fit for this system.
Moore will have to be the defensive anchor for this team, as they lack a true big man, but the wide open system should benefit him greatly on offense. Ben has always been best at driving the lane, and with four shooters spacing the floor, the paint should be wide open for him to operate.
Finally, Shake Milton has an opportunity to become an absolute star for the Mustangs this season. After knocking down 41.2% of his three pointers as a freshman, Milton apparently blossomed at the Nike Hoops Summit this summer, where he showcased he is one of the best shooters in the country. I expect Jankovich to utilize Shake as both a point and shooting guard this season, giving him ample on and off ball looks that fully utilize his skill set.
The x factor for the Mustangs is Semi Ojeleye, a Duke transfer who has a chance for a break out season as a red shirt junior for the Mustangs. Semi is a classic stretch forward with a silky smooth jumper and the ability to take opponents off the dribble, and has a real chance to make his mark as an impact transfer in the AAC.
With those four in tow, SMU can compete with any team in this conference.
Fans also have to consider how much has to break right for the teams ranked ahead of SMU in the preseason. UConn is counting on massive growth from Jalen Adams over the summer, in addition to an improvement over down junior years for both Rodney Purvis and Amida Brimah. Alterique Gilbert certainly appears to be a talented player for the Huskies, but freshman often struggle during their early games in college.
Additionally, Cincinnati returns first team All-AAC point guard Troy Caupain, as well as reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year Gary Clark, but face some key losses of their own. Octavius Ellis, the post presence who dominated the Mustangs over his Cincinnati career, has moved on from the Bearcats, and if they can’t replace his physical presence on the boards with NC State transfer Kyle Washington, they could face problems against bigger teams.
While it’s no surprise that SMU has become an afterthought following their NCAA Tournament ban last season, this is still a team coming off a 25 win season, returning three starters, and adding a ton of incoming talent. The Mustangs will be very competitive in the AAC this season, as they search for their second conference title in four years.