"NCAA or bust" for SMU basketball this season

After getting its first 20-win season and postseason berth for the first time since 2000 last year, SMU expects nothing less but a whole lot more this season. Coach Matt Doherty says the team has the most talent in his tenure, but there's a lot of youth. The Mustangs only return two starters and have added nine new players, seven of which are freshmen. SMU tips off the 2011-12 season tonight.

With the SMU football team turning a corner the past few years, it's basketball's turn.

Last season, the Mustangs reached the 20-win mark and played in the postseason for the first time since 2000. They advanced to the semifinals of the CollegeInsdier.com Tournament and won eight Conference USA games, the program's best league record to date. It was Matt Doherty's most successful season in five years as SMU's head coach.

This year is all about building upon last year's success and it starts tonight when SMU tips off the season against McMurry at Moody Coliseum at 7 p.m.

Doherty says this team has the most talent he's had at SMU, but little experience with nine new players, seven of which are freshmen. The Mustangs only return two starters in forward Robert Nyakundi and point guard Jeremiah Samarrippas.

"Last year we may not have had this much talent, but we had five guys on the court that were experienced," Doherty said. "They played hard, paid attention to detail and knew the system.

"Now we have guys that don't understand the little things, they don't understand how hard you have to work and how tough it is. Those little things are what I'm concerned about right now. We have talent, but we're very inexperienced."

The team would have a little more experience if transfers Shawn Williams (Texas) and Nick Russell (Kansas State) were eligible, but per-NCAA rules, Williams can't play until after exam grades are posted in December, and Russell is still trying to work out his eligibility issues.

The Mustangs will also be without redshirt freshman Leslee Smith, a 6-foot-7, 255-pound forward who tore his ACL back in the summer. Smith provides a much-needed post presence and will likely be available in mid-December.

But until those key pieces of this puzzle can be instated, this is Nyakundi's team to lead. One of three team-voted captains (the other two are Samarrippas and Williams), Nyakundi returns as a fifth-year senior who averaged 14.3 points per game last year and hit a team- and conference-best 97 3-pointers.

"Me having the most experience, the most time with coach and being here from the bad times to the good times, I have to be the voice and help the young guys bring their game to what coach expects at a high level," Nyakundi said.

Nyakundi said making the postseason last year was basically just the tip of the iceberg for this program and now they want more recognition and to consistently make the postseason. But by postseason, Nyakundi doesn't mean the CIT or NIT. He's talking about the NCAA tournament.

"Just like any other team, you're kidding yourself I you're not trying to play for a national championship," he said.

In addition to Nyakundi, look for Samarrippas to play an integral role this season. As a freshman last year, the starting point guard had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 120:82.

Also keep an eye out for freshmen Jalen Jones and Cannen Cunningham and redshirt junior transfer London "Cotton" Giles (Nevada), three players that both Doherty and Nyakundi listed as possible X-factors this season.

Despite the team's youth, Doherty likes what he sees on the camaraderie front, which is important as being a tight-knit group leads to trust and better chemistry on the court.

"There are guys who are 22-23 and then we have freshmen who are 18…that's a big gap," Doherty said. "But I think they get along very well. Maybe they're not hang-out buddies, last year we had more hang-out buddies, but that doesn't make it good or bad. It is what it is, as long as there's chemistry in the locker room and on the floor, and I see that it is."

SMU runs the Princeton offense, which Doherty describes as a "read-and-react" offense where they "teach players actions, not set plays."

"[The players] trigger the plays and it's all off of things we do in practice and they determine their actions by how they cut, how they dribble, who they pass to," Doherty said. "It's a structured freelance offense."

Again, with all the youth and inexperience, Doherty understands it's going to take awhile for everyone to start clicking, but he thinks that once they do, they'll have success.

"It's a great way to play," he said. "It's hard to guard and players like it once they get accustomed to it. The freshmen are frustrated with it, but once they get it down and take ownership, then it's a beautiful thing to watch and a fun thing to play."

Last year SMU finished with a 20-15 overall record, 8-8 in C-USA, and an overall RPI of 188. The team has talent, but skill doesn't always equate to winning. The positive thing is that, like the football program, this team got a taste of what it was like to have success and make the postseason. Now they want more and that desire is half the battle.

"It's NCAA or bust in our minds," Nyakundi said.


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