SMU hosts Rice in conference home opener

The Mustangs (9-6, 1-0) face off against Rice (9-7, 0-1) Wednesday night in their Conference USA home opener. SMU's young team (eight freshmen) look to hold off the Owls, who have four returning starters led by junior forward Arsalan Kazemi. Tip off is at 7 p.m. at Moody Coliseum.

Too many of SMU's games have come down to the wire as of late.

And head coach Matt Doherty believes that's how just about every other game will be down the stretch, as SMU jumps into Conference USA play.

The Mustangs opened up league play last Saturday with a 57-55 win at Tulsa. Jeremiah Samarrippas hit a buzzer-beater for the win. SMU has not won its first conference game in seven years, since the school has been in C-USA.

"The manner in which we [won] was exciting," Doherty said. "We've been working on late game situations. [Close losses to] Oklahoma State and Ole Miss have prepared us for tight games and those experiences helped us beat Tulsa."

Asked if he'd ever hit a game-clinching shot before, a smile stretched across Samarrippas' face as he said, "Not like that."

He followed by emphasizing that he's trying to forget about it and move on to the next game, which is tonight against Rice. The Owls are coming off a 63-61 loss to Marshall, who is one of the top teams in C-USA.

Rice (9-7, 0-1 C-USA) has four returning starters in its lineup as opposed to SMU who has nine new players, eight of whom are freshmen.

Forward Arsalan Kazemi, the Owls' biggest threat, is averaging 14.0 points and 11.9 rebounds per game.

"We gotta make sure he doesn't hurt us in the post and that we box him out," Doherty said of his team's gameplan. "[Rice] is pretty good. They beat [Texas] A&M and played well against Texas at Texas and had a good chance to beat Marshall at home."

Though the Mustangs beat Rice twice in league play last season, the Owls got the best of SMU when it really counted in the conference championship tournament.

With as many youngsters as SMU (9-6, 1-0) has, Doherty has had quite a significant amount of patience this season.

"Is it hard? Not when you see them getting better and better," Doherty said. "We have lots of new pieces and so at first it's frustrating and you wonder, ‘Will they get it?' The when you see it come together, you see the progress, it's exciting.

"It's like raising children."

When the season began in November, there was a major lack of chemistry purely because the players didn't really know each other because there were so many new faces. But both Doherty and Samarrippas see the team gelling and getting along and most importantly, forming an identity.

"We play team basketball," Doherty said. "Our offense is a spread offense where we share the ball and our defense is a matchup zone where we gotta help each other and be active and talk. Team play. Team basketball."

One of the biggest reasons Doherty feels SMU has an identity, especially on defense, is because of Shawn Williams, who wasn't eligible to play per NCAA transfer rules until six games ago.

And he's already averaging 8.6 ppg.

"He adds a lot of depth," Doherty said. "Shawn has added a maturity to our team. Added an intelligence to our team and he's added, especially on the defensive end, a voice. It's so important to have a forward who talks on defense because they see everything. He's a constant talker and that's huge. He really energizes our defense like a linebacker in football, telling guys where to go."

Williams, along with Robert Nyakundi, give teams with traditional lineups headaches because of their skill set for their size (Williams is 6-foot-7, 225 lbs. and Nyakundi stands at 6-8, 220).

"Once teams realize that their center has to guard Shawn or Robert and that Shawn can shoot it or drive, they have to substitute or change their defense to a zone," Doherty said.

Conference play is a chance for teams to start fresh, like a brand new season.

"No question," Doherty said. "And it's tougher because everyone knows each other. Rice has seen our team and studied our team more than Louisiana Tech has, for example. We know them, they know us, so we have to execute at a higher level."

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