Sometimes it is amazing how quickly everything can change in the world of sports.
It may feel like a distant memory now, but it was only three weeks ago that SMU defeated Houston 77-73 and improved to 18-0.
The Mustangs undefeated record was finding its way into almost every conversation about college basketball.
It brought even more national attention to the heavy-handed and ill-timed sanctions brought upon SMU, preventing the Mustangs from continuing their dominance into the post season.
After defeating Houston, SMU had just won their last five games following the widely watched departure of tumultuous guard Keith Frazier…and they made life after the McDonald’s All-American seem easy.
Then everything came to halt in Philadelphia—not just the team bus or the game’s scheduled start time.
With perhaps the best core group of players the Hilltop has seen in years, SMU had no chance of competing for a national title.
They had just a few things to play for: the improbable dream of a perfect season, each other, and their coach who continuously preaches the importance of ‘finishing the right way.’
One undeniably selfish, arguably arrogant, yet self-affirming and two noble but tangibly empty reasons to play through a long season.
Temple saw to it that SMU stopped dreaming of perfection, and left it with no other option but to fight for each other and the team’s moral code.
Against Memphis, the Mustangs seemed willing to fight for that code. In the following loss to Houston, they seemed unable and when they beat USF, they really didn’t need to.
But against Tulsa, it was hard to tell.
After the game, SMU coach Larry Brown attributed Tulsa’s 58.5 percent shooting to a lack of preparation by SMU.
“Our defense was really, really bad,” Brown said after the loss to Tulsa. “And I think that is on me—not being prepared for the stuff they ran. I thought we tried, I thought our effort was there. I just don’t think we were as prepared.”
Tulsa had 42 points in the paint and kept pace with SMU on the glass--the Mustangs only out rebounded the Golden Hurricane 35-26.
And though SMU shot well (44.4 percent) most of their points came from half-court sets. When SMU can get out in transition and start running the floor, that is when they dominate opponents.
“Our offense was good enough,” Brown said. “At the end of the day, our offense didn’t really hurt us. We shot a pretty high percentage, but we didn’t get stops. We didn’t guard well enough to beat a really good team.”
Their half-court game is solid, but their ability to create and then finish fast break opportunities makes them dangerous.
SMU had zero fast break points Wednesday night.
That starts with defense. No matter how much responsibility Brown wants to take on, defense begins with effort.
“I knew that we would get exposed when we were playing quality teams,” Brown said. “As the season goes on and you get into the conference, you play quality teams. You have to be on point on every single possession.”
Being on point, every single possession in a season that doesn’t hold any immediate tangible rewards is a lot to ask of young athletes.
Still there is that code.
Play hard, play smart, play together, have fun and it’d be nice if we defend and rebound.
Family over everything.
And, always, finish the right way.
Gonzaga (19-5) awaits on the horizon for their shot at SMU on Saturday.
We’ll see whether or not this team is interested in finishing the right way.