Matt Visinsky

In ugly win, SMU’s search for an identity still apparent

SMU started a six-game homestand and snapped a two-game skid with a 49-43 win over Cal State Bakersfield, but it didn't solve the team's bigger problem: a lack of identity.

In theory, a six-game homestand should help a team on a losing streak find some kind of identity. One game into the homestand and eight games into the season, SMU is still searching.

USC used a second-half 14-0 run to take the lead for good. Boise State used a 12-0 run to build a 20-point halftime lead. Friday against Cal State Bakersfield, SMU scored fewer than 30 first-half points for the third straight game and squeezed out a 49-43 win. 

Perhaps the absence of good offense is an identity in itself. But for a coach who loves flowing offense, it’s opposite of the identity he wants. Friday’s game did nothing to suggest SMU is any closer to an offensive identity. Combine it with a similarly identity-lacking defense, and it makes sense why SMU had three losses in November alone.

Jankovich sat at a dais in Moody Coliseum and pondered about identity.

“Not yet. For sure we don’t yet,” he said.

The good news in an ugly win is, if nothing else, the win is a confidence-builder. Remaining confident and focused after two rough road losses is difficult. Jankovich touted his team’s ability to concentrate and stay positive through an entire game in which SMU played poorly.

Trailing by four after a Cal State Bakersfield 3-pointer with 5:49 left, Tim Jankovich wanted to call a timeout. He looked over at SMU’s bench, and to his surprise, was greeted with a look that said, “don’t call a timeout.” Jankovich listened. SMU didn’t give up another field goal until the nine-second mark with the game out of reach.  

“My favorite wins are when nothing’s going right and your guys are able to stick together,” Jankovich said.

Added Ben Moore: “We were able to pull it off just from pure toughness.”

It’s a confidence game defensively too. In the Mustangs’ three losses, they gave up 44, 50, and 44 points in a half. Friday, they held the Roadrunners to 29.8 percent shooting and forced 16 turnovers.

The bad news, well, is that SMU’s offense still isn’t functioning. And that outweighs the good news. SMU scored 49 points. Big 12 football teams frequently score more than that. For the third time in five games, SMU had more turnovers than assists. SMU shot a season-low 31.8 percent on Friday. In the first half of both its road losses, SMU shot a combined 37 percent.

Most puzzling may be SMU’s struggles from 3-point distance. Jankovich, who’s fond shooting 3-pointers, touted his team’s ability in that area before the season. But SMU shot just 35 percent from 3 Friday, and two days earlier, didn’t make a 3 until there were 19 seconds left in the game. Shake Milton, a 42.6 percent 3-point shooter a season ago, entered Friday making only 30 percent from deep. He and Sterling Brown both repeatedly passed up chances to shoot an open 3.

“We have a lot of guys who can shoot the 3 well, and we’re not shooting the 3 well right now,” Jankovich said. “We’re going to need by the end of the year to be a team that has a number of guys playing with confidence shooting 3s.”

Changing to such a philosophy can be harder when only four players on the roster played for SMU last year. It’s a group that still has played only eight games together and lost three critical pieces. Some adjustment period can be expected. Especially when Nic Moore, who so frequently lifted SMU out of an offensive slump during a game, isn’t around anymore.

But it’s strange to see no improvement – and some regression – each game after SMU had no trouble scoring in secret preseason scrimmages against Texas and Colorado. And when a player like Moore isn't around to single-handedly give the team a lift, everyone needs to do his part. 

Right now, SMU’s offense misses Moore sorely. Take him, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert out, and the identity goes with them. SMU’s roster has a bunch of big guards with similar skill sets and two big men who didn't play in college last season. 

“We don’t have the pillars of what you would call a normal college basketball team – the little points gauds, the big guys and the medium wings,” Jankovich said.

Jankovich noted SMU’s road trips – two to the West Coast and another to New York – haven’t allowed for extended time to implement any changes he wants to make. Jankovich and the players won’t use it as an excuse, but SMU hasn’t had a few days to practice fully.

“You don’t do this in an hour and a half,” Jankovich said. “It takes days, weeks to make changes that you feel you need once you’ve played some games. How can we protect weaknesses and how can we hurt other teams with the ingredients we have.”

The problem is that SMU won’t get a chance for extended, longer practice anytime soon. That problem also isn’t unique to SMU. It has another quick turnaround when it plays Delaware State Sunday afternoon, followed by unbeaten TCU on Wednesday, then a week off for finals week. Practice during that time is limited.

“I see some weapons we have, but we have to figure out how to use them where it’s not too complicated, not putting in a whole lot of things where everybody’s standing around and confused,” Jankovich said.

If big changes are needed, they need to happen quickly, because expecting wins on “toughness” alone isn’t a viable model for consistent winning. Especially not against another tough defensive team like TCU.

But Friday, toughness was just enough.

“Nobody wants to hear your woes," Jankovich said. "What they do want to see is people that overcome tough times.”

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