In the first three minutes of SMU's win vs. Stanford, Jarrey Foster and Sterling Brown each ran a pick and roll set with Ben Moore as the roll man. Foster found him for a layup, while Brown was called for a charge while trying to score.
The result of the plays is less important than the plays themselves. Neither Brown nor Foster is a conventional point guard to use in a pick and roll. They’re both wings who, on occasion, play the four spot.
But nothing about SMU is conventional anymore. Those plays are revealing of the identity that SMU, now down to seven scholarship players, has found an identity in its lack of depth: an offense with completely interchangeable parts.
All five guards are bigger, wing-type players who can shoot. One big man is a former wing, and the other has a wing’s game. Everyone is at least 6-foot-5, but no taller than 6-foot-8. There is no conventional back-to-the-basket big man. There is no small, quick point guard who can zip by defenders and facilitate. Every combination of players SMU puts on the floor is basically a five-wing lineup.
The solution? Have every player ready to take on every role, at any time.
“Everyone’s a point guard. Anyone can set a ball screen, anyone can use a ball screen,” SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said after the Stanford win. “We’re not trying to define a guy, we’re not trying to pigeon-hole a guy and we’re not trying to limit him. We’re trying to play free-flowing basketball with a lot of interchangeable parts.”
Jankovich wants interchangeability that creates confusion and unpredictability. It’s not safe to assume the big man sets the screen and the point guard uses it. He wants SMU be so interchangeable that no one can tell who the point guard or primary facilitator is.
It’s worked. In SMU’s last three games, five different players have had three or more assists at least once. Against Stanford, SMU had 21 assists on its 27 made field goals.
“We’re just five guys playing basketball, sharing the ball in a flow type of offense,” Jankovich said.
Somewhere in that chaos, there’s a mismatch. There’s a way to create open shots for SMU’s roster full of shooters. Get a big center out toward the perimeter, let Ben Moore or Semi Ojeleye beat him with quickness. Get a smaller guard out on one of SMU’s big guards. Get a guard to help toward the hoop, pass it out to an open shooter.
“A lot of different guys could start a fire in the game,” Jankovich said. “When you don’t know when the weapons come from on that given night, it makes it tough.”
“We’re a lot tougher to guard than we were three weeks ago.”
Shake Milton is the perfect example of the interchangeable emphasis. Once the appointed point guard and heir to Nic Moore in the offseason, Jankovich wants him to play off the ball as much as he does on the ball. His role is ever-changing, game to game. Against McNeese State, he made his first four 3-point attempts and scored a game-high 17 points. Five days later vs. Stanford, he handed out nine assists.
SMU’s last three wins have each had a different leading scorer. The last four have featured four different assist leaders. Four players average between nine and 12 points per game.
“What we learned was, if we just do it as a team, we can go further than us being individuals,” Milton said.
Defensively, SMU has to be interchangeable too.
Stanford forward Reid Travis entered the game against SMU averaging 18 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game. SMU didn’t allow him to take a shot from the field in the first half. Ben Moore drew Travis on defense a lot, but he wasn’t alone in containing him.
“I thought when he had any opportunity, we had other people around,” Jankovich said.
Added Milton: “Even our little bigs, Jarrey and Sterling, did a good job making sure he couldn’t really feel them or get good position. The guys on the wings dropping in and helping too. It was just a total team effort.”
Maybe most impressive in SMU’s fast change in identity is its timing – it came together during finals week. SMU played its best game vs. McNeese State, right after finals week and the limited practice time it requires.
“In my experience, that never happens,” Jankovich said.
Before the McNeese State game, SMU had three or fewer days between games six times. No one will use that as an excuse for SMU 4-3 start, but perhaps all SMU needed was practice time. If nothing else, the losses to Michigan, USC and Boise State and uninspiring wins vs. Cal State-Bakersfield and Delaware State gave Jankovich an idea of the identity SMU needed to have.
An easier nonconference schedule full of home games against sub-200 teams may have been easier and may not have resulted in three losses, but it also wouldn’t have provided as good a chance for SMU to find itself. Jankovich views nonconference play as a chance to figure out the best fits for each player, the worst fits for each player and any new (in)abilities each player has.
For SMU, the answers led to the interchangeable parts identity. A roster composition unlike one Jankovich has ever coached now looks comfortable playing together.
“We’re far more toward the team I want us to be than we were three weeks ago, without question. But what I’m picturing and what I feel like we’re capable of, we have a lot of growth potential left.”