SMU’s first-round collapse in the NCAA Tournament was a difficult ending to an impressive year. SMU lost to a No. 11 seed from the Los Angeles area, which it led in the final minute, for the second time in three seasons. But the Mustangs set a school record with 30 wins, went 26-2 after a 4-3 start to the season, set an American Athletic Conference record with 17 league wins, and won the AAC tournament title for the second time in three years. With the season over, here are my grades for each player’s individual performance this season.
SMU liked to pride itself on its unselfishness and ability to have a different player lead the team in scoring on any given night. While every starter was the leading scorer at least once, the ball stuck with Ojeleye most of all. In his first year at SMU after transferring from Duke, the former five-star recruit lived up to the hype he built up in his two redshirt years. He won the AAC Player of the Year. He led the team with 19.0 points per game – 5.6 more than any other SMU player – and scored in double-figures in all but one game. He was the only SMU player to score 30 points in a game (he did it twice). When SMU needed a lift or a big shot, it went to Ojeleye. When Ojeleye struggled, SMU struggled. He did not make a field goal in the first half of a Feb. 15 win vs. Tulane, one of SMU’s worst halves since the 4-3 start. He carried SMU in a few games, such as that Tulane win (18 second-half points), a road win at Temple (30 of SMU’s 66 points) and an AAC tourney win vs. East Carolina (36 points). He could improve his defense and passing, but he was SMU’s best player this year.
I hope SMU fans can appreciate how good Brown was this year, especially late. In his last seven games, he scored 16 or more points six times. Twice in that stretch, he scored at least 22. In all seven of those games, he shot better than 50 percent from the floor and from 3-point range. He ended the season as SMU’s second-leading scorer (13.4 points per game) and averaged 6.5 rebounds per game. He led SMU in steals (50) and was second on the team in assists. He shot a team-best 45 percent (61-for-136) on 3-pointers. He frequently guarded an opponent’s best player on defense. I also hope his growth from last year to this year is appreciated. Even though his shooting numbers were better a season ago, Brown’s offensive game evolved considerably. He became a legitimate shooter off the dribble, and a go-to shooter overall. Before, he was mainly a catch-and-shoot guy. He also consistently beat defenders when he put the ball on the floor.
Obviously, any significant or lengthy-absence injury to one of SMU’s six rotation players would have hurt the team. But if Moore was hurt, I think it would have hurt the most. There’s nothing super sexy about his numbers (11.4 points 7.8 rebounds per game), but he was as valuable to SMU as anyone else. He was SMU’s closest thing to a five-man and played 32 minutes per game. He had significantly better quickness than most of the opposing fives he faced this season, especially in conference play. SMU played him outside the paint a lot, and most times an opposing center came out to defend his dribble, Moore went right by him. Even though he is 6-8 and gives up a couple inches on defense, his interior defensive ability was critical for SMU. He kept a lot of players out of the lane. He could defend on the perimeter as well. His interior passing ability (and passing ability overall) is impressing for a big man and gave defenses fits.
Milton played the most minutes of anyone on SMU this year (35.4 per game). He finished as the team’s third-leading scorer, at 13.0 points per game, and made a team-best 82 3-pointers. His five-game stretch from Jan. 25 to Feb. 4 was particularly impressive: 21.4 points per game, 4.8 assists per game, 21-fo-38 from 3 (55 percent) and seven total turnovers. He had a rougher stretch toward the end of the season: He had three single-digit scoring outings and four games below 40 percent shooting in SMU’s final eight games. Milton grew into the role as SMU’s point guard very well. He has the ability to create shots for himself and others. SMU could have used a little more consistency from him at the end of the season, but Milton still had an impressive year and built off a strong freshman year in 2015-16.
Foster was SMU’s fifth option, but still provided a few big games on offense. He just missed out on averaging 10 points per game (he finished at 9.9). His two games against Tulane were impressive (19 points in each, 16-for-25 from the field), as was his 18-point day vs. Eastern Michigan. Foster’s ability to put the ball on the floor and get by defenders improved throughout the season. He got more comfortable being a driver and moving with the ball, instead of mainly a cutter to the hoop. He’s mainly a catch-and-shoot guy, but he led SMU in 3-point percentage (44.4). He looked more confident and comfortable on offense this season. Defensively, he was as good as anyone else on the team on the perimeter. He gets a lot of blocks for a guard, both as a help defender and on his own man. He took the most charges on the team. For Foster’s offensive game to take the next step, he needs to get better off the dribble and become a more versatile shooter. If he does, he can be a really good scorer.
Emelogu’s numbers might jump out as ugly: 4.3 points in 21 minutes per game, 33 percent from the floor and 29 percent from 3. But he was SMU’s only real bench option from the start of conference play forward. He shot 36 percent from 3-point range from Dec. 27 to the end of the season. He rescued SMU in some games where its offense was absent early, such as the Feb. 12 win vs. Cincinnati and the Feb. 18 win vs. Houston. Those were two of his highest-scoring games of the season. He had other games where he played well when SMU started great (Jan. 21 win vs. Houston, AAC title game). In those games, he played good defense and passed well. His contributions weren’t just in the scoring column. He handled his move to the bench in November admirably and unselfishly. The problem, though, is that he was streaky through the season. He had some rough offensive games as well (Jan. 12 at Cincinnati, Feb. 9 at Temple, tournament loss to USC). He isn’t much of a shot creator or facilitator, which is an issue when he plays on the ball. He’s not much of a driver, and when he does get in the paint, he’s not that productive as a scorer or passer. If Emelogu was a little more consistent in his role as a defender and shooter, his numbers would have been higher. Still, SMU needed him greatly for most of the year, and he had some important games.
The lone freshman to last the entire season on SMU’s roster, McDowell averaged 1.4 points per game. He cracked double-digit minutes in four conference games. His three highest single-game minute totals in AAC play came in SMU’s three largest margin of victory wins. McDowell handled his limited time well and didn’t make a fuss about it. Ultimately, SMU needed him to play meaningful minutes because its bench was so short, but didn’t feel he could. It’s easy to feel bad for him given that situation. He did make a few nice passes in some games this year. McDowell didn’t play in the tournament loss to USC. He missed three games in February with a concussion.
Tim Jankovich said all season that Wilfong deserved more minutes. He just couldn’t bring himself to take out other guys in favor of Wilfong. On senior day vs. Memphis, though, he started and played 16 minutes. He played the first five minutes of the game, and when he came out, SMU led 17-6. He had two assists in that span. Wilfong was sometimes used in the final couple minutes in the first half, to give starters a rest or keep them out of foul trouble. He did just that in the Jan. 25 win at UCF and Feb. 18 win at Houston. When Jankovich needed Wilfong to do something in a meaningful role, he did, and without messing it up. It’s unfair to give him a grade, but he did everything Jankovich asked him to do.
Wilson transferred at the conclusion of SMU’s non-conference schedule. After playing 13 minutes against Eastern Michigan, Wilson had five zero- or one-minute games. He really only looked comfortable shooting 3-pointers. It’d be unfair to give him a grade based on limited work and a tough fit.
Obviously, Froling and SMU just didn’t work. His playing style as a more traditional post player was a little different from what SMU wanted, and needed, to do given the rest of its roster makeup. Still, Froling didn’t exactly impress in his time at SMU. He was a liability on defense, looked slow on both ends, displayed inconsistent hands, fouled at a high rate (4.1 fouls called per 40 minutes) and rebounded at an average rate (15.4 percent of defensive rebounds when in the game). Those numbers were from a smaller sample size, but they still weren’t great. His midseason transfer was the best move for both sides, as it became clear the fit was poor. He is a skilled offensive player, but he just wasn’t going to work at SMU.