With losses in five of their last six games, the Mustangs appear to be getting just what they need on Saturday when North Carolina Central comes to town.
The Eagles, who are scoring just 60.9 points per game, have a 2-13 record this season, with an 0-10 road mark and a six-game losing streak.
All of that adds up to good news for SMU after it lost the conference opener to UTEP, 49-45. The Mustangs played solid defense against the Miners, a team that came into the game shooting 48.1 percent and was held to 42.9 percent.
If the Mustangs are without 6-foot-9 forward Mouhammad Faye once again, they can be vulnerable in the paint. However, North Carolina Central lacks talented big men -- its top two scorers are guards -- and shouldn't pose much of a threat.
After this break in the Conference USA schedule, the Mustangs play host to Tulsa (11-3, 1-0) on Jan. 13. UTEP 49, SMU 45: Too much of UTEP's bruising 6-foot-9, 275-pound Derrick Caracter did in a short-handed SMU squad in the Conference USA opener for both teams Wednesday night in El Paso.
Caracter, a transfer from Louisville, scored a game-high 18 points, including eight in the first half. He helped the Miners (10-3) take a 29-20 halftime lead over an SMU team that sorely missed 6-9 sophomore forward Mouhammad Faye (12.1 ppg).
The Mustangs (5-8) struggled to score all night, shooting just 42.9 percent from the field. Despite that, they turned up their defense in the second half and rallied to tie the score at 41-41 with 2:23 to play. They held UTEP to 33.3 percent shooting from the field in the second half, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range. However, UTEP made 10 of 11 free throws, including two by Caracter that gave allowed the Miners to regain the lead for good at 43-41. He added a dunk to boost the lead to 45-41, and UTEP held on.
SMU was led by senior guard Derek Williams, who had 14 points. Sophomore forward Frank Otis added nine points and 11 rebounds, and junior forward Papa Dia had eight points and six rebounds. Junior guard Randy Culpepper scored 14 for UTEP.
Since both teams joined C-USA, SMU has lost eight of nine league games against UTEP.
--A less-than-stellar non-conference showing has some in the Mustangs camp fearing a long road ahead now that Conference USA play has begun.
SMU fell Jan. 2 at Texas State, a team it had beaten 94-86 less than a month prior. Coach Matt Doherty's team hasn't shown much depth and appears to becoming even more top-heavy with senior guard Derek Williams, the team leader in assists and scoring, being the one consistent bright spot throughout the season.
Williams started the new year off with a 29-point outburst at Texas State.
Getting more consistency in alternative scoring options will be a must if SMU wants to improve on its 3-13 and last-place league showing from a year ago.
--Heading into the new year, SMU was holding opponents to a 40.6 field goal percentage in wins. In losses, opponents were shooting at a 49.5 percent clip, including 42.5 from 3-point range.
ON THE SPOT: The Mustangs continued to struggle from beyond the 3-point arc in the loss to UTEP, making just three of 15 attempts. That dropped their 3-point shooting percentage for the season to 30.4 percent. The team leader is sophomore forward Robert Nyakundi, who is shooting 36.4 percent (8-for-22).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our big focus was defense and I thought we did a good job holding them to 38 percent, 28 percent from 3(-point range)." - SMU coach Matt Doherty, after his team's Dec. 30 win over Army.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Winning four of five in one good stretch early in the season was the lone bright spot, even if none of the wins were against very good teams. SMU has shown flashes, but doesn't really have a signature win in nonleague play to hang its hat on.
Northeastern 73, SMU 62
SMU 71, Army 63
Texas State 91, SMU 86
UTEP 49, SMU 45
vs. North Carolina Central, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Tulsa, Wednesday, Jan. 13
vs. UAB, Saturday, Jan.. 16
at Rice, Wednesday, an. 20
IN FOCUS: Just one game into the Conference USA season, SMU steps away to play a nonleague contest against North Carolina Central. Then it's back into the fire with games against two of C-USA's top teams.
ROSTER REPORT: --Sophomore F Frank Otis came into the Conference USA season opener having played in 10 games this season, with no starts. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward averaged 2.1 points and 3.0 rebounds in those 10 games before stepping up with nine points and 11 rebounds in the narrow loss to UTEP.
--Senior G Derek Williams has been remarkably consistent this season, scoring 15 or more points in eight games. He leads the team in scoring at 16 ppg.
--Junior F Papa Dia is averaging 8.6 rebounds and has grabbed eight or more rebounds seven times this season.