Friday, January 9, 2015

SMU Big Men

Memphis never had much of a chance on Thursday, losing 73-59 at SMU in a game that was essentially over by halftime. After losing four senior guards to graduation, Josh Pastner's team is struggling to shoot the ball and run offense in the half-court, which makes it almost impossible to beat a quality opponent like SMU on the road. Pastner has never been able to get out of the shadow of John Calipari in Memphis and the program's first true rebuilding season in his tenure is only going to fuel his many doubters. It's not like there still isn't a lot of talent in the program - their two starting big men (Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols) are both fringe NBA prospects.

That's what was most impressive about SMU's win. Their big men, primarily the trio of Yanick Moreira, Markus Kennedy and Ben Moore, was once again able to dominate their individual match-up against elite competition. The Mustangs got only 8 points from their starting backcourt of Nic Moore and Ryan Manuel, but it didn't matter because they got 15 from Moreira, 12 from Ben Moore and 21 from Kennedy off the bench. The Tigers big men, in contrast, were totally held in check, with 11 points on 12 shots for Nichols and 5 points on 3 shots for Goodwin.

Goodwin is an athletic 6'9 230 power forward while Nichols checks in at 6'8 230 and is one of the leading shot-blockers in the country. Think of them like a poor man's combination of Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Wiltjer - they are bigger, longer and more athletic than the vast majority of college frontcourts. That wasn't the case against SMU, though, as Nichols and Goodwin struggled with the combined amount of length and athleticism from the Mustangs big men. On offense, they were pushed around and got their shots repeatedly sent back in their face. On defense, they struggled to defend in space and couldn't handle a frontcourt that could punish them from every part of the floor.

If there's a consolation for Memphis, it's that Goodwin and Nichols are hardly the only highly-touted big men to struggle against Larry Brown's boys. Earlier this season, while Kennedy was still sitting out because of an academic issue, Moreira and B. Moore had little trouble with Alan Kennedy of UC-Santa Barbara in a 70-63 OT win at home. Kennedy, a 6'8 265 ball of muscle, has been making short work of most of the low major teams he faces to the point where DraftExpress has him as a late second-round pick in their latest mock. He is averaging 20 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3 blocks a game on 47.5% shooting. Against SMU, he had 9 points on 14 shots.

The key was Moreira, a junior college transfer whose turned himself into a legitimate NBA prospect in his two seasons on the Hilltop. At 6'11 220, he's a long and athletic shot-blocker with a growing offensive game. He has a consistent 15-20 foot jumper, he can put the ball on the floor and he can shoot over the top of smaller players in the post. On the other end of the floor, he can move in space and play above the rim. The biggest thing he needs to improve is gaining some strength, as he will need a little more heft to bang with some of the bigger C's at the next level. He reminds me a lot of former Maverick great Bernard "Sarge" James - if he can get to 235-240 pounds, he could have a long career in the NBA as a back-up 5.

Moreira's stats don't really jump off the page because he is a part of such a deep SMU team, which plays four big men significant minutes. (Cannen Cunningham, a 6'10 230 senior, is a warm body who plays a little over 11 minutes a game off the bench). To see how well Moreira is playing, you have to look at his per-minute numbers. It's much the same story for Kennedy and Moore, the two other key cogs in the Mustangs rotation upfront.

Per Game
Per 40 Minutes
Yanick Moreira
12 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2 blocks on 61% shooting
19.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks
Ben Moore
9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists on 45% shooting
13 points, 9 rebounds and 3.5 assists
Markus Kennedy
8 points, 4 rebounds, 1.5 steals on 51% shooting
18 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals

Moore has been one of the biggest revelations this season, taking over the starting PF spot when Kennedy was suspended and holding on to if even after his return. At 6'8 185, Moore is more of a combo forward, a perimeter-oriented player who prefers to face up guys out of the high post and attack off the dribble. He's got a rare combination of size, athleticism and skill, as he also doubles as SMU's emergency PG. In terms of pro potential, Moore will have to improve his three-point shooting and play as a SF, which was the original plan this season before Kennedy's suspension. He's still only a sophomore, so there's a good chance he could develop into the American POY before his college career is over.

Kennedy is an interesting case - a transfer from Villanova, he has the biggest name and the most advanced offensive game of the three. At 6'9 245, he's a tank who can bully smaller players at the rim and take bigger ones off the dribble on the perimeter. But while he would have been the perfect backup PF on an Eastern Conference team in the mid 1990's, Kennedy's game isn't suited for the modern NBA, where he would be too small to be a C and not skilled enough to play as a PF. Still only a junior, if he's going to have a chance to play at the next level, he's going to have to be automatic from 15-20+ feet.

All three guys work well together and Larry Brown does a good job of cycling through them over the course of a game, giving the other team a number of different looks in the frontcourt. Brown likes to run a lot of offense through the high post and the high pick-and-roll and his big men's ability to step out and knock down a perimeter jumper, make the extra pass and play high-low gives his team a ton of different options in the half-court. On defense, Moreira is the shot-blocker, Kennedy is the low post anchor and Moore is the perimeter stopper. No one is talking about these guys, but they have one of the best front-courts in the country.

As a unit, they have only really struggled in two games this season - they lost in the first week of the season at Gonzaga, which features an even bigger trio of NBA prospects in Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer and Donatas Sabonis and they were outmatched by Arkansas big man Bobby Portis, one of the most underrated players in the country, who was able to score on them on the perimeter and on the block in a convincing win at Moody Coliseum in November. If you are a big man who can dominate SMU, you are almost certainly an NBA player. The good news for the Mustangs is there aren't many of those guys in the American.

With the exception of Memphis, the only other team with an NBA prospect upfront is UConn, which features 7'0 sophomore Amidah Brimah. Brimah is bigger than Moreira, but he's nowhere near as polished a player. Expect SMU to try and make him defend on the perimeter and open up the defense behind him. It will be interesting to see whether Kevin Ollie elects to put Brimah on Moreira, the taller player, or Kennedy, the better post scorer.

When you combine the trio of Moreira, Kennedy and Ben Moore with Nic Moore (no relation), Ryan Manuel and Keith Frazier on the perimeter, the Mustangs have one of the most balanced and well-rounded teams in the country. It took Larry Brown's a little time to find their sea legs this season, but they are rounding into shape at the perfect time. If they can get into the field of 68, which won't be easy given that the American may end up being only a one or two bid league, they aren't going to be a team that anyone wants to face in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

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