Thursday, January 7, 2016

SMU vs. Cincy

What a wild game this was. It certainly didn't feel like a CBB regular season game in January. SMU escaped by the skin of their teeth in a game they almost certainly should have lost and kept their undefeated season alive. At least so far, they've managed to turn lemons into lemonade and turned their post-season ban and all the drama that has surrounded the program over the last year into a rallying cry. It's going to be a fun ride for as long as it lasts.

Cincinnati came into the game with an almost perfect game-plan to knock off SMU:

1) They were in a full-court trapping press, which kept SMU on their toes and wore out a team that was down to 7 scholarship players following Keith Frazier's decision to leave the team on Wednesday (more on that later).

2) They dropped back into a zone in the half-court, which defanged SMU's motion offense and allowed Cincy to completely control the tempo of the game. I'm a big fan of pressing into a zone at the NCAA level - first you speed the other team up then you slow them down and you completely throw them off their normal rhythm. That's what Louisville does and it can be devastatingly effective either way in terms maximizing an athletic advantage or minimizing a talent disadvantage.

3) They pounded the ball into the post and took advantage of their size upfront. With Octavius Ellis (6'10 235), Gary Clark (6'7 235), Coreontae DeBerry (6'9 270) and Quadri Moore (6'8 230), Cincy was the first team this season that was really able to attack SMU upfront and punish them for their lack of players above 6'8+ and for starting a 215 pound player at the 4 in Ben Moore.

4) They crashed the offensive boards and kept SMU out of transition, which is where they are most effective.

If Mick Cronin was drawing up a formula for pulling off the upset, it would have went something like this - 14 offensive rebounds and 12 steals - and you really should win a game when you have such a sizeable edge in terms of number of possessions. Cincy took 61 shots in comparison to 43 for SMU.

It's hard to knock the SMU coaching staff considering they were down to 6 scholarship players following Sterling Brown's ejection in the first half for running on to the court from the scorer's table while a brawl nearly erupted on the floor. Nevertheless, there were two things they probably should have done differently:

1) Played Ben Moore at the 3 more often. They stuck with their 3-man big man rotation for most of the 2nd half until the final 5 minutes when they had Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert on the floor, which was the unit they needed to have out there in order to keep Cincy off the glass.

2) They seemed shell-shocked by Brown's ejection and they were kind of stuck in no man's land on defense until the final few minutes. They weren't being aggressive and trying to force tempo the other way and generate some easy shots in transition and they didn't fall back, pack the paint and prevent the Cincy big men from scoring in the post. Of course, it's tough to attack on defense when you are down to 6 rotation players and their legs were clearly tired by the end of the game, especially considering the physical brand of basketball that Cincy plays.

For as great as SMU has been this season, it's going to be tough for them to keep the dream alive without Frazier. It's not just the scoring punch, three-point shooting and two-way play that Frazier provided - it's that there's no one left on the bench. Ben Emelogu is out for the season with a knee injury, Sedrick Barefield left the team in December and Semi Ojeleye opted to redshirt once the post-season ban came down. That's 4 scholarship players off the roster and 7 guys left, which means SMU isn't going to be to survive any type of injury or foul trouble. They still have enough talent to pull off the undefeated season but the margin for error is going to be zero going forward.
  • What I heard was that Frazier had been causing a lot of problems ever since being benched for Shake Milton took his starting spot about a month ago and things got to the point where it was almost a mutual decision for him to leave. It's unclear whether he will end up transferring to another NCAA school but his general struggles on the academic side of things and his timetable after leaving in the middle of his junior season will be difficult. He might end up pulling a PJ Hairston and trying to join a D-League team or Larry Brown might be able to pull some strings with a pro team overseas to get him a job. The shame of it is that Frazier has all the tools to be an NBA player but he's not quite good enough to be worth all the trouble that he causes and he has cost himself a lot of money over the last few years. He's still young enough to turn things around so hopefully this whole experience will teach him a few valuable lessons.
As far as Cincy goes, this looks like every other team that Mick Cronin has had over the last few years. They are big, they are physical, they get into you on defense and they basically play prison basketball. They aren't a great team in terms of half-court execution and they struggle to shoot the ball from the perimeter. They should be able to make the NCAA Tournament and when they do they will give trouble to a team that can't match up with them athletically but they will struggle against a high-major team who can match up with them or a mid-major team who can zone them and win from the 3-point line. They might win one game in March but I'd be pretty surprised if they made the Sweet 16 unless they got the perfect draw.

A few NBA draft take-aways from this one:
  • Ben Moore struggled with Cincy's size at the 4 but he showcased his versatility by sliding over to 3 and he made a lot of great plays to beat the zone in the 2nd half. He can really handle and pass the ball for a 6'8 guy and he showcased a really nice floater off the dribble game, which is almost impossible to stop for a guy with his size. He just needs to add a few more feet to his shooting range and extend it out to the 3-point line and he's an NBA player for sure.
  • Jordan Tolbert's eye-popping efficiency numbers have made a waves on a lot of the metrics that NBA teams are using to evaluate NCAA players but the basic problem in his game when it comes to projecting him to the next level was obvious in this one. He's not big enough to play inside in the NBA and he doesn't have the skill-set to play on the outside. He'll have a long career overseas, though, because he is a really good basketball player.
  • Shake Milton cooled off a bit from the 3-point line (1-6) and he made some poor decisions against the press (3 turnovers) but he continues to impress as a prospect. He made some brilliant passes through the zone and showed great touch with a couple of tough runners and he plays with a poise that is very uncommon for a young guard. He's a smooth player who never seems to get sped up and he always plays the game at his own pace. He didn't get a lot of NBA press coming out of high school but I'd take him over projected lottery pick Jamal Murray without thinking twice, although I'm not sure who that says more about.
  • You saw the good and the bad from Nic Moore in this one. He hit some money 3's late in the game and he's clearly the leader of this team on and off the court. His teammates love him and Larry Brown spoke glowingly about him after the game. The problem is still the size though and Farad Moore (6-11 from 3) repeatedly shot over the top of him on D like he wasn't even there. If Cincy had won the game, everyone would have pointed at Farad Moore's line and that was primarily off of playing against Nic Moore.
  • I'm not sure there's really any NBA prospects on the Cincy team. They have some guys with the size and physical tools but no one with the all-around skill-set that makes you think next level. The one guy who might have a chance is Troy Caupain, who did a really good job of controlling tempo and running the offense as a 6'4 205 PG. He's going to have to be a better 3-point shooter (30% on 4.7 3PA's) to have a chance.

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