It’s too strong to say that SMU saved their season on Wednesday night.
The Mustangs already own a neutral court win over No. 14 Arizona. They also knocked off USC, Boise State and UCF, all of which will be varying degrees of “good win” come Selection Sunday. That loss to Northern Iowa doesn’t look good today, and it’s hard to imagine losses to Tulane and Temple – the latter of which came at home – are going to age gracefully, but in a year where it seems like everyone is mediocre at best, a marquee win combined with a stable of solid résumé wins could end up being enough.
That said, on Wednesday, SMU sure went a long way towards making sure they won’t have to sweat out the bracket reveal, as the Mustangs went into Koch Arena and knocked off No. 7 Wichita State, 83-78. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for SMU.
The star of the show was Shake Milton. A player that has had NBA hype for what seems like the better part of a decade, Milton had a career-high 33 points on Wednesday night, the best game of his career in what has been a breakout junior season. He did it on 11-for-14 shooting, making 5-for-6 from three and outdueling fellow NBA Draft prospect Landry Shamet, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists.
SMU now has two elite wins to pin at the top of the tournament profile – both of which came away from home – and it affords them a bit of breathing room as they matriculate through American play.
This win isn’t just a big deal for SMU.
It matters for the American has a whole as well.
Heading into today, it looked like the conference was trending towards getting just two bids to the Big Dance – Wichita State and Cincinnati – and that, in turn, created a problem for everyone else in the conference. If there are only two good teams in the league then there are only two teams that American bubble dwellers can beat and improve their résumé. We won’t know how much this affects SMU’s computer numbers until they update, but it is safe to assume that a win over a team that is top 20 in both the RPI and KenPom will help significantly. Entering Tuesday, SMU was rated 83rd in the RPI.
Assuming that Jarrey Foster’s knee sprain doesn’t turn out to be serious – he left the game after six minutes and did not return – than this day could not have possibly gone better for the Mustangs.
On the other hand, it does raise some questions about this Wichita State team.
As we noted earlier today, Wichita’s defense hasn’t exactly been great this season. They entered today ranked outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and the return of Markis McDuffie, who has yet to return to the starting lineup, has not exactly helped matters.
But it really came to a head on Wednesday night. SMU scored 83 points on 60 possessions, or 1.383 points-per-possession, which is the worst ass-kicking that the Shockers have received under Gregg Marshall, who has been employed by the school for a decade. The only time anyone came close to that involved Doug McDermott going for 41 points and shooting 15-for-18 from the floor.
And that game came on the road.
I wrote a column earlier this season wondering whether or not we could start discussing Wichita State as potentially the best team in the country. That column was predicated on the idea that the Shockers were going to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams.
Because they always are.
During this six-year run of consecutive NCAA tournaments, the Shockers have never finished lower than 26th in defensive efficiency. The last four years they’ve finished in the top 15, and that is despite playing in the Missouri Valley. (KenPom adjusts his efficiency numbers for opponent strength.)
Wichita State was 26th entering today.
They’re now 55th.
Only two teams have ever reached a national title game with a lower defensive efficiency.
This is a problem that badly needs fixing, but if McDuffie wasn’t the answer, is there one?