In Larry Brown's return last night from a nine-game suspension No. 18 SMU crushed Kent State and will face Colorado in the Las Vegas Classic finale. Besides Iowa State, SMU stands as Colorado's toughest opponent so far this season. A win tonight, and the Buffs have a key victory to hang onto come Selection Sunday, but it won't be the least bit easy.
On the season to date, SMU has accumulated proud wins aplenty. In successive weeks the Ponies have crushed Stanford on the road, edged TCU in Waco, and blown out Michigan at home. The last of which is most impressive, especially considering that SMU held Michigan's Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert -- two NBA-caliber wings -- to just 14 points combined.
Luckily though, SMU will focus on shutting down the paint and won't look to mercilessly lockdown the Buffaloes' Wild Wings, as they did the Michigan men. SMU uses a conservative defense that focuses their attention on stopping high percentage shots at the rim. SMU has a top-50 ranked defense and it's because they play excellent team defense that capitalizes on the unique talents of their players. Besides their 5'9 point guard Nic Moore (more on him shortly), the Mustangs have loads of size and length that shrink passing lanes and bother shots.
In packing the paint, SMU willingly concedes three-pointers, but Larry Brown's defensive strategy may be advantageous for the sweet shooting Buffaloes. Josh Scott may have a tough time in the clogged paint, especially with Mustang guards dipping into the paint, but if he finds teammates along the perimeter consistently, the Buffs may very well shoot themselves into a victory. Also, a clogged paint doesn't necessarily spell doom for Scott as the senior forward has proven time and again that when he's healthy, he can score against any defense. It's also worth noting that SMU has struggled a bit with foul trouble, and if it affects their defensive physicality, Josh Scott could wreak havoc on their interior defense.
How Colorado matches up defensively is less cut and dry. Though they play at a slower than average pace, SMU has the 10th most efficient offense in the country. The toughest part about playing defense against them is that of their eight man rotation, each one has a higher offensive rating than George King, CU's second highest rated player (sorry Mitch Lombard, Brett Brady and Josh Repine, you don't quite qualify). SMU's best player and team leader is Nic Moore, an excellent marksmen who loves to oop to his bigs, particularly the jumpy Jordan Tolbert. In last night's victory over Kent State, Moore finished with 25 points and 8 assists. Tad Boyle will need Collier to have the best defensive game of his career to win this matchup, but in the words of Kevin Garnett, anything is possible.
Besides Nic Moore running the pick and roll, SMU will look to post up Markus Kennedy. At 6'9, 260, Kennedy is mountain of a man who loves to bully weaker opponents on the block. Though Kennedy will be a bit hampered by an ankle injury, the defensive chops of Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon will be tested immensely -- no Buff has faced anyone this physically imposing since Utah's Jakob Poeltl last March. This duel down low could easily be the most captivating in-game battle and the winner could decide the game.
The player that scares me the most, more than Nic Moore, Tolbert or Kennedy, is Keith Frazier. Woods' pal Alan Ives, the SMU superfan who graciously gave me most of the content in this preview, has nicknamed Frazier "Fire and Ice" because of his streakiness from beyond the arc. Ives explained, "When Frazier's on, he can shoot the other team out of the gym. When he's off, it can get ugly in a hurry. His first few shots are critical because he gets down on himself if he misses a few in a row."
I haven't exactly recovered from Brady Heslip-, or Bryce Alford-induced PTSD, so Frazier strikes the fear of God in me. If he gets hot, this game may be over before it gets started, but if Josh Fortune forces him into a slump, tally one for the Buffs.
Overall, Colorado is more than capable of pulling off the upset tonight. All they really have to do (right?) is shoot well from beyond the arc, win the battle on the block and mitigate the success of Nic Moore to eek out a victory.
Colorado 83, SMU 80