SMU’s strong season has been based on defense, and Central Florida learned all about it the last time these teams met.
The No. 23 Mustangs stifled the Knights more than a month ago and will look to improve to 15-0 at home in Saturday’s rematch.
SMU (22-6, 11-4 American Athletic Conference) is limiting opponents to 36.8 percent shooting for the nation’s second-best mark. That kind of defense was on display in Sunday’s 64-55 victory at then-No. 21 Connecticut.
The Huskies shot 29.6 percent – the lowest by a Mustangs opponent and the worst mark by UConn since 1997. It took the Huskies more than six minutes to score.
"They’ve got a good group of guys over there, and they play hard and they play together," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie about the Mustangs. "They were tough defensively, but you just have to move the basketball."
Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has built his defensive scheme around 6-foot-4 guard Nick Russell, with 6-9 Markus Kennedy and 6-7 Shawn Williams anchoring the frontcourt.
”We have as good a defensive guard as there is in the country in Nick Russell, and we have some length behind him,” Brown said.
The Mustangs yielded their lowest point total in a 58-46 win over Central Florida (11-15, 3-12) on Jan. 18. The Knights shot 31.3 percent and had 19 turnovers to nine assists.
Facing tougher competition in this first-year conference has been difficult for UCF, which is tied with South Florida for eighth place in the 10-team league.
"These guys feel like they’ve been competing at a really high level and we’re making a move into this next level," coach Donnie Jones said. "It’s something that has to be learned. We haven’t had to play this competition night in and night out so we’re learning mentally the toughness that’s involved."
The Knights have dropped 10 straight against ranked teams, including seven defeats this season by an average of 17.7 points. They are feeling better about themselves after Wednesday’s 67-65 comeback win over Rutgers.
UCF was down by 15 with 9:30 left and eight with 4:38 to go before using a 16-6 run to finish the game that was sparked by Isaiah Sykes, who scored nine of his 14 points in that spurt.
"The great teams finish down the stretch and that’s the difference between the ones at the top of the league and the ones at the bottom of the league," Jones said. "And that’s what we did tonight."
SMU is ranked for the second time, having debuted in the Top 25 this season at No. 23 two weeks ago. This is its first home game as a ranked team since March 9, 1985.
The Mustangs are on course for their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993, but they have bigger goals in mind with the Final Four set for nearby Arlington at AT&T Stadium.
”It’s not about getting to the tournament,” Kennedy said. ”It’s about getting a good seed and making a run for it. We’ve got the Final Four in our city and it should be a home game for us.”