Short-handed No. 19 SMU leading AAC, has won 18 of last 19
DALLAS (AP) SMU coach Tim Jankovich is getting to the point that he doesn’t panic when he looks to his bench during games and sees the few options he has.
That has just become the norm for the 19th-ranked Mustangs, who keep winning even when down to six available scholarship players.
”It used to be more stressful for me,” Jankovich said. ”I have gotten an education in short bench.”
The Mustangs (22-4) have won 18 of their last 19 games, and took over the American Athletic Conference lead with their 60-51 win over then-No. 11 Cincinnati on Sunday when only the six scholarship players in uniform played.
”Even if we had a lot of numbers, I think the way our team is, and the personality that we have on this team, we’re very competitive,” guard Ben Emelogu said.
Their numbers have been reduced by NCAA sanctions and the unexpected departures of two Australian freshmen after only 10 games this season. Another freshman has missed the last two games because of concussion protocol, and another scholarship player is sitting out this season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.
But the Mustangs’ only loss on the court since November was 66-64 at Cincinnati on Jan. 12, and they avenged that exactly a month later to go into first place in the AAC with five games left in the regular season.
Not only has Jankovich learned how to deal with a short bench, so have the players. Five of them average at least 31 minutes a game in conference play, with guard Shake Milton playing nearly 37 minutes and former Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye on the floor about 36 minutes a game.
”It says that they are incredibly competitive, it says they’re incredibly mature and amazingly bright because they know we don’t have many (players) to put in,” Jankovich said. ”They get it. To me, it speaks to the quality of their character and their drive and their intelligence that they know how to manage games.”
Jankovich is in his first season as SMU’s coach after four years as associate head coach for Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach who resigned last summer with a year left on his SMU contract.
The Mustangs went 25-5 last season, when they also finished with seven available scholarship players, but were banned then from postseason play because of sanctions. The NCAA ruled in September 2015 that a former administrative assistant in the basketball office completed online course work for a player to meet NCAA initial eligibility and be admitted to the university.
Eligible again for postseason play this year, the Mustangs still have to do without a total of four scholarships over the next two seasons. With six expected returning players and four signees, they would go into next season with 10 scholarship players, three under the normal NCAA limit.
SMU plays Tulane on Wednesday night at home, where the Mustangs have won 19 consecutive games and all 15 this season. They are 22-0 in Moody Coliseum under Jankovich, including past games he filled in for Brown.
”Our heads are high. We’re feeling very confident, we’re feeling unbeatable,” Emelogu said. ”But we always have to focus that one game at a time, and just head into the postseason with momentum and go on a run.”
SMU moved up six spots in this week’s AP Top 25 after getting into the poll last week for the first time this season.
”I loved that they got ranked because they deserved it,” Jankovich said of his players. ”Now more people will be talking about them, more people will be looking at them, more people will respect them. I think that not enough people around the country are really digging into what they’re doing.”
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