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LEGENDS 106 @ MAINE 122

Early recruiting returns may give SMU football a ray of hope

As the new year approaches, college football programs like Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State and Florida State are preparing for their first ever playoff in the game’s history. It’s a shot at the national championship that the SMU Mustangs sadly knew they wouldn’t have once the 2014 season began, but as the Mustang faithful must watch those teams play, they may at least have some hope for the future.

When June Jones walked away from SMU football two games into the 2014 season, many jumped on the fact that his team had the fewest Texas-based players than any other Division I program in the state. But was that a fair accusation? That number may have been the lowest at the time, but SMU did have prospects like James Proche II, a highly ranked recruit out of DeSoto, committing to them back in the summer.

Was Jones on the verge of turning things around? We may never know, but those loyal to the Ponies are hoping Chad Morris can accelerate that process. And so far, the early returns are promising.

At the moment, coaches are in what’s known as the “dead period” where they cannot meet with high school prospects until Jan. 15. But already, thanks in large part to the two weeks Morris had to visit players after taking the job before that period began, SMU’s new coach has been pulling some surprises.

One of the big ones came just a few days after the period began, when Waco Midway quarterback Ben Hicks switched commitments and announced he would come to the Mustangs. The three-star play-caller dropped his verbal commitment to Houston (that had included a plan to enroll early and signing a financial aid agreement) after that school fired coach Tony Levine and was immediately courted by Texas Tech before making his announcement to come to the Hilltop.

The shocker that Hicks will come to University Park came four days after Irving Nimitz defensive lineman Michael Scott revived his previously dropped commitment to play for SMU, joining twin brother Delonte with the Mustangs after all.

Michael could be a huge step toward improving the battered SMU defense that too many offenses shredded last season, as SMU gave up more than 40 points eight times in 2014. Morris would be getting a player ranked just outside the top 100 defensive ends in the country and 10th best in the state.

Meanwhile, Hicks would give SMU at least a quarterback for the future, even if Morris could be set for the next year or two with returner Matt Davis. What Davis and Morris need more than anything are more weapons on the field to revive an offense that only managed three touchdowns on home turf, and that could come not just in Proche but also D’erren Wilson, a top 25 receiver prospect out of Greenville that committed to SMU on Dec. 11.

In fact, of the 13 commitments the Mustangs currently have, four of them are ranked as top 10 prospects at their positions, including two in the top five.

That’s not to say SMU doesn’t have ground to make up. They are still behind TCU and UNT in recruits, with those schools having 21 and 16 commitments respectively. But the Mustangs do have more North Texas commits than the Mean Green (4) while they do trail the Horned Frogs (9).

In a way, this is the one silver lining SMU had in Jones leaving so early. By announcing a new coach with a month to go in the regular season, SMU had weeks ahead of other programs that did not see coaches depart until that same point in time. Michigan may have landed the man it wanted in Jim Harbaugh, but he’ll only have roughly two weeks after the “dead period” ends to meet with prospects before signing day, compared to the time Morris had.

All commitments remain non-binding until the athletes are allowed to sign national letters of intent, which will not happen until Feb. 4.

MAVS 114 WASHINGTON 87

UTA 62 GEORGIA SOUTHERN 61
Despite scoring the first 12 points of the game and holding the Eagles without a field goal for the first five minutes, the Mavs needed a driving layup from Lonnie McClanahan with 14 seconds left to escape with a win over Georgia Southern in their Sun Belt opener at the College Park Center.
Getting a layup to win the game had a touch of irony, as UTA spent much of the game once again needing to rely on three-point shooting. In fact, both teams combined for 46 three-point attempts; the Mavs might not have had a chance except that Georgia Southern only made five shots from that range.
UTA managed to endure allowing 19 second chance points and 30 points in the paint. That inside scoring allowed the Eagles to rally from down 10 points to take a 61-60 lead on an Eric Ferguson layup with 26 seconds to, beforeMcClanahan came to the Mavs’ rescue.

For Metroplex teams, the test begins

It can seem amazing that all three Division I programs in DFW managed to wrap up the non-conference slate with winning performances and records. Despite that, each one finds itself in a different position – and yet, things are still pretty much the same for each, as it will still come down to conference play.

If there was one program hoping for a more impressive start to the season, it was definitely SMU. Now, at 9-3, Larry Brown’s crew may be just hoping that they can still live up to pre-season expectations in their own conference.

The Mustangs were hoping a schedule that included Gonzaga, Indiana, Arkansas and Michigan would make them look more attractive to the selection committee, but Markus Kennedy’s academic struggles threw a wrench into that. SMU lost the first three of those games, and the win over Michigan is suddenly not as appealing since the Wolverines have not been what they were the past two years.

So the Mustangs will definitely need a strong finish in the American conference, followed by a deep run in the conference tournament. The good news is that Brown now has his full squad that was a pre-season pick to finish second in the conference.

If they’re going to do that, though, they’re going to need more energy in effort than what they showed in what, in Brown’s view, was a lackluster performance against Midwestern State on Monday.

“Our finish was bad, our start was bad and everything in between was bad,” Brown said after Monday’s win. “We didn’t play like a team at all, that’s what disappointed me… we gotta get better sharing the ball, we gotta get better getting great shots… from here on out, it’s not that these games haven’t been meaningful, but from now on all the games we play are really meaningful.”

It’s a different atmosphere over in Fort Worth, where TCU may have already exceeded expectations. The Horned Frogs have yet to lose and have cracked its way into the top 25 – an amazing accomplishment for a program with eight losing seasons in nine years.

Yet for the skeptics, it’s still wait and see until play begins in the Big 12, where the Frogs have only won two games in the last two years.

“The team has to get ready for a grind,” coach Trent Johnson said after the Frogs’ 60-40 win over Tennessee State. “It’s something we should enjoy because it’s a challenge. Everyone talks about getting ready for the NCAA Tournament, but the Big 12 is like the NCAA Tournament because it’s a bunch of teams who are NCAA Tournament worthy.”

Thats not to say the Frogs have played nothing but cupcakes. A road win against Ole Miss back on Dec. 4 definitely turned heads across the country, which came after finishing off MIssissippi State to sweep two games in the Corpus Christi Coastal Classic. But those were the only three games the Frogs have played so far away from their makeshift home at the Wilkerson-Greines Center. After opening Big 12 play there against West Virginia on Saturday, TCU will get a real test when they travel to Kansas State on Jan. 7.

In between these two schools, Scott Cross keeps his beliefs that his UTA Mavericks can become a program like Butler or Gonzaga. But to do that, the Mavericks will first need to become a dominant force in the Sun Belt Conference.

That might be a challenge, because the Mavs so far have become extremely dependent on the three-pointer, probably too much so for a team hoping to make a deep run into the season. When the Mavs made the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and the NIT in 2012, they did it with tough play offensively and defensively up front, whether it was with Anthony Vereen and Larry Posey or with Lamarcus Reed and Jordan Reves. This year, the Mavs already have six games of shooting at least 20 three-pointers.

The good news is that UTA has been more aggressive on defense, limiting opponents to 38 percent shooting on the year so far. What’s hurt them so far on the defensive end – another testament to the lack of strength inside – has been rebounding; the Mavs’ 40.2 rebounds allowed is the worst in the Sun Belt.

They have also been able to prove they can win on the road, with a 3-3 record away from College Park Center with two of those losses against strong programs in Kentucky and Texas. That could prove valuable in a conference where five teams are currently unbeaten at home.

Regardless of where they finish, the Mavs still play in a conference where winning the Sun Belt Tournament in March is likely their one trip to getting in the dance – unlike TCU and SMU, who could potentially impress the selection committee with a strong enough finish in their conferences.

Either way, it’s clear for all three programs in the Metroplex – the real game begins now.

STARS 3 NY RANGERS 2

SMU 70 MIDWESTERN STATE 61
A very tough Division II opponent gave SMU everything it could, but the Mustangs, who trailed 48-45 at one point, managed to pull away 70-61 at Moody Coliseum.
Midwestern kept itself in the game through mostly three-point shooting, but SMU was able to counter by attacking the rim, mostly thanks to Nic Moore and Keith Frazier’s drives to the basket. Nic finished with 23 points while Frazier scored 14.
Defensively, the Mustangs were able to protect the paint as Yanick Moreira blocked nine shots (SMU blocked 13 overall) and Ben Moore finished with 13 rebounds. But Ben’s biggest rebound may have been an offensive one that came after he missed two free throws, which allowed Nic to hit two shots that helped put the game away.