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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.

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