SMU riding “positionless basketball” to total dominance

Mingo Nesmith/Icon Sportswire

The official box scores from SMU basketball games look like any other. There are lineup spots for two forwards and three guards and that’s not unusual. These days we have seen an overall decrease in legitimate centers and teams tend to improvise.

It’s just a trend.

But with SMU, that’s the end of any silliness known as positions. Once the Mustangs start playing, as they will in Tulsa Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, coach Tim Jankovich rolls out his unconventional offense again.

SMU will just hoop.

Call it a “five-guard” game. Call it a “five-wing” offense. Temple coach Fran Dunphy calls them the “five mediums.”

“I love their balance,” Dunphy said. “One TV commentator had a great comment about them. They don’t play with bigs or littles, they have five mediums – and they just play basketball.”

Jankovich, in his first full season replacing Larry Brown as SMU coach, has led the Mustangs to a remarkable 30-4 record, the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships, and the No. 6 seed in the East Region. On Friday they will play the winner of the First Four game between Providence and Southern California.

He has no nickname for this style of play.

“I’m not clever enough for that,” Jankovich said.

But left with seven scholarship players after all the NCAA sanctions that came during Brown’s tenure, Jankovich had a strong feeling that this would work.

Semi Ojeleye, Ben Moore, Shake Milton, Sterling Brown and Jarrey Foster start and play the bulk of the minutes. Ben Emelogu and Dashawn McDowell come off the bench. In Sunday’s 71-56 victory over Cincinnati in the AAC Tournament championship game, Milton (the designated point guard) played 40 minutes and the other starters logged 32 minutes or more.

Milton, Brown and Foster are all 6-6. Ojeleye, the regular season and tournament player of the year in the AAC, is 6-7 and Moore is 6-8. They weigh between 205 (Milton) and 235 (Ojeleye).

“Everybody wants to be guards,” Jankovich said. “Seven-foot guys want to be guards. So I just call them all guards so nobody gets offended by who’s our big guy. The parts are interchangeable, It’s been a fun way to play. In all the years I’ve been in coaching, I’ve never coached a team like this. It’s really fun because it allows you to be a little bit creative and get outside of the box. I really enjoy that.”

Jankovich, who began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater (Kansas State) in 1984, is the creative director. This was his idea. He didn’t dig into his files or call up any charts stored on his computer. He says none of his mentors – Brown, Bill Self, Eddie Sutton, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, Boyd Grant, Gene Iba, Bob Weltlich or Kevin Stallings – had used “five mediums.”

SMU’s direction changed in mid-December when freshman forward Harry Froling, 6-11 and 260 pounds, left the Mustangs after 10 games. He eventually transferred to Marquette and his departure allowed Jankovich to move ahead with the idea he had before the season started.

“That allowed me to go full throttle in the direction I actually wanted to go,” Jankovich said. “I don’t mean he was holding us back. We thought he had potential and we were caught a little in-between.

“It just became pretty obvious where we should go. You have to have the right players and these are the right players. These guys have been terrific. Having a system, actually kind of bores me. And it can be dangerous unless you can recruit whoever you want.”

Two other developments helped SMU reach this point. Milton has been amazing at point guard, a different type of player compared to two-time AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore but still a catalyst. Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke, has been sensational and steady.

UNIVERSITY PARK, TX – JANUARY 07: SMU Mustangs guard Shake Milton (1) makes a pass underneath the basket during the NCAA men’s basketball game between the SMU Mustangs and USF Bulls on January 7, 2017, at Moody Coliseum in Dallas, TX. SMU remained unbeaten in the AAC. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire)

On Feb. 25 the Mustangs went into Hartford and defeated rival UConn 69-61. Milton hit 6 of 7 from 3-point range in the first half and scored 18 points on the way to a 20-point performance. Ojeleye had nine points in the second half and finished with 16. Moore had 15 points and nine rebounds. Brown scored 11.

“What I do know about this team is that we have a lot of good shooters,” Jankovich said. “On any given night, and this is what has happened all year long, you never know where the fire may break out, We have had the fire break out all different places.”

Milton doesn’t mind playing in the anonymity of SMU basketball. This team has stayed under the radar most of the season but will be a tough out in the tournament. Many coaches think the Mustangs have Final Four potential.

“With this team, everybody stays ready,” Milton said. “So, it doesn’t matter whose night it is. Everybody is unselfish as well. If you’re hot, we’re going to get you the ball.”

The players have bought in. They know when things aren’t going right and quickly correct it. They trust Jankovich implicitly.

“We can’t forget what’s gotten us here,” Ojeleye said. “Our defense, our rebounding, our transition defense, stand together, stand unified. All of the little things that Coach talks about in practice, they show up in big games.”

Ojeleye mentions defense first because the Mustangs thrive when they are shutting down opponents. They have held 24 of the last 27 opponents to 66 points or fewer. They take a 16-game winning streak into the tournament and have won 26 of their last 27 games. In the last 23 they have outshot their opponents, and in 24 games they’ve had four players score in double figures.

SMU is better than a No. 6 seed. The Mustangs have felt slighted before and complained. It didn’t change anything. The AAC simply doesn’t get respect from the NCAA selection committee. Then in late 2015, SMU was hit with the one-year postseason ban and loss of nine scholarships over three seasons. Brown’s departure ended that era and Jankovich refuses to be negative.

The Mustangs have had enough of that.

“I really could start bitching and whining [about our seed],” Jankovich said. “But the truth is I don’t care at all. They’re just numbers. It’s like preseason rankings. They’re just silly numbers.”

This is a much different time in SMU history, and this is a different type of team. Jankovich has created it. He has promoted it. Now everyone is happy, and that may translate into a deep tournament run over the next couple of weeks.

“I love being with them,” Jankovich said. “I love what they stand for. I love the fact that they have been a part of the most wins in school history. And it’s not an accident, because that’s really what they play for.

“Supposedly we’re all playing for that. You know what? We live in a day and age where that’s not necessarily the case.”

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