DALLAS, Tex. — The holiday break has come and gone, and college basketball is set to get underway once again on Wednesday evening.
Wednesday marks the start of conference play for many teams across the country, and with that comes a plethora of intriguing match-ups as a late Christmas gift for fans across the nation. One of those must-see games will take place in Dallas, as the SMU Mustangs put their 31-game home winning streak on the line against the visiting UCF Knights.
Both teams come out of the holiday break riding winning streaks, and have the look of two top teams in the American Athletic Conference race this season. A win for either team will boost their confidence, as they try to keep pace with the Wichita State Shockers.
In 2016-17, the Mustangs won both meetings against the Knights. They picked up a 65-60 win in Orlando in their only regular season meeting, then added a 70-59 win in the AAC Tournament. UCF will look to score a little revenge on Wednesday night on the Mustangs’ home court.
Here’s what you need to know in advance of Wednesday’s AAC tilt between UCF and SMU.
The 2017-18 season has been a streaky one for UCF. After advancing to the semi-finals of the 2017 NIT last year, the Knights opened up this season with a four-game winning streak. They followed that up with a three game skid, and now find themselves back on a five game winning streak.
At 9-3, the Knights played like one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference for the vast majority of non-conference play. Wins over the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the then-24th ranked Alabama Crimson Tide highlight their non-conference schedule. The win over the Crimson Tide kicked off their current five game streak, and the Knights are coming off an 89-64 win over the South Carolina State Bulldogs before the Christmas break.
Their scoring offense ranks in the bottom fifth of the NCAA, as they average just 67.6 points per game, ranking them in a tie for 306th across the country. On the contrary, their scoring defense is among the best in the country, as they are holding teams to just 62.7 points per game (T-20th). A big reason for their strong presence on defense has been the play of big man Tacko Fall, who is averaging 2.1 blocks per contest this season. The 7’6” forward is among the best rim protectors in the country, and has recorded at least one block in eight of his games this season.
UCF’s attack on both ends goes far beyond Fall. The Knights have seven players on their roster who have seen action in at least 10 games, are averaging double-digit minutes per night, and are posting at least 5.8 points per contest. Chad Brown is averaging 1.4 blocks per game alongside Fall in the paint. Fall also leads the team in scoring, with an average of 13.4 points per contest. A.J. Davis is a close second, averaging 10.7 points to go along with a team-high 9.7 rebounds.
While the Knights have the edge in the front court against SMU, the Mustangs have the clear advantage in terms of guard play.
With the recent addition of Jahmal McMurray, the Mustangs’ back court rotation features the transfer from the South Florida Bulls, leading scorer Shake Milton, senior leader Ben Emelogu II, junior Jarrey Foster, and rising sophomore Jimmy Whitt. While not all of them play traditional guard spots, they have the talents to play the one or two and are listed as guards on the Mustangs’ roster. That’s one talented group of players, and all five of them are averaging double-digit points per game.
The Mustangs have six players total who are averaging double-digit points per game this season, led by Milton’s 17.2 points per contest. The junior is also averaging 4.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, while shooting 40.9% from the floor and 83.6% from the free throw line. In two games this season, McMurray is averaging 14.5 points in an average of 20 minutes per night. He has added a spark to the Mustangs’ offense, and has helped them extend their winning streak to three games.
On their home floor, the Mustangs have won 31 straight games. Against a talented UCF team, they will look to make it 32 straight. Like the Knights, SMU makes their mark on the defensive end. They rank 11th in the nation in terms of scoring defense, holding their opponents to an average of just 61.1 points per contest. Only one team has topped 70 points against them all season, and that was the TCU Horned Frogs, who put up 94 points in an 11-point victory.
Look for Wednesday night to be a relatively low scoring affair, as both teams are known for their defense. But, as we all know, anything can happen in college basketball, which is why games are played.
Players to Watch
UCF – Tacko Fall
The sheer presence of Tacko Fall inside gives UCF a size advantage over every team in the country. Through 10 games this season, the 7’6” junior is averaging a career-high 13.4 points per game, to go along with his 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. Fall missed the first two games of the season, but has posted eight double-digit scoring games over the 10 contests that he’s been a part of. Over his last four games, Fall has taken his game to another level. He is averaging 18.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. He has three straight double-doubles, and will be looking for a fourth against SMU on Wednesday night. Fall and the Knights will also be looking to extend their five game winning streak, and open conference play with a big road win.
SMU – Jarrey Foster
With the exception of his last two games, junior guard Jarrey Foster was one of the more consistent players for SMU over the course of non-conference play. He posted a combined 15 points over the Mustangs’ final two games before the Christmas break, but still managed to average 4.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds in those games. At the end of the day, SMU got the victories, and that’s all that matters in the end. For the season, Foster has been stuffing the stat sheet each night out, averaging 13.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. Against UCF to open conference play, Foster will look to have an impact on both ends of the floor, much like he has all season long. The addition of McMurray has added yet another weapon to the rotation for the Mustangs, and he forms a top tandem with Foster moving forwards.
Moody Coliseum has become one of the toughest places for road teams to come away with a win, evident by the Mustangs’ 31-game winning streak at home. The Knights will come in and look to be the ones that put an end to SMU’s dominance at home, but that’s easier said than done.
The Mustangs and Knights match up pretty well on the defensive end, with both teams allowing fewer than 63 points per contest. The biggest difference will be the offense for SMU, which is operating at a clip of 76.8 points per game, 9.2 points higher than that of the Knights.
Both defenses will keep it a low-scoring affair across the board, but the Mustangs will have enough offense to pick up their 32nd-straight home win.
SMU – 67
UCF – 55
– T. Bennett