Key Returners: Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster, Ben Emelogu II
Key Losses: Semi Ojeleye, Ben Moore, Sterling Brown, Harry Froling (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Jahmal McMurray (USF transfer eligible in December), Jimmy Whitt (Arkansas transfer), Akoy Agau (Georgetown grad transfer), William Douglas, Ethan Chargois, Elijah Landrum, Everett Ray
Postseason Projection: 7-11 seed
Outlook: If you omit the first round exit in the NCAA tournament, the body of work SMU compiled last season was quite impressive. After a head-scratching loss to Boise back in November, the Stangs promptly flipped the switch en route to a 25-1 record to close out the regular season. At their peak form during that run, SMU's offense resembled a perfect blend of surgical team-based execution with dynamic, individual playmaking. The Mustangs' starting 5 featured four interchangeable pieces - Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown, Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster - each possessing the ability to handle, pass and shoot the rock at a high-level, making them a nightmare cover for opposing defenses. With two special talents in Ojeleye and Brown departing for the NBA, head coach Tim Jankovich did a nice job patching up those voids by snagging Jimmy Whitt and Jahmal McMurray off the transfer wire. And while Whitt and McMurrary aren't blessed with the all-around skillset or size that Ojeleye and Brown brought to the table, both are proven high major talents who will be major reasons why the Mustangs will once again compete for the AAC crown.
Besides just the pure talent injection Whitt and McMurray will bring to this year's squad - Whitt is an ex-top 100 ESPN prospect and McMurray poured in 20 a game in last year's abbreviated season - they are versatile enough to play multiple positions on the perimeter and should fit in nicely with the Stangs' infectious culture of passing. SMU ranked in the nation's top-15 in team assists last year without having a clearly-defined point guard. All four "non-bigs" (and even their "center" Ben Moore) were exceptional and willing passers, which generated high quality shots on almost every possession. Both Whitt and McMurray are true combo guards capable of scoring or facilitating for others, which should make them fungible enough to seamlessly slide into this unselfish brand of basketball. Whitt played in a crowded backcourt in his freshman season at Arkansas and deferred most of the ball-handling duties to a veteran point guard in Jabril Durham. On the other hand, McMurray may have actually been slightly miscast as an alpha dog in his first collegiate season, given he played for an abysmal USF team that lacked a competent supporting cast. Now with a proven playmaker in Shake Milton able to orchestrate the offense, McMurray will have a heavy creation burden lifted off him, which should translate into a more efficient junior season.
It's important to mention that McMurray won't actually be eligible until the 2nd semester of the season, meaning rising senior Ben Emelogu will likely slide into the starting lineup until McMurray joins the team in January. Emelogu played significant minutes in big time games last year as the 6th man in what was many times just a 6-man rotation. His strength and athleticism make him an asset on the defensive end, especially with the year of experience he has playing in Jankovich's matchup zone scheme. However, seeing that he will be thrust into a more featured role in the offense early on next year, he will need to shoot the ball much more consistently than he did last season (see [poor] shooting splits of 38/29/54 from 2pt/3pt/FT, respectively).
Perhaps the toughest piece for the Mustangs to replace will be Ben Moore, who was a rock in the interior for SMU over the past two seasons. After 6'11 freshman Harry Froling announced he was transferring to Marquette, Jankovich badly needed a big to anchor the interior defense and pick up the rebounding slack left behind by Moore. In steps Georgetown graduate transfer Akoy Agau, another player who entered college with strong recruiting pedigree, but has yet to live up to that initial hype thanks to nagging injury issues. His per-minute rebounding and shot-blocking statistics are valid reasons for optimism, but he must improve his footwork and decision-making on the offensive end for him to become a real two-way asset for this squad (he posted an abominable 31% TO rate last season). The only other real option for Jankovich to throw out at the 5 is incoming freshman Ethan Chargois, a fringe 4-star big man that should get minutes right out of the gate. And while there are other promising freshmen in this recruiting cycle, Jankovich is as stubborn as it gets when it comes to using depth off the bench. Expect another year of a consistent 6-7 man rotation, which will once again make the Mustangs highly leveraged on good health.
Bottom Line: What made SMU so dangerous last year was the versatility Ojeleye brought to the table on both ends of the floor - he was Swiss Army knife of sorts offensively, possessing the ability to post-up and serve as a point-forward for the Mustangs to run their offense through, but also stretch the defense with deep range beyond the 3-point line. So while his presence will be tough to replace, the return of an All-Conference caliber performer in Foster and a potential All-American in Milton should keep the Stangs competitive at the top of the AAC standings.