March 12, 2015

SMU's postseason ban is probably starting to hurt a little less, but only because it's losing a lot more.

The college basketball world was wondering how the Mustangs would hold up on the national stage, but that talk has quieted substantially over the last seven games, and coach Larry Brown admits fatigue has set in ahead of Sunday's visit from East Carolina.

After Thursday's 68-62 loss at Connecticut, No. 21 SMU (21-4, 9-4 American Athletic) has followed an 18-0 start with four defeats in seven games.

The Mustangs have traded wins and losses in that span against all unranked teams while using a seven-player rotation and with NCAA and conference tournament bans on the horizon because of sanctions.

The losses have all come by nine points or fewer and an average of 5.7 with opponents shooting 48.7 percent and 40.5 from 3-point range after SMU had held teams to 39.3 and 33.0 marks during its perfect start.

"It's hard, because I'm playing guys too many minutes," said Brown, whose team has now fallen behind Temple at the top of the conference. "And when you play in this kind of environment, with (UConn's) kind of depth, it's hard not to be proud of your team."

It's also difficult to lump Nic Moore in with the letdown. The Mustangs' top scorer has averaged 19.3 points while shooting 46.4 percent overall and 42.6 from 3-point range in the last eight games while playing 36.0 minutes.

The regular-season title is still the objective as Moore and his fellow seniors now enter their final five games.

"I just told the guys, 'These are my last five games, make it fun for me,'" Moore said.

East Carolina (10-16, 2-11) doesn't pose any threat SMU needs to worry all that much about. The Pirates sit at the bottom of the league and are a defeat shy of their second six-game losing streak of the season.

Their six-game skid last month included a 79-55 home loss to then-No. 10 SMU on Jan. 13 - the Mustangs' third straight victory in the series - in which Moore took on a distributor's role, attempting just six shots while managing a career-high 12 assists.

Ben Moore finished with a game-high 17 points, but the team's No. 2 scorer has since fallen off with an average of 10.2 on 49.2 percent shooting in nine games. He entered that span scoring 13.3 per game and shooting 57.9 percent.

Ben Moore might again find things easier versus East Carolina, which over five straight losses has allowed teams to shoot 50.2 percent. The latest was Tuesday's 69-52 home loss to South Florida, which after Saturday is a half game ahead of the Pirates in the AAC. It was the offensive effort that bothered coach Jeff Lebo the most.

"We did not play well offensively, it was maybe our worst game of the year," said Lebo, whose team may have shot just 34.0 percent but has had five games with a worse mark than that this season.

"We couldn't make a shot. We couldn't even make a shot the last two minutes when they weren't trying to guard us. But give South Florida credit, they had a lot to do with that."

Top scorer B.J. Tyson was limited to nine points and went 4 of 11 from the floor, and he's shot 38.0 percent in his last six games.

The Pirates also had trouble on the boards and have been outrebounded by an average of 7.5 in the last five games. SMU's plus-9.5 season advantage ranks among the best in the country.

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