December 15, 2015

Minus its head coach for one more week and possibly without a key senior leader for the immediate future, SMU looks to continue the program's best start in 18 seasons.

That should not be a problem Wednesday night when the undefeated No. 18 Mustangs face Nicholls in the first of two home games on as many nights in regional play of the Las Vegas Classic.

Despite being banned from postseason play and coach Larry Brown suspended for the first nine games because of NCAA sanctions, SMU (7-0) hasn't opened this strong since winning the first 10 in 1997-98.

''Just trying to have these guys do something, really, really special so the country is talking about them and watching, kind of get their due,'' associate coach Tim Jankovich said. ''Not going to get our due in March, not going to be on all the shows and talked about. ... I want them to have so much fun and do so well.

"I respect our team right now so much. They were put in a tough spot and made it look like it really wasn't a tough spot.''

The Mustangs are averaging 81.9 points and shooting 53.1 percent. In their most recent game last Tuesday, SMU rolled to an 82-58 victory over a Michigan team that began the season in the Top 25.

''As good as any team in the country,'' Wolverines coach John Beilein said of SMU.

After senior starting forward Markus Kennedy sprained his ankle within the first minute against Michigan, Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert posted 23 points and nine rebounds in his place. Nic Moore and Keith Frazier each scored 15 while Ben Moore and Sterling Brown both pulled down 10 boards.

It's uncertain if the All-American Athletic Conference preseason first-teamer Kennedy (9.9 points, 5.0 rebounds per game) will be available for this contest or Thursday's date with Hampton.

"There was shear panic when he went down," Jankovich said. "We're hopeful it's just a sprain."

The Mustangs, who shot 57.7 percent and held New Hampshire and Michigan to 30.8 while winning the last two by a combined 78 points, likely should be able to prevail this week if Kennedy is sidelined.

Tolbert, who averages a team-high 8.1 rebounds and is third at 12.3 points per contest, is more than capable of filling in. He's averaged 10.3 boards in the last four games and shot 16 of 18 in the last two.

Brown is eligible to return after Thursday's contest and should be on the sidelines when SMU continues this event in Las Vegas against Kent State next Tuesday. However, the focus remains on taking care of things in this first meeting with Nicholls (3-5).

In the midst of playing seven straight away from home, the Colonels opened that stretch with an 84-47 loss at San Diego State on Thursday then fell 78-60 at North Texas on Monday. Nicholls has averaged 61.2 points, shot 34.6 percent and yielded 52.6 percent from the floor while going 0-5 on the road.

Junior forward Ja'Dante' Frye averaged 23.2 points in the five games prior to totaling 23 in the last two contests.

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