Stunted week, poor shooting hurt USF in loss to SMU

Sophomore guard Caleb Murphy led the Bulls in scoring with 14 points against SMU on Wednesday. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Following a COVID-19-affected week that resulted in a postponed game, the USF men’s basketball offense sputtered in a 74-54 loss to SMU at the Yuengling Center on Wednesday.

Five of the 11 players that saw minutes in the loss were affected by COVID-19 protocols throughout the week, which resulted in a loss of team rhythm, according to coach Brian Gregory.

“The uncertainty and change in routine last week [was very tough on the team],” he said. “We went three days [without] practice, we didn’t have enough guys to practice and we didn’t want everyone together in the gym at the same time. So we had to split it up and go individual skill work.”

Those affected included senior guard Javon Greene, sophomore forward Jalyn McCreary, sophomore forward Jake Boggs, sophomore guard Jamir Chaplin and junior guard Serrel Smith Jr. 

Freshman forward DJ Patrick was cleared to play just hours before tip-off, but remained inactive on the night.  

“[Now that] we’ve got those guys back, hopefully it’ll get their legs underneath them a little bit more than we had tonight and try to bounce back on Saturday [against Tulsa],” Gregory said. 

The chaotic week may have caused some uncertainty and rustiness, but the team’s final shooting numbers against SMU were not far off the norm this season.

The Bulls (6-12, 1-5 AAC) came into this game averaging 58.6 points per game, the fifth-worst mark in all of Division I men’s basketball.

The team shot just 39% from the court and 25% from three-point range against the Mustangs, both marks eerily similar to its season-long percentages of 38% and 25%, respectively.

“If you don’t hit a shot, [it’s easy to] get your head out of the game. And that’s what happened [to the team] tonight, myself included,” Greene said. 

“We have to find a way to lock in on defense and get stops [if the shot isn’t following], because if we get stops, that’s going to turn into easy offense.”

In order to improve the offensive output, Gregory emphasized the need for a more fluid offense focused on sharing the ball and setting up high-quality looks at the rim. 

“We need to play off each other’s drives in the action a little bit better,” he said. “We need to move without the ball a little bit better, which will create more open shots. 

“It’s not like we’re taking terrible shots. When you watch a game, how many times do you say ‘Man, that’s a bad shot?’ Not very often. So we’ve got to keep getting better at creating easier shots and better shots.”

Even the free throws weren’t falling for the Bulls, who shot 4-of-14 from the line as a team, far worse than their team average.

“For me, [it’s down to] a lack of concentration. We’re shooting 70% from the free-throw line as a team [this season]. That’s what you expect,” Gregory said. “In the last couple of games, we’ve shot [free throws well]. So we just need a little more focus there and I think that’s something that will be addressed.”

Meanwhile, the SMU offense (15-4, 6-1 AAC) entered the game averaging nearly 20 more points per game than USF as the second-best offense in the conference behind No. 7 Houston.

The Bulls’ defense struggled to cope with the Mustangs’ relentless attack. They forced their way to the free-throw line 18 times throughout the contest, converting 16. 

SMU guard Kendric Davis, the AAC’s top scorer at 21 points per game, shot just 3-of-11 from the field Wednesday but sank all seven of his free throws for 13 points during the game.

Forward Marcus Weathers picked up the slack for his teammate, scoring a hyper-efficient 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field.

“He’s a tough matchup because when he [plays at power forward] he can overpower the [opposing power forward],” Gregory said. “And when he [plays center], now he takes guys on the perimeter … He’s very, very effective.”

The only fleeting glimpse of a closely-contested game came with just under four minutes left in the first half when the Bulls scored a quick eight points to cut the deficit to just three points at 26-23.

Freshman forward Sam Hines Jr. got the home crowd rocking with a slam dunk. When it was followed by a Greene three-pointer and a basket by sophomore center Russel Tchewa, the momentum seemed to swing in USF’s favor.

In the final minutes of the first half, however, the Mustangs shifted into a gear that USF couldn’t match. An 18-2 SMU run over four minutes on either side of halftime put the game out of reach.

“When we [switched to zone defense] we were effective and cut the lead to three,” Gregory said. “But we had some empty possessions there in the last two minutes [of the first half] and first two [of the second half]. That was the difference in the game.”

Greene conceded that the run boiled down to simple lapses in focus on the defensive end.

“We just had a few mistakes on defense and then [SMU capitalized] on them,” Greene said. “They took advantage of our mistakes. If we didn’t rotate, they knocked the shot down. If we left somebody open, they knocked the shot down.”

Looking at the bigger picture for the Bulls, losing five of the first six conference matchups is less than ideal on the surface. But Gregory noted an imbalanced schedule in terms of opponent strength.

“The top two teams in the [AAC] are Houston and SMU. We’ve played six conference games and played them four times,” he said. “So we’ve had a pretty tough early start with some of the cancellations that we’ve had. But we have to play better.”

The Bulls will travel to Tulsa for a Saturday night clash with the Golden Hurricane. The game is scheduled for 8 p.m. and can be streamed on ESPN+ and iHeartRadio Bulls Unlimited.