It looked like a loss. It probably should have been a loss. The SMU half of the box score screams loss: 17 turnovers, 33 percent shooting from 3, 10-of-19 from the free throw line, .97 points per possession.
A 5-for-12 shooting night from point guard Nic Moore. An 0-for-0 shooting night for Sterling Brown, who snuck off SMU's bench during a first-half baseline scuffle Thursday night and was ejected before he could attempt a field goal. Just six scholarship players on the court for the final 23 minutes of the game. A seven-point deficit deep in the second half against an opponent with a brutal defense and the carried-over confidence of last season's road win in Moody Coliseum.
Things were looking bad, is the point, bad enough that you couldn't help but wonder: What if the Mustangs lose? What happens then?
Does the reality of the postseason ban suddenly hit them? Would SMU lose its competitive edge? Would the end of a potential unbeaten season -- and the awkwardness that unbeaten season would cause for the NCAA, which (rightly or wrongly) robbed the Mustangs' brilliant seniors of their last chance at a Final Four run -- cause the rest of the world to stop paying any attention? Do the Mustangs even care?
And then Moore made clutch back-to-back 3s and turned a 55-50 Cincinnati lead into a 56-55 game, Jordan Tolbert tipped in the decisive bucket with 32 seconds to play, SMU escaped the Bearcats 59-57 to move to 14-0 on the season, and those questions were deferred for at least a few more days.
Emphasis on "at least." Even at Moody, the Bearcats represented SMU's toughest obstacle of the season to date, and the toughest the Mustangs will face for at least the next month. The American Athletic Conference is a major reason why the talk of an unbeaten SMU thumbing its nose at its NCAA antagonists in March got started in the first place. This is the Mustangs' schedule through the end of January: UCF (home), East Carolina (away), Tulane (away), Houston (home), Temple (away), Memphis (home). SMU will head to Houston on Feb. 1, and Kelvin Sampson's team is better than expected, but still: It will be Feb. 13, when Gonzaga comes to Dallas, before SMU sees a team ranked ranked, per Kenpom.com, in the top 40 in adjusted efficiency.
That's when things get tough, or at least tougher. SMU's final six American games comprise two matchups with UConn and a season-ending return trip to Cincinnati. Still, it will be another five weeks before the Mustangs enter a game with anything but overwhelming odds of victory.
By that point, the conversation about SMU's inability to play in the NCAA tournament -- thanks to NCAA violations surrounding now-departed guard Keith Frazier's academics -- will be deafening. There is no shortage of folks who thought the tournament ban was too punitive. Some people just think it'd be hilarious to see the NCAA pilloried for pre-emptively disallowing an undefeated team from playing in its postseason tournament. (Or both.) If you think broadcasters spend a lot of time talking about the Mustangs' situation on the air now, inventing potential alternative punishments that could have solved this situation in the summer, wait until they're 23-0. Things will get silly.
Or maybe SMU will lose to East Carolina. Upsets do happen. Then, perhaps, the schadenfreude meta-narrative could go away, and instead we can turn to simple appreciation -- particularly for Moore, whose pure point-guard savvy is a genuine joy to watch -- of a team that hasn't let its strange circumstances affect its simple desire to win. Anybody who cares about SMU now will, one hopes, care if (when?) SMU loses. Because on the floor, no matter their record, these dudes are just plain good.
On Thursday, the Mustangs celebrated their narrow escape with a joyous mid-court mini-scrum, the likes of which is rarely seen from a home team favored to win its conference. Moore & Co. smiled and jumped like players for whom every game has taken on a deeper meaning. Every win is more than a win -- for as long as SMU doesn't lose. What happens then? We might not find out for a while.