To the extent that a team can be feared in the NIT, Southern Methodist is a team to be feared.
The Mustangs were almost certainly the last team out of the NCAA tournament. Their resume includes wins over tournament teams in Memphis, Cincinnati and UConn (twice), good for 3rd place in the AAC. Unfortunately, they took a bad loss to Houston in the conference tournament, which very likely relegated them to an NIT 1 seed rather than the play-in round.
Why is SMU in the NIT despite a 12-6 record in a perfectly good conference? Larry Brown learned a lesson that he probably should have learned back when he coached UCLA back in the 80s: Scheduling matters. SMU had one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country, and they lost the only two games they played against decent opposition. Their best nonconference win? Probably a road win over Wyoming. Hopefully Craig Robinson and Larry Krystkowiak are paying attention.
Unfortunately, Cal is the team that is getting punished by SMU's scheduling misdeeds. If you believe the advanced metrics, SMU is roughly as good as an Oregon or a Stanford . . . which, hey, those are two teams Cal beat on the road! Guaranteed victory!
PG Nic Moore, 5'9'', So.
G Nick Russell, 6'4'', Sr.
G Sterling Brown, 6'6'', Fr.
F Shawn Williams, 6'7'', Sr.
F Markus Kennedy, 6'9'', So.
F Ben Moore, 5'9'', So.
G Keith Frazier, 6'5'', Fr.
G Ryan Manuel, 6'4'', Jr.
C Cannen Cunningham, 6'10'', Jr.
C Yanick Moreira, 6'11'', Jr.
G Crandall Head, 6'4'' Jr.
The first thing that jumps out at you is that SMU is a deep team. They are 47th in the country in bench minutes and they will typically play 10-11 players in a game. That hasn't changed in the post-season when many other coaches tighten the rotation, so expect to see plenty of substitutions.
The major offensive threats are Moore and Kennedy. Moore is a pass first point guard with a deadly 3 point shot, while Kennedy is an active big man who brings down plenty of rebounds and draws plenty of fouls.
After that it's a series of role players. Nick Russell is one of only two players to average more than 30 minutes/game, but I suspect his minutes reflect his role on defense more than amazing offensive production, if only based on a microscopic usage rate for a player that gets so many minutes.
We'll touch on it more in the keys to the game, but be aware: Every single SMU big man crashes the offensive glass HARD.
SMU wins with defense. On offense, they turn the ball over so much that it hampers their efficiency. How often? One in five SMU possessions end in a turnover. Yikes. But they make up for it because they are currently 8th in the country in opponent's effective field goal percentage. Teams don't make shots on the Mustangs.
Larry Brown's defense does it with constant pressure. Not necessarily of the full court variety, but the reason SMU plays a big rotation is so that they can keep players fresh for their high-intensity defense that forces mistakes and turnovers without losing its positional integrity. The Mustangs won't let a ball handler dribble in the backcourt or easily initiate the offense - they will extend out and harass whichever player has the ball.
It's rare to see a defense that combines forced turnovers with poor opponent shooting without picking up many fouls, but that's what SMU has done this year. Every Bear will have to be smart when they handle the ball and be prepared to move to help out the ball handler when necessary.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Kenpom sez: SMU 71, Cal 63, 80% chance of SMU win
That projection, of course, doesn't take into account the possibility that Richard Solomon (concussion) and Ricky Kreklow (broken nose) won't play. Solomon is currently questionable while Kreklow plans to make a go of it in a mask. How that would impact things is pure guess work, but the simple fact remains - Cal is playing an NCAA tournament quality team on their home floor, which means they are firm underdogs.
Keys to the Game
Get ball handlers and shooters onto the court - That is to say, keep rolling with four out, one in. SMU wants to force turnovers and bad shots. The Bears, thus, should flood the court with ball handlers and shooters. I think Cal's offense as currently constructed matches up with SMU as well as can be expected - Justin Cobbs, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird are all low turnover players
Keep them off the glass - So far in the NIT, Cal has not faced a team that has the personnel to take advantage of Richard Solomon's potential absence - specifically, his absence on the defensive glass. SMU is a team that can. Cal's guards have done well picking up the slack, but they will be facing a taller task, literally and metaphorically. If Cal does play four out, one in, then we'll get our best sense of how well it will or won't work next year in the Pac-12.
Match their defense effort - Out of SMU's nine loses, eight were caused in part by mediocre or worse offensive efforts. If Cal wants to escape with a win, they'll have to match SMU's excellent defense with a strong effort of their own, because the Bears probably won't have a very efficient scoring night.