Men's spring preview: Conference USA

Men's spring preview: Conference USA

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Men's spring preview: Conference USA

Josh Gregory figured it would take a few years for SMU to become a national contender.

He may have overestimated.

Gregory, who arrived in Dallas before the 2011-12 season after leading Augusta State to two consecutive national championships, guided the Mustangs to their third straight NCAA regional appearance last season. SMU entered the final round of the NCAA regional in Greensboro, N.C., in second place, but the Mustangs struggled on the final day to drop to seventh, five shots away from advancing to the NCAA Championship.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” Gregory said. “It was a great achievement what we accomplished last year, but we weren’t supposed to be in that position. We overachieved to get to that point.”

Now, Gregory hopes his second year with the Mustangs yields even better results.

SMU notched three top 10s to start the fall: a runner-up finish at the Gopher Invitational, a ninth-place showing at Olympia Fields and a fourth-place finish at the Royal Oaks Intercollegiate. The Mustangs broke into the top 10 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings before a trip to San Martin, Calif., for the Gifford Collegiate, where a ninth-place finish at CordeValle proved his young team still has some work to do.

“We definitely exceeded expectations again this fall, but we still have a long way to go,” Gregory said.

Gregory lost three seniors from last year’s squad, but he also brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country, and those freshmen already have made significant contributions.

Freshman Bryson Dechambeau arrived in Dallas coming off four consecutive match-play appearances in USGA events (2012 U.S. Amateur, 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links, 2011 U.S. Amateur and 2010 U.S. Junior). He continued that success at SMU during the fall, competing in all four events and finishing second on the squad in scoring average, at 72.33.

“Bryson was the best player that no one knew about when we recruited him, and he was clearly our best player this fall,” Gregory said. “We’re now seeing freshmen who step right in and win like Jordan Spieth (formerly of Texas), Patrick Rodgers (Stanford) and Justin Thomas (Alabama). That’s Bryson’s next step, and he’ll get plenty of chances to do that this spring.”

But Dechambeau wasn’t the only freshman to contribute last fall. Austin Smotherman qualified for the first two events of the season before a shoulder injury cost him the rest of his fall. He’s now healthy. Maxime Blandin shot 63 in his first collegiate round and led the team with a 72.17 scoring average; Ryan Burgess played in all four fall events; and David Lee averaged 73.83 in two tournaments.

“This is the best group of freshmen that I’ve ever coached,” Gregory said.

Plus, the Mustangs also boast a senior leader in Harry Higgs (74.42 stroke average in four events, best finish of T-12 at Gopher Invitational) and Mario Clemens, a senior transfer from UCLA (73.11 stroke average in three events). Add sophomore Sam Fidone to the mix and Gregory has eight guys who could see significant action this spring.

“In order to win a national title, you either need those one or two star players like I had at Augusta State with Patrick Reed and Henrik Norlander, or you need five solid players,” Gregory said. “We don’t have that one guy that really stands out right now, but there are no weak links.”

SMU hasn’t won a Conference USA title since 2006, and though the Mustangs have five regional appearances in the past six seasons, they failed to advance to the NCAA Championship each year.

But if Gregory has indeed overestimated on the time it would take for SMU to contend for a national title, the Mustangs could accomplish both a conference title and an NCAA Championship berth this spring.

“If we play great, mature and can compete this spring, I think we could end up sneaking into the top 8 (at the NCAA Championship) and make a run at somebody,” Gregory said. “We may be young and inexperienced, but we have a talented group of guys.”

• • •

Where it stands now

Top of the class: SMU

Best player this fall: Greg Eason, Central Florida

• • •

Past champions

2008: Alabama-Birmingham

2009: Central Florida

2010: Central Florida

2011: Central Florida

2012: Memphis

• • •

Conference capsules

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