SOUTH KINGSTON, R.I. – Saturday’s 72-50 Rhode Island win over SMU might surprise some who saw only the score and knew only the records of the respective teams coming into the game. SMU was 8-1, an early pleasant surprise to be sure, while URI was expected to have a rebuilding season and came in at 2-7. Look beneath the surface, and Saturday’s result might be a little surprising but certainly shouldn’t be a shocker save perhaps for the margin of victory.
“I didn’t look at them as a 2-7 team,” SMU head coach Larry Brown said of the Rams. “They made threes, but they were open, most of them. I thought they executed so much better than we did, they defended better than we did. They looked like the team with the winning record. They out-coached us, out-played us, out-executed us.”
Brown wasn’t engaging in coach-speak. Rhode Island has been close a few times, only to come up maddeningly short, so the Rams weren’t far from being a 4-5 or 5-4 team coming in. SMU’s record, meanwhile, had to be taken with a little grain of salt, and the fact that it was their first game in two weeks because of a long break for final exams may have been a factor as well.
While none of SMU’s wins were against likely NCAA Tournament teams, it wasn’t a cupcake slate of opponents, either. It also has not been a home-heavy slate thus far, with Saturday’s game being their fourth true road game to go with two games in Puerto Vallarta on Thanksgiving weekend. Even so, the record might deceive some at this point.
Brown did what his predecessor, Matt Doherty, did several times in his tenure. Doherty often played a soft non-conference schedule, feeling his team needed to win games and build some confidence before entering Conference USA play. In the end it didn’t work, as Doherty was ousted after last season in large part because they struggled in Conference USA games during his tenure. He was 80-109 in six seasons, including 29-67 in Conference USA play, going no better than 8-8 and a tie for seventh in 2010-11.
“Our schedule has been favorable,” Brown said.
From a personnel standpoint, SMU has a good deal of inexperience, something Brown has stated he doesn’t like. Players eligible this season (three players are sitting out this season as transfers) have played a combined 11 seasons of Division I basketball prior to this season. The Mustangs aren’t very deep as well, as only seven players average double-digit minutes, and Brown admitted that a problem they’ve had all season is a short bench.
Besides the short bench, adversity and taking care of the ball have been the biggest obstacles. When SMU moves the ball, they get good shots and can score, something noticeable at times on Saturday. But too often, they don’t do that, and while Brown is happy with their effort, the results just aren’t there. The Mustangs came into the game averaging nearly 14 turnovers per game, and on Saturday gave it away a season-high 22 times.
“I don’t know if we have one guy on our team with more assists than turnovers,” said Brown. “We’re playing guys that are trying to do the right thing, and I don’t think I’ve helped them very much.”
In fact, the Mustangs have three players with more assists than turnovers, two of whom play significant minutes, but his point is well-taken. This team needs to take better care of the ball and move the ball effectively if they are going to win.
Brown noted that this team hasn’t faced much adversity this season, save for the loss to UALR in Mexico. That’s something this inexperienced team has to overcome, and he knows it won’t be easy although it’s a must.
“We don’t have this tradition, we haven’t had a value system where no matter whether you make a shot or not, it doesn’t affect how you defend or how you execute,” said Brown.
As SMU looks to its future in the Big East (or what’s left of it), there is more attention going into basketball. Hiring Brown was one sign of that since it brings some attention to the program with his career accomplishments. The school is also in the process of renovating and expanding Moody Coliseum, with changes to include new event space, offices, team locker rooms and meeting space as well as club seats, loge boxes, private suites and group suites. The renovation is scheduled to complete in December 2013.
SMU wants to be a top 25 basketball team, one of the reasons they moved on from Doherty and undoubtedly one of the reasons they jumped at a chance to go to the Big East. But with news all week of the Catholic schools that don’t play FBS football talking about breaking from the Big East and that move becoming official on Saturday, that is now the elephant in the proverbial room for this program’s future. What happens is something that Brown, who will probably not be there long anyway since he is 71 and associate head coach Tim Jankovich is thought to be the coach-in-waiting, will not decide, it will have an impact.
Brown is originally from Brooklyn and has been around the game a long time, so he knows something about the history of the Big East. Asked about it on Saturday, he ruminated on it and what recent news might mean for his program.
“I know what the Big East meant to (Dave Gavitt),” said Brown. “I don’t know what he’d be thinking right now. But we have a conference, there’s some pretty darned good teams still left in it. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two years, whether they’re going to still be in it, what the future is.”
What we know about the future is that SMU does have some promise for next season. Three transfers are sitting out this season that should help them right away, and no seniors play significant minutes, so this team will be more experienced and deeper next season. For this season, however, they have to so more with less.