Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to head overseas instead of to SMU has some people wondering if it will be the start of a trend. It’s highly unlikely that ends up being the case, but one thing is for certain: his departure is a blow to SMU for the upcoming season. The Mustangs looked like they could be on their way to getting over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15. Now, they might still do it, but their ceiling won’t be as high.
Mudiay will be just the third player to opt to go overseas before attempting the NBA since the NBA put its minimum age requirement into effect almost a decade ago. Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler came before him, and while Jennings is a bona fide NBA player, he’s certainly not an all-NBA player and his one year overseas wasn’t exactly an unqualified success. His second NBA contract was far from a maximum deal. Tyler, who actually bypassed his senior year of high school, was even less ready both on and off the court for his foray into overseas basketball. In three seasons since being drafted he has played a grand total of 1,034 minutes in 104 games – less than ten minutes per game and less than 35 games per season.
Three players in just under a decade, with the first two not exactly being sterling success stories, does not mark the beginning of a trend. It’s understandable: as talented as any of these players might be, in the European pro leagues they will be younger and far away from home. There is much to adjust to on and off the court, and not much time since the idea is to be there for just a year. In addition, the U.S. does not rule the world in basketball to the degree it used to, and there’s very good talent in many leagues in Europe. (Mudiay will play in China, but the general point still remains.)
For Mudiay, who is from Dallas, that one year would be much easier at SMU. Besides being close to home, he would have teamed with Nic Moore for a dynamic backcourt that might be the best in the American Athletic Conference in 2014-15. Add in emerging big man Markus Kennedy inside, and you have a solid core in a conference that will be wide open given that the top teams from this past season either lost a great deal personnel-wise (Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis) or are gone entirely (Louisville, off to the ACC).
In Mudiay’s recruitment, it came down to SMU and Baylor, Kansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State. It would not have surprised anyone if he went to Kentucky given what John Calipari has done in getting players to the NBA. Larry Brown is no slouch with his track record, but Kentucky has much more visibility than SMU, and so do the other schools, for that matter. Mudiay wanted to be part of something different, hence his choice of SMU, and it looked even better when several key Wildcats announced they would be back in Lexington next season instead of heading for the NBA Draft.
But this is about SMU. It’s about the Mustangs finally becoming relevant and now trying to be more than that.
Put Mudiay and Moore together and you have the best backcourt in the AAC next season and possibly one of the better ones in the country. Cincinnati loses Sean Kilpatrick, while Connecticut loses Shabazz Napier and Memphis loses a great deal as Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon Jr., Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are all gone. SMU was close to reaching the NCAA Tournament and then reached the NIT championship game, losing to Minnesota. You have to think that with Mudiay joining the cast of holdovers, they would go a step further.
The Mustangs might still do that. The cupboard isn’t bare to begin with, as Moore will still have a more mature Keith Frazier alongside him, for starters. From the beginning of March through the end of the season, Frazier shot 61 percent on three-pointers. He is the most likely to emerge alongside Moore. They’ll also add Xavier transfer Justin Martin, who will give them a nice boost alongside Kennedy up front. They could also get Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert if the NCAA grants him a waiver.
Mudiay could make that group a little better, though. He and Moore could have been interchangeable at the two guard spots, and both could play off each other. The Mustangs could have two ball handlers on the floor, invaluable when teams press.
Looking beyond this year, there is a little more lost in this. In getting Mudiay to come there, Brown showed he can get an elite talent to the school. A successful year with him certainly wouldn’t hurt recruiting down the road. That he was able to get him there will count for something, but there’s nothing like player success to help future recruiting efforts.
It will be a bigger challenge for Brown, but SMU can still be a solid NCAA Tournament team in 2014-15. They need players like Frazier to make a nice leap, and some players behind their main guys like Sterling Brown and Ryan Manuel must improve a little more as well. Brown has revitalized the program, and 2014-15 could still be the next step in that process.