HARTFORD, Conn. – SMU probably won’t have Larry Brown as their head coach for long. He’s 74 years old, and the school knew his time was limited when they hired him with a head coach-in-waiting in Tim Jankovich. However, his hire has had the impact they wanted: the program has a winning product in three years.
Now, people know about SMU. It’s a destination for players.
“We had a turning point a long time ago when Keith Frazier decided to come, and Emmanuel Mudiay decided to come, and Markus Kennedy decided to come and Nic Moore, all these kids,” said Brown. “This is a whole different animal now.”
Indeed it is. Mudiay never actually came, as he is playing professionally overseas, but the others did and Mudiay’s commitment helps with recruiting. They beat Kentucky and other programs that are bigger names to get him to sign. They know they can get other big-time talents even if they go up against schools that might have a bit more going for them. That they won the conference regular season title without him and with all the adversity they have had to deal with tells you of the staying power this program may have developed.
The Mustangs first had to go without Markus Kennedy for the first semester due to academics. In January, the Mustangs lost Frazier, their second-leading scorer, for the season as he was declared academically ineligible for the second semester, as well as Justin Martin, who left the team. They have also had to deal with the NCAA having sent a Notice of Allegations that includes Frazier and assistant Ulric Maligi, who took a leave of absence around the same time.
Since then, the Mustangs are 13-2, including two wins in Hartford to reach the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday. Kennedy won the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year award and Nic Moore won Player of the Year. With the way he played late last year, one might have figured Kennedy would start, but he didn’t, and he just played to win games instead of taking issue with it while others like Yanick Moreira and Ben Moore have developed as starters.
“This team has been through an awful lot, and for Markus to come back and have the attitude he’s had, it’s been so important,” Brown said.
Last year, SMU improved, tying for third in their first year in The American, but got nailed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee for its non-conference schedule and a few bad losses in conference play. They were talked about quite a bit as a snub. They made it to the NIT championship game, losing to Minnesota. This year, they will be in the NCAA Tournament, with seeding being the only question.
It’s been a fairly swift rise from finishing 11th in their last season in Conference USA, which was Brown’s first at the helm. Then, they were probably only relevant for the fact of having Brown as head coach and his comments about preferring veterans to freshmen. Now the Mustangs are on the doorstep of a conference championship, preparing to take on defending national champion Connecticut on Sunday.
SMU spent a lot of years not really being relevant in Conference USA before coming to The American. The potential has been there, but no one has capitalized on it. With the conference being so new, there’s a chance for them to become one of the signature programs, even though there are schools like the one they will play on Sunday that have more tradition. In short order, Larry Brown has made them more than relevant. That was what they needed, given that he can’t do this forever. On Sunday, they’ll have a chance to take one more step forward.