The Time Is Now For Coach Larry Brown and The Fast-Rising SMU Basketball Program.
Larry Brown, Southern Methodist University's Hall of Fame head basketball coach, is over talking about the past.
“Last year is last year,” Brown says repeatedly when asked about last season, his second year in charge of the program, a season in which his team continued its upward motion and made it to the finals of the National Invitation Tournament after just barely missing an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament. “That's over.”
In other words: What happened last year, happened. Now, in his eyes, it's on to the next one.
But before then, the rest of us need to take something into consideration: What happened was a lot. Year Two under Brown found the Mustangs finishing the regular season 23-9, appearing in the Top 25 rankings multiple times and twice beating the eventual national champion, the University of Connecticut Huskies. It was a months-long performance that firmly put SMU's basketball program onto the national scene — and ahead of schedule, too, as Brown was still largely messing around with the previous staff's recruits.
By all accounts, this season should be different. Even in the face of a few unexpected roadblocks, this year has been and is expected to be the year in which Mustangs Basketball actually makes good on its boatloads of promise. Preseason polls have the team ranked No. 22 nationally and predicted to finish second in the American Athletic Conference behind UConn. Sales reflect this excitement: Tickets to every home game the Mustangs will play at Moody Coliseum this season have long since sold out. Meanwhile, not making the NCAA Tournament this year seems like a preposterous notion. No longer will this team's successes surprise anyone.
Rather, its failures will. And, before this season even started, this team has been forced to deal with a couple of big ones. Quickly, the team was forced to come to terms with the loss of two high-profile, high-impact players: Would-be freshman guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a can't-miss superstar-in-the-making, decided to forego a stint in the NCAA for a career kickoff in the Chinese Basketball Association; junior forward Markus Kennedy, meanwhile, was deemed academically ineligible for at least the remainder of the fall semester.
Mudiay, whose brother Jean-Michael currently plays for SMU, was nationally heralded, a no-brainer top-five recruit in the country and a huge coup for Brown and the Mustangs, who beat out powerhouse programs Kentucky and Kansas for his initial commitment. A sure one-and-done and a likely a top-three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, Mudiay abruptly turned down SMU's offer in July to instead to sign a one-year contract worth $1.2 million in the CBA. On record, Mudiay says he made the decision to provide some financially stability for his mother, but there is speculation that, like Kennedy, he might've been declared academically ineligible by the NCAA had he stayed. Either way, SMU missed out on a player who could've created a frenzy with this team, especially if his impressive start to his professional career in China is any indication. His departure, it's worth noting, leaves the Mustangs without a single freshman on its team.
Still, Brown and the Mustangs have had a few months to get over what could've been with Mudiay. On the other hand, they had fewer than 48 hours to officially prepare for being without big man Kennedy, who was just ruled ineligible on November 12. With Mudiay's departure, the team lost out on hypotheticals; with Kennedy, the team actually loses some known production in the form of 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game from last year, plus a defensive presence that's hard to replace. His is a significant loss for the team, there's no doubt about it.
But thanks to the number of returning players this team boasts and Brown being at the helm of it all, this team appears to be in capable hands just the same.
“We expected to have Emmanuel and Markus,” Brown acknowledged after his team's decisive season- and home-opening 93-54 win over Lamar University on Friday. “But we're just gonna learn from this. I'm anxious to see how we can compete.”
If Friday's game was any indication, the Mustangs won't miss Kennedy too much — not for the time being, at least. Kennedy's replacement in the starting lineup, sophomore Ben Moore, led the team with 22 points, 9 rebounds, five assists and two blocks on Friday night. And Brown, much to his credit, saw this coming from the young forward: Earlier in the week, he'd told the media that, after showing strong progress in the offseason, Moore was going to get solid minutes in the opening game regardless of Kennedy's situation. Brown said he'd even considered playing him at point guard just to get him enough in-game action.
“We see it every day in practice, [but] y'all don’t see it,” senior center Cannen Cunningham said of Moore's abilities following his opening-night breakout. “I don't want to put any pressure on him, but y'all can get used to that [kind of showing].”
Senior center Yanick Moreira too played well against Lamar, contributing 19 points on nine-of-nine shooting and adding in two blocks for good measure. This season could be a breakout one for Moore and Moreria alike. Moreira had strong start to last season, but suffered a knee injury that slowed down his promising season. He looks healthy this season — especially after playing for the Angola national team in the FIBA World Cup this summer, during which he averaged 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game against pros from around the world.
But the Mustangs just looked sharp from top to bottom on Friday against an outmatched Lamar squad. Brown was able to rotate in the full bench and at no point during the game did the team slow down on offense or defense. The Mustangs were fast, athletic and smart with the ball. If the team flashed any weakness, it was the amount of offensive rebounds they gave up — a glaring note of Kennedy's absence if ever there was one. The bright spots, however, were plentiful. One of many examples: Sophomore guard Ben Emelogu and senior forward Justin Martin — two transfers new to the team's on-court roster — slid right into their roles, playing solid team defense and contributing eight points each.
As impressive as the win was, though, so too was the atmosphere at Moody Coliseum. The Mustangs have won 19 of their last 20 games at Moody Coliseum and, with the arena is sold out for the entirety of the upcoming season, that trend seems likely to continue: This game against lowly Lamar boasted the same pre-game intensity as the team's conference opener against UConn did last year. Perhaps the student body is just happy to see a winning team considering the mishaps the winless football team continues to struggle through. But, really, it's the remarkable job that Brown has done with this program that is most deserving of the credit.
And, this year, the fruits of Brown's labor should start paying off. The case against SMU making the NCAA Tournament last season was weak non-conference schedule and its losses to Arkansas and Virginia. This year, the team faces far-tougher out-of-conference competition, with tonight's nationally televised road game against the 13th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs predating match-ups still to come against perennial powerhouses Indiana and Michigan.
Brown, for his part, is ready for the challenge.
“Any time you play against great teams away from home, you find what you do well and you find out what you need to do better,” he said following Friday night's win.
As promised, Brown's eyes are squarely focused on what's to come from this SMU basketball program. Thing is, for the first time ever, so are everyone else's.