DALLAS — Upon his return from a nine-game suspension, Larry Brown mostly just wanted his SMU players to know how proud he was of them for going undefeated without him even though they have no chance to play in the postseason because of NCAA penalties.
"And then I told them I didn't want to screw them up," Brown said Monday, a day before the Hall of Fame coach returns to the bench against Kent State at the Las Vegas Classic.
The coach-in-waiting plan the Mustangs openly acknowledged when they hired Brown in 2012 got a little test run, and associate head coach Tim Jankovich has a spiffy stat line if the day comes when he replaces one of his mentors at the campus a few minutes north of downtown Dallas.
Meantime, the 75-year-old Brown is back — and was so ready for his return he visited the locker room minutes after watching the final game of his exile in his office with his son and daughter, both SMU students.
"I didn't realize 33 days went so slowly," said Brown, who led the Mustangs to their first NCAA Tournament since 1993 last season. "But it's over."
Brown was suspended and SMU banned from postseason play after a September report when the NCAA ruled that a former men's basketball administrative assistant completed online course work for a student to meet eligibility requirements.
Under Jankovich, the Mustangs rose to No. 18 — where they were ranked for the second straight week Monday — with a schedule of mostly overmatched opponents.
Brown said he took advantage of the rare in-season chance to spend time with family, including his grandchildren, and was "all over the place" when finding somewhere to watch the Mustangs. He watched other games as well.
Now last season's American Athletic Conference champions are closing in on league play with no chance to defend their league tournament title, although they are eligible to win another regular-season crown.
SMU also won't get to erase the memory of losing its first NCAA Tournament game in 22 years on a hotly debated goaltending call in the final seconds.
As for the motivation of playing for a perfect season, Brown says forget it.
"When I read that, that kind of made me a little bit uneasy," Brown said. "We've got Kent State and that's the only thing we've got to focus on. I think Tim did a great job of making the kids realize we've got to go game by game and be prepared."
And if the Mustangs lose a game, Brown believes his players won't lose their drive.
"Whether we win or lose, I've never focused on that," Brown said. "I don't think our kids will be distracted by that. The disappointment is over, because we wouldn't be playing at the level we're playing. And we've all accepted that. We're just trying to move on."
Point guard Nic Moore leads SMU in scoring at 14.3 points per game and Texas Tech transfer Jordan Tolbert is averaging 13.8 points and 11 rebounds.
The Mustangs also should get a boost from the return of Keith Frazier, who was involved in the NCAA case, from a knee injury. Forward Markus Kennedy could miss a few more games with an ankle injury.
"I can't imagine them handling it any better," athletic director Rick Hart said. "I think what you see on the court is kind of what we're experiencing off the court, which is a lot of energy, a lot of teamwork."
And Hart got to work more closely with Jankovich after he inherited the arrangement and was admittedly skeptical before seeing how it would work. Hart was hired about three months after Brown took the job and brought the former Illinois State coach with him.
Since then, Brown has sounded less certain about a time frame for handing the job over to Jankovich for good.
"He's been very vocal about the fact that he's enjoyed SMU and Dallas," Hart said of Brown. "He's healthy. He feels good. He's effective. And so right now it continues to be just really a great partnership between coach and coach."