SMU seeks 'crazy special' year without NCAA return
DALLAS — SMU is halfway to potential perfection in Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown's fourth season and in the top 10 for the first time in 30 years.
Yet, the No. 10 Mustangs know there will be no return to the NCAA Tournament, even if they keep it up and do something "crazy special" like win all their games.
"This is it. We've got 15 games left and our season's over," said senior forward Markus Kennedy. "We know there's nothing else after that, so why not just give it our all. There's no reason to save anything."
Because of NCAA penalties handed down last fall, SMU (15-0, 4-0 AAC) is banned from the postseason and will play only its 30 regular-season games a year after its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993. The sanctions included Brown missing the first nine games.
The Mustangs are also playing with only seven scholarship players with Keith Frazier away from the team for personal reasons.
"They've overcome all that and they're doing what we said the first day. The only way we can turn this negative into a positive is to do something crazy special," associate head coach Tim Jankovich said. "Obviously, they are really trying to do that."
Jankovich, who led the team when Brown was suspended and again when the 75-year-old coach missed the second half of their last game after feeling dizzy, said the best start in school history has been a bit surreal. But he described the players as very focused and competitive.
"We've got one goal, and that's to finish the season undefeated to prove to ourselves and everyone else in the world that we are one of the best teams," junior guard Sterling Brown said.
The Mustangs, who play five of their next seven games on the road, moved up five spots to No. 10 in the Top 25 on Monday — their first time in the top 10 since February 1985. They have been ranked that high only two other times, in 1955-56 when they went to their only Final Four and then again the next season.
"I'm really proud. We were hopeful we could someday be a Top 25 team," Larry Brown said. "We've got a lot of games to go, and you look at our bench, it's going to be difficult. With eight (players), I think you can really manage. Seven? You've got to be really, really lucky."
Along with Frazier's absence, a freshman guard decided to transfer, junior guard Ben Emelogu (knee, back injuries) is sitting out the season and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye opted to redshirt instead of playing only a half this season. SMU added two walk-on practice players last week.
With no tourneys, the Mustangs have had to look for their excitement in the regular season. Senior point guard Nic Moore made two 3-pointers when the Mustangs overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 3:40 to beat Cincinnati last week, three days before a 15-point win over UCF. They play Wednesday at East Carolina.
"Coach Jank, he talked real big about making them remember us now, and talk about us now because come March they aren't going to be talking about us," said Kennedy, who has played despite re-aggravating an ankle injury.
SMU hadn't been ranked in 29 years before breaking into the Top 25 in 2014, a month before hosting a watch party for the NCAA Tournament selection show — and then getting left out of the field. The Mustangs instead were the NIT runner-up after being the No. 1 seed.
There was no campus watch party last March, when the Mustangs did get an NCAA berth. But the AAC champions lost their opening game after a goaltending call in the closing seconds against UCLA.
Before this season, the NCAA handed down sanctions following an investigation that included a look into online course work for Frazier before his enrollment into SMU. The preseason AAC favorite can't play in the conference tournament, either.
"Ever since we had that celebration when we didn't get into the tournament, it's been one thing after the other that you couldn't predict, and yet they've really hung together and it's great. It's neat to be part of it," Brown said. "I'm just worried personally that there's so many obstacles out there that it's going to be really, really a challenge to keep this thing going. But we'll try."