After getting busted for academic violations, SMU won't be playing in the NCAA Tournament, but they're as deep and talented as any college team in the nation.
Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
In his fourth season as head coach at SMU, Larry Brown has assembled a juggernaut that could play with any team in the country. The Mustangs are ranked No. 15 in the most recent AP poll, and are 13-0, with wins over Stanford, Michigan, and Colorado already on the books. Out of 351 Division I teams, they have the No. 2 rated offense and the No. 45 defense; they have NBA prospects coming off their bench, and talent at every position on the floor. They have a very real chance to go undefeated in the regular season, which is a good thing because they otherwise have nothing else to play for.
The NCAA imposed a post-season ban on the program due to academic improprieties before the start of the season, killing what could have been a Final Four run before it ever had a chance to get going. SMU will have to manufacture meaning in the months of January and February and try to stay relevant in a sport where only what happens in March really matters.
"The ban can be used as motivation," said SMU assistant coach Tim Jankovich, who was the interim head coach while Brown served a nine-game suspension to start the season. "They have a finite number of games left [in the season] and everyone else in the country does not. So these games may be a little more valuable [for us] than everybody else's."
When they are pushed to the limit, as they were in their 70-66 win over Colorado in the championship game of the Las Vegas Classic, there's a little more electricity in the air than in a typical December non-conference game. Both teams wanted to win, but Colorado was preparing for Pac-12 play and playing for seeding in the NCAA Tournament. SMU was playing for their only chance at national relevancy this season—that is, they were playing to stay perfect.
"That's our goal this season—to go undefeated," said senior forward Jordan Tolbert.
That goes double for SMU's three fifth-year seniors—Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy, and Tolbert—all of whom transferred from other schools because they wanted to play for a Hall of Fame coach and make a splash on the biggest stage of the sport. While they lack the physical attributes to be anything more than fringe-y NBA prospects, they are three of the best college basketball players in the country, and they give SMU a wealth of talent and experience that few teams can match.
Moore is the reigning Athletic American Conference Player of the Year, a do-it-all PG who averages 15.9 points and 4.9 assists a game on 42.3 percent shooting. He shoots 41.7 percent from three-point range; he can score off the dribble, run the offense, and control tempo. He's also just 5'9'', 175 pounds, which is why he's not a more promising pro prospect. He has drawn many comparisons to J.J. Barea, another pint-size guard who was able to carve out a long career in the NBA despite being undrafted.
Kennedy (6'9'', 245) and Tolbert (6'7'', 240) are two of the most skilled big men in the country, with the ability to play off each other and score out of either the post or the pick-and-roll. Kennedy is shooting 56 percent from the field, Tolbert 57 percent. Combined, they average more than 21 points and 15 rebounds a game despite splitting time in the frontcourt with another talented forward in junior Ben Moore.
SMU's best players are their oldest, but their most talented players are underclassmen, which makes sense when you consider that their junior class was the first group of players that Brown recruited directly from high school.
Ben Moore (no relation to Nic) is a 6'8'' combo forward who can defend all three frontcourt positions at the NCAA level, play inside and out, shoot out to 20-plus feet, and handle and pass the ball like a guard. Keith Frazier, the first McDonald's All-American to come to SMU in a generation, is an electric 6'5'' shooting guard who can take over a game from the three-point line and will overwhelm most NCAA players with his athleticism. Frazier dominated future first-round pick Caris Levert in SMU's 82-58 blowout of Michigan in early December, holding him to five points on 1-for-13 shooting.
Their best pro prospect is the aptly named Shake Milton, a 6'5'' freshman PG averaging 11.6 points a game on eye-popping shooting numbers (55.7 percent from the field, 47.9 percent from three) and posting a sterling assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8 assists on 1.0 turnovers) for such a young player. He will take over the offense next season when Nic Moore graduates and will have a chance to play his way high into the first round. Milton picked SMU over Kansas, UNC, Indiana, and others, and his game should grow even more with another season under Brown, a legendary point-guard whisperer who has gotten the best out of his guards wherever he has gone—at least, when he hasn't tried to kill them first.
Put it all together and SMU would pose match-up problems for just about any opponent. They have a talented group of three big men, waves of rangy 6'5''-plus athletes on the wings, and one of the best playmakers in the country handling the ball for most of the game. They have seven players averaging at least nine points a game and five shooting at least 35 percent from three. They spread the floor, share the ball, and can attack from any position. In short, they're really good.
"As good as any team in the country," Michigan coach John Beilein said after his team's loss to SMU. "The stuff they're running—you just don't see it a lot in the college ranks. They pick you apart and pick you apart. We could not guard them in any way. I don't know who guards them."
Playing conference foes can be tricky for any team, but there don't appear to be a lot of potential challengers for SMU in the American Athletic Conference, a sprawling, geographically disparate conference haphazardly built from the ruins of the Big East and Conference USA. The biggest roadblocks left for the Mustangs are home-and-home games with Cincinnati and No. 23 UConn, a road date against Temple, and a February non-conference home game against Gonzaga.
When Kentucky was playing for an undefeated season last year, the concern was whether it would put too much pressure on a young team and ultimately sabotage them in March. That won't be an issue for SMU, who know that their season ends on March 6, no matter how many games they win or lose. If they make it that far without a loss, they might be a Top 5 team or even the No. 1 team in the country, depending on how the teams ahead of them fare in conference play.
And that will be that.