Say hello to the new SMU

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
6:38
PM CT
Larry Brown is the coach at Southern Methodist University.

That sentence just looks off, doesn’t it? It looked even weirder in 2012. That’s when Brown wowed in his interview in Dallas and, at age 71, was named the Mustangs’ head man.

All of which was a little bit disorienting. In a world where men scratch inches up the coaching tree for decades, here was a legend, the only man to win both an NCAA championship and an NBA title, signing on to a program that hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 1993. Brown was being compensated for his services, sure, but still: Larry Brown! At SMU! It was an astonishing thing.

What has happened in the 22 months since is far less surprising. Southern Methodist got good. Quickly.

On Saturday, that translated into a victory over No. 17 UConn, 74-65, in front of a lively home crowd in Dallas. The Mustangs rarely trailed in the second half; as the game stretched, so did their lead. UConn point guard and national player of the year candidate Shabazz Napier was swarmed to the tune of a 2-for-9 shooting performance. UConn shot just 18-of-49.

SMU moved to 11-3 on Saturday, just two wins shy of its total in 2011-12, the year before Brown arrived.

Neither this victory nor the 11-3 start can be dismissed as a fluke. The numbers back it up, too. Last season, when the Mustangs went 15-17, they finished No. 186 in Pomeroy’s advanced efficiency rankings; any other rankings system would spit back roughly the same. They entered Saturday ranked No. 46. They’ve improved by literal and metaphorical leaps on both sides of the ball: From .98 points per possession last season to 1.10 on offense in 2013-14, from allowing 1.0 points per trip to opposing offenses to .97. A year ago, SMU shot 34.5 percent from 3. This year, 41.3 percent.

[+] EnlargeMarkus Kennedy, Yanick Moreira
Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY SportsMarkus Kennedy and Yanick Moreira of SMU celebrate in the second half of their upset of UConn.
You can go down the line like this all day and pick out basically any number, tempo-free or otherwise, and the conclusion is the same. There isn’t one area where SMU hasn’t improved.

Why isn’t this surprising? Because if there is any constant in Brown’s winding career, it’s that his teams always get better. There may be no coach more worshiped by the coaching community than Brown. Successful current coaches rave about his ability to teach the game, the way he communicates concepts to players, how one or two sentences Brown wouldn’t remember at some camp 15 years ago changed their entire philosophy on life. He has earned that reputation through repetition. Regardless of the talent, regardless of level, Brown’s teams always get better and always overachieve.

Brown has another reputation too, of course: The guy who leaves. Brown’s coaching career started almost 43 years to the day before he was hired at SMU, when he took over at Davidson ... where he left before he actually coached a game. Brown’s only two college coaching gigs (at UCLA and Kansas) ended amid NCAA investigations. He has coached almost a third of the NBA’s franchises, his successful tenures and frequent departures typically marked by acrimony.

In 2012, it was fair to ask whether SMU was thinking too short-term. Brown might improve the program, or at least lend it some gravity. But would he be there in a year? Two? Three? None of it was guaranteed.

But SMU, determined to make itself known for its basketball, pressed ahead.

Bets were hedged. The school convinced Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich to accept a coach-in-waiting position, and it spent $700,000 to seal the deal. Then Brown nabbed two of the nation’s most connected recruiters --- Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi -- and put them to work scavenging for talent. Transfers have looked at SMU and even occasionally jumped on board. The group landed its first ESPN 100 player, Dallas shooting guard Keith Frazier, last fall. And in 2014, Dallas native Emmanuel Mudiay, the No. 2 point guard in the class, will play his pre-NBA stopover in Moody Coliseum.

All of which leads to an unequivocal conclusion, of which Saturday's impressive win over the Huskies was just a minor addition: The Southern Methodist Mustangs are as good as they've been in a long, long time.

And they're only going to get better -- at least until Larry Brown is no longer the head coach at SMU. It's about time we got used to the idea.

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