By Dic Humphrey
The SMU men’s team is home this Saturday and next Wednesday to face East Carolina and Rice in the final two men’s games in the storied history of Moody Coliseum in its current configuration. Moody has been undergoing a major renovation since last spring, and the construction time table is to the point that work will commence on the inner bowl. The final home game of the regular season on March 10 will be played in Garland at the Curtis Culwell Center, as will early non-conference games next season. The new Moody Coliseum is projected to open commensurate with SMU’s first conference game in the Big East.
So far this season has been at once a disappointment and a bright hope for SMU basketball. The current record is 13-13, but the remaining five conference games are winnable. With a couple of wins in the conference tournament, the Mustangs still conceivably have a chance for postseason play. A long shot at best, and disappointing from the standpoint that SMU fans thought there was some good talent remaining from the Matt Doherty era that could win more games with better coaching.
Brown makes a strong first impression
For sure the talent cupboard was not bare, and for sure Larry Brown has done a superior job of coaching these players, who look night and day better than last year. When the smoke cleared from Brown’s takeover of the program, five players returned from last year’s team, one more was available after sitting out last year as a transfer, and four freshmen recruited by Doherty were coming into the fold.
“Matt (Doherty) recruited good kids,” Brown said recently. “Good character kids. My problem is I don’t have enough of them.” The starting five for every game so far has been junior Nick Russell, the transfer from Kansas State, and sophomore Ryan Manuel at the guards; Duncanville junior Shawn Williams and Dallas Kimball sophomore Jalen Jones at the forwards; and Arlington’s Cannen Cunningham at center. London Giles, the only senior on the squad, scored the most points of any returning player from last year’s team. He’s been playing through a leg injury that has limited his productivity. He has missed eight games and averages just 14 minutes per game.
Jones has simply blossomed with the playing time. He leads the team in scoring (15.1 points per game), rebounds (8.1 boards per game), and is tied with Manuel and Russell with 34 steals. Manuel leads the team with 65 assists, followed by Russell with 52. Williams (30) and Russell (24) are the leading three-point shooters. Cunningham leads with 47 blocked shots. It’s a very good free throw shooting team, averaging 75.4% on the season.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much to go with the starting five. Blaise Mbargorba is a 6’-11” freshman who was expected to help immediately, but he was shelved with a shoulder problem that knocked him out for the season when surgery was required. None of the other three freshmen (Jordan Dickerson, Uche Ofoegbu, and Brian Bernardi) have stepped up to make a consistent meaningful contribution off the bench. It’s not unusual for each member of the starting five to play at least 30 minutes in a game, and all too often there have been zero bench points scored in a game. Brown knew that he would be short of players when he cut a couple that could have helped this team. However, he knew that these players would be dealing with a reduced role if they stayed and felt they would have difficulty settling for fewer minutes played.
New talent for next season
On the positive side, cutting players that could have helped this year made available additional scholarships to upgrade the incoming talent, which Brown has done and which provides the hope for a brighter Mustang future. Three transfers are in the program now, all of which would start if eligible to play. Nic Moore is a true point guard. His entree next year will move Russell and Manuel to the two guard and backup point guard spots next season. Crandall Head is a forward that will push Shawn Williams. Markus Kennedy at 6’-9” is a monster underneath that will hog next year’s center minutes. These three players alone added to this year’s starting five is a team that could make the NCAA Tournament next season. The Mustangs have also signed three highly regarded recruits – Yanick Moreira, a 6’-9” post player that is the number one junior college recruit in the country, and two high school players from the Chicago area – guard Sterling Brown (6’-4”) and forward Ben Moore (6’-8”). The return of Mbargorba and these recruits will provide perhaps as many as 12 solid players for next year’s playing rotation.
Fans are buying in
SMU fans are seeing the light. The Moody Coliseum crowd at the first home game last November was larger than any home crowd during the 2011-12 season. That total has subsequently been eclipsed five more times with the season high being 5,170 against Memphis. Season ticket sales were up 73% and average attendance per game is up 79% from last year. The campaign to sell next year’s tickets in the remodeled Moody Coliseum is already underway. The combination of an improved team, an upgraded Moody Coliseum and Big East opponents has the Mustangs expecting at least four or five sellouts next year.
As for Brown, he looks vibrant and excited about coaching the team at age 72. At a recent practice, he ran the entire session with energy and enthusiasm. The players definitely respond positively to him. They obviously respect his knowledge of the game and experience in coaching. Every one of them is a far better player now after a year under his tutelage. SMU spent a lot of money to bring in Brown and his top assistant Tim Jankovich. They are already seeing returns at the box office with the sharp attendance increase. Next year, the box office take should increase dramatically again and the record of the team on the court should be at least on the cusp of bringing back the 80’s when the Mustangs not only made the NCAA Tournament with some regularity, but won games and advanced.
This SMU season will likely end during the week of March 13-16 in Tulsa at the Conference USA postseason tournament. By no means, though, will this season be considered a bad season, no matter what the record turns out to be. With a new arena, new conference, new players and a year of Larry Brown’s coaching under their belts, the Mustangs look poised to join college basketball’s elite – soon.