Larry Brown was already ahead of schedule at SMU, taking only two seasons to transform the moribund program. Twenty years removed from their last postseason appearance, the Mustangs last season won 27 games and advanced to the NIT title game.
So, Moody Madness had returned to the Hilltop before Mudiay Madness culminated in the loss of Brown’s most prized prospect. Emmanuel Mudiay, the nation’s No. 1 ranked point guard, announced in July that he would play professionally overseas.
With Mudiay, many early projections had the Mustangs in the top 10. Without him, they may still be the best team in the American Athletic Conference. They return most of the key players who posted four wins over ranked opponents, including a sweep of eventual national champion UConn.
Big man Markus Kennedy and point guard Nic Moore were among the best at their positions in the American. And transfers Justin Martin from Xavier and Jordan Tolbert from Texas Tech, both three-year players at their respective schools, figure to make a significant impact. They join a deep group of young players fighting for minutes.
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The Mustangs are a difficult team to play because they have a Hall of Fame coach who stresses defense. Turnovers set up fast breaks, and their halfcourt offense thrives on working the ball inside for high percentage shots. They are relentless on the boards, outrebounding all but 10 of their opponents. They look even stronger underneath with center Yanick Moreira healthy and the addition of established forwards Martin and Tolbert.
Kennedy’s confidence is high after averaging 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds and notching a team-high 44 blocked shots in his first season at SMU. He plays much larger than his 6-9 frame.
Moreira, the former junior college All-American, led the team in scoring, rebounding and minutes early last season but never returned to top form after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Unhappy with reduced minutes, he has plenty of motivation to display his shot-blocking and rebounding potential.
Senior post Cannen Cunningham’s playing time declined with Kennedy’s emergence, but Brown is determined to use Cunningham’s shooting and rebounding skills. Ben Moore was one of the team’s biggest surprises as a freshman, averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14.8 minutes. The 6-8 forward has the athleticism to play virtually any position.
SMU Mustangs Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-10, 12-6 AAC
Last NCAA appearance: 1993
Coach: Larry Brown (42-27 at SMU, 17-17 CUSA/AAC)
AAC Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
SMU led the conference in field goal percentage (48.3), but that figure was bolstered by second-chance points. Although the Mustangs shot 37.9 percent from beyond the arc, they lacked a pure outside shooter.
That role usually went to Moore, who kept the Ponies rolling in the NIT with game-winning baskets. Moore earned All-AAC first team honors, but he has no true point guard behind him. That’s one reason Mudiay would have been a great fit.
Thus, the pressure is on sophomore Keith Frazier to display the outside shooting that made him the first McDonald’s All-American SMU ever signed. With the loss of departing senior Nick Russell and Mudiay no longer in the picture, Frazier should improve with more minutes. He averaged 5.4 points in 14.8 minutes as a freshman.
Sterling Brown, the brother of NBA player Shannon Brown, and Ryan Manuel are diverse role players who can drive for layups, create scoring chances and draw fouls.
Although SMU’s Q-rating may suffer without Mudiay, Brown made the Mustangs relevant with their plus-12 turnaround in wins from 2012-13.
They are coming off a season in which they were ranked for the first time since 1985, posted the second-most wins in program history and set attendance records that included nine sellouts in renovated Moody Coliseum.
After finishing tied for third in the inaugural American Athletic Conference season, SMU will be shooting for a league title. It doesn’t hurt that Louisville has left for the ACC, and UConn and Cincinnati have big holes to fill.
Poised to make the NCAA Tournament, the Mustangs have last season’s snub to use as motivation. More important, they have even more depth than last year, when they averaged 25.6 points off the bench. They have eight players who averaged at least 12.9 minutes last season and two transfers who are potential starters.
Anything shy of a top two or three finish in the league and a trip to the
NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment.
Justin Martin, who played three seasons at Xavier, averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds last season — second on the team in both categories. Jordan Tolbert played three seasons at Texas Tech, averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds while starting 91 games.