No team may have a bigger chip on its shoulder than SMU. A controversial snub by the NCAA Selection Committee (in 2014) and a blown goaltending call in a Round of 64 loss to UCLA (in 2015) will provide constant motivation.
The biggest blow, however, came at the end of September when the Mustangs received a postseason ban from the NCAA. Coach Larry Brown also will be suspended for nine games as NCAA sanctions stemming from academic fraud and unethical conduct.
Although Brown loses three key players who helped usher his program into national relevance, the Hall of Famer returns the bulk of his lineup ready to defend its American Athletic Conference title — because that’s the best SMU can do this season.
The Mustangs will not sneak up on anyone. This athletic group, bookended by AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore and powerful big man Markus Kennedy, stands poised for a deep run.
AAC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Replacing the production of departing seniors Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham will be critical for the Mustangs to maintain their inside dominance.
Kennedy unselfishly volunteered for sixth man duties after returning from academic suspension. He will take on a much more prominent role, especially early, without his two frontcourt sidekicks. There’s no doubting Kennedy’s impact. He can take over games with his physical play underneath. His presence in the paint creates outside shooting opportunities.
That Kennedy, who averaged 11.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in ’14-15, stayed for his senior year says much about Brown’s plans for him. But that depends on Kennedy consistently performing at his highest level, keeping his grades up and his weight down. “Markus has just got to make a commitment to be the best, be mature enough to know you won’t do it by saying it, you do it by working harder than everybody else,” Brown says.
Forward Ben Moore, 6'8", 205, can play virtually any position. He started all but four games last season, averaging 7.1 points and 4.7 rebounds. He can exploit a mismatch, posting at least two blocks in 11 games and at least eight rebounds seven times.
Filling the voids of Moreira and Cunningham should be simplified with transfers Semi Ojeleye from Duke and Jordan Tolbert from Texas Tech. Ojeleye, a former top-40 national recruit, played in only 17 games as a freshman at Duke. An unknown commodity, the 6'8", 230-pounder, boasts a powerful physique and nice shooting touch. Tolbert, 6'7", 240, showed at Texas Tech that he could be a force. He ranked second in scoring (10.7 ppg) and rebounding (5.8 rpg) his junior season.
“We’re going to need some people like Semi and Jordan to step up,” Brown says. “I think we’re going to be pretty pleased when they play.”
No. 24 SMU Mustangs Facts & Figures
Record: 27-7, 15-3 American
Postseason: First Round
Consecutive NCAAs: 2
American Projection: 2
Postseason Projection: None
Nic Moore continues a long tradition of point guards who have thrived under Brown’s leadership in an offensive system based on ball movement. With his propensity to hit big shots, Moore has become the face of the franchise. The American’s Player of the Year should benefit from an offseason spent helping the U.S. team win gold at the World University Games.
Moore, who averaged 14.5 points and 5.1 assists, can do it all, but his production suffered late in the season. The academic suspension of Keith Frazier, the team’s best shooter, made Moore a marked man. Opponents keying on Moore significantly reduced the Mustangs’ 3-point production.
That should change with the addition of prized point guard prospects Sedrick Barefield and Shake Milton. Brown expects both of the versatile and explosive newcomers to make immediate impacts.
Freeing up Moore will diversify SMU’s offensive attack. So will the return of Frazier, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.0 rebounds in 17 games before his suspension. Frazier, however, shot only 33.3 percent from 3 last season after hitting just under 40 percent as a freshman.
With his long arms and quick feet, wing Sterling Brown is the best perimeter defender, capable of guarding each opponent’s best player and making significant contributions offensively. His improvement softens the loss of senior Ryan Manuel, who averaged 6.5 points in 28.9 minutes per game.
Key Losses: C Cannen Cunningham, G Ryan Manuel, C Yanick Moreira
Top Players: G Nic Moore, G Keith Frazier, F Ben Moore, F Markus Kennedy, F Semi Ojeleye
Sedrick Barefield and Shake Milton could diversify the offensive attack considerably while lessening the load of senior Nic Moore. Freshman Jarrey Foster missed his senior year (injury) at Houston North Shore. Transfer forwards Semi Ojeleye from Duke and Jordan Tolbert from Texas Tech are expected to make immediate impacts. Both have power and can shoot.
Brown’s rebuilding job at SMU could be measured in attendance — all home games were sold out last season — and the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 22 years. Moody Coliseum has become one of the hottest tickets in one of the nation’s best sports towns, with Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and former President George W. Bush among the famous faithful.
Brown had the program in prime shape to make the next big jump, but it won't be measured in NCAA Tournament wins this season. This team can win the AAC on paper, but the future for the program might not be as optimistic.