Over the last six months, no program in the country has caught tougher breaks than SMU. After missing out on the NCAA Tournament despite winning 23 games and defeating the eventual national champs twice, Larry Brown saw prized recruit Emmanuel Mudiay pass on college entirely to play in China. Then, right before the start of the season, Markus Kennedy was ruled ineligible for the fall semester. SMU has been scrambling to stay afloat, with a 6-3 record so far.
The Mustangs scheduled a tough non-conference slate in order to improve their resume, but they did so under the idea that Mudiay and Kennedy would be on the team. They are 0-3 in their search for a signature win, with losses at Gonzaga and Indiana and a home loss to Arkansas. Even worse, their road game at Michigan no longer seems like as big a deal after the Wolverines loss to NJIT while the American Athletic Conference has really struggled in non-conference play.
By the time Kennedy returns to the floor in January, the Mustangs may no longer have many opportunities to pick up resume-boosting wins. This week, Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports speculated that the AAC could be a one-bid league this year, which would make the mountain that SMU has to climb even higher. Nic Moore left their OT win over UC-Santa Barbara with an apparent knee injury - if he’s out for any amount of time, Brown’s team could be in a real bind.
The good news is that all the turmoil has allowed some of their younger players to take on a bigger role. Larry Brown’s first recruiting class on the Hilltop is in their sophomore year and the three best players - Keith Frazier, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown - have all taken a step forward. Brown has made a lot of hay bringing in transfers, but those are the three guys the program is building around. They will be the ones who determine Brown’s success at SMU.
Frazier was the most high-profile recruit, the first McDonald’s All-American to play for SMU in the history of the program. He has all the tools to play in the NBA - size, athleticism, three-point shooting and ball-handling ability. However, he was also a very raw player when he came into college, with little idea how to play within a team concept on either side of the ball. Think a poor man’s Gerald Green, except he’s not as big and no one is as athletic as Gerald Green.
A year later, he looks like a much different player. Frazier is coming off one of the best games of his career on Monday, with 20 points and 5 rebounds on 12 shots in an 80-73 victory over UCSB. At 6’5 190, no one on their roster had the size and speed to contain Frazier. They ended up going into a zone, which allowed him to walk into three-pointers. The most impressive part was how under control he played - he ran the offense and he made the right plays.
Without Mudiay, there’s an opening in SMU’s perimeter rotation. Frazier is averaging 9 points, 4 rebounds and 1 assist on 44% shooting - if he can continue to play within himself and knock down open shots, he should have a big season. The goal for Frazier is that he should be one of the best wing players in the country as a junior, which should put him in a position to get drafted. DraftExpress has him as the No. 44 college sophomore and outside of the Top 100.
The best player in the class may end up being Moore, a 6’8 205 sophomore forward who was only a three-star recruit. They were expecting him to start as a small forward this season, but Kennedy’s suspension has him playing out of position at power forward. He’s a perimeter-oriented player who doesn’t have the bulk to thrive in the lane, but he’s more than holding in his own in an expanded role, averaging 11 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block on 48% shooting.
What makes him interesting is his unusual combination of ball-handling and passing ability for a guy with his size. If Nic Moore (no relation) is out for any extended amount of time, Ben Moore will end up being the backup PG. There was a game last year where Cincinnati was pressing them and they just gave it to Ben Moore and had him break it like it was nothing. If he can develop a consistent outside shot, everything will come together for him quickly.
DraftExpress has him No. 63 in the sophomore class, 19 spots behind Frazier. It is going to be an uphill battle for him to play in the NBA, but people around the program think he has a chance. That’s one of the main things Larry Brown and his team have been selling on the recruiting trail - he knows how to get guys in the NBA. One of the benefits of being Next Town Brown is you develop a lot of different connections. Everyone in the NBA is within a few degrees of him.
People are watching Brown on this because the Dallas area is essentially an open market for high-level basketball players. No school has any real stranglehold over it and the area has sent great players all over the country for the last decade - Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Julius Randle. Plenty of guys have stayed home, but they have still spread out to Texas (Myles Turner), Baylor (Perry Jones 3, Isaiah Austin) and Oklahoma State (LeBryan Nash, Marcus Smart).
Baylor and Oklahoma State, in particular, stand out as programs who have not been able to get the most out of their players. Marcus Smart seemed to regress for most of his sophomore season at OSU, probably because the program was imploding around him. LeBryan Nash went from a lock first-rounder to barely in the second-round discussion in four years with Travis Ford. He has improved as a player, but he has not fixed any of the holes in his game.
That’s what you see Brown doing at SMU, relentlessly polishing and fine-tuning his players' games. There must be at least 10 people on his support staff - these kids are getting coached within an inch of their lives. He has a lot of his old players, guys like George Lynch, in various roles in the program. Brown basically has an NBA coaching staff trying to improve the prospects of marginal NBA prospects in order to get them a fighting chance to get into the league.
If he can get Frazier and Brown first-round money, that changes everything. The next guys he recruits won’t have to take a leap of faith - Brown can walk into a living room with proof that he can coach guys up and get them where they want to be going. The No. 1 concern for any high-level recruit is can this guy get me into the NBA. Brown won’t have to go very far to find those guys - Dallas produces 2-3 of them a year. Get a few to stay home and watch out.
If he can establish SMU as an NBA factory, it shouldn’t be a very hard sell. Play five minutes from home in one of the loudest buildings in the country in an impossibly idyllic campus. There’s a lot of money floating around SMU - George W. Bush was at a couple games last year. A whole new generation of fans and boosters have grown up after the Pony Express. Memories are starting to fade and the success of longtime rivals Baylor and TCU continues to rankle.
Of course, all of this depends on Brown staying in town long enough to reap the benefits of a long-term plan. He is 74, so you would think his nomadic days are over, but you wouldn’t think a guy his age would be dealing with all the stresses of coaching big-time college basketball either. What happened to Mudiay and Kennedy must have taken years off his life - to have everything in place and then slip through your fingers would be enough to ruin a lesser coach.
Developing Frazier and Moore wasn’t Plan A for Brown, but it’s a pretty good Plan B. It’s going to take longer, which isn’t ideal for a guy his age, but all he needs to do is get a team into the field of 68 and anything is possible. Larry Brown is not a coach you want to run into in a one-and-done tournament - he got SMU to the NIT championship game last season and he coached Danny Manning and the Miracles to one of the more unlikely national titles of all-time.
SMU still has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, but they no longer have much of a margin for error.
The good news is Frazier and Ben Moore will still only be juniors next season, when they should be read to take on featured roles. Even if the Mustangs end up taking a step back this season, he still has the program going in the right direction. If Larry Brown can get his first two recruits at SMU into the NBA, people are going to be lining up to play for him. .