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Larry Brown's Mission Of Building NBA Factory In Dallas

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. .

Seniors On The Rise

The legendary Bob Knight once said, “People change over the years, and that changes situations for good and for bad.” In an ever-changing college basketball landscape, this idea has been instilled among an array of seniors throughout the country.

While freshman earn most of the draft buzz, Jonathan Holmes, Bryce Dejean-Jones, and Jerian Grant have shown that seniors can also use their experience to transform into NBA prospects. They aren’t just making the most of their respective situations, but thriving.
 
Holmes was recruited to Texas in a six-man recruiting class that featured four ESPN 100 prospects back in 2011. The class ranked fourth in the country and – with an infusion of young talent – signs pointed up for head coach Rick Barnes and the Longhorns. Texas made the NCAA Tournament in Holmes’ freshman year, but the Longhorns failed to go dancing the following season for the first time in Barnes’ career. The five other recruits left, either for the draft or another school, and Holmes was the final piece of the 2011 recruiting class by his junior year.
 
With the program now in question and Barnes on the hot seat, Texas looked for Holmes to lead the way as the only upperclassman on scholarship. He was just the sixth highest scorer on his team as a sophomore, but was the top returner in the scoring department. There were certainly some questions going into his junior year.
 
Holmes, however, stuck with the process and averaged a team-high 12.8 points per game while shooting 50.5% from the field. He added another 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game at the power forward position. Texas made the tournament, won a game, and surpassed expectations as a young squad. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player and he seemed to cement his spot as a dominant power forward in the Big 12.
 
Over the offseason, Texas landed ESPN’s No. 2 prospect in the 2014 class in Myles Turner. The 6-foot-11 center added even more size up front to a loaded frontcourt, but the Longhorns already had plenty of talented big men with Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Connor Lammert, and Holmes returning. After thriving as a junior, Holmes was asked to assume a different role on the wing.
 
As his role changed, Holmes reportedly lost 20 pounds over the offseason to help his quickness and athleticism on the wing. It’s also obvious that he worked on his jumper, as he’s seen a spike in production as a senior. The payoff came in a win over Connecticut.
 
With starting point guard Isaiah Taylor out with an injured wrist, Holmes led the Longhorns with a team-high 13 points and eight rebounds in a 55-54 victory. The game-winner? A corner three from Holmes with just three seconds remaining.
 
“It was a really good look, as good of a look you’ll get with four seconds left,” Holmes said after the game. “All the credit to my teammates, they screened me and gave me the ball in the spot where I can score it.”
 
Holmes has emerged from the fourth-best prospect in his team’s recruiting class to Texas’ most valuable player. He’s averaging 12.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game this season while shooting 44.6% from the field and 44.1% from behind the arc. At 6-foot-8, his transition to the wing has taken his stock from an undersized power forward to a potential second round pick. Texas is off to a 7-1 start with its lone loss to Kentucky, and Holmes has the Longhorns looking like a Final Four darkhorse. In the process, Holmes is also gaining NBA intrigue.
 
Elsewhere in the Big 12, Iowa State shooting guard Bryce Dejean-Jones has emerged as a possible NBA candidate. His Twitter bio explains his outlook on the season, as the first three words read, “Getting NBA ready!!!!”
 
Unlike Holmes, Dejean-Jones has bounced around. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard was considered a four-star prospect by ESPN, but the Southern California native turned down bigger offers to play for his hometown USC Trojans. He started in the first 10 games of his career, averaging 11.2 points per game, but saw a bench role after a transfer gained eligibility. Dejean-Jones had reported trouble with head coach Kevin O’Neill along with off the court issues as a freshman and ultimately decided to transfer.
 
Dejean-Jones ended up at UNLV and made an instant impact after sitting out due to transfer rules. In his redshirt sophomore year, he averaged 10.3 points per game and boosted that number to 13.6 points as a junior. While he led the team in scoring as a junior, he decided to hit the transfer market once again. He became immediately eligible to play due to the graduate transfer rule and eventually settled on Iowa State.
 
While Dejean-Jones was regarded for his scoring ability, he faced questions in his shot selection. He shot just 41.3% from the field as a sophomore and 34.7% from three-point range. He made some improvements from the field as a junior, shooting 42.7%, but dropped to 32.3% shooting from deep.
 
With the success Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg has had with recent transfers, it’s no surprise that Dejean-Jones has emerged as an NBA prospect. No longer is he regarded as a “chucker” but instead a productive player on both ends of the floor.
 
There’s no better example than what Dejean-Jones did in his last game against a nationally ranked Arkansas squad. In 37 minutes, Dejean-Jones scored 27 points on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting that included four three-pointers in a 95-77 win. He’s having his most efficient season of his career, averaging 16.3 points per game on 53.2% shooting.
 
“That’s a pretty good line, I can’t believe he missed a free throw,” Hoiberg said jokingly of Dejean-Jones after the Arkansas game. “He had a heck of a matchup with [Michael] Qualls, he had to play good defense. He was out there that whole second half without rest. He took a couple heat check shots, but when you haven’t missed you can take a few of those. It was great to see him get it going from the three-point line. He had been struggling a little bit with his shot – been working on a few things to get his rhythm a little bit better – and tonight it paid off.”
 
But it isn’t just his offensive ability that’s drawing attention – it’s also what he’s done on the defensive end. Early in the season against Georgia State, Dejean-Jones did a good job stopping perhaps the top shooting guard in the country in R.J. Hunter. He didn’t see major minutes on Hunter, but did block two of his shots and made it tough for him to find space throughout the night.
 
As a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, Dejean-Jones has the size and athleticism to play at the next level. He’s older than most of his peers due to a redshirt season, but he’s shown maturity and growth during the process. Dejean-Jones has helped Iowa State jump out to a 5-1 start as the Cyclones will be another top team in the Big 12.
 
While Holmes and Dejean-Jones showed improvements on the court, the key for Grant was getting back on it. He was suspended midway through last season due to academic issues and questions loomed whether he’d pursue a career in the D-League or overseas.
 
After averaging 19 points on 51.8 percent shooting to go with 6.2 assists per game, Grant had emerged as an NBA candidate, but now the future was uncertain. Instead of pursuing a professional career, Grant made a point to return to Notre Dame and complete his unfinished business.
 
Grant saw his younger brother, Jerami, get drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers over the summer and returned for his senior year in South Bend. Instead of spending his off time as a partial vacation, Grant put in the work in hopes of hearing his name called in the NBA Draft as well.
 
The 6-foot-5 guard was off to a stellar senior year, but had his breakout performance against nationally ranked Michigan State. He scored a career-high 27 points on 9-of-17 shooting that included an array of impressive scoring moves to create separation. He also added six assists, four rebounds, and three steals in the win and impressed opposing head coach Tom Izzo.
 
"I think he's a pro player,” Izzo said of Grant after the game. “I think he's a guy who's so unselfish. He doesn't force shots. He took seventeen shots, but to me you wouldn't even have known it. He gets fouled, he can make passes and he defends pretty well. I think he's as complete a guard as we've played against so far. I told him after the game I was very, very impressed by him. I thought he was a very good player in a lot of different areas."

Now off to a successful senior year, Grant is actually averaging similar numbers to last season. He’s contributing 19.0 points, 6.4 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting 57.7% from the field and 36.2% from three-point range. The 6-foot-5 guard has played both spots in the backcourt this season, but has certainly been the engine for the Irish offense this season. As a result, Grant has returned to the NBA Draft discussion as a likely second round pick.
 
While we are certainly living in the one-and-done era of college hoops, there are plenty of success stories among seniors throughout the country. Stars can’t shine without a bit of darkness, and these three have made the most out of their respective situations. With continued success, an NBA opportunity may be on the horizon for these seniors.

The Blueprint For Beating Kentucky

After breezing through the first seven games of their schedule, No. 1 Kentucky survived their first real challenge of the season on Friday, pulling away in the second half against No. 6 Texas to win 63-51. The game was closer than the final score indicated, as the Longhorns were tied at halftime and had the game within five points several times in the last few minutes. They didn’t even play that well - they shot 20% from 3 and turned the ball over 22 times.

If Isaiah Taylor was healthy and the game was played anywhere but Rupp Arena, who knows what would have happened. John Calipari’s team may eventually break the record for most players drafted in a single season, but that doesn’t mean they are unbeatable. While Texas wasn’t able to finish the job, they gave a blueprint for how to knock off Goliath and shock the college basketball world. Even the team with Anthony Davis lost two games that season before eventually winning the National Championship.

There were three keys to Texas being able to make it a ballgame:

1. They had the size to match-up with Kentucky

Kentucky comes into most games with a massive size advantage upfront, as they start 7’0/240, 7’0/250, 6’8/240 and bring 7’0/255, 6’9/220 and 6’10/240 off their bench. Texas isn’t quite as big, but they did have the size and physicality to challenge them in the paint. Rick Barnes team goes 6’9/285, 6’9/240 and 6’8/240 upfront and they bring in 6’11/240 and 6’10/260 off their bench. For the first time all year, the Wildcats played a team that could look them in the eye.

Unfortunately, instead of letting these two mammoth front-lines square off, the refs called a really tight game, keeping both teams in foul trouble throughout. The Texas big men refused to back down, battling for position all night and fighting Kentucky for every board. They ended up being +11 on rebounds, including grabbing 16 on the offensive glass, although that was partly the result of how many shots they ended up missing - they shot only 30% from the field.

A lot of that was because of the Wildcats defense, but the Longhorns missed a number of open shots too. They have three big men - Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert and Myles Turner - capable of stepping out and knocking down perimeter shots and their ability to stretch the floor presented some challenges for the Kentucky big men. If Holmes and Lammert had been able to shoot better than 2-10 from 3, the game would have gone differently.

Having big men who can stretch the floor is crucial against Kentucky. Otherwise, they can park multiple elite shot-blockers in the front of the rim and make life impossible on your offense. If they are allowed to pack the paint, it will be almost impossible to beat them, as no one in the country will be able to consistently score over their big men. The three-point shot is the ultimate underdog weapon, particularly in college basketball, where it’s only 22 feet.

2. They kept the game in the halfcourt

It’s no coincidence that Kentucky’s two lowest scoring games so far came against Texas and Providence, as both teams stayed in a zone for most of the night, forcing Kentucky to take the air out of the ball and make a bunch of passes in the half-court to get shots. There’s no way to beat them when they can get the game going up-and-down. The best way to beat a fast team is to make them play station-to-station in the half-court, where their speed can’t help them.

Limiting the number of possessions also lessens the impact of Kentucky’s depth, which can wear on a team over the course of 40 minutes. The other team’s big men will be tired from battling all the size that Kentucky can throw at them - they have to be able to take a breathe on offense. In that sense, the tight whistle definitely helped Texas on Friday. They went to the line 29 times, which gives them free points and prevents the break the other way.

3. They made Kentucky beat them over the top

The clear weakness for this Kentucky team is the three-point line. They went 1-for-12 from beyond the arc against Texas and they are shooting 32% from 3 this season. Nor was it a case of the Longhorns running them off the line, as most of their three-point shots were uncontested - Texas sat in a zone all night and went under almost every screen. They clearly came into the game determined to make Kentucky beat them from the perimeter and it almost paid off.

While it’s still somewhat early in the season, only one of the Wildcats starters - sophomore PG Andrew Harrison - is shooting above 35% from 3. His brother Aaron is the most prolific outside shooter, taking over 4 a game, but he only knocks them down at a 25% clip. And while Alex Poythress and Karl Towns have some range on their jumpers, neither has attempted a 3 all season. As a result, it’s fairly easy for opposing teams to shrink the floor against Kentucky.

Their best shooters come off the bench, as both of their freshmen guards - Tyler Ulis and Devin Bookert - have shown the ability to shoot from deep. Ulis and Bookert’s playing time will be something to watch all season, especially when Kentucky faces teams with smaller front-lines who will have even less incentive to close-out to shooters on the perimeter. If they can’t find a way to consistently shoot 3’s, they will leave the door open for other teams all season.

Of course, all those things are easier said than done, especially against the type of team speed and length that Kentucky possesses. They are going to win most of their games this season going defense to offense, as their ability to block shots and force turnovers will allow them to create transition opportunities and once that happens, the game is over. You have to be able to play good offense and execute in the half-court to have a chance against them.

Beating Kentucky is going to come down to point guard play, as even in a best-case scenario you are only going to play them to a draw upfront. And while the Wildcats do have two five-star PG’s in Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, they are underclassmen with real holes in their game. Harrison just doesn’t have the burst you would expect from an elite recruit and Ulis is only 5’9 155, which could be a problem against teams with bigger guards than Texas had on Friday.

Isaiah Taylor, the Longhorns injured PG, could have won that match-up on both sides of the floor, as he is much faster than Harrison and much bigger than Ulis. If you look around the country, many of the top teams can get high-level play out of their PG’s, from Arizona to Wisconsin, Duke and Louisville. PG is the most important position in the college game because everyone is so inexperienced that having a second coach on the floor can make all the difference.

It will take a wondrous individual performance, but there is a scenario where a high-level PG can control the tempo of the game against Kentucky and create easy shots for himself and for his teammates in the half-court.

Then, if you can limit the run-outs and easy plays at the rim and force them to beat you from the perimeter, you at least have a chance. John Calipari’s team deserves the hype they get, but they won’t have a cake walk to an NCAA championship.

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