Nothing has gone according to plan at SMU this season. Emmanuel Mudiay, the prized recruit who was supposed to put the school on the map, is in China. Markus Kennedy, their second-leading scorer, was suspended for the fall semester because of academics. Keith Frazier, the first McDonald’s All-American at the school in a generation, was suspended for most of the spring semester because of concerns about his eligibility. Ulric Maligi, the assistant coach who was the point man in Frazier’s recruitment, left the program for unspecified reasons at the same time. The NCAA is already sniffing around the program.
Nevertheless, the Mustangs keep on winning. On Saturday, they beat UConn in a 73-55 game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated, moving their record to 21-5. While they are on the fringes of the rankings, Louisville’s move to the ACC and down seasons from two of the remaining powers in The American - Memphis and UConn - has meant their dominance of the conference has slipped under the national radar. Even without Frazier and Mudiay, that might be a mistake.
This is a team with all the pieces to make a deep run.
1) Addition by subtraction
This current group of Mustangs doesn’t have anyone with Mudiay and Frazier’s star power, but they are a balanced team who share the ball and play on a string on both sides of the floor. The ball doesn’t stick in any one guy’s hands and they have three different guys - Nic Moore, Yanick Moreira and Markus Kennedy - who can lead the team in scoring on a given night. Every player in their rotation is a threat to score, a jarring contrast to a team like UConn that depends on Ryan Boatright to do everything.
The Mustangs has four different big men - Moreira (6’11 220), Kennedy (6’9 245), Ben Moore (6’8 185) and Cannen Cunningham (6’10 225) - each of whom brings something different to the table. Moreira is a long shot-blocker who can protect the rim, defend in space, score with his back to the basket and shoot mid-range jumpers. Kennedy is a mobile big man who can put the ball on the floor, crash the offensive glass and score with his back to the basket. Moore is a versatile combo forward who can function as a small-ball PF or a big SF, depending on the line-up Brown wants to use. Cunningham is a jack of all trades senior who gives SMU a tremendous amount of depth upfront.
3) They have size at every position
SMU flanks their quartet of big men with a trio of long, athletic wings - Sterling Brown (6’6 200), Ryan Manuel (6’4 185) and Ben Emelogu (6’5 205) - who can match-up with anyone on the perimeter. No matter who they face in the NCAA Tournament, the Mustangs will have the personnel to play defense. There’s no type of player they can’t defend - they can stick Manuel on smaller guards, Ben Moore on bigger wings and Brown (the younger brother of Shannon Brown) on anyone in between.
4) They space the floor
Brown is a bit of an old-school coach in that he doesn’t favor a three-point heavy attack, but he still manages to space the floor and run offense because he doesn’t play many guys who can’t shoot the ball out to at least 15+ feet. Even their big men - Moreira and Kennedy - have some perimeter touch, as both shoot over 60% from the free-throw line. SMU plays a lot of two-post high-low action with a big man who can beat you from mid-range, which opens up the floor and creates easy opportunities for them in the half-court.
5) They have an experienced PG
Winning big in March requires an experienced floor general like Nic Moore, a fourth-year junior PG who plays like a senior. The only thing preventing Moore from playing in the NBA is a lack of size (5’9 170), as he’s a well-rounded player who can create his own shot off the dribble, create shots for his teammates, stretch the floor from the three-point line and control the tempo of the game. He shoots 45% from 3 and averages 5.4 assists on 2.7 turnovers a game.
Without Mudiay, SMU’s Achilles heel is Moore getting into foul trouble, which is why it’s so important for them to protect him defensively with a lot of length on the perimeter. Ryan Manuel got the call against Boatright on Saturday and Moore was hidden on UConn’s worst player and you can expect that to continue in the NCAA Tournament.
6) They can play any style of basketball
A team that doesn’t have the personnel advantages of Kentucky or Arizona or Duke can’t afford to be one-dimensional since they can’t impose their style of basketball on the opponent. SMU takes the opposite tack - they are an amoeba who can match-up with anyone. They can play Twin Towers basketball with Moreira and Kennedy and they can play 4-out basketball with Moore at PF. They have the speed to play uptempo, the size to pound the ball inside and a PG who knows how to manage the difference.
7) Larry Brown
Larry Brown is the last guy in the world a coach wants to see across from him in a one-and-done setting. Remember Danny Manning and the Miracles in 1988? The 2004 Detroit Pistons who shocked the world by knocking off the Shaq and Kobe Lakers? On a smaller scale, Brown got SMU to the championship game of the NIT last season.When you give a coach with Brown’s experience and knowledge of the game a roster with a lot of versatility, you have a very, very dangerous combination.
The biggest knock on Brown has always been how he manages things off the court and that has been no exception at SMU, which will have to deal with a NCAA disciplinary committee about Frazier’s eligibility at the end of the season. All you have to do is look at what happened to Kansas after they won the 1988 NCAA championship to know how things usually end with Next Town Brown in charge.
If history is any guide, Brown may not have a lot of time to put together a winning team before it’s time to hit the road. The good news for SMU fans is that he may not need it.