In the end, Larry Brown just couldn’t help himself. As has been the pattern his entire career, the Hall of Fame coach and legendary vagabond has once again gotten his program on the wrong side of the law. An academic assistant did the coursework for a player’s online class, an assistant coach covered it up and Brown wasn’t forthcoming to NCAA investigators about it. On Tuesday, the punishment was handed down, as SMU received a one-year postseason ban, loses nine scholarships over the next three years, as well as other recruiting privileges in terms of hours on the road and on-campus visits. Brown will also be suspended from coaching for the first nine games of the season.
Whether or not the school is ultimately able to appeal any part of the punishment, it will go down as another black mark on Brown’s legacy in the college game, which has been marked equal parts by success on the court as skirting the rulebook off of it. He went to the NCAA championship game at UCLA, won the NCAA title at Kansas and revived SMU’s completely moribund program but he also got all three schools hit with postseason bans.
It was supposed to be different this time around. Brown was in his mid 70’s, no longer the young man with the energy to fight the establishment or take on all comers. SMU, as the only school in NCAA history to receive the death penalty for their football program, was trying to change their reputation as a place that would look the other way and do whatever it takes to win. It was the ultimate marriage of convenience - a coach looking to leave a final legacy in the game and a school trying to put itself back on the map.
In and of themselves, it’s hard to believe the shenanigans involving Keith Frazier’s eligibility are all that different than what goes on at 100 other schools on an annual basis. However, given the history of both Brown and SMU, neither is going to get much of a benefit of the doubt. Both sides went all-in on becoming nationally relevant and it looks like they ended up rolling snake eyes. If this is it, what has to be really galling for everyone involved is just how close they came. SMU will have made only one NCAA Tournament appearance under Brown but that doesn’t really do justice to just how well he had the program rolling.
Two years ago, in only his second season at the school, Brown already had SMU playing with the best teams in the country. They beat the eventual national champions (UConn) twice in American Conference play. Unfortunately, their lack of quality nonconference wins cost them with the Selection Committee, who made the Mustangs a surprising snub for the field of 68. They made it all the way to the NIT championship game and finished the season with a 27-10 record.
Last season, they had one of the most heartbreaking first-round losses in the recent history of the Tournament, falling 60-59 to UCLA on an incredibly controversial call. Bryce Alford went up for a last-second shot that was clearly going to be an airball and in the scrum for the rebound the SMU center grabbed the ball while it was still close enough to the rim for the refs to call it goaltending. I’ve seen teams lose NCAA Tournament games a hundred different ways but never like that. UCLA went on to make the Sweet 16, which would have been a huge feather in the cap for an SMU program that hadn’t made it to the second weekend of the Tourney in 60 years.
That doesn’t even count what would have happened last season if they had managed to get Emmanuel Mudiay on campus. The future NBA lottery pick was pursued by every big school in the country and Brown had managed to get him to stay close to home in Dallas. Add that type of elite talent to the group they already had last season and SMU could have easily been one of the Top 10 teams in the country. Instead, Mudiay stunned everyone by electing to take the money and go overseas to China, where he only ended up playing a handful of games before injuring his ankle and coming home.
This year’s team would have been the best of any of the groups that Brown had assembled on the Hilltop. They had just about everyone coming back from a team that went 27-7 and won both the regular season and conference championships of The American. They lost two senior big men - Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham - but they returned their starting frontcourt and added one of the most talented transfers in the country, Jordan Tolbert from Texas Tech. Their non-conference schedule features games against Stanford, Michigan and Gonzaga so they would have had the chance to be in the national conversation all season.
It’s unclear what happens now. It’s too late for any of their seniors to transfer to another school to where they could play in the post-season and no one knows whether the talented group of underclassmen that Brown had assembled will want to stick around and play for a program with such a dark cloud hanging over it. They have as much veteran talent as any team in the Top 25 - they just don’t have anything to play for anymore.
Nic Moore, the reigning American Player of the Year, is one of the best PG’s in the country. He’s a complete player who can run a team and score from all over the floor. The only thing holding him back from being an NBA prospect is his lack of size at 5’9. Markus Kennedy, a transfer from Villanova, is one of the best low-post scorers in the college game. Keith Frazier, the guy whose academic issues started this whole mess, is a dynamic athlete and three-point shooter with a shot at playing at the next level. Ben Moore might be the most talented player of the bunch, a 6’8 combo forward who can do a little bit of everything. Add returning glue guy Shannon Brown, the younger brother of former NBA player Sterling Brown, and Tolbert and that’s about as deep a group of experienced players as a top NCAA program can expect to have in this era.
SMU might as well appeal the postseason ban because it’s going to be hard for Brown to assemble a group like this again, given the recruiting restrictions he will face, his ever increasing age and the NCAA microscope the program will be under going forward. That might be the ultimate punishment of all for Brown. For a coach who is about winning above all else, to assemble a group this talented and not be able to do anything with it is a tragedy damn near Sisyphean in its scope.