Nestled between North Carolina and North Carolina State in the latest Rivals.com recruiting rankings at No. 14 in the country is SMU, a school that has not made the NCAA tournament since 1993.
The Mustangs’ climb up the charts is the result of head coach Larry Brown convincing McDonald’s All-American guard Keith Frazier, the top player in Dallas, to play for SMU.
This is why SMU went after Brown a year ago—his name recognition alone made the program relevant—and getting a player like Frazier to campus was key to Brown’s turnaround plan.
For him to make a commitment to come here is remarkable with the options he had. When we got the job here, our goal was the hopefully be good enough and relevant so that kids would want to stay at home and play here. For him to be the first to do that is huge. I don’t take it lightly. I want kids to feel like they can stay at home and be coached at the highest level.
Winning games is the next part of the equation, and how can you bet against Coach Brown? He’s only coached one team that did not reach the postseason at some point—his one season with the New York Knicks.
The genius of Coach Brown was not really felt in the first year. The Mustangs won two more games overall and one more in conference than the year before under former head coach Matt Doherty.
But Coach Brown wasn’t dealt much of a hand when he took over. His bench was so thin this past year that he played his starters a higher percentage of minutes than any team in the country, according to KenPom.com.
All five starters return next year, but a majority of them will be coming off the bench.
Along with Frazier’s likely addition to the starting lineup, Brown will also be able to insert Illinois State transfer Nic Moore at point guard and the top JUCO prospect in the nation, Yanick Moreira, inside.
That gives SMU three players who would start for many teams across the country. Frazier is a given, considering he’s ranked as the fourth-best shooting guard by Rivals.com.
Moore averaged 10 points and 3.9 assists as a freshman at Illinois State, a team that nearly made the NCAA tournament. He came to SMU with his coach Tim Jankovich, who is the coach-in-waiting.
Adding Jankovich to his staff was one of the best moves Brown made when he got the job. Not only did he get a good point guard along with the coach, Jankovich knows the college game and was a rising star at Illinois State. The former Kansas assistant took the Redbirds to four NITs in five seasons at the school, which had gone six straight seasons without a postseason appearance before he arrived.
The Redbirds lost in the Missouri Valley championship game in overtime to Creighton in 2012. They would go on to the NIT, where they won on the road in overtime against Ole Miss and then lost in overtime to eventual NIT champion Stanford in overtime. In those three games, Moore averaged 23 points and 5.7 assists.
Brown also signed shooting guard Sterling Brown, the brother of NBA guard Shannon Brown. The younger Brown is ranked as the 138th-best prospect by Rivals.com.
Two other candidates to start will be Illinois transfer Crandall Head, the brother of former Illini guard Luther Head, and Villanova transfer forward Markus Kennedy.
With Frazier, Brown, Moore and SMU’s leading scorers this past year—Nick Russell and Jalen Jones—SMU has a crowded backcourt, giving Brown some actual depth to work with.
Depth can only take you so far if your talent is average, and that’s why adding Frazier is so significant. The guard has the ability to come in right away and be a go-to scorer. Russell and Jones were role players miscast as scorers by necessity last season.
Coach Brown spent the year before he took the job at SMU visiting his buddies in the profession at Kansas, Kentucky and Villanova, and what he saw in the college game made him believe he could build a winner quickly at a school like SMU if he got the necessary talent.
Brown told ESPN.com in January:
Butler has figured it out. Gonzaga has it figured out. When Cal [John Calipari] was at Memphis, he figured it out. We'll figure it out here, too. I think we're gonna be good a lot quicker than people expect.
The whole equation—struggling program reels in genius mind—is reminiscent of Kansas State and Bill Snyder in college football. Brown preaches for his teams to play “the right way.” Snyder does the same, and he has led two turnarounds in Manhattan.
Betting against Brown now that he has legitimate talent would not be wise. The turnaround king and his new star, in Brown’s words, are gonna be good a lot quicker than people expect.
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