AUSTIN, Texas – Scan this week’s Top 25 men’s college basketball poll, and you’ll find just one team from the state of Texas.
No, not the Longhorns, who’ve dropped three of four and slid out of the Top 25. And not Baylor, a top-10 team in early January that fell on hard times. And no way is it Texas A&M, which is stuck in mediocrity.
The school carrying the banner for the Lone Star State is none other than SMU, coached by 73-year-old Hall of Famer Larry Brown.
The Mustangs (23-6, 12-4) are No. 18 in both the coaches and media polls. It’s their first year in the Top 25 in nearly three decades (1984-85).
They are a virtual lock to snatch their first NCAA Tournament bid in 21 years.
“To me, it’s the most exciting thing that (has) happened in my two years here,” Brown said recently. “The support of the students and faculty have helped bring out pride in the school. I think it’s going to resonate through every sport.”
Forward Shawn Williams is a 2010 transfer from Texas, who remembers the dark days.
“We used to beg people to show up. Now, they camp out for tickets,” said Williams, who averages 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in 18 minutes.
SMU has come a long way in a short time. The Mustangs, who hadn’t beaten a ranked team in 11 years, have four victories against the Top 25 since January.
“I think it’s really cool to see how they’ve brought college basketball excitement back to the Metroplex,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They are a strong team in a formidable league.”
The American Athletic Conference is a top-heavy, first-year outfit strung together from former Big East public schools and the best of Conference USA.
The AAC has five teams in the Top 25, more than any other conference. No. 11 Louisville, No. 15 Cincinnati, No. 19 UConn and No. 20 Memphis are the others.
Brown, who has won more than 2,500 games, an NBA championship and an NCAA title, has cobbled together his team with under-the-radar recruits and transfers. Like 74-year-old Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder, Brown turns three-star prospects into four-star producers.
Nic Moore, a 5-foot-9 sophomore transfer from Illinois State, is the leading scorer at 14.1 and averages 4.7 assists. He is the spark plug and a 45 percent 3-point shooter. Markus Kennedy (11.9 points, 7.2 rebounds), a 6-9 forward from Philadelphia, is a transfer from Villanova, where Brown was assisting Jay Wright a few years ago.
SMU is second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.9) and ninth in field-goal shooting (49.2).
“We will hound you on defense, that is our one constant,” Brown said. “We’ll make you work your tail off to beat us.”
Any chance a nomadic warrior like Brown, who has juggled 13 pro or college head-coaching jobs, settles down?
“I’m not very good at retirement. When I was fired by (the) Charlotte (Bobcats), it wasn’t long before I wanted back in the game,” Brown told HBO’s “Real Sports.” “I was thrilled to get this opportunity, and it has re-energized me.
“My son’s a freshman at SMU – he’s even my roommate – and I promised him I’d stick around to see him graduate. So we’ve got that.”