Making its case
Larry Brown, SMU turning heads this year in the AAC
There are 45 days until Selection Sunday; do you know where your potential bracket busters are?
This year one could come from the American Athletic Conference. And this time, it’s not Connecticut.
SMU might cause you to squint and pull your eyes right up against your computer screen while peering at the NCAA RPI (the Mustangs are No. 21), but don’t let the name confuse you. The Mustangs are for real.
SMU coach Larry Brown -- yes, that Larry Brown -- has taken the Mustangs from the basement to on the verge of bursting out of the chimney top in two-plus seasons at the helm. Brown, the only non-ACC active Hall of Fame coach, took over a team that was 13-19, made marginal improvements in his first season with a 15-17 showing in 2012-13, then took the next step once he incorporated his own players into the system, going a 27-10 that took the Mustangs all the way to the National Invitation Tournament championship game.
So what do Brown and Co. have for an encore? All signs point toward the Big Dance in March. SMU is 17-4 this season and its 8-1 mark in AAC play has it just a game behind Tulsa for first place.
The fact that Brown has turned around SMU should serve as no surprise. He’s made numerous stops in both the NBA and college basketball during his decorated career and is the only coach to win both a national championship (Kansas, 1988) and an NBA championship (Detroit Pistons, 2004). He also played for legendary coach Dean Smith at North Carolina and served as an assistant on his staff from 1965 67.
But the person who deserves arguably as much credit as Brown for SMU’s turnaround is a 5-foot-9 guard named Nic Moore.
Moore transferred from Illinois State following his freshman year, sat out Brown’s transition season due to NCAA transfer rules, and then burst onto the scene in 2013-14, averaging a team-best 13.6 points per game and nearly carried the Mustangs to an NIT championship with his 17 points, 7 assists and 2 steals in the title game, two-point loss to Minnesota.
This year, Moore has done more of the same. He leads the team with 14.8 points per game, shoots 45.9 percent from the field and dishes out 5.2 assists per game.
But what SMU hangs its hat on is its defense. The Mustangs allow just 58.9 points per game, good for 25th in the nation.
And while its offense doesn’t blow up any box scores -- its scoring offense is 116th-best at 69.9 ppg -- SMU has a knack for sharing the ball. It dishes out 16 assists per contest (19th in the nation) and has four players averaging double digits in points per game.
Stats are fine and dandy, but the question is will it be worth anything come March. SMU’s high RPI is undoubtedly cushioned by road losses at No. 3 Gonzaga, No. 22 Indiana just as much as it is for its run through the less-than-stellar AAC.
Will SMU go on a run similar to that of UConn? Likely not. Could the Mustangs pull off a win in the round of 64 and possibly sniff the Sweet Sixteen? That appears more likely.
Other teams entering the spotlight:
1. Northern Iowa -- Raise your hand if you had the Panthers cracking the AP top 20 by late January? UNI is 19-2 and is No. 22 in the RPI as of Thursday. We'll learn plenty more about the Panthers when they welcome No. 12 Wichita State to Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Saturday afternoon with first place in the Missouri Valley Conference on the line.
2. Providence -- Don't look now, but the Friars are tied atop the Big East standings with the likes of No. 7 Villanova and No. 21 Georgetown. Providence takes on DePaul on Thursday night (game was pushed back from Tuesday night due to snow) and then has a quick turnaround when it visits St. John's (N.Y.) on Saturday.
3. Davidson -- No, Stephen Curry isn't suiting up for the Wildcats, but Davidson still has plenty of firepower. The Wildcat offense is seventh in the nation (81.9 points per game) and Davidson (14-4, 5-2 Atlantic 10) is currently fifth in the cluster at the top of the A-10.