DALLAS — Moments before SMU took the court against No. 7 Cincinnati Saturday, the video board inside Moody Coliseum flashed images of some of the greatest players and moments in Mustangs history.
Most of the clips were in black and white, and those that were in color were old and grainy. It’s tough to find highlights of a program that hasn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament or won a conference title in 21 years.
Thanks to Larry Brown, this year’s squad is providing plenty of fresh footage.
Less than two years after being lured out of retirement, the Hall of Fame coach has transformed one of college basketball’s biggest doormats into a team that should be nationally ranked for the first time since 1985 when the next Associated Press poll is released Monday.
The Mustangs looked more than deserving of the honor after mule-kicking Cincinnati 76-55 before a sold-out crowd of 7,278 at Moody Coliseum. Most of them rushed the court as the final horn sounded, hoisting players on their shoulders while taking pictures and bouncing to music.
“Twenty years of athletic frustration ends today,” said SMU freshman Reece Graham, who was among the thousands of fans who stormed onto the hardwood after the final horn. “I don’t have the words to explain it. Thank God for Larry Brown.”
That’s definitely the consensus about the 73-year-old coach, who was flanked by security guards as they guided him toward the exit. More than once, Brown stopped to marvel at the celebration that was taking place.
“I never imagined,” Brown said later, “that it’d happen this quickly.”
Saturday’s victory was SMU’s first over a Top 10 team since 1987. More importantly, it greatly enhances the Mustangs’ chances of earning their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993. With victories over Connecticut, Memphis and the seventh-ranked Bearcats—who entered Saturday’s game touting 15 straight wins—the only questions surrounding SMU and the Big Dance should be about seeding.
They’ve already done enough to be included in the 68-team field.
“We’ve seen the bottom,” said center Cannen Cunningham, a junior. “It couldn’t have gotten any worse than it was when I first got here. Now we’re trying to get to the top. I think we can do it.
“Our goal is to win a national championship this year. That might have sounded crazy a couple of months ago, but I think people are really starting to believe it.”
Far-fetched as that thought may seem to basketball pundits, the Mustangs have plenty of reasons to feel good about their chances in every game they play.
Illinois State transfer Nic Moore (13.8 points) has blossomed into one of the top point guards in the country. Forward Markus Kennedy is averaging 11.9 points and 7.3 rebounds since transferring from Villanova, and seniors such as Nick Russell and Shawn Williams have provided leadership on a squad that counts five freshmen and sophomores among its top nine players.
Freshman shooting guard Keith Frazier, the first McDonald’s All-American in SMU history, comes off the bench. Ten SMU players average at least 12.2 minutes per game, making it one of the deepest teams in the country.
Mix in the only coach in history to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship, and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Brown is having success with the Mustangs. SMU is now 19-5 overall and 8-3 in the American Athletic Conference. The Mustangs trail only Cincinnati (11-1) and Louisville (8-2) in the league standings.
“It’s not a shock that (Brown) was going to be able to get good players,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “And if he gets good players, he’s going to win. The guy is a great coach, one of the best to ever coach the game.”
When SMU hired Brown in the spring of 2012, both sides were lampooned. SMU, for choosing a nomadic coach who hadn’t worked at the college level since 1988. And Brown for accepting a job at a school where poor play on the court was reflected in the attendance at Moody Coliseum.
“You’ll never win there,” people told him. “No one in Dallas cares about college basketball.”
One season after averaging 3,655 fans, SMU has now played before five sold-out crowds since Moody Coliseum was re-opened Jan. 4 after undergoing $47 million in renovations.
Luxury suites are filled for each game, local celebrities such as Deion Sanders and Tony Romo have been spotted courtside, and SMU students—seated behind both baselines and also at center court—are embracing the opportunity to get rowdy.
Before Saturday’s game, they taunted Cincinnati stars Justin Jackson and Sean Kilpatrick, which was impressive considering that, last year, they may not have known the names of their own players.
During timeouts, they chanted the name of highly touted recruit Elijah Thomas, who was in the arena for an unofficial visit, and they screamed and stomped so loud that seats throughout Moody Coliseum actually rattled and shook.
At halftime, people snaked through the concourse, waiting to buy hot dogs, nachos and $8 beers while rehashing the first 20 minutes.
SMU may lack tradition, but for one day at least, its home-court environment was every bit as loud and zany as Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, which is comparable in terms of size and build.
Suddenly, in a city that’s obsessed with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, its become chic to go to college basketball games, too.
“When you’re in a pro town with an owner like Mark (Cuban) who has done such a phenomenal job, you’ve got to be pretty good for people to come see you play,” Brown said. “I was hopeful people would see our play and would appreciate that we’re playing hard and that we’re playing the right way.”
Nearly 40 reporters were on hand for Brown’s postgame press conference.
“Wow,” said Brown, somewhat stunned. “Thanks for coming.”
Thrilled as SMU fans are about what’s happening now, they get even more excited thinking about the future. Nearly all the key pieces of this year’s squad will return in 2014-15, and the Mustangs are adding guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the fifth-ranked recruit in the country, according to ESPN.
“It’s all we tweet about anymore,” said Graham, the fan celebrating at midcourt. “When you have a great coach like Larry Brown bringing in great talent, and a fanbase that’s been waiting so long for something to get behind in a great city...there’s not much more you can ask for.
“Who better than SMU to give the state of Texas a school to root for in basketball?”
Brown is appreciative of all the support, but amid the excitement, he wants to remind fans that Saturday was only one game. Tough tests against schools such as Memphis and UConn await, and defending national champion Louisville visits Moody Coliseum on March 5.
As good as everyone feels now, it could all go south in a hurry.
But even Brown admitted he planned to celebrate a bit after beating Cincinnati. He gave the Mustangs the day off on Sunday—which is almost unheard of—and said he’s hopeful SMU ends up in Monday’s rankings. It would be big for the school, he said. Big for his players who have never tasted the type of success that has defined his career.
“They don’t storm the court at Kansas,” Brown said. “They don’t storm the court at UCLA. I’m hopeful that if we ever get this program the way we would like, we’d expect to win games like this.”
But in the meantime, Brown said, rush that court.
It’s exciting for fans and boosts morale.
And heck, they may even include it in next year’s pregame video.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.