Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 21: SMU's Larry Brown. On Monday, we release No. 20.
At the time, many thought former SMU athletic director Steve Orsini “botched” SMU's coaching search. Orsini, who was dismissed shortly after he hired Larry Brown in 2012, didn’t chase Brown as much as Brown was just one of the few quality candidates who seemed interested in latching onto a program that hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament in nearly 20 years.
Brown hadn’t coached college basketball since 1988. And who knew how long he planned to stay. Brown quickly added Tim Jankovich, who left his head-coaching position at Illinois State to accept an assistant's role with SMU as the coach-in-waiting.
SMU won 15 games in Brown’s first season. Last season, the Mustangs earned 27 victories, contended for their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1993, and lost to Minnesota in the NIT championship.
And now, Emmanuel Mudiay is coming. Emmanuel Mudiay is coming!
The five-star prospect’s arrival (No. 5 in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation) is significant.
“For his size, he has an elite athleticism,” said Marland Lowe, Mudiay’s AAU coach. “He’s got a great feel for the game. He gets anywhere he wants to go with the ball. He’s a great teammate, a great individual. … He’s smart and intelligent, understands X’s and O’s.”
Most figured Kentucky had the edge over the other blue-chip programs that recruited the Dallas prep star, but Brown convinced the 6-foot-5 hybrid guard to stay home. The Mustangs had the infrastructure (Moody Coliseum is a great venue when it’s full) and a strong returning cast to attract him. Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and six of the team’s top seven scorers from last season are back. Plus, former Xavier standout Justin Martin (11.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG and 37.3 percent from the 3-point line) will be eligible next season, too.
The pieces are there.
They just needed Batman. And Mudiay might be what SMU needs. The same program that won just 13 games three seasons ago will enter 2014-15 as the American Athletic Conference favorite and a national title contender. Mudiay means that much.
“One of the best things that he’s not given credit for is his defense,” Lowe said. “He is willing to guard the best player on the team. And if he’s guarding somebody else and another player is guarding him, he has no problem saying, ‘Let me get him.’”
Mudiay is technically a point guard. But that’s not the proper tag for a player with his skill set, especially with Moore returning and likely playing next to him. Mudiay is just simply a playmaker.
Brown could make Mudiay the team’s primary ball handler, but he will also be effective in space as a matchup quagmire for every team the Mustangs face. He’s explosive and balanced. He has a strong midrange attack, and he’s dangerous in traffic. Expect a multitude of ball screens that lead to "SportsCenter" moments for the young talent.
And he’ll shake up defenses. Not many teams can match up with a combo guard who has that kind of size without employing a small forward or a big wing. Mudiay could see a lot of zone, traps and imbalanced schemes to account for his abilities.
“He can elevate over people,” Lowe said. “He’s an excellent passer and he’s a good finisher.”
SMU ended the 2013-14 season ranked 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. The Mustangs will continue to lock down opponents due to a lineup that features the speed, length and versatility to adapt against various offensive attacks. But they averaged 71.4 PPG (166th nationally) and were 68th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
They need scorers. Martin will help. Mudiay, too.
An elite athlete like Mudiay could elevate SMU into the nation’s top tier and boost an offense that could use a spark.
“He is very good,” said Tyus Jones, a McDonald’s All-American point guard who will play for Duke next season. “[He] can really get to the rim, extremely athletic.”
In two wins over SMU last year, Louisville’s Russ Smith combined for 49 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists and six steals. Smith won many games for Louisville during his four years. When the Cardinals needed something, he could give it to them.
That’s the fabric that links America’s best programs each year. They all have one or more players who are capable of rising above the rest.
The Mustangs had a capable program last year. With Mudiay, however, they have a squad that’s equipped to compete with the best in the country.
“He can change a team just because of his skill level, talent and awareness,” Lowe said.
Botched hire? Nah. Brown was the perfect hire. Mudiay proves that.