The thought wouldn’t leave my head as I walked down the stairs of SMU’s Crum Basketball Center on Oct. 30: I’m not excited to ask the players or Larry Brown about the NCAA sanctions.
It was the first time I could cover the team’s practice and talk to the players and coaches since the NCAA ruled in late September that SMU could not play in the postseason. The team had been practicing for nearly a month and Brown had just made his first public comments at the American Athletic Conference media day since the ruling.
I figured that the ban was the last thing on any player or coach’s mind. I surely wasn’t the only media member who was thinking more about the ban rather than the season, since no media member had yet to see the team practice and most hadn’t talked to the players at all since the ruling. I also wouldn’t be doing my job well if I didn’t ask about it.
So I asked Markus Kennedy how practice had been going and if the ban has had any effect.
“It’s like nothing’s ever happened,” Kennedy said, smiling a bit. “It feels kind of like we’re getting ready for the tournament. That’s kind of everybody’s mindset. It’s not even about not going anymore.”
Phew. Kennedy responded with an honest answer and didn’t seem bothered by my question. If he was, he didn’t show it. Afterward, Herman Hudson, the director of athletic public relations and primary SID for men’s basketball, quipped that I was smart to get those questions out of the way because the team was completely focused on the season. I agreed. That storyline is over. SMU isn’t thinking about the ban anymore, so neither should you.
What is important is that SMU has been predicted to win the American Athletic Conference by the league’s coaches, and the core of a team that won it outright last season is still here. Nic Moore is still around to knock down clutch shots. Sterling Brown is still around to lock down the perimeter on defense. Semi Ojeleye is still ready to break out once he’s eligible at the end of the semester. Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and Sed Barefield are still eager to play early and make everyone excited about the future.
None of that has changed despite the ban. Opponents will take the Mustangs just as seriously. The team doesn’t think this season is a waste, so neither should you.
Larry Brown may be suspended for nine games, but his absence is a chance to see what head coach in-waiting Tim Jankovich can do as acting head coach. His job is already easier because he doesn’t have to worry about an unmotivated team in the wake of the ban.
“It’s the love we have for each other. It’s bigger than going to the tournament,” Kennedy said. “We’re brothers, and everybody still wants to play. We’re still going to lace our sneakers up together, and it doesn’t make sense to not go out and play for each other.”
It also doesn’t make sense to lose interest in a team that’s been practicing just as hard as it was last year, when the postseason was a possibility, just because of the ban. The season is not only salvageable, but also full of opportunity for SMU to add another conference title year to the banner in the Moody Coliseum rafters. Students camped out and lined up again for tickets Monday morning, but the challenge is on the alumni and other fans to fill Moody like they did the last two seasons.
“We want to send a message to keep coming out there and supporting us, so we’re going to keep coming out and giving it our all,” Sterling Brown said.