For SMU, everything is harder the second time around. They were one of the surprise teams in the country last season, emerging from out of nowhere to finish with a 24-10 record and a trip to the NIT championship game. With most of the team coming back and one of the top recruiting classes in the country coming in, they were expected to be one of the top teams in the country. Their schedule reflected that, as they had nationally televised showdowns with Gonzaga, Indiana and Arkansas in the first few weeks of the season.
It was supposed to be a national coming out party for the program, which was ranked in the pre-season Top 25 for the first time in a very long time. After missing out on an NCAA Tournament bid because of a weak non-conference schedule, SMU had a lot of chances for quality wins in November and December. That, at least, was how it looked in April. Since then, they have seen their top recruit - Emmanuel Mudiay - bolt for China and their second-leading scorer - Markus Kennedy - ruled ineligible right before the start of the season.
This is the kind of stuff you don't have to deal with if you are an NBA coach. A potential Top 5 pick like Mudiay would have increased the program's profile, but Kennedy was the bigger loss for this year's team. He was their security blanket in the half-court, a guy whom they could throw the ball inside too at any time of the game and get a good shot. At 6'9 250, he had the size to establish post position on every team in the country as well as the skill to score with his back to the basket and find the open man out of a double team.
Without Kennedy, SMU had to junk a good portion of their half-court offense and rely on a number of younger players earlier in their careers than the coaching staff had anticipated. There is still plenty of talent on hand, but it has been a huge adjustment process, one made more difficult by the incredibly tough schedule to start the season. Gonzaga and Indiana are two of the toughest places to play in the country while Arkansas, who beat the Mustangs on their home floor on Tuesday, is a deep and experienced team who could surprise folks this year.
SMU looks much different without Kennedy, as they have to play a different style with Ben Moore as their starting PF. "We worked all year on making him a perimeter player and then the situation with Markus changed things," said Larry Brown. "Ben is still a sophomore. It's going to take him awhile, but he's a really good player." At 6'8 185, Moore has a lot of skill and athleticism for a guy with his size. He is a smooth player who can take the ball up the court, get it to the front of the rim and make the right play if the defense collapses.
The sky is the limit for Moore, who is leading the team in points (13.3) and rebounds (5.8) and is second in assists (3.3). The key for him is developing an outside shot that forces defenses to respect him 20+ feet from the basket, which you can see still needs work from his 58% mark from the line. If he can make that shot, he will have a chance to make it in the NBA as a small forward. The problem for now is that he can't really post up or stretch the floor, so he limits the type of sets that SMU can run in the half-court.
There are two youth-related prongs to the problem for Larry Brown - SMU is much better in the open court, but they aren't playing defense at the same level they were last season, when they were 19th in the country in defensive rating. They can't get stops as easily, so they can't get out in the break, which means they have a hard time getting good looks on offense, which allows the other team to run the ball back at them. That was the formula for the early 10-point lead for Arkansas on Tuesday, who made SMU play from behind all night.
SMU is depending on Moore and three other sophomores - Keith Frazier, Sterling Brown and Ben Emelogu - to step into major roles this season. It's a big jump from the year before, when Frazier and Brown were barely playing as freshmen while Emelogu was sitting out a year after transferring from Virginia Tech. Each of those guys is playing over 20 minutes a night and they have to learn how to become consistent contributors, as there aren't as many guys to pick up the slack as last season, when they were one of the deepest teams in the country.
Without Mudiay and Kennedy, SMU went from a 10-deep rotation to an 8-man group with just enough players to survive. The sophomores, Larry Brown's first recruiting class at SMU, have the talent to carry this program back into national prominence, they are just being asked to do it a year in advance. The pieces are there - Frazier, a McDonald's All-American, is an electric scorer, Brown, the younger brother of long-time NBA veteran Shannon Brown, is a great glue guy and Emelogu had a really solid season as a freshman at Virginia Tech.
All that youth has increased the pressure on junior PG Nic Moore, who is also the only true PG on the roster. When he is on the floor, he has to control tempo, get shots for everyone else and look for his own offense. When he is off the floor, SMU is holding on for dear life. He is one of the savviest guards in the country, but at only 5'9 185, he can struggle with ball-pressure from bigger and longer guards. "We wanted to get the ball out of his hands and force other people to make decisions," said Arkansas wing Michael Qualls.
With Kennedy gone and so many younger players stepping into big roles, SMU is still figuring out what they want to do on offense. In that respect, there was only so much you could tell from their game against Arkansas, which spent most of the game pressing full-court and then falling back into a zone, dictating the type of shots that SMU could get. They had success running some offense for Ben Moore in the high post, but for the most part, they weren't really able to get things going until the second half, when they started beating the press.
They are figuring things out, but there is still enough talent on hand that you figure they eventually will. One guy who could see a bigger role is Yanick Moreira, their 6'11 starting center, who is coming off a very strong showing for Angola in the World Championships. He has the ability to score out of the post, but he isn't nearly as reliable a finisher as Kennedy and his teammates are far more leery of giving him the ball. Something that worked well against Arkansas was pairing their two PG's, Moore and Ryan Manuel, together.
The good news for SMU is they don't leave the friendly confines of Moody Coliseum for the next month, until a road date at Michigan on December 20. The bad news is there are some more quality teams coming down the slate, including games against UC-Santa Barbara and Wyoming in the next few weeks that no longer look like gimmes. At this point, SMU's only goal is triage and keeping their heads above water until the start of conference play in January, when Kennedy should be able to return to the team for the spring semester.
In a best-case scenario, their young guys benefit from the increased playing time to become different and more fully-formed players in February and March, when their lives should be made much easier by the presence of Kennedy. The question is how deep of a hole they will be digging themselves out of and whether they will need to win the AAC conference tournament to ensure they make the field of 68. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but as they are finding out, the only thing harder than being a success is sustaining it.