DALLAS — SMU coach Larry Brown and his players were surrounded last March by fans waiting to hear the Mustangs called for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
They don’t want to all be disappointed again when they gather at the end of this season.
“The big watch party here and having us on national television, and still not making the NCAA tournament, that hurt us a lot,” Mustangs senior Ryan Manuel said, recalling the awkward gathering.
“Oh yeah, it is motivation.”
Despite 23 wins, including two over eventual national champion Connecticut and two more against Top 25 teams, SMU’s NCAA tourney drought reached 21 seasons. The Mustangs instead got the No. 1 seed in the NIT and won four more games, getting to the championship game and taking Hall of Fame coach Brown back to Madison Square Garden.
The Mustangs go into the 74-year-old Brown’s third season on the Hilltop ranked No. 22 in the preseason AP poll. They were picked by American Athletic Conference coaches to finish second in the league behind UConn.
“Well, if we had Emmanuel, I could see all of that,” Brown said, referring to 6-foot-5 point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. “But when you lose a player like that in July and don’t have a chance to get somebody to replace him, it’s tough.”
Mudiay committed to SMU before deciding last summer to play professionally overseas instead of going to college. The Dallas-area prep standout is now in the Chinese Basketball Association, where earlier this week he had a triple-double (22 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds) in his third pro game.
“I like our team, we’re not playing real good right now,” Brown said. “We’re not one of the top 20 teams in the country today, but it’s a long year.”
Eligibility issues will likely force bruising 6-foot-9 junior forward Markus Kennedy (12.4 points, 7.1 rebound per game), one of their three returning starters and the top rebounder, to miss the start of this season. Senior Justin Martin, a transfer forward from Xavier (11.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg), was hurt through most of the preseason.
The other returning starters are junior guard Nic Moore (13.6 ppg), a unanimous preseason All-AAC pick like Kennedy, and sophomore guard Sterling Brown.
A few other things to know about the Mustangs:
GOING STRONG: How long will Brown coach at SMU?
“I’m just thrilled I’m here. I love my job, I love being at SMU, love my staff” Brown said. “We’re all excited about building something special here long, long term.”
The one thing Brown does regret is no longer being able to visit regularly with June Jones, the former SMU football coach who resigned in September.
“This SMU family is going to see coach Brown for many years after this, too,” Nic Moore said. “He ain’t done doing what he does.”
RETURNERS AND NEWCOMERS: In addition to the three returning starters, the Mustangs have seven other returning players. There are also three Division I transfers eligible this season: Martin, 6-7 senior forward Jordan Tolbert (Texas Tech) and 6-5 sophomore guard Ben Emelogu (Virginia Tech).
OLD GUYS: Seniors Ryan Manuel and Cannen Cunningham have both played 100 games at SMU. They are the only players who were also on the roster prior to Brown’s arrival.
EARLY TESTS: The Mustangs will quickly get challenged on the road. They play Monday night at No. 13 Gonzaga, then return from the West Coast for only one night at home before going to Indiana on Nov. 20. They also play at Michigan on Dec. 20.
HOME CROWDS: A sellout crowd is expected for the season opener against Lamar. The Mustangs were 18-1 at home last year, 12-1 after the renovated Moody Coliseum opened midseason. The average home crowd of 5,653 was up from 2,210 in 2012-13, the second-largest increase nationally.