Nic Moore (AP)
The year before SMU hired Larry Brown to return its basketball program to relevance, the Mustangs averaged less than 2,000 fans per home game and struggled to find their niche in a football-dominated market.
How quickly Brown has cured that longstanding apathy might be the Hall of Fame coach's most impressive accomplishment.
A sellout crowd packed 7,000-seat Moody Coliseum on Saturday night to watch SMU rout seventh-ranked Cincinnati 76-55 for the Mustangs' first victory over a top 10 team since a win over seventh-ranked Florida in 1987. Students in the Moody Mob donned costumes, waved homemade signs and stood and roared so loud that seats on press row actually shook because of the noise.
The raucous atmosphere at once-tepid Moody Coliseum is a huge reason SMU (19-5, 8-3 AAC) is on track to secure its first NCAA tournament bid since 1993. The Mustangs are unbeaten at home this season and have already beaten three ranked opponents since moving into renovated Moody Coliseum five weeks ago, defeating UConn by nine, Memphis by 15 and now Cincinnati by 23.
Clobbering the previously surging Bearcats is SMU's most eye-opening achievement. Behind its usual stingy defense and the scoring of Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson, Cincinnati (22-3, 11-1) had reeled off 15 straight victories to rise into the top 10 in the polls and take control of the AAC title race.
What enabled the Mustangs to build a 14-point halftime lead and thwart Cincinnati's comeback bids relatively easily was a swarming defense that ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage allowed.
SMU keyed on Kilpatrick, forcing the league player of the year contender to take 18 shots to get his 22 points and limiting the Bearcats as a team to 35.4 percent shooting from the field and 4 of 24 from behind the 3-point arc. Cincinnati did secure 16 offensive boards, but that didn't come close to making up for the Bearcats' ice-cold shooting or their 19 turnovers.
It wasn't a huge surprise to see SMU shut down the erratic Cincinnati offense, but the ease with which the Mustangs scored at the other end was far more stunning. They shot 54.3 percent from the field and got to the foul line 25 times, taking advantage of opportunities to attack the rim both in transition and via half-court sets.
Nine SMU players received significant playing time and four scored in double figures. Guard Nick Russell and forward Ben Moore led the way with 15 points, while guard Nic Moore had 14.
An NCAA tournament bid would have been considered a wild success for SMU coming into this season, but Saturday's victory was a statement the Mustangs may be capable of not just getting there but also doing some damage too. Even scarier, they'll return every key player on the roster besides Russell next season and add elite point guard recruit Emmanuel Mudiay too.
The recruiting success Brown and his staff have enjoyed during his two-year tenure has been remarkable. So too has been Brown's ability to implement his defensive philosophy and get his players to fully buy in.
Still, his greatest achievement has been getting SMU fans on board.
It wasn't long ago that Moody Coliseum was three-quarters empty every time SMU played a home game. But watching the student section storm the floor after the final buzzer and lift Nic Moore high in the air, you'd never know SMU wasn't always a basketball school.
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