When SMU ended a meandering 34-day coaching search by luring Larry Brown back to the college game in April 2012, I was one of many who questioned whether the nomadic hall of fame coach was a good fit for the job.
Brown had just turned 71, had few ties to Dallas-area high school basketball and had a long history of only remaining in a job for two to three years at most. All of that made it difficult to see how Brown was going to recruit effectively enough to revitalize an SMU program that hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and failed to finish above .500 in Conference USA in any of former coach Matt Doherty's six seasons.
Landing a handful of coveted transfers and recruits early in his tenure suggested I may have underestimated Brown, but the most convincing evidence I was way off target came at halftime of Saturday night's Under Armour Elite 24 game. That's when SMU secured a commitment from an elite prospect the Mustangs almost certainly wouldn't have even bothered to recruit prior to Brown's arrival.
Dallas native Emmanuel Mudiay, the consensus top-rated point guard in the Class of 2014, chose to remain close to home at SMU instead of attempting to emerge as John Calipari's next great floor general at Kentucky. Kansas, Baylor and Oklahoma State were also among the five schools to make Mudiay's final list.
"[Larry Brown] is a hall of fame coach and he has coached hall of fame players," Mudiay said on ESPNU after making his announcement. "I can learn a lot from him. I have real respect for him."
That SMU went head-to-head with Kentucky and landed a five-star recruit is a testament to Brown and his staff because the Wildcats haven't lost a prospect they coveted too often under Calipari. From 2008 to 2012, Calipari put five different point guards into the NBA and his 2013 recruiting class includes six of Rivals.com's top 20 prospects.
Kentucky anointed Mudiay its top Class of 2014 target at point guard because his length and explosiveness off the dribble made him an ideal fit for Calipari's system. It appeared Mudiay was likely to become a Wildcat as recently as the beginning of the summer, but recruiting analysts say SMU began picking up momentum during the July evaluation period.
When Mudiay unexpectedly revealed Friday he would be announcing his college choice the following night, it became increasingly likely SMU would be the surprise pick.
Mudiay had visited SMU a handful of times this summer but wasn't scheduled to make his official visit to Kentucky until Big Blue Madness in mid-October. Furthermore, the Wildcats made an offer earlier this week to fellow Class of 2014 point guard Tyler Ulis, which suggested Calipari wasn't as confident about landing Mudiay as he once was. And perhaps Calipari had good reason since on Monday Mudiay tweeted, "Sometimes u just have to shock the world!"
It's silly to count out Calipari in recruiting, but there's no question losing Mudiay will leave Kentucky in scramble mode assuming guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison turn pro as expected next spring after their freshman season.
One of the two other Class of 2014 point guards Kentucky has offered is highly touted Tyus Jones, but the Minnesota native is thought to be Duke-bound barring a major surprise. The other is the 5-foot-9 Ulis, who is probably a notch below Mudiay and Jones because of his lack of size and defensive potential. Kentucky would have to make up ground to land Ulis anyway because Michigan State has made him its top priority at point guard the past few months.
Those are headaches Brown won't have to worry about for the time being because SMU has its point guard of the future.
The 6-foot-4 Mudiay has a lightning-quick first step to the basket, impressive athleticism and the ability to finish well through contact at the rim. His outside shot remains a work in progress since he so rarely faces a defender he can't beat off the dribble, but his vision and decision-making with the ball in his hands has improved.
SMU has an outside chance of contending for an NCAA bid next March, but it's the 2014-15 season during which the Mustangs will truly return to national relevance.
They'll be in their second year in the American Athletic Conference. They'll be playing in a newly renovated arena. And they'll be able to pair Mudiay with 2013 McDonald's All-American Keith Frazier, heralded junior college big man Yanick Moreira, Illinois State transfer Nick Moore and a wealth of other role players.
Assuming that core remains at SMU and develops as expected, the Mustangs would have a Top 25-caliber roster, and when was the last time you could say that? It's just another sign that SMU's controversial hire of Brown has turned out much better than many expected 18 months ago.
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