All dressed up, nowhere to go.
It’s trite, of course. But what else are you going to say about a college basketball team with a 75-year-old legend of a coach, with only seven scholarship players and with the dark, vindictive cloud of an NCAA probation hanging over its head?
With a well-rounded team effort — because, after all, with only seven players there isn’t much to round — the SMU Mustangs remained challenged but perfect Tuesday night, surviving a scare from the Houston Cougars to win 77-73.
Coach Larry Brown’s Mustangs raised their record to 18-0. They are the only remaining undefeated team in the land.
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Difficult road tests remain — among them, at Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston — but the Ponies’ gang of seven could actually do this. They could win the American Athletic Conference and become the first college basketball team since North Carolina State in 1973 to go undefeated — and be denied the opportunity for postseason play.
1 Undefeated Division I team in men’s college basketball. SMU is 18-0 but because of NCAA sanctions will not qualify for the postseason.
But this, for better or worse, has become their story. Brown and his brilliant but rules-skirting legacy. Keith Frazier and the secretary who took his online course for him. Emmanuel Mudiay, who almost passed through SMU on his way to China and the Denver Nuggets.
Don’t hate. Mudiay, said to be an acute academic risk, was recruited not only by Brown, but also by Baylor, Kansas and Kentucky.
But only Texas Tech and SMU reportedly were hoping there would be some way to get Frazier, a McDonald’s All-American at Dallas’ Kimball High, into school.
The eventual NCAA ruling cited SMU for “lack of head coach control” and Brown was suspended for the first nine games of the season.
The haunting blow was the one-year ban from postseason play — a bitter pill, because it denies a chance for the Mustangs’ three outstanding seniors, Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy.
Brown is not shy talking about the challenge that his remaining team faces.
I never thought we would be the big game for people. At UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina, you kind of know — that’s their DNA, and they thrive on that. This is something you’ve got to learn. This is going to help us down the road.
SMU coach Larry Brown
“Kenny Smith and I talked today,” Brown said after Tuesday’s game. “Coach [Dean] Smith obviously meant a lot to both of us. And I asked Kenny, ‘What do you think coach would have said to these kids?’
“Kenny said, ‘Just do what you do best, try to make your teammates better and have fun.’
“I think that’s pretty good advice.”
At 18-0 Brown knows the Ponies are going to be under an ever-brightening spotlight.
“The pressure was when we got our ruling,” Brown said. “There’s no pressure now, because we know we’re going to take everyone’s best shot.
“I never thought we would be the big game for people. At UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina, you kind of know — that’s their DNA, and they thrive on that.
“This is something you’ve got to learn. This is going to help us down the road.”
The smoking gun in the NCAA case against SMU was an internet course that Frazier was enrolled in at — wait for it — National University Virtual High School. Yes, it really exists.
When the allegation first surfaced, however, SMU assistant Ulric Maligi suddenly left the program, citing personal reasons. A secretary reportedly obtained Frazier’s online password and performed the course work.
Frazier has left SMU, leaving Brown with the shortest of benches.
“I don’t think any coach could be any prouder of a group than I am,” said Brown, who is in his 41st year as a head coach.
The Mustangs are 18-0. No team in the nation has a better record.
No team has a darker cloud waiting for it.