DALLAS — Twenty-five minutes before Southern Methodist tipped off the inaugural game in its renovated arena Saturday, a 7-foot-2 man in a dark sport coat roamed the bowels of Moody Coliseum until he found the coach who he says is “number one in all my heart.”.
Dikembe Mutombo then wrapped his long arms around Larry Brown before hollering in that distinct deep voice, “Coach, I came to see you finally!”.
Always on the lookout for talent, Brown, 73, eyed the retired center he once coached in the NBA before providing a scouting report, “You look like you can still play.”.
Mutombo, who says he resides in Atlanta and Houston, was not about to miss this game against 15th-ranked Connecticut, an event that rightly attracted interest from those near and far. Some of college basketball’s spotlight focused on SMU for the first time in a long time. And in the middle of his second season here, the pieces in Brown’s jigsaw puzzle are falling into place.
Everything the Hall of Fame coach envisioned when he was named SMU’s head coach in April 2012 — an upgraded arena, bolstered fan support, a more competitive league, success on the recruiting trail — it all has become a reality. And it all was on display in SMU’s first game at the modernized Moody Coliseum, which underwent a $47 million renovation and today was the site of SMU’s first victory against a ranked opponent since 2003.
“We have everything now,” Brown said after the 74-65 victory. “Now it’s up to us as coaches to make them (players) better and make kids feel like if they came here they’d be supported like this, have a chance to get a good education and they’d be coached. I don’t look at any other program and think they have more than us, to be honest.”.
This was a spirited, big-game atmosphere between two aspiring NCAA tournament teams. For SMU, a program that has not reached the NCAA tournament since 1993, relevance in January is a significant step forward.
The Mustangs can defend, ranking second nationally in field-goal percentage defense, and they can make shots, ranking seventh in field-goal percentage. They have dominated their opponents in points in the paint and in the rebounding battle, and today was no different.
They held UConn standout Shabazz Napier to 2-for-9 shooting from the field. SMU’s 5-foot-9, 170-pound guard Nic Moore, meantime, scored 20 points and collected six assists.
SMU had played its first six home games at the Curtis Culwell Center in nearby Garland as Moody’s renovations were completed. Today was a step up.
“A little different than Garland, huh?” Brown mused after the game, which had been sold out since Dec. 19. It marked the first sellout for SMU since Nov. 20, 2001 against Texas Tech.
Since Brown took over, SMU has added more than 2,000 full season ticketholders. They filled an arena that included a variety of new features, including a renovated main entry lobby, expanded concourses with raised ceilings, club seats, loge boxes and private suites. There’s a new sound system and a 9 feet-by-24 feet video screen over center court complete with four HD screens.
“They are trying to make this a special place,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whom Brown coached with the 76ers. “They are on their way.”.
From a personnel standpoint, Brown, the only coach to win an NBA and NCAA title, has known that all he has needed was one elite prospect to say yes, one breakthrough to energize his program.
Before arriving at SMU, Brown last recruited in college in the late 1980s at Kansas, in an era before Internet and cell phones, much less social media. The recruiting landscape has evolved considerably since Brown’s primary contacts were the prospects’ parents and high school coach. Before he was allowed to go out recruiting, Brown had to pass a compliance test at SMU, which he called the toughest test of his life.
But SMU has quickly made a dramatic impact on the recruiting scene under Brown, and in a state that has arguably bred the most elite high school talent in recent years. Last year he landed touted Dallas native Keith Frazier and secured a top 25 national recruiting class, according to Socut.Com. This year he signed an even more ballyhooed Dallas product, Emmanuel Mudiay, the nation’s top high school point guard.
It’s an easier selling point when Brown can say you can play in a premier league, where all 18 of your games will be nationally televised. Though it’s not the old Big East, where SMU was originally headed until the league irreparably fractured, the American Athletic Conference offers a considerable step up competition-wise from Conference USA.
And SMU may be able to shake up the perceived hierarchy. Louisville, the defending national champions headed to the ACC next season, are vulnerable because of the dismissal of Chane Behanan. Memphis, UConn and Cincinnati are other potential NCAA tournament teams.
The Mustangs (11-3) have lost to Cincinnati, Virginia and Arkansas, all of whom are rated no worse than 68th in the RPI. It will take more top-50 wins to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee, but Brown has already accomplished one of his goals — giving the fan base a team worthy of their support.
Minutes after the victory, Brown grabbed a microphone, thanked the crowd of 7,166 and said he was going home to celebrate. He embraced Mutombo one more time, summoning him to the locker room (Brown said he had thought Allen Iverson might show as well). And on his way off the court, Brown was approached by scores of fans offering congratulations and handshakes, as if the win marked something more than the team’s first league victory.
It did. It was SMU’s first win over a ranked opponent at home since 1993. And the scene illustrated the promise Brown had envisioned all along.
“It was what we were all hoping for when we came here,” Brown said, later adding, “We have as much as anybody right here. We just have to build on this.”.