The last time SMU visited Hofheinz Pavilion, the Mustangs defeated the Cougars 75-68. But head coach Larry Brown was ambushed in the post-games about condoning grade tampering by playing freshman Keith Frazier. The allegations arose not from actions taken by SMU but from one of Frazier's grades being changed to a passing grade to allow him to graduate, this coming after reports that Frazier had allegedly improperly transferred to Dallas's Kimball High School.
SMU's basketball went on to have its best season in three decades last season, just missing out on the NCAA Tournament and instead going to the NIT and losing in the title game. Success is expected when Larry Brown's the head coach, and a 27-10 record and NIT appearance was something for SMU to celebrate. The success has continued for SMU this season, and coming into last night's game against the Cougars at Hofheinz, the Ponies were ranked in the top 25, in second place in the America Athletic Conference and looking to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, there's still the matter of Keith Frazier and the grade tampering, and that alleged grade tampering has bought about some NCAA scrutiny on a school that's had more than its share of NCAA scrutiny over the years. The NCAA has ruled Frazier academically ineligible for the rest of the season, and the NCAA has decided to check out allegations of academic improprieties in the program involving not just Frazier but several other current and former SMU players. To those ends, assistant coach Ulric Magli (who coached at UH before going to SMU), the man who recruited Frazier to SMU, has taken an indefinite leave of absence.
The SMU team (20-5, 11-2 in conference) that defeated UH (9-14, 1-10 in conference) last night by a 75-69 score didn't appear to be a team bothered by the NCAA pestering or the brewing controversy over school academics. It instead seemed to be a normally well-coached Larry Brown college basketball team, fundamentally sound (expect for free throw shooting) and eschewing three pointers for often wide open shots in the paint. A team that doesn't mistakes, a team that has to be beaten rather than a team that beats itself. But midway through the second half, with SMU up 57-40 and seemingly on cruise control, the Cougars decided to fight back. UH went on a 29-18 run over the last ten minutes to make it a game, being as close to four points down with a minute left on the clock. But the 17-point deficit was just too much for the Cougars to overcome and the Larry Brown team did what SMU's rich backers want SMU to do, win games.
"We're preaching a lot things this year," Sampson said afterwards. "Culture. We're laying a foundation of what we want this program to be. What we want to be known for. These kids are really getting better at it."
Academic eligibility problems aside, SMU is doing what UH wants to do: crawl out of the abyss of irrelevance and return to national dominance. That's why a school hires a Larry Brown. He goes to a college (or pro team) and turns it into a winner, and does it quickly. Kelvin Sampson does the same thing. Sampson has a proven track record of turning around programs, making them relevant, getting them into the NCAA Tournament. It's hard to see, looking at the UH record, but Sampson's convinced things are already changing, that the team's attitude is changing, and Larry Brown's convinced of that same thing regarding UH.
"I see the development of kids...things that are worthwhile don't happen overnight," Brown said of UH after the game. "They have a wonderful coach. I coached my first college game at Kansas here when they had a pretty good group ...I just want to see this building full like it was...and I'm sure that he'll get it done."
Larry Brown wasn't ambushed by a Dallas-area reporter about any academic irregularities after this game. But it's fair to say Brown and SMU were nearly ambushed by a UH team that's losing lots of games, but that's learning on the fly and laying a foundation for next year. SMU won this game; it might not win these games against UH in seasons to come.
Sampson sees the Cougar turnaround coming. Brown sees the Cougar turnaround coming. And if UH can finally get this ship turned around, it's going to be a fun thing to watch. Hopefully Sampson and UH won't face the other issues that SMU's currently dealing with. But that's something to worry about in years to come. Right now it's about watching a Houston team learning how to play basketball.
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