- The SMU Mustangs exemplify the unique composition of the American Athletic Conference, an ungainly beast with chops beyond the historical.
HARTFORD — They make up the strangest league, the 11 members of the American Athletic Conference. Their roster of coaches looks like the Island Of Misfit Programs—Kelvin Sampson? Jeff Lebo? Tubby Smith?—and the teams themselves are all schools that couldn’t find a chair when the music stopped and the power conferences were put together.
The league is one of the more ungainly beasts produced by the headlong evolution of college basketball into the monster that ate March. The same forces that put Maryland in the Big 10, and created the New York Life ACC Tournament made inevitable conferences like the American, which at least is possessed of some synergy between actual geography and the name of the league. Houston and Memphis at least are located in America, but it’s going to take some serious climate change to put Pittsburgh or Syracuse on the Atlantic Coast.
Still, though, this odd, mismatched bunch has some serious historical chops at this time of year. Hell, UConn’s in this league, and it’s won four NCAA championships since 1999 and, when the Huskies lost to Cincinnati on Saturday, it was a matchup of two teams with six national championships between them. The hometown Huskies fell to the Bearcats to finish with their first sub-.500 record since Jim Calhoun took over the program 31 years ago. UConn came into the season as a consensus top-20 selection, but it could muster only a split in 18 games within the AAC, which has chops beyond the historical, despite its unwieldy creation.
For example, it has SMU, which squashed Cincinnati, 71–56 on Sunday to win the conference tournament championship. Of all the oddballs in the American, the Mustangs may be the oddest of all. For decades it was a football school, but that all ended in 1986, when the discovery that they had a conspicuously fat payroll resulted in one of the biggest scandals in the history of college sports—even the incumbent governor of Texas got caught up in it—and the levying of the first, last, and probably only NCAA “death penalty.” The SMU football program never recovered from that, which is why the NCAA never will do anything of the sort again. (One slaughtered golden goose per century is probably the NCAA’s limit.) When the SMU basketball program got caught up in an academic-fraud scandal in 2015, the NCAA didn’t blow up the program, it just crippled it for a while.
“The biggest thing for me is that I’m so happy for these guys, the guys on our team,” said SMU coach Tim Jankovich. “Maybe I gained a tiny bit more confidence just for the fact that they got to experience all this. But I also want to say we've got Sterling and Ben here, these guys came. We were—they kind of bet on us. It wasn't going all that strong. We were in our first year. They took a chance on us. They also took a chance by staying through some really, really rough times that not many athletes across the country ever experienced, nothing I've ever experienced in all of the years I coached or played. And for them to just, you know, just to keep going forward and forward, there would be a lot of adults that could learn a lot from the way they handled things.
“And then for Semi to come in the midst of all of this and transfer. I mean, that's what I think is the hidden thing. Those of us that have lived all of this and known what these guys have been through, and the way they've acted and the way they've competed, and the lack of whining, complaining, pointing fingers, and all of that, and for them to have cut down nets in two different—in a week in a row, they're cutting down nets, and now we're getting to going into the NCAA Tournament.”
The most recent trouble for SMU began when the Mustangs were being led by the peripatetic Larry Brown. While Brown was coaching in Dallas, one of his assistants plugged a player into an online course to maintain his eligibility. Even then, the player needed help, so a member of the SMU administrative staff did some of the work for him. The NCAA frowns on this sort of thing and, in 2015, SMU got slugged with a one-year postseason ban and, more significantly, a loss of nine scholarships over the next three seasons. The result is that SMU won its league’s regular season championship, its league’s tournament championship, and 30 games, and will play as the sixth seed in next weekend’s East Regional, despite having only seven scholarship players on the roster. In the conference tournament semifinal and final games, none of the five starters played less than 35 minutes a game.
“We just had to take our time to get our rhythm,” said junior Semi Ojeleye. “Our chemistry is as high as any team in the country. It was only a matter of time until we hit our stride in tournament play, so I guess we just needed a little time to get it together.”
Ojeleye was critical to the recovery of the SMU program. The son of Nigerian immigrants who settled in Kansas, Ojeleye started at Duke, but quickly grew dissatisfied with his role there. He transferred into the middle of SMU’s enforced exile from postseason play. He sat out one season and then redshirted another before becoming the Mustangs’ best player, a 6-8 forward, versatile enough to play all over the floor, to guard both along the baseline and on the perimeter.
In fact, the seven contributing SMU players are all roughly the same size and the Mustangs play what’s called a “five-wing” offense, which makes them damnably hard to match up with at several positions. They are a unique problem, particularly if you only have a couple of days to prepare for them, which is the way of things as the NCAA tournament unspools over the next month. Which is why, having been through all the nonsense over the past three years, Jankovich and his players weren’t going to join in the Selection Sunday tradition of whining about where you’re seeded, where you’ll be playing, and why do they get to go to Sacramento and we don’t! It’s a big gyp! No fair!
“I really could start bitching and whining,” said Jankovich “I really could. I hear—I watch—and I don't blame coaches for doing it at all. I don't blame them because you always feel like our guys deserve better. I certainly think they deserve a great number. But you know what the truth is? I don't care at all. I could care less what the number is. They're just numbers. It's like preseason rankings. They're just silly numbers. The committee tries their best. They're trying to assess everybody. It's a hard job. You know what? I'm thrilled we're playing on Friday. That's my biggest thing. I thought that was going to be really, really important. We're the last game in the country today, if I'm not mistaken, and we're a long way from home. I wanted a Friday game. So you can have the number, but I wanted that one extra day and so I'm really happy about it.”
To be fair, the American probably got the two bids it deserved. (Cincinnati is also a sixth seed and will play the winner of the game between Kansas State and Wake Forest in the South region.) But Jankovich is a breath of fresh air. Every year, the answer to all the complaining remains, simply, win your damn games. Win enough of your games and, nine times out of 10, you’ll make the field and, once you’ve done that, unless you’re expected to win the whole thing, the rest of the season is sweet gravy. And if, like Jankovich and his Mustangs, you’ve spent the last three years in NCAA hell, a trip to Greenville, South Carolina to play either Providence or Southern California is spring break in Cancun.
“That's why it means more than I can describe,” Jankovich said. “This is not normal. This is not just a bunch of guys that had a good year and they're going to the Tournament. It runs deeper than that, at least it does for me for sure.” The music stopped again and, this time, SMU found a chair and everything made sense on the Island of Misfit Programs.