During a brief span at a recent SMU practice, 6'5" junior swingman Carl Wright played like a man possessed. Possessed by what was uncertain. He posted up and took an off-balance, turnaround jumper that missed, but then grabbed his own rebound. A few seconds later he shot another brick—only to make a clean steal before the opposition could advance the ball to mid-court. Seconds later he dribbled off a pick and nailed a 15-footer.
Wright's riotous practices, which are the norm rather than the exception, say a lot about this year's Mustangs. Hopes are higher than at any time in SMU's history. But will this be a stampede of talented Ponies that never gets reined in? Or will the Mustangs out-talent most of their regular-season opponents and gallop into the Final Four? "I'm not sure we're as good as people think we are," says coach Dave Bliss, "but we'll be a neat team."
Bliss, 41, spent six years as Bob Knight's assistant (two at Army and four at Indiana), but chances are Knight would have said something other than "neat" had he gotten a load of Wright's recent wrongs. Though Bliss claims he's an advocate of Knight's patterned style, in fact he lets his charges run a more wide-open attack. During his first two seasons at SMU, when the Mustangs went 13-41, his philosophy was: "If we're going to lose, we may as well be exciting doing it."
Last season SMU was exciting and successful (25-8) until a 37-36 loss to Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Only one player who saw significant action in that game, sixth man Chuck Anderson, has graduated, and senior center Jon Koncak should be better than ever after spending the summer trading elbows with fellow Olympic centers Patrick Ewing and Joe Kleine. But there are points to keep in mind about these Ponies:
•They've never beaten Southwest Conference rival Arkansas under Bliss. Can they get over that psychological hump? "In the past we've been intimidated by certain teams, like Houston and Arkansas," says Wright. "It's like we just sat around and waited for them to do something. We've got to change that this year."
•As good as Koncak is—and he's improved every year—he's still only the second-best center in the conference after Arkansas's Kleine. For SMU to make an impact nationally, King Konc must equal or surpass last year's numbers (15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds a game). "He's got to get tougher and meaner," says Bliss, now sounding more like Knight.
•The multitalented Wright (14.6 points a game and 203 assists, even though he was the off-guard) has had run-ins with Bliss and last season thought seriously about transferring. "I've had problems with criticism," says Wright. "But that's over now." So everyone hopes.
Bliss wants more consistent production from Larry Davis, a three-year starter at strong forward. Despite a scoring average of 14.9 and a shooting percentage of .607, the 6'7", 225-pound Davis was MIA at times. "I've seen some good players, and there are very few with Larry's body who can jump like him," says Koncak.
Junior starter Kevin Lewis returns at small forward, but SMU can't afford his inconsistency: In 10 games against Baylor, Houston and Rice, for example, Lewis has made only 16 of 59 from the floor.
But you can't find a much better trio of shooters than Wright, Davis and Koncak: The latter two were second and third in field-goal percentage in the Southwest Conference last year behind Akeem Olajuwon. There will be the annual doubts about 5'10" junior Butch Moore's ability to run the offense, but he's bulldog tough and still improving. Bliss may go to versatile 6'4" sophomore Scott Johnson when he needs more height at the point.
Koncak, who was married over the summer to his longtime sweetheart, Darlene Tabor, should have a good year. Ditto for Davis, who has shown a new fire in practice. The key would seem to be Wright. If he controls himself on and off the court, it could be an extremely Blissful year in Dallas.