After 29-year wait, SMU basketball returns to Top 25 rankings

After a 29-year wait, SMU returned to the Associated Press Top 25 basketball rankings on Monday.

SMU (19-5) debuted at No. 23, but after knocking off three ranked teams this season, the Mustangs expect to climb even higher.

"I’m sure nobody expected us to be here, but we knew what we had," guard Nick Russell said after SMU knocked off then-No. 7 Cincinnati, 76-55, on Saturday. "We have a great coach, a great coaching staff. The sky’s the limit."

That coach is 73-year-old Hall of Famer Larry Brown who has SMU, 15-17 a year ago, looking like a lock for the NCAA Tournament in just his second season at the school.

The success coincides with the re-opening of Moody Coliseum after a $47 million upgrade. SMU is 7-0 in the new Moody with four sellout crowds, plus a fifth sellout already assured for the March 5 matchup with Louisville.

In the past, the student sections at Moody were rarely filled, but now students are camping out in chilly temperatures for coveted tickets. Monday morning, Brown brought donuts and coffee to the line of students which stretched around the building.

"I didn’t imagine it would be like this this quickly, but I was hopeful we could get it where people wanted to see our team and would appreciate the fact that we’re playing hard and playing the right way," Brown said. "It’s much quicker than I imagined and I’m real thankful we’re here."

It happened quickly because Brown has infused the roster with talented transfers and recruits. The Mustangs have a talented floor leader in point guard Nic Moore, a deep bench – particular in the frontcourt – but their biggest strength is defense.

SMU is No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense and in home games opponents are shooting just 33.9 percent.

Earlier in the season, most of the attention was focused on the facelift of Moody, an old-style fieldhouse in the same mold as Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Now Moody has many of the same amenities Dallas-area fans are accustomed to at the American Airlines Center, home of the NBA Mavericks.

"We have a beautiful building," Brown said. "If we didn’t have a good team, all we’d have is a beautiful building. When you’re in a pro town with an owner like Mark [Cuban] who’s done such a phenomenal job, you’ve got to be pretty good for people to come see you play."

SMU is more than pretty good, and getting better. The Mustangs are 8-3 in the American Conference, which has five teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

The 1984-85 season was the last time SMU was ranked in the Top 25. That was also the last time SMU beat three ranked teams in a season, until now. SMU has beaten then-No. 17 Connecticut by nine and then-No. 22 Memphis by 15 to go along with Saturday’s 21-point win over then-No. 7 Cincinnati.

Wins like those have the Mustangs believing anything is possible.

 "Our goal is to get to win national championship this year," center Cannen Cunningham said. "Which might have sounded crazy a couple of months ago, but I think people are really starting to believe that."

Brown certainly believes the Mustangs haven’t peaked.

"When you can beat Cincinnati the way they’ve been playing, when you can beat Connecticut the way they are and the tradition they have, and you can beat Memphis, I don’t care where you play, that’s a huge accomplishment," Brown said.

"But we haven’t accomplished what we all want. There’s still a lot of big games ahead for us and there are a lot of goals we want to achieve."

One of those goals is for SMU’s students to not rush the court as they did after Saturday’s win over Cincinnati.

"I love the students being involved. I want them to be excited for what’s going on," Brown said. "But they don’t storm the court at Kansas. They don’t storm the court at UCLA. I’m so happy that we had that opportunity, but I’m hopeful that if we ever get his program the way we would like, we’d expect to win games like this."

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire