Remember all those hurt feelings that the SMU Mustangs felt after being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament? It looks like they got over it. "About a week ago, we were bummed out for not making the (NCAA) tournament," SMU guard Nick Russell said. "Now we’re still playing. The cherry on top is that we get to play in Madison Square Garden."
SMU’s win over California at Moody Coliseum propelled the Mustangs to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden this week. The Mustangs will take on Clemson on Tuesday.
It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but the Mustangs have played longer than all but four teams in the NCAA Tournament, and those teams will be the ones dancing in North Texas at the Final Four.
For head coach Larry Brown, who has spearheaded this Mustang revival in just two seasons, New York City is home. The Brooklyn-born Brown also coached the New York Knicks a while back.
If SMU wins it all in New York, Larry Brown will be the first coach to claim an NBA, NCAA and NIT championship.
"I’m not sure they’ll (New York) let me in," Brown joked after the Mustangs’ win.
"Back when I was growing up, the NIT was a huge deal. (ESPN’s) Fran Fraschilla put some perspective on it when he talked to our team."
Madison Square Garden is one of those venues that you have to play in if you’re a basketball player. SMU has played in the arena just once, on Dec. 7, 1950, against St. John’s. They have never made it to the NIT Final Four.
For Brown, two more wins would allow him to become the first coach in history to claim an NBA, NCAA and NIT championship. He’s already the only one to pull off the NBA/NCAA double. It's also a chance to get back to his root. "I get to see my family, eat in some great restaurants, I’m so thankful they’re going to get that chance," Brown said. "When you’re part of it, you’re going to see the excitement."
It may be hard to top how the Mustangs won against Cal. Down a point in the waning seconds of the contest, guard Nic Moore drained a 3-pointer to lift the Mustangs to the win. It was a designed play for Moore. Brown said they’ve worked on it every day in practice but only used in a game once before the win over Cal.
Moore is new to the Mustangs this season, like several players on the roster. Russell, meanwhile, is one of just two seniors on the team, holdovers from the Matt Doherty era and getting a reward after several years of losing.
"(Matt) Doherty left me some class kids and those kids allowed us to move on," Brown said.
It may only be the NIT to some, and the Mustangs may come back home with nothing to show for their trip to New York City. But this season began with no expectations and a temporary home in Garland, continued with the Mustangs’ returned to a shiny and remodeled Moody Coliseum and will end with at least one game on ESPN in one of basketball’s true iconic arenas.
All signs point toward things getting even better on The Hilltop. The Mustangs have a top national recruit, Emmanuel Mudiay, coming in the fall. Another Top 10 national recruit, Lancaster’s Elijah Thomas, is thinking of the Mustangs in 2015. He told the Dallas Morning News that he loved the atmosphere of the SMU game he went to at Moody.
Turns out Brown is digging it, too. He praised the crowd's effort throughout the season.
"They were loud. I think they affected Cal, and I think it affected me. I got goose bumps." Brown said. "We don’t beat UC-Irvine, we don’t beat LSU, and we don’t beat Cal without that support. I hope the fans recognize that."
The rest of the country shouldn’t be far behind.