In a season of parity in which no dominant team has emerged atop the college basketball world, the top 25 teams in the country combined for 16 losses last week.
But the team that has yet to suffer a defeat this season will not have the chance to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.
In fact, Southern Methodist won’t even be playing in the NCAA tournament after college basketball’s governing body banned the Mustangs from tournament play Sept. 29 for multiple violations including academic fraud and unethical conduct by head coach Larry Brown.
After moving to 18-0 with a 77-73 win against Houston Tuesday night, Southern Methodist—better known as SMU—strengthened its hold on the No. 8 spot in this week’s AP poll and figures to move up following three more top-5 losses already this week. Although the Mustangs are allowed to be ranked in the poll, the team will not be allowed to participate in both its conference tournament and March Madness.
After missing the postseason for 12 consecutive seasons, Southern Methodist returned to the tournament in 2015 led by the remarkable work of Brown—the only coach in basketball history to win both an NCAA and NBA title with Kansas and the Detroit Pistons, respectively. In just two seasons, the 75-year old head coach made Dallas one of the hotbeds for college basketball, attracting prized recruits such as Emmanuel Mudiay—who later opted to play in China instead of at the college level—Keith Frazer, Ben Moore and Sterling Brown.
But history proved to repeat itself as Brown once again cost his team a shot at history. The former Kansas head coach was first targeted by the NCAA in 1989 when his program provided improper inducements to a recruit under his watch and nearly led to the shutdown of the Jayhawk program.
At the time, Brown paid minimally for his actions. Although the Jayhawks became the first team to be banned from defending their national title, the head coach had moved on to the San Antonio Spurs. This time, Brown seems to have been let off easy again—he served only a nine-game suspension, and if the Mustangs keep winning, he stands to further cement his status as an all-time great head coach.
Don’t get me wrong—the NCAA’s willingness to drop the hammer for infractions jeopardizing the academic potential of a program’s student-athletes should be applauded. But is the correct culprit being punished?
For a school that faced the “Death Penalty” during the 1987 season for infractions by its football program, this season’s penalties feel like an even bigger punch in the gut.
Although many discount the Mustangs’ strong start to the season due to weaker competition in the American Athletic Conference, a closer look at the team’s resume shows that it could stack up with some of the best in the nation. Early in the season, Southern Methodist toppled Michigan by 24 points, the same Wolverine team that upset then-No. 3 Maryland last week. The Mustangs also boast victories against Stanford and Colorado, two of the mid-tier teams in an unpredictable Pac-12 conference.
But arguably the saddest part of the team’s story is the injustice for seniors Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert, who will never taste the Big Dance again. Instead, the last image the trio will have of March Madness is a heart-breaking 60-59 defeat to UCLA in the Round of 64 last year after a controversial goaltending call cost them a chance to advance.
There’s also Semi Ojeleye, who transferred to Southern Methodist from Duke in December 2014 but has yet to take the court for the Mustangs this year. Ojeleye missed out on Duke’s national championship run last year and won’t get a chance to be a part of what could have been a promising postseason this season, either.
The loss of Moore means that college basketball fans are also big losers from the ruling levied by the NCAA. Standing at just 5-foot-9, the reigning AAC player of the year is the kind of speedy, undersized point guard better suited for the college game than the NBA. Averaging 15.6 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep, Moore has also shown the ability to carry his team when needed such as in a tight 59-57 win against Cincinnati, in which he rallied his team from seven down with just three and a half minutes to go.
With only 12 games standing between Southern Methodist and a perfect regular season, the team certainly has something to play for. After all, an unblemished 30-0 mark might be just what is needed to leave many wondering just what could have been.