Emmanuel Mudiay Could Represent a Turning Point for SMU

Posted by Chris Johnson on August 26th, 2013

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

None of the 15 victories SMU tallied last season were quite as important as the massive recruiting win it scored Saturday night. That’s when Emmanuel Mudiay, a consensus top-five player and arguably the top point guard in the 2014 class, subverted the natural college hoops recruiting food chain by announcing at halftime of the Under Armour Elite 24 game that he would spurn scholarship offers from Baylor, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, among others, to attend SMU. The natural reaction? Woah. Why would a player as talented and with as clear a path to the NBA Draft lottery as Mudiay, turn down not only the sport’s most proven preps-to-pros pipeline (Kentucky), but a Big 12 juggernaut (Kansas) that’s won nine-consecutive conference championships and is welcoming the most celebrated high school prospect since Kevin Durant (Andrew Wiggins) to its campus this fall? Mudiay answered that very question on the ESPNU airwaves:

With Mudiay making his verbal commitment, the arrow is pointed up for SMU (Getty Images).

“I prayed about it a lot, and this is what I felt was the best fit. My family is here, and they can see me play, and I will learn from a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. He has done it in college and the pros. He knows what it takes to get there, and I think we can do some special things at SMU.”  

The allure of Larry Brown is one thing. Brown is considered one of the greatest coaches in basketball history, the only one (it should be said) to have won championships at both the college and professional levels. Brown is a tremendous coach, but if Mudiay’s decision was exclusively the product of a longing to reap the benefits of Brown’s individual tutelage, the commitment wouldn’t feel as important as it does. There were other factors involved. Mudiay is the biggest recruit SMU has ever landed, but he is not the only highly-ranked player to choose the school. In fact, just this year, the Mustangs are bringing in Keith Frazier, a McDonald’s All-American from Dallas, along with a group of well-regarded transfers, including former Illinois state guard Nic Moore, former junior college big man Yanick Moreira, former Villanova forward Marcus Kennedy, and former Illinois guard Crandall Head. Make no mistake: Mudiay is a better player and a more esteemed prospect than any of those guys. But the point is that he is the best of several; he is not the only one. Mudiay’s commitment is the rousing culmination of a recent uptick in recruiting, and if his decision prompts other top-ranked players to follow suit, that uptick could calcify into an accepted recruiting standard.

Other top prospects – particularly those from Texas, one of the richest recruiting grounds in the country – could come to view SMU in a completely different light, now that it has persuaded one of the best players in the senior class to reject some of the nation’s top programs and stay close to home, to join a program with excellent facilities and respected assistants with esteemed recruiting reputations (Ulric Maligi in particular), located smack dab in the middle of a great city (Dallas). That’s why – despite the overwhelming urge to applaud Brown’s uplifting affect on a long-dormant program (one that hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 1993); he does deserve the lion’s share of credit, but not all of it – this is bigger than Larry Brown. Having Brown around was an excellent way to kickstart the program’s rise from relative anonymity (at least among the general public), and without him, Mudiay, almost assuredly, wouldn’t have committed to SMU. But Brown won’t be around forever – he’s turned the three-year-and-ditch coaching job process into an art form – and SMU needs to sustain the recruiting momentum he’s generating well beyond his eventual retirement and/or changing of jobs (which is inevitable, by the way).

Getting Mudiay, a Texan who chose the Mustangs at least in part to stay close to his family, shows SMU can tap into the surrounding recruiting hotbed – something only Brown’s arrival and subsequent coaching staff overhaul, enabled it to do. But if Brown can lure a few more top prospects while he’s still around – Mudiay is reportedly going after 2014 center Myles Turner, the No. 3-ranked center 2014, and a Euless, Texas, native – SMU, under assistant Tim Jankovich (Brown’s presumed successor) or somebody else, could reach the point where it will have attracted enough top talent, and hopefully won enough games, to convince the nation’s best players, players like Mudiay, that joining the Mustangs is a wise choice even without a future Hall of Fame coach roaming the sidelines. We can’t be totally sure about that yet – the first time SMU lands a player of Mudiay’s caliber after Brown moves on could signal the proverbial turning point, whatever that means – but getting Mudiay, even with Brown still coaching, is a massive development.

This is also good news in the short term: SMU is going to be better than a lot of people are expecting this season. Frazier, Head, Moore and Moreira are a solid nucleus, a group Brown, a wizened tactical wizard, could mold into something formidable. An at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament is not out of the question. When Mudiay arrives on campus the following season, if the physical, slashing, well-rounded guard play scouts have been doing backflips over for months translates to the college hardwood, SMU will have a chance to not only make the NCAA Tournament, but perhaps push for a top-three finish in a Louisville-free American Athletic Conference.

Not everything about this news is coming up roses. Mudiay’s high school, Prime Prep academy, is being investigated by the NCAA over questions about academic offerings that may or may not meet the organization’s standards for “NCAA cleared status.” Freshmen Jordan Mickey and Karviar Shepherd (of LSU and TCU, respectively) recently received academic clearance after graduating from Prime Prep, but that shouldn’t be read as a sign the school has eluded NCAA scrutiny. Per ESPN’s Jeff Goodman: “The NCAA cleared the players because it felt that both were given misleading information by the school.” That means Mudiay, pending the NCAA’s investigation, could see his transition from Prime Prep, former NFL legend Deion Sanders’ scholastic endeavor, to SMU derailed by academic issues. And we haven’t even discussed the possibility – even if this practice happens far less frequently than it does in college football – that Mudiay decides to renege on his verbal commitment, or simply re-opens his college search in the interest of surveying other options before locking in his future at the next level.

These are all secondary concerns. Right now, Mudiay’s commitment to SMU is a hugely positive development. The Mustangs’ hiring of Larry Brown was met with skepticism (even ridicule), but after beating out some of the top programs in the country for a likely future lottery pick, SMU’s basketball future looks brighter than it has in years. The Mustangs are moving in the right direction, and Mudiay’s commitment, if it stands, will accelerate that process.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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