Doherty Rapidly Elevating SMU from Obscurity

by David Mihm | January 8th, 2007

RPI junkies have seen some unfamiliar names to start the 2006-2007 season. Drexel, after beating Villanova, Syracuse, Temple, and George Mason is a striking name at #7. Appalachian State, fresh off wins over Virginia and Vanderbilt at the San Juan Shootout, hovers at #10.Earlier in December, an equally surprising name cracked the top ten: Southern Methodist University, checking in at #8 on December 15.

Yes, the SMU Mustangs, who last made the NCAA Tournament in 1993, are relevant again. Despite a recent loss to North Carolina A&T, the Mustangs start CUSA play ranked directly behind Texas, Michigan, Marquette, Boston College, Connecticut, and LSU, at the tail end of a pretty nice sequence that begins in the mid-70’s.

Prior to the season, his first at SMU, Doherty didn’t know what to expect. “You don’t know what you’ve got until the practice and the games start,” said the former Notre Dame, North Carolina, and Florida Atlantic head man. “You hope that the level of talent rises over the course of the season.”

At 11-3 heading into Conference USA play (9-3 Division I; I’ll get to that in a minute), it looks like whatever talent is available for the Mustangs has risen pretty quickly.

Doherty’s main goal entering the season was to change the culture at SMU—to instill a winning attitude and a strong work ethic in his players. The speed with which the results have come has been a pleasant surprise.

The players have embraced Doherty’s desired culture from the get-go. He singled out 6-4” Arlington, TX Guard Jon Killen and 6-8” JuCo Transfer Forward Ike Ofoegbu as particular surprises. He likes his team’s balance as well, emphasizing SMU’s ability to bring 7-1” C Bamba Fall off the bench to complement 6-11” starter Donatas Rackauskas.

SMU’s surprising RPI ranking comes as a result of solid play against a very smart schedule. SMU already had games at Oklahoma and at TCU on its schedule prior to Doherty’s arrival. But the incoming coach quickly secured a matchup with Dayton (SMU’s best win of the year to date) and a trip to the oddly named Colonial Classic, in Tallahassee, where they defeated Illinois State and nearly toppled their hosts (Florida State) in the championship game.

Doherty was refreshingly honest about his non-conference scheduling strategy. In early-season games, where teams like Connecticut, Syracuse, and West Virginia like to schedule sub-300 Division I cupcakes, he likes to schedule Division II programs to help discover his team’s chemistry and build its confidence. While not what the NCAA Selection Committee has in mind, it’s certainly an ingenious way of getting around the anchor-like effect that those D-I cupcakes can have on a team’s RPI and SOS: neither statistic is affected by a non-Division-I opponent.

Again displaying the candor that’s quickly enamored Mustang fans to their new coach, Doherty mentioned that it’s typical for coaches to consider RPI when setting up their non-conference schedules, and that many pay close attention to their team’s RPI ranking throughout the course of the season. As for bracket projections…he leaves those to the fans, particularly this early in the season.

Like most mid-majors, SMU does have trouble scheduling nonconference home-and-home series. The standard offer from major-conference teams is still a one-time pay-for-play, rather than home-and-home, but Doherty flatly refuses, protecting SMU’s status as an upper-tier mid-major.

“We don’t get bought, we buy,” he says firmly.

Doherty has had some serious interest from several teams in a home-and-neutral series involving Dallas’ American Airlines Center, given opposing coaches’ desire to recruit in the area. But he prefers to limit his three or four “name” schools per year to those that agree to a true home-and-home or a neutral-court tournament.

One of the main factors that lured Doherty to SMU, and that Doherty is now using to lure recruits to “the Hilltop,” is the administration’s support for the men’s and women’s basketball programs, both financially and politically.

The Mustangs broke ground in early December on the $13 Million Crum Basketball Center, a state-of-the-art practice facility for both the men’s and women’s teams. Completion is expected in November of next year.

Next door to the construction site, Moody Coliseum, one of the great arenas of the old Southwest Conference, has been undergoing a degree of re-construction. A new floor and sound system have been installed, and over the holidays, Moody was outfitted a $1 Million jumbotron that the Mustangs have nicknamed “Big Betty.”

Doherty and the rest of the Athletics Department are hoping that SMU’s gleaming facilities will begin to lure more recruits next year. But facilities don’t put fans in the seats: good teams put fans in the seats.

Quite honestly, there hasn’t been much of a reason for Mustangs fans to fill those seats in a long time. The team hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993, and hasn’t had so much as a blip on the national radar since Jeryl Sasser declared for the NBA Draft in 2001.

So Doherty is making the extra effort to drum up support for his squad among students, making the rounds of campus fraternities and social events (as he did at Notre Dame’s residence halls in his only year at South Bend). While he was quick to point out that it was Bill Guthridge who was responsible for North Carolina’s expansion and re-alignment of its student section, he clearly recognizes the value of a strong student section in his team’s home court advantage.

He’s received some valuable backup in his endeavors from the SMU administration, which has made a concerted effort to reduce the number of campus events that conflict with basketball games, making Mustangs Hoops the only game on campus.

To involve the surrounding community, he’s started a blog and has chosen to stage his weekly radio show at a popular sports bar in downtown Dallas. In the heart of Big XII country, it’s tough for a C-USA program to raise its awareness level, but SMU seems to be doing just that.

SMU’s recruiting certainly bears that out. A number of sources have projected SMU’s incoming class in the 30-40 range. Three Texas boys (F Alex Malone, G Ryan Harp, and F Robert Nyakundi) and two teammates from the Kent School in Connecticut (PG Mike Walker and F/C Papa Dia) make up the Mustangs’ current 2007 class. Amazingly, SMU still has two scholarships open for next year, so things could get even better.

Doherty is particularly excited about Papa, a similar player to one of his team’s stars this year: Donatas Rackauskas. He’ll be the second Senegalese center to play for SMU; 7-1” Bamba Fall is the other.

As you might expect, SMU’s coaches focus on Dallas as their “first look,” then Texas, then nationwide. Ironically, Doherty says it’s often easier to recruit kids from around the world (like Papa and Bamba) than from his own backyard, because of the interest from Big XII teams and national powerhouses. The Dallas Mavericks name, the team’s international flavor, and the notoriety of Dallas as a major media market have helped draw interest in SMU as well.

A new coach in what was already a fairly new league, after the dominoes fell two years ago, Doherty is hesitant to give any predictions about the Mustangs’ chances for success in Conference USA this year. He did mention that league coaches have set a goal to win 70% of their non-conference games, a feat he was clearly proud that SMU had accomplished. He knows that the league games are going to be better-scouted than those on the non-conference slate, and he is ready for the challenge.

“This league has a lot of good coaches,” he said, adding that he expected to see a higher level of play as a number of teams made the transition to new regimes. “Memphis obviously has a big advantage with their ability to schedule in the non-conference,” but the pieces are in place for the conference to return to its position as a regular exponent of multiple NCAA Tournament teams, says Doherty, citing Tulsa, UAB, Houston, UTEP, and even UCF as teams on the rise.

Though he didn’t want to set a timeline, Doherty has a clear intention of making SMU into a consistent Top 25 program. The winning attitude and excitement about the program are already there – the expectations are soon to follow.

The Mustangs will achieve this goal—and it will happen sooner rather than later—but will Doherty still be in Dallas to see it? Higher-profile teams are sure to come calling, if not this summer, then next.

But there’s a good chance that this develops into a Mark-Few-at-Gonzaga situation—if Doherty can start to get nonconference games and TV dates virtually at will, there’s little reason for him to go anywhere else. SMU has taken huge steps to show its commitment both to its basketball program and to Doherty. But it does take consistent NCAA Tournament runs earn that regular-season TV coverage and those power matchups.

The Mustangs are well on their way to becoming one of the higher-profile teams in an improving conference. If the CUSA schools Doherty mentioned, along with Southern Miss and Rice, can elevate the conference above its present mediocrity, SMU’s NCAA future next year and beyond will look particularly bright.

–David Mihm

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