Larry Brown, Ryan Manuel

Break up the Mustangs? Larry Brown’s team off to a 7-1 start

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There were questions from the moment Larry Brown took the head coaching gig at SMU. How long would he be there? And even with his status as one of the game’s best teachers, was Brown good enough to work his magic at a program that’s struggled for years?

Eight games into his debut season in Dallas, Brown has the Mustangs off to their best start in six years. The latest triumph was a 62-55 win over Utah on Wednesday night, with Jalen Jones leading the way with 20 points and 16 rebounds.

SMU didn’t shoot well from the field, making just 33.9% of their shots and second-leading scorer Nick Russell (14.5 ppg) made just one of his eight shots from the field, but the Mustangs made up for it on the defensive end and at the foul line. Utah made just 38.6% of their shots from the field and was outscored 18-2 at the foul line (SMU: 18-of-21; Utah: 2-of-3).

No one will confuse the Utes with a Pac-12 contender, but winning a game like this is a step in the right direction for an SMU program that finished last season with a 13-9 record (4-12 Conference USA).

“The first half was as good as we’ve played all year by far,” Brown remarked after the game. “The second thing, we got 6-for-25 (shooting) in the second half and win. Great teams control things they can control, like rebounding and defending, sharing the ball and playing hard.

“You can’t control whether the ball goes in the basket,” he said. “We shoot 34 percent and win. Hopefully, that’s going to be a staple of this program for a long, long time.”

While limiting teams to 42.6% shooting as SMU did last season the number did rank 10th in Conference USA, and that was an even bigger issue when considering how much the Mustangs struggled offensively (59.7 ppg; 41.9% FG).

Five Mustangs are averaging at least 8.9 points per game with three in double figures; by comparison just three players averaged at least 8.0 ppg last season. While it’s definitely good for SMU to be able to pull out a victory on a night that saw them struggle from the field, it should be noted that through eight games they’re better offensively than last season.

“I’m sure he’s putting it all together. He’s a great teacher of the game and it’s early on for them,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “To be 7-1 at this point with some of the turnover and different things that are going on, he’s doing a heck of a job.”

With their next three games on the road a little more will be learned about SMU, but it’s quite obvious through eight games that this group has improved a great deal since last season.

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament chances take a major blow in loss to No. 16 SMU

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) shoots over Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
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Nic Moore scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half and added 11 assists as No. 16 SMU knocked off Gonzaga in Moody Coliseum on Saturday night, 69-60.

The Zags got 20 points and 16 boards from Domantas Sabonis, but Kyle Wiltjer scored just four points and shot 2-for-17 from the floor.

It wasn’t pretty.

And it may have been the end of Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Entering Saturday, the Zags had an RPI in the mid-60s, enough to keep them in the bubble conversation but not enough to make them anything more than a team that will be projected to end up on the cut-line.

The issue is a complete lack of quality wins on their résumé. Gonzaga beat UConn in the Bahamas. That’s a borderline top 50 win. They beat Washington, another borderline top 50 win. Beyond that? They swept Pepperdine, beat Tennessee and own a win over Montana. None of those are top 100 wins, and that’s why the SMU game was such a big deal. The Mustangs are a top 25 team. This was a road game. This win was the kind of thing that the Zags could pin at the top of their profile.

But Wiltjer didn’t show up, the Zags had no answer for Moore and they’ll head back to Spokane needing, in all likelihood, to win the WCC’s automatic bid if they want to dance.

POSTERIZED: Cal’s Jaylen Brown has his dunk contest entry

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Cal picked up a big win over Oregon State in Haas Pavilion on Saturday night, and the exclamation point was this emphatic dunk from Jaylen Brown: