The atmosphere was different last January, when SMU was riding a sensational high into the cool nights acquainted with January in Texas. The lights were bright inside Moody Coliseum one Friday night while the Mustangs prepped for then No. 12 Lousiville.
At 11–3, Larry Brown’s club looked to be one of the toughest unranked teams in a country, a deep squad that could end up giving the Cardinals fits come game day. But a slight twist and a bad turn changed the ambiance. SMU senior Yanick Moreira hit the deck hard and his recovery proved to be even more difficult.
A partially torn medial collateral ligament sidelined the big man for what was supposed to be only three-to-six weeks, but he felt the ailment for the rest of the season.
His turnaround had to come quick. With the season ending, Moreira had only a few options left on the table: get healthy and improve, or fade into nonexistence. His team served as one of his biggest motivators to get back to peak form.
"I was watching the way the team was playing and they were having a lot of fun," Moreira told SB Nation, with a thick, Angolan accent prior to Tuesday’s practice. "And I told myself I wanted to be apart of it. I went through the rehab. Did the lifting and got it on my mind that I wanted to be a part of something special."
And Moreira’s resilience is a theme that runs deep in the roots of Brown and SMU’s message this season. It’s one of redemption and something that has become tangible over the many hours spent away from the competitive college basketball season.
Following the team’s miss of last year’sand then an eventual loss in Championship game to Minnesota, SMU has returned to knock on March’s door. If they do get into March Madness, it will be the first time they’ve done so since 1993.
The Mustangs have an impressive profile. Now No. 21 in the polls, SMU, is 69th in rebounds in NCAA, 18th in assists, 14th in field goal percentage, and No. 23 overall in KenPom's standings.
Defensively, they’ve been stout. The Mustangs' height (29th tallest squad in the NCAA, per KenPom) has given them an advantage in the passing lanes, the glass and at pestering offensive threats on the perimeter. They are 21st in points allowed at 59.1, 57th in defensive rebounding at 25.5, 93rd in blocks per game at 4.2 and 41st in adjusted defense.
But a big part of that is the development of Moreira, who’s arguably becoming the American Athletic Conference’s most improved player of the year.
"When you go through the scouting report, you put it in your mind that ‘you have to stop this guy’" he said. "You take it personally. You go out there and try to stop them … and when it’s your teammates, you try to help your man and keep that a reminder (for the game). That’s how we get stops."
The progression of Moreira became mythical in August when he starred for the Angolan national team at the Fiba World Cup. He roughed and rumbled his way to 35 points and 18 rebounds against Australia, one of the cup’s most impressive performances.
The 6'11, Luanda, Angola native is averaging 11.7 points and a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game. He’s fourth in the American in defensive rebound percentage, nabbing 19.8 percent of total defensive rebounds for the Mustangs. He also leads the conference in offensive rebounding percentage at 13.6 percent, good for 45th in the NCAA.
He’s nearly doubled his production in almost every statistical way possible in 26 games this season for SMU and is one of the key’s to making the Mustangs chances at dancing come March, even more probable.
The sting of the injury that cut his junior season short combined with watching his teammates from the sidelines for a month struck a cord in Moreira. He insisted that SMU is "doing the same thing that we did last year" and that "the focus is on the team," but the result is distinctive.
The Mustangs rule the American Conference for now, their tough defense and rebound snatching leading the charge into March. Moreira had the opportunity to lay on the mat when his injury knocked him to the canvas.
But like SMU, he and the club are proof that you keep punching until you hear the bell.
"The biggest motivation [for me] was coming off of last year’s injury," Moreira said. "It motivates me to work hard everyday to make (my family, my team, my coaches) proud of me. This is my last year. I don’t have any more. I just want people to remember I played for SMU and I did everything the right way.
"The main goal," he continued. "Is to win every game that we have left and to get to the NCAA Tournament. After that, we will see from there."