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SMU has 7 players, 0 losses and they're banned from the NCAA Tournament. SMU is America's team

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SMU knows its season ends after the conference play. That won't stop them from potentially going unbeaten.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how SMU finishes this season, it will never be able to change the conversation around the team to one solely focused on basketball. There will always need to be a lengthy bit of accompanying context that's embarrassing and empowering at the same time, the story of how the only undefeated team in college hoops won't be able to prove its worth in the NCAA Tournament this season.

All SMU can do at this point is keep winning, and so far, they've done a wonderful job at that. After South Carolina's unlikely undefeated season ended in blowout fashion against Alabama on Wednesday, SMU now stands alone with its unblemished record. The Mustangs made quick work of East Carolina in their own game, moving their way to 16-0 and pushing past the halfway mark to a perfect season.

The NCAA can keep SMU out of the postseason, but it can't stop them from becoming the best story in college basketball. This is a team with only seven scholarship players, one that says it has to practice four-on-four because it doesn't have enough warm bodies. It's a team with three great seniors, an emerging freshman guard and a couple of Swiss army knife wings. It's a team that has built a top five offense by sharing the ball, crashing the offensive glass and playing some rectified version of The Right Way, just as their Hall of Fame coach always wanted.

All of this comes back to Larry Brown, from the perfect record to the sanctions handcuffing the program. It's easy to see the NCAA's harsh punishment as something like the opposite of a lifetime achievement award for the 75-year-old. Brown watched over one of the few programs to ever vacate a Final Four with 1980's UCLA team, then fled Kansas at the end of the decade just as it was hammered with a postseason ban one year after winning a national title.

Whether that makes Brown as much of a villain as he is a brilliant tactician depends on the lens with which you view the NCAA and its uneven way of handing out punishment. Kansas' NCAA Tournament ban came because Brown gave Vincent Askew, a potential transfer visiting Lawrence one summer, $364 to buy a roundtrip plane ticket to visit his sick grandmother. Askew didn't even end up with the Jayhawks, but the NCAA still "seriously considered shutting down the Kansas basketball program for an entire year."

To the NCAA, the Jayhawks not being able to defend their title was getting off easy. It's hard not to think back to that story when remembering why SMU can't play in the NCAA Tournament this year. After going through NCAA hell for the third time, you couldn't blame Brown if he finally decided he was too old and too rich to deal with all of this anymore.

Did SMU deserve to be sanctioned for academic fraud allegations stemming from star recruit Keith Frazier? Of course. But the way the NCAA handled it felt a little vindictive and hurt seniors like Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy more than anyone. Consider:

  • SMU is in this mess because Frazier, the summer before he entered the program, took an online class at an apparently real place called National University Virtual High School. An SMU administrative assistant did all of his coursework, and here we are. But what really stings is that the NCAA later decided Frazier didn't even need the class to be eligible
  • The punishment was handed down on Sept. 29, weeks after the school year had started. It gave seniors like Moore, Tolbert and Kennedy no chance to consider transferring or do anything other than play their final season without the hope of making the NCAA Tournament.
  • This ruling came from one player in one class before he was officially enrolled at the school. Certainly it's not a good look for administrators to be doing a student's coursework. But the NCAA acted awfully swiftly when you consider cases like the academic fraud scandal at North Carolina that lasted nearly 20 years and has still yet to land the program in any kind of real trouble.

SMU tried to get out in front of the punishment by ruling Frazier ineligible and imposing harsh recruiting restrictions on itself, but it didn't matter. The hammer still dropped.

In a cruel twist, Frazier's decision to leave SMU last week might be what ends its chance at finishing the year undefeated. Frazier, a smooth 6'6 shooting guard who was averaging 12 points per game, left the team amid speculation that the weight of the punishment was too much to bear (or maybe that he was upset he lost his starting spot to impressive freshman Shake Milton). Now with only seven players left, SMU has to battle attrition as much as the schedule in the AAC.

Perhaps no one outside of Dallas will be bringing 30-0 signs to games and printing out AMERICA'S TEAM T-shirts, but given everything the players have to deal with, it's hard to root against them. Moore, at 5'9, is one of the country's best point guards. Tolbert and Kennedy are a big man duo any major program would be envious of. Ben Moore is coming into his own as a junior, and Milton might be the best long-term prospect on the team. It's a group that's fun to watch play, and now they have the extra motivation of trying to go unbeaten in the regular season.

Then there's Brown, who is trying to make the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume his most fitting of all: an undefeated season in the face of an NCAA Tournament ban. At this stage, it's all SMU has left.