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SMU went through hell and back to become a college basketball contender

SMU endured a tidal wave of controversy to get here, but it’s come out of it as strong as ever.

NCAA Basketball: Cincinnati at Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Something strange happened to SMU after the failed grab at a one-and-done recruit, the wide-ranging academic scandal, the subsequent NCAA Tournament ban, and the sudden departure of a Hall of Fame coach. For once, SMU has finally been allowed to focus on basketball and nothing else.

This season has been a long time coming for the Mustangs. They’re tied for first in the American, have won 18 of their last 19 games, and have legitimate aspirations at making a deep NCAA tournament run. It’s a team that’s balanced on both ends of the floor with few holes in the starting lineup and star power both up front and in the backcourt.

At 22-4, SMU is proving this is an impressive group even before you consider what it had to go through to get here and how many times it could have fallen apart. No team in America has been through this much and still come out so strong on the other end.

This is a team that became accustomed to talking about everything other than basketball over the last three years. While Larry Brown quietly lifted a dormant program to national prominence, the headlines off the court always seemed to overshadow what was happening on it.

There was Emmanuel Mudiay’s last minute decision to renege on his college commitment and play professionally in China. There was the program-shaking academic scandal tied to former guard Keith Frazier that led to a harsh one-year postseason ban. Finally, there was the swift retirement of Brown last summer just when it seemed like the team was finally out of the dark.

Brown wasn’t SMU’s only loss. It also had to replace star point guard Nic Moore and its two best big men in Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert. There was no guarantee this team would pick up where last year’s left off, when the Mustangs rode the longest undefeated start in the country to a 25-5 season. That team never got to prove how good it was in the NCAA Tournament because of the postseason ban. This group is showing it’s ready to make up for lost time with its most complete team yet.

As the calendar inches closer to March, SMU is proving it has come full circle as a contender.

NCAA Basketball: 2K Classic-Michigan vs Southern Methodist Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

New coach Tim Jankovich was always pegged as Brown’s successor. He gave up a head coaching job at Illinois State in 2012 to serve as Brown’s lead assistant, and showed his chops by going 9-0 during Brown’s suspension last year. This team is the realization of a shared vision with Brown, a roster full of versatile players who play a brand of position-less basketball on offense without sacrificing anything at the other end.

Every starter for SMU stands between 6’6 and 6’8. Four starters shoot at least 42 percent from three-point range. It’s an elite rebounding team on both ends, currently placing at No. 4 in offensive rebound rate and No. 18 in defense rebound rate. While the Mustangs are No. 19 in the AP Poll this week, the computers like them even more, with KenPom’s rankings putting them at No. 12.

The biggest change to the roster this year is the addition of Semi Ojeleye, a 6’8 combo forward who sat out last season after transferring from Duke. Ojeleye had the pedigree to be a star player as a top-50 recruit out of the class of 2013, but it was hard to know exactly what SMU had in him because he rarely got on the floor for Duke. They know now: Ojeleye is an inside-outside force who can score all over the court and should be the conference player of the year.

Ojeleye does most of the heavy lifting on offense, leading the team with 18.2 points per game. He’s an impossible cover because of his combination of shooting (42.3 percent from three) and strength. After never scoring more than 10 points in a college game before this year, Ojeleye has scored 20 or more nine times already this season.

Ojeleye’s counterpart in the backcourt is Shake Milton, a 6’6 point guard who is coming into his own in his sophomore season. Milton would be playing off-ball on most teams because of his spot-up shooting ability (42 percent from three) and capacity to get buckets in a pinch, but playing him at point guard has unlocked SMU on both ends. He’s grown into the position this year, posting an impressive 24 percent assist rate while using his length to give opposing point guards trouble on the other end.

On the wings SMU has senior Sterling Brown and sophomore Jarrey Foster. Both players are big wings (6’6 and about 225 pounds) who set the tone defensively and can shoot from distance. Tying the lineup together is Ben Moore, a 6’8 senior who looks nothing like a center but does a little bit of everything in the middle to maximize SMU’s versatility. He’s the only non-shooter on the floor but he’s an active rebounder, a good passer, and excels as a cutter.

With so many players capable of playing interchanging roles, SMU has a decidedly modern look. It also has balance as the No. 23 offense and No. 14 defense in KenPom’s efficiency rankings. Even without Brown on the sidelines or Moore running the show, there’s a case to be made this is the best team SMU has had in recent years.

For the program, this season should be worth the wait. The fanbase seems recharged, the atmosphere at games has been great, and Tony Romo and George W. Bush are even making appearances in the crowd.

After everything that’s happened to SMU, it’s easy to forget that the last time this team was in the NCAA Tournament, it lost at the buzzer on a goaltending call on Bryce Alford’s air ball. That would be a controversy that hangs over some programs for years. For SMU, it was just another bump in the road on the way to this season.

It was a nightmare to get here, but SMU came out of it all as energized as ever. Now it’s time to find out how good this team really is.