For most of the afternoon Friday, Southern Methodist University's men's basketball team looked on par with the 2016-2017 season; in other words, one of the very best teams in the United States. Led by star wing Semi Ojeleye and athleticism, the Mustangs leveraged into a 53-43 lead with 11:36 remaining in their first round NCAA Tournament game with the University of Southern California.
The contest, seemingly, was over. USC hadn't done anything over the course of the game's first 28 to slow done SMU offense, and SMU's stingy perimeter defense was doing its job to keep the Trojans' offense at arm's length. Then everything fell apart.
USC, desperate for traction on the defense end, switched to a 2-3 zone. The Ponies, despite having the personnel to keep their offense humming, seemed hypnotized, repeatedly settling for contested outside shots instead of working the soft underbelly of USC's defense.
Over the last 11:36, SMU scored only 12 points. USC scored 23, capped off by Elijah Stewart's three-pointer with 36 seconds left. Stewart's shot gave USC its only lead of the game at 66-65, but it proved to be enough when SMU guard Shake Milton's last second layup attempt came up short.
Friday's game adds yet another chapter to more than three decades of pain for SMU's athletic program. At this point, one can't help but acknowledge the hard truth: SMU's athletic pursuits are cursed. Just take a look at the evidence:
SMU football gets the death penalty. — SMU's modern athletic history begins with its decision to do everything necessary to compete in the Southwest Conference in the late '70s and early '80s. With the help of a more-than-willing group of local boosters, SMU became a recruiting juggernaut. The school didn't do it by building superior athletic facilities or by touting its academic excellence. No, SMU became a destination program for some of the best high school football players in the country because it was willing to pay those players, in cash, cars or other benefits, to come to school in Dallas.
In return, SMU fielded some very good teams, including the 1982 squad that went 11-0-1 and finished second in that year's final AP poll. After the 1986 season, the NCAA found SMU guilty of committing recruiting violations again, after the organization had repeatedly warned and punished SMU over the previous decade. Because of the school's status as a repeat offender, the NCAA levied the harshest punishment in college sports history on the SMU football program, shutting the team down for all of the 1987 season. Football restarted at SMU in time for the 1989 season.
Things haven't been the same since.
The immediate aftermath. — In the years immediately following the death penalty, calling SMU football a laughing stock would've been charitable. In 1989, Houston scored 95 on the Ponies despite pulling its starters at halftime, and SMU gave up 45.4 points per game, the most in Division I. SMU wouldn't win more than six games in a season, or make it to another bowl game, for 20 years.
The ballad of June Jones. — The coach that led SMU to that bowl game, the 2009 Hawaii Bowl, was a wolf a sheep's clothing. Armed with Hawaiian shirts and his run and shoot offense, Jones brought hope to campus, before quitting on the school and his team after losing the first two games of the 2014 season. Jones brought in a scheme exotic enough to make the Mustangs generally competitive, but couldn't do much else.
In an exit interview with Sports Illustrated, Jones blamed SMU's academic rigor, in part, for his inability to get his team over the hump.
"All the things that I’ve said before, they’ve got to help the kids. They’ve got to get some tutors, academics more toward the student-athletes. They’ve made strides in that area, but they’ve got to go a lot further. … The campus is unbelievable. It’s just a tough gig. It will be tough for the next guy, too," Jones said.
In the three years since Jones left, SMU has won a total of seven games.
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SMU throws its lot in with Larry Brown. — Like it did in the '70s with football, SMU appeared to commit itself fully to becoming a national power in basketball in 2012 when it hired hall-of-famer Larry Brown as head coach. Brown is the only coach ever to win both an NCAA and NBA championship, but he brought a history of NCAA violations at Kansas and UCLA with him to Dallas. It was no surprise, then, when rumors surfaced in 2012 about the potential ineligibility of Kimball high school star and SMU recruit Keith Frazier. When the dust finally settled in 2015, the NCAA found that one of Brown's assistant coaches and a basketball program administrator had completed coursework for Frazier so that he'd be eligible to attended classes at SMU. Brown was suspended for the first nine games of the 2015-2016 season, and SMU, coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade, was banned from appearing in the 2016 postseason.
Emmanuel Mudiay goes to China. — One of Brown's biggest coups at SMU was landing a commitment from Emmanuel Mudiay, the No. 1 recruit in the U.S. in 2013. Mudiay never played a minute for the Mustangs. Instead, in the summer before he was set to enroll at SMU, Mudiay elected to play a year of pro basketball in China before heading to the NBA.
About that 2015 NCAA Tournament appearance. — Brown's one and only NCAA appearance as coach of the Mustangs ended on one of the worst goal-tending calls you'll ever see, in the first round against UCLA. SMU, as they were this year, was seen as a dark horse to make a deep run in the tournament, but crashed out when Yanick Moreira, the team's senior center, grabbed an air-balled three point shot before it dipped below the plane of rim, giving the Bruins three points and a 60-59 win.