Commentary

SMU's Doherty inks signature win

Mustangs find identity with home victory over Memphis that extends streak to four

Updated: January 31, 2010, 1:40 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- SMU advertised a "Red Out" for Saturday afternoon's game against Memphis. The first 1,500 fans through the doors received free red T-shirts and were then encouraged to wear them.

Even coach Matt Doherty repeatedly tweeted reminders to his 1,327 followers. A crowd of 4,034 showed up, about twice as many as a typical home game at creaky Moody Coliseum. Other than some small children and the rebel-rousers in the student section who stormed the court after SMU's surprising 70-60 victory, few bothered to don the shirts.

By game's end though, all were standing in Moody's close confines, and it was as loud as anyone could remember in a long time.

"I've been here three years and I think that is the biggest win since I've been here," said SMU forward Papa Dia, who scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. "I've never had a feeling like this."

Frankly, neither had coach Matt Doherty. He deemed it his signature win, not of the season, but of his three-plus years on the Hilltop. No, these were not John Calipari's Memphis Tigers. There was no Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans. Still, Memphis, athletic and long, came to town at 15-5 and 5-1 in conference, and left having been outplayed in crunch time.

The Ponies (10-10, 3-3) extended their win streak to four (Rice, Houston Baptist and Central Florida came before) to tie the program's longest streak under Doherty. He first did it in 2007, when SMU toppled Paul Quinn, UT-San Antonio, TCU and Houston Baptist.

"This win, I think, since I've been here, you always want a signature win," Doherty said. "To me, this was it, and hopefully, it's not the last one this season or at Moody Coliseum."

And Doherty, now 43-68 overall at SMU and 13-41 in C-USA, would argue that he is finally breaking through the feeling-out process. He says he now understands the type of players he can recruit to SMU and the style of basketball he must coach. He said this win cemented its identity. SMU won't play like conference foes Memphis or Houston, but more like Vanderbilt or Notre Dame, meaning a half-court style over up-tempo. He said now he can recruit to that style.

"I think that's a fit for us to win in this league. I think it's a fit for our university," Doherty said. "Vanderbilt beat Tennessee at Tennessee. Notre Dame's been pretty good. They've got shooters. They have a certain style of play. They're not trying to be UConn."

There are those who have wondered if Doherty is making his last stand at Moody. He is in the fourth year of a seven-year contract, a length of time he insisted upon, having told athletic director Steve Orsini that turning SMU around is a five-year project, at least.

Orsini, who was out of town and missed the big win, has a decision to make: Stay the course or look to make a big splash. His arena is typically one-fourth full.

Doherty's win total is spiking up after having gone the wrong way the last two seasons after 14 victories in Year 1. He has not recruited on the Dallas side of Dallas-Fort Worth, one of the most fertile regions of the country for young ballplayers. He has just four Texans on the roster. Only one starts, and one is a walk-on.

If Orsini wanted to create instant buzz, excite fans, alumni and the media, and open SMU's doors to a flood of local and state high school prospects, he could eat the buyout in Doherty's contract and reach out to a certain unemployed basketball coach who lives in Dallas and could be on campus in 20 minutes.

Billy Gillispie flipped UTEP into an NCAA tournament team in two seasons, and then in three seasons had woebegone Texas A&M on the cusp of the Elite 8. He did it by recruiting the heck out of Texas, and in particular the Dallas area.

Three of Gillispie's local recruits are A&M starters this season: Donald Sloan, Derrick Roland (who suffered a season-ending broken leg) and Bryan Davis.

Gillispie would be a hire in the vein of football's June Jones, a man with a track record of resuscitating the dead. If Orsini made that call, Gillispie, who has maintained a low profile after being humbled in his short stint at Kentucky, would almost assuredly listen.

All that aside, Doherty's Ponies appear poised to give their coach his most wins in a season and could produce the program's first winning season since 2002-03. Such progress would make a coaching change seem remote.

Doherty said he wants to recruit Dallas players but that they might not always be the right fit for SMU. He boasted about three players he's excited about in his next recruiting class, none of which are from the area.

"It's very important because you want to recruit your backyard first," Doherty said. "But, you also have to recruit kids that fit. We're a different institution, and so not everybody fits. And the other thing is there's been 25 years of apathy in our basketball program. So when these kids come over and we recruit them, they get excited, but they may turn to a high school coach, an AAU coach, their parents and they say, 'Why would you go there?'

"It's like in North Carolina, a kid grows up wanting to be in the ACC. You don't want to grow up in the Atlantic 10. Here, kids grow up wanting to be in the Big 12. So when we got left out of the Big 12 that hurt us in football and basketball. So, we've got to have success, we've got to find a guy that fits."

The conference situation and years of local apathy are sizable detractors. Certainly playing in the Big 12 helped Gillispie convince talent to come to College Station. He also had the advantage of established rivalries with Texas, Bob Knight's Texas Tech and other more familiar conference foes to attract fans.

Doherty had hoped to get a win like Saturday's much earlier to hasten the chipping away process. And as he said afterward, he hopes it's not the only signature win of the season or at Moody. If it is, a coaching change would seem more palatable to the administration, although Doherty expressed confidence that patience will prevail.

If one big win leads to another and real progress is finally evident when March rolls around, then maybe it leads to what Doherty said must ultimately happen for SMU basketball to ever turn the corner.

"We have to find a kid or two that aren't afraid to trust and jump in the boat," Doherty said. "When they do and there's success, others will follow."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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