Commentary

SMU sees CIT run as turning point

Mustangs' hoops program hopes postseason taste serves as catalyst for better days

Updated: March 26, 2011, 2:21 AM ET
By Art Garcia | Special to ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- This was a make-or-break season for SMU men's basketball coach Matt Doherty. He knew it. Athletic director Steve Orsini knew it.

"Matt would be the first to tell you that," Orsini told ESPNDallas.com on Friday from New Orleans, site of the NCAA tournament's Southeast Regional.

The Mustangs were about as far away as a team could be from the NCAAs while still taking part in the postseason. SMU hosted the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, a 3-year-old event geared to mid-majors willing to pony up for the right to play.

The Mustangs paid $31,500 for each of the three CIT games they brought to Moody Coliseum, including Monday night's season-ending 72-55 loss to Santa Clara. The tourney run, Orsini said, was about more than the price of admission.

[+] EnlargeMatt Doherty
Matt Strasen/US PresswireWith a 20-win season in tow, SMU's Matt Doherty believes the program is officially turned around.
"It's not a financial windfall for us," he admitted, "but it's another opportunity to invest in the men's basketball program. We've been saying since I arrived five years ago that we will be top-25 in all our programs, and men's basketball has come along slowly in these last five years, but I'm proud they're coming along now.

"This is a sign of their improvement."

Orsini's duties on the NCAA basketball committee meant he couldn't witness the Mustangs' final game in a 20-15 season in person. He kept tabs on the four-game CIT run via phone, Internet, radio and TV. That it's taken five years to get to this point hasn't gone unnoticed.

Four years of not sniffing .500 or a postseason tournament hasn't gone over well on the Hilltop. The recent announcement of major recruiting violations certainly wasn't welcome at a school with SMU's history. Mustangs faithful who watched football coach June Jones go from 1-11 to back-to-back bowls wondered what was wrong with basketball.

Specifically, is Doherty the right guy?

"Matt has had four losing seasons," Orsini said. "The natives get a little restless with any program, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't want our fans to be happy with losing seasons. We play to win. I look for coaches that believe in that same principal."

Orsini is finally seeing some payoff in the seven-year Doherty investment. For the first time in 11 years, the Mustangs were in the postseason and nailed down 20 wins thanks to a tourney that falls below the NIT in prestige.

Still, playing beyond the first round of the Conference USA tournament for the first time in Doherty's tenure is proof that men's basketball is moving in a positive direction. The extra games, which allowed for more practice time, were an asset for those players coming back.

"The season is over, and I can announce it's turned around," said Doherty, whose record at SMU is 67-90. "The program is officially turned around. You can say that by the numbers, but you can also say that by the feel. I think there's a feel. The fact that the crowd stayed and applauded our work after a loss meant a lot.

"The impact it has on recruiting and the way you're perceived in the community of basketball, it's turned. Now there's a confidence. Our group is very confident. Our team is confident. Our program is confident. It's the healthiest the program has ever been, and I believe it will only get healthier."

Health doomed the Mustangs 11 minutes into their final four finale when leading scorer and rebounder Papa Dia went down with an ankle sprain after being fouled. Doherty thought the foul was "excessive." SMU did hold together despite the Dia loss and was up with less than eight minutes left in the game before Santa Clara guard Kevin Foster (35 points) led a finishing charge for the Broncos.

The season does end with a feel-good vibe. Winning, no matter the tournament or level of opponent, beats the alternative. SMU fans were treated to three more games at Moody and were two wins away from adding a championship banner to the rafters.

Orsini and Doherty spoke candidly coming into the season about expectations. The AD acknowledged that some of those restless fans, especially those who hand over some hefty checks, had discussed making a change at the top of the program.

"Absolutely," Orsini said. "It's been a little tough, and I'm sure Matt felt the same kind of feedback from our constituents. I do believe Matt Doherty is a great fit for SMU, especially now that we have 20 wins this year and are looking towards better days ahead."

The season had its hiccups. The Mustangs lost their last four conference games to finish the league slate 8-8. SMU has never had a winning C-USA record. The nonconference schedule was dotted with non-Division programs, such as Wayland Baptist and Dallas Christian, to help pad the win total. The Mustangs lost to UC-Riverside. Moody, with its nearly 9,000 seats, was more than two-thirds empty most nights.

The school also announced two weeks ago that major NCAA violations took place from 2007 to '09, resulting in self-imposed sanctions and recruiting restrictions. The violations, involving improper texting to the parents of recruits, occurred under Doherty's watch. Doherty did report the infractions after learning the coaching staff had been given inaccurate information by the athletic department's compliance office.

The sanctions didn't include any future postseason bans, and Orsini said his support for Doherty wasn't affected by the internal investigation and eventual findings.

[+] EnlargeJalen Jones
Travis L. Brown/ESPNDallas.comDallas Kimball's Jalen Jones (21) is part of the Mustangs' incoming class. SMU is stressing the importance of recruiting locally.
A longstanding criticism of SMU basketball was the inability or the unwillingness to recruit in its backyard. Some maintained the school's high academic standards made it difficult to enroll inner-city kids. Others just called it an elitist attitude.

Orsini set out to change that perception, either real or imagined, by stressing the importance of recruiting Dallas-Fort Worth in all sports, not just basketball. Doherty's incoming class of four includes two players -- Jalen Jones (Dallas Kimball) and Cannen Cunningham (Arlington Lamar) -- from the area.

"When I first got here, I was surprised that the perception of our local community was that SMU wasn't as interested in local talent as opposed to looking nationally," Orsini said. "That wasn't any part of our strategy. Changing that perception has also taken longer than I thought."

One winning season out of five doesn't leave much wiggle room for Doherty going forward. Orsini expects top-25 programs across the board, a challenging proposition in basketball, considering the landscape. Not only are the Mustangs competing within C-USA, which includes traditional power Memphis, but the state has NCAA tournament-caliber programs at Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor.

Those Big 12 teams, along with Texas Tech and recently hired coach Billy Gillispie, will continue to dip into Dallas-Fort Worth for players. Neighboring rival TCU also could be more of a threat by moving into the basketball-centric Big East.

The Mustangs do have reasons to be optimistic. They have broken through with a winning record, they should have a talented nucleus returning along with several touted newcomers, the Crum Basketball Center is a top-notch practice facility and a feasibility study is underway in regards to renovating Moody.

"SMU basketball is going to be something to deal with," Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said.

Doherty appears to have made it ... for now.

"I'm excited about the future," he said. "I'm already looking forward to next October when practice starts."

Art Garcia is a special contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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