For four years, Tim Jankovich was SMU’s head basketball coach in waiting. Then, on the second weekend in July, the qualifier was removed and Jankovich became the Mustangs’ coach.
Larry Brown and the school couldn’t agree to contract terms and the 75-year-old vagabond surprised the college basketball world by resigning.
“I believed in Coach Brown,” said Jankovich, who left a rising Illinois State program to come to SMU. “It played out. This is what I thought would happen.”
Just not in the expected manner. Jankovich replaced Brown sooner than expected and could reap the benefits. Like a good Boy Scout, Brown left the program better than he found it but not without NCAA penalties that kept last season’s 25-5 team out of the NCAA Tournament and leaves Jankovich to manage a roster that will be short nine scholarships over the next three seasons.
Moody Coliseum’s renovation and transformation to modern facility coincided with Brown’s arrival. Suddenly, attending SMU games was a see-and-be-scene experience. Former president George W. Bush and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo are frequent front-row patrons.
“Anybody who’s lived in the Dallas and has seen the transformation in SMU basketball is amazed at what’s been accomplished,” said ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, who lives within minutes of campus. “Shortly after I moved here I remember a top 10 Wake Forest team coming into Moody Coliseum and it was one third full. Now it’s one of the great basketball environments in the country.”
In Year Two, SMU was snubbed and failed to gain an at-large NCAA bid but in Year Three the Mustangs made their first March Madness appearance since 1993. Last season, NCAA sanctions banned SMU from the post-season and Brown was benched for the first nine games.
With Jankovich in control, the Mustangs started 9-0. He sees those 33 days as the team’s coach as invaluable in making the transition to this season smoother.
SMU must replace two-time American Athletic Conference player of the Nic Moore, the team’s point guard, along with forwards Marcus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert. Shake Milton, a 6-foot-6 sophomore who is also an excellent perimeter shooter, is expected to take over for Moore.
The Mustangs have just nine scholarship players eligible. Roster management and avoiding injuries will be crucial factors.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” Fraschilla said. “The roster is talented but there’s not a lot of depth. On the one hand, everybody eligible on scholarship will be happy because they’re all gonna be playing. On the other hand, it’s a long season and you have to be judicious how you utilize practice time. They might not be able to do the competitive stuff day in and day out.”
A limited roster will be the norm for Jankovich’s early tenure at SMU. Because of NCAA scholarship reductions, he expects to have 11 players on scholarship over the next two seasons. Bringing in recruited walk ons will be one way to add depth.
“In some ways it can become it’s a positive because there’s a chemistry on the team,” Jankovich said. “You don’t have guys on the end of the bench upset that they’re not playing. Also, there’s a confidence level because guys know that they’re going to play and don’t have to press so much to play for time.
“The negatives are injuries and illness. You can manage the fatigue factor.”
“Anybody who knows Tim Jankovich knows that he’s widely respected as a coach and a recruiter,” Fraschilla said. “He’s got a golden opportunity to move SMU forward. It’s now at heights that haven’t been seen in decades. It’s a great challenge but one that he’s up to.
“He proved at Illinois State he’s a good head coach and then he also got to get his ‘masters’ working with Larry Brown.”
Part of that education working with Brown involved regular debates about the 3-point shot.
“Larry and coach (Dean) Smith were the two guys I studied the most when I got into coaching,” he said. “What I learned from the inside with Larry was how important shot selection is. We’d joke back and forth about how he’d never let certain guys take threes and he’d come back at me and say, ‘You want everybody taking threes.’
“We moved toward the middle on that but we never met. We disagreed on that. It’s not that I want to see guys taking bad threes. I just like threes more than he does.”
Illinois State averaged 667 3-pointers per season in Jankovich’s five years there. In four seasons under Brown, SMU averaged 412 threes per season. Expect the 2015-16 Mustangs to enjoy the green light.
“I have to be myself,” Jankovich said. “What I think I’ve changed is emphasizing the difference between a good three and a bad three. Your players have to play with confidence and if you’re gonna let shooters shoot, you have to make sure they’re confident.
“I want guys playing offense with confidence and freedom and being in attack mode. If they do that and play their tail off on defense and rebound at a high level. If they do that, they earn more freedom on the offensive end.”