Larry Brown, the venerable vagabond of basketball coaching, did what he does. After four years at SMU, a contract impasse activated Brown’s wanderlust. In the second week of July, he resigned.
A regime change in the middle of the offseason can be disruptive. But the transition on The Hilltop was smooth. When Brown was hired, Tim Jankovich was hired as associate head coach (coach in waiting). While the “lurking successor” plan has been a failure at some schools, Jankovich’s takeover figures to maintain the Mustangs’ recent success.
“They’ve got nine scholarship players on the roster and they’re all very talented,” ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “Anybody who knows Tim Jankovich knows that he’s widely respected. 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.”
The handoff from Brown to Jankovich is smoother because Jankovich coached the team to a 9-0 start last season. Brown was benched because of NCAA sanctions following a recruiting issue that also cost SMU its postseason eligibility. Returning to the NCAA Tournament is high on this season’s goal list.
“It was tough knowing that we had such a good team and not playing in the postseason,” said Sterling Brown, a 6-6 senior guard who has been a three-year starter. “But we went out and tried to win every game and treat the season like it was our tournament. My sophomore year, we got in and lost in the first round and it’s been haunting us.”
The sanctions that included Brown’s nine-game suspension included scholarship restrictions. Jankovich will have just nine scholarship players this season and will be limited to 11 each of the next two seasons.
“In some ways it can become 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.”
Brown is one of the coaches that Jankovich emulated from the beginning of his career. His four seasons working with the Hall of Famer provided an insider’s view but also led to an ongoing, good-natured debate about shot selection and the 3-pointer.
“Basically, I’d say their philosophies are the same,” said 6-6 sophomore guard Shake Milton, who could take over at point guard for Nick Moore, a two-time All-AAC selection. “Coach Jank’s a little bit more up-tempo, he wants us to get out and run the floor a little more. He’s also OK with us shooting the three.”
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.
“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.”