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Markus Kennedy needed for SMU’s present and future

I don’t think it’s hard to guess what Larry Brown wants most for Christmas: Markus Kennedy’s test scores saying he can return to wearing a Mustangs uniform.

Grades for this past semester at SMU were reportedly to be posted this week, but Kennedy was once again not in uniform for the Mustangs when they faced Illinois-Chicago at Moody last night. Whether or not his academic standing has been officially reviewed is not yet know, but it is clear that the junior remains in limbo.

SMU’s hopes of spitting in the NCAA Selection Committee’s face this year with a tougher non-conference schedule was dealt a huge blow when the All-AAC selection was declared ineligible for at least the fall semester due to him falling off the pace to graduate. WIth Kennedy out of the picture, the Mustangs have so far lost all the games they hoped could bolster their standings among the NCAA selection committee, losing to Gonzaga, INdiana and Arkansas with Michigan still forthcoming. The Mustangs’ chances of breaking into the NCAA Tournament now lost certainly ride on them winning the American championship, and Kennedy will be essential.

But there may be more to it than that. Given the history of this school’s struggles to maintain an academic and athletic standing over the past 25 years, is this the start of another roadblock toward SMU’s hopes at building something special?

At the age of , Brown has never suggested that he will be coaching on the Hilltop for very long – likely only another year or more before handing the reigns over to associate Tim Jankovich. But plans can go awry, especially in an industry like this, and you have to wonder if the struggles to get someone like Kennedy back on the floor will hurt SMU’s recruiting in the future and whether this coaching staff will ultimately decide if trying to build something in University Park is feasible and worth it – kind of like June Jones decided back in September with his program.

Granted, SMU has done more to show its commitment to basketball over football in recent years, with the renovations to Moody and the building of the Crum Center. But how far can that go to securing top recruits? The program at this moment doesn’t have a Rivals or Scout top 100 prospect committed for next season, and so long as they exist, the 900 SAT, 2.0 GPA and graduation pace requirements are going to look like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the athletic programs until one or the other finds a way to overcome them.

There is little doubt that SMU’s tough academic standards that they have stuck to ever since the football team was reinstated from the “death penalty” in 1989 have hurt the school’s ability to lure top prospects in the two most revenue-generating sports in this country. Let’s not beat around the bush here – it’s near impossible to build a strong basketball or football program without compromising academic standards. And too many sports factory schools will bend over backwards on academic eligibility to win games, where SMU continues to look back at what happened two-and-a-half decades ago and refuse to take any risk of it ever happening again.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner recently responded to criticism of SMU’s standards by pointing out that Kennedy is the only student athlete they’ve had this year to have academic struggles. Detractors to that will likely point out that it’s rare that the university will even allow a player who is just a small threat to have such struggles, and that hurts athletics.

“We have been on pace with most of those [Texas colleges] for several years,” Turner told The Dallas Morning News. “There are some people who for reasons known to only them don’t believe it. Looking at admission scores over the last four or five years, they [SMU’s] are very similar to what you would expect from an FBS school.”
It wasn’t enough to retain Jones. Will it ultimately be enough to keep Brown/Jankovich?

I’m not going to play the impartial reporter here – even though I didn’t go to SMU, I want the Mustangs in the tournament. With UTA still needing to go through the gauntlet of a conference tournament to get a berth and TCU looking at winning three Big 12 games as being a success, SMU is currently the best chance of making college basketball relevant in the Metroplex. I don’t want to keep having to look through a TV screen at teams from Austin or Lexington or Durham to see the grandest stage.

Do I want SMU to compromising more? Not really. Anyone who knows me knows I would be well in favor of a system where just about every school had to fulfill the academic requirements of its athletes that SMU does – something like the graduation requirements the Knight Commission has spent years trying to initiate. But the sad truth is that we don’t live in that world – we live in one where a school will trumpet its national championship trophy over the fact that less than half the players on that team will walk down the aisle hearing “Pomp and Circumstance.” And the NCAA kowtowing by giving more autonomy to the Power Five schools that care nothing about graduating players won’t make things better. Therein lies the predicament.

So it’s possible that SMU needs Markus Kennedy to earn his eligibility back for more than just hope that this season can still deliver on its promise. This could be essential to the program’s long-term hope that it can recruit the athletes necessary to win while still assuring that they are actually going to class. The Impossible Dream indeed.

I doubt one school and one program have been so dependent on one set of test scores before.

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