ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Larry Brown’s five decades in coaching have been marked by considerable highs and mostly flattering words.
Yet, it was only humility that hung over the 75-year-old coach Tuesday as he tried to explain the toll the past several months of investigation and subsequent NCAA sanctions have had on his life on and off the court.
“I’m embarrassed at what happened at our university and I apologize to everybody here,” Brown said at the American Athletic Conference annual media day. “It happened. We’re gonna deal with it, and we’re gonna be better for it.”
Selected for the first time by the league’s head coaches as the preseason favorite to win the AAC title, and returning preseason player of the year Nic Moore, SMU should have been soaking up praise Tuesday.
Instead the Mustangs enter what could be the most-anticipated season in the AAC’s young history in the fog of a one-year postseason ban, and the suspension of Brown for nine games. It all comes on the heels of an NCAA report September that blamed the longtime coach for multiple infractions tied to academic fraud, including lying to NCAA investigators.
SMU is appealing several sanctions, among them scholarship losses and recruiting restrictions.
But it won’t do anything to erase the fact that even if the Mustangs fulfill their preseason expectations, an NCAA Tournament berth won’t be awaiting them.
“Here we are in this arena and we’re not coming back here. How ironic is that?” said Brown, referencing the Orlando Amway Center site for this year’s AAC tournament. “There’s nothing we can do to change what happened. All we can do is try to play 32 games and try to do the best we can every single game. We still have a conference championship to defend.”
Connecticut was picked to finish second in the AAC this year, followed by Cincinnati, Tulsa, Memphis, Temple and Houston. East Carolina, Central Florida, South Florida and Tulane were tabbed to finish eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th, respectively.
Having the NCAA Tournament taken away isn’t new for Brown. As a sophomore player at North Carolina in 1961 Brown’s team was banned from the postseason on the heels of a recruiting scandal that eventually led to then-coach Frank McGuire to resign.
“I got through it. Better for it,” Brown said. The SMU’s players “didn’t do anything. They had nothing to do with this whole situation. So personally this has been the worst time for me in terms of basketball. But fortunately I get to go to practice every day with a great staff and a great group of kids.
“That’s kind of helped the situation a lot.”
Brown said he feels more for his players, in particular Moore and fellow seniors Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert.
“They’ve lost the most,” Brown said. “But I think the way they’ve conducted themselves and the way they’ve approached practice has set a great example for our young kids. So I think we’re all trying to do our best for them.”
Moore said remaining positive is key.
“We’ve sat down as a team and talked it, and everybody has an understanding what the consequences are,” he said. “And now we’re just about to play this season for each other.”
Brown said he has talked to Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie a lot recently about how he steered the Huskies through the adversity brought on by a one-year postseason ban in 2012-13 for poor academic performance, to an NCAA championship the following season.
“Even the year they weren’t allowed to go they competed on a real high level,” Brown said. “That was probably one of Kevin’s greatest accomplishments in my mind.”
Ollie believes Brown is more than equipped to deal with the challenges his program now faces and thinks the AAC can still have a breakout year nationally in spite of perhaps their best team being in this situation.
“At the end of the day it’s about us coming together, us providing a lift to them,” Ollie said. “When we look at our university, look at our team, when somebody has some slack you gotta pull the string even tighter.”
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