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DALLAS (AP) — Larry Brown can't imagine that any coach is doing a better job this season than Tim Jankovich is with short-handed SMU.
"Oh, it's remarkable," Brown said.
While it has taken a while for most people to notice, the 17th-ranked Mustangs (25-4) are doing quite well after the sudden and somewhat unexpected departure last summer of Brown, the Hall of Fame coach who two years ago took SMU to its first NCAA Tournament since 1993. He left after a contract dispute.
"Just a good group of guys and I think now that they've been through a lot, and they've been together through so much, it has really resulted in what you're seeing on the court," SMU athletic director Rick Hart said.
The Mustangs, one of the nation's top defensive teams, allowing 59 points a game, have won 21 of their 22 games since November and led the American Athletic Conference after their 69-61 win at UConn on Saturday.
"I don't want to say they've exceeded expectations because we always think big," said Jankovich, who then went on to describe his team as "pretty amazing."
If not for NCAA sanctions that included a one-year postseason ban, SMU would have been back in the NCAA Tournament last year after winning 25 games in the senior season for two-time American Athletic Conference player of the year Nic Moore and AAC top sixth man Markus Kennedy.
With those key seniors and Brown gone, SMU is limited this season because of the NCAA penalties — down at times to only six available scholarship players. But those sanctions, related to a September 2015 ruling against Brown involving a case of academic fraud , won't keep the Mustangs out of another NCAA Tournament.
"We just looked at this season as an opportunity to, not necessarily get back on the map, but just to get what we owe ourselves," sophomore guard Jarrey Foster said. "We owe ourselves a lot, just how much we've been through."
The Mustangs were 20-4 before finally breaking into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season on Feb. 6. They then avenged a January road loss with a home win over Cincinnati, and moved up again in the poll after consecutive victories in games they trailed by double digits before halftime.
Jankovich was SMU's associate head coach the past four seasons. He was also head coach-in-waiting, a title he didn't particularly like, but a necessity to leave a head coaching job at Illinois State for a spot on Brown's staff.
"They're two totally different coaches. When they were coaching together, they found a way to come together and use their coaching styles together," Foster said. "We (now) play a little bit more loose."
Sophomore guard Shake Milton said Jankovich lets the Mustangs push the ball more and shoot more — especially 3-pointers, averaging seven more attempts a game than the past three seasons — but the coach demands the same kind of focus on defense and rebounding as Brown did.
Milton, Foster, seniors Sterling Brown and Ben Moore, and former Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye all play more than 32 minutes per game as starters. Ben Emelogu, a transfer from Virginia Tech, averages more than 21 minutes and was the only sub used in the four games before going to UConn — except for a walk-on senior being in for less than a minute just before halftime one game.
"They've been one of the hardest-working teams I've been around," said Jankovich, who was 104-64 at Illinois State from 2007-12 after serving as an assistant for Bill Self at Illinois (2002-03) and Kansas (2003-07). "They've been one of the most mature and focused groups."
SMU started this season with 10 scholarship players, three under the NCAA limit. That included a transfer from Arkansas sitting out this season, and two freshmen from Australia who left the team after only 10 games. Another scholarship freshman has dealt with concussion symptoms much of this month.
Even though the Mustangs still have to give up a total of four more scholarships over the next two seasons, Jankovich feels great about the program's future. There are six expected returning scholarship players, plus four recruits already signed for next season.
"Of course, I wish we didn't have the sanctions that we have and the limitations, but you know what, we're not going to use this as an excuse," he said. "We've just learned to deal with the hand that we're dealt."
Brown, the only coach to win both NBA and NCAA titles, won nearly 1,600 games in a coaching career that spanned more than four decades and included a record nine NBA jobs and three college stops. The last for the 76-year-old coach was at SMU, where Jankovich and the Mustangs keep winning.
"It's the greatest thing ever," Brown said. "They've been through hell with the sanctions, the injuries, and yet they kept getting better."
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this report.
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