-- UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- Larry Brown last played for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith 52 years ago, but he's still trying to please his mentor.
While he was thrilled with SMU's conference-clinching 67-62 win over Tulsa on Sunday at Moody Coliseum, it was bittersweet. Smith, who died this past month, has been on the 75-year-old coach's mind quite a bit these days.
Smith was only nine years older than Brown, but he served as a father figure to the SMU coach, whose father died when he was a toddler. Smith taught Brown the value of a man's word being his bond and the importance of standing up for what's right -- even if it results in personal discomfort.
That's in addition to everything Smith taught Brown about basketball, whether it was keeping the game simple or fitting his system around his talent -- not the talent into his system.
Obviously, Brown learned those lessons well over the years. The only coach to ever win NCAA and NBA titles can now add an American Athletic Conference title to his lengthy list of accomplishments.
It is SMU's first conference title since 1993.
"These last few weeks have been really hard because we lost someone who was unbelievable," Brown said of Smith. "He was so important in my life. Every time you do something that's special, you realize how much he had a part of it. I appreciate things a lot more now than, maybe, three weeks ago. The greatest thing is when you come to a school like this, that has struggled so long in football and basketball -- the other sports are fine -- it means a lot."
SMU, as it has done all season, worked through adversity to win. Nic Moore, the Mustangs' leading scorer at 14.4 points per game, missed five of his first six shots.
With 14:05 left in the game, SMU trailed 39-33, and Moore had only two points. Markus Kennedy, academically ineligible the first semester, triggered a 13-3 run that gave SMU a 46-41 lead with 8:51 left. Moore scored 11 points in the final six minutes while making all of his seven free throws, and Kennedy finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. His two free throws with 8.5 seconds left clinched the victory.
When it was over, Kennedy bounced up and down excitedly at midcourt, and red and blue confetti filled the air. One by one, SMU's players climbed a ladder and cut down a piece of the net for posterity.
Then Moore led the players on a victory lap around the court, where they high-fived the fans who supported them and the students who pushed back their spring break plans long enough to witness a new era of SMU hoops.
"I say it all the time: When I got here, I didn't expect anything like this," senior Cannen Cunningham said. "Coach Brown came in here his first day, and he was talking about winning championships. Me and Ryan [Manuel] sat there like, 'OK,' but we didn't really believe it. Now we're here. You can't ask for anything more. During the national anthem, I was looking up at the banner, and this has been longest stretch without a conference championship."
Brown has quickly turned a moribund program into one on the fringe of becoming a national power.
Don't laugh. It's true.
If Emmanuel Mudiay had opted to go to SMU instead of playing in China, the Mustangs would probably be ranked in the top five and poise a threat to win it all.
Instead, they're the kind of team no one will look forward to playing in the NCAA tournament because they have a deep front line capable of dominating a game, quality guard play and one of the best coaches ever.
The Mustangs were 15-17 in Brown's first season and 27-10 the past season, and they are 24-6 in 2014-15. SMU has won 22 of its past 25 games.
Regardless of what happens at next week's AAC tournament, SMU should get a bid to the NCAA tournament. "Hopefully," Brown said, "we're setting a standard for this program for a long time."
A standard that would make Smith happy.