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Around this time four years ago, Sterling Brown was leading Proviso East and coach Donnie Boyce to a runner-up finish downstate in Class 4A with a 30-5 record.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the former Pirates all-stater hopes to help lead Southern Methodist University to the Final Four in Phoenix in April—and hopefully an NCAA championship.
SMU is nationally ranked in a number of polls, including the ESPN Daily RPI poll (18th), the ESPN poll (17th), the Associated Press poll (17th), the USA Today Coaches poll (21st) and the College Basketball Power Index (BPI, 20th).
The Mustangs have been one of major college basketball’s hottest teams. They’re currently riding an 11-game winning streak—and have won 21 of their past 22 games, which includes a 69-61victory over Connecticut last Saturday. They also are undefeated at home so far this year (16-0). SMU will start play in the American Athletic Conference tournament on March 9.
“I don’t expect anything less,” said Brown in a recent interview with the West Suburban Journal regarding winning the NCAA tourney. “We were robbed a couple of years ago, robbed last year. We’ve got some hungry guys that are going to be ready for the opportunity.”
SMU undoubtedly would have made the NCAA tournament last spring after posting a 25-5 overall record, but the NCAA leveled sanctions against the program prior to the start of the 2015-16 season. The Division I Committee on Infractions ruled that SMU committed multiple violations, including unethical conduct and academic fraud.
Due to these sanctions, the men’s basketball program was not allowed to participate in the 2016 postseason, and also loses seven scholarships over three years, starting this year and through 2018-19. SMU’s head coach at the time—the legendary Larry Brown—was suspended for nine games.
Sterling Brown, who scored 11 points in last Saturday’s win, was an integral part of the 2014-15 Mustangs’ club that won the AAC tournament and was seeded sixth in the South Regional. However, the Mustangs were ousted in the first round of the tourney, bowing to UCLA 60-59 on a controversial goaltending call in the final seconds.
“It was tough,” said Brown, referring to the sanctions. “That’s what I came here to do: go for a championship, especially an NCAA championship. It was really tough mentally but we stayed together as a team (last year), we stayed together and we kept getting better. This year we’re having a pretty decent season.”
Larry Brown has since been replaced by Tim Jankovich, who was an assistant under Brown. The Mustangs went 9-0 last year under Jankovich during Brown’s nine-game suspension.
“The adjustment’s been pretty smooth (to Jankovich),” said Brown. “He coached the first nine games last year so it hasn’t been too difficult for the guys. He’s been around for the last three years. Everybody is pretty much used to him so it’s been pretty good.”
Brown was named AAC Player of the Week in early February after averaging 21 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in a pair of conference victories, going 14 of 24 from the field and 5 of 11 from three-point range. He pumped in a career-high 27 points in a victory over Tulsa on Feb. 4.
“It was good,” said Brown, referring to being named Player of the Week. “I don’t take it too lightly and I don’t take it heavily either. It was just another week where I played good and I was recognized. It’s still good, but I’ve got more work to do.”
Brown is SMU’s third-leading scorer this season, averaging just over 12 points per game. He is one of four players on the team averaging in double figures.
Right behind him in scoring is 6-8 senior Ben Moore, who checks in at 11.6 points.
If Ben Moore’s name rings a bell, yes, he’s the Ben Moore who starred for Bolingbrook High School a few years ago. Moore and Brown are roommates and have played together since their freshman year. Together, they are the two winningest players in SMU history.
“He’s a really good teammate, you know, he always shows up to battle with you and he supports his other teammates as well so that a good thing to have,” Brown said. “As far as being one of the winningest players, that’s a real big accomplishment for us both. It shows our competitive nature and shows how much we want to win and what we’ll do to win.”
The Mustangs’ leading score is forward Semi Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke. He’s averaging over 18 points.
“He’s been doing really good for us,” Brown said. “He’s putting up big numbers and helping us get wins.”
Brown said he gets back to Maywood periodically and visits with family and friends.
“Yes, I was there this past summer,” he said. “I’ll be back when the season’s over. It’s always good to be back there and see all your friends.”
Brown’s older brother, Shannon Brown, played for several NBA teams—including briefly with the Chicago Bulls in 2008—and Sterling hopes to follow Shannon’s footsteps into professional basketball.
“Definitely—that’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes into it; a lot of hard work that goes into it and dedication, so I’m just taking strides toward it. It (four years at SMU) went by really fast. I’m thankful for everything SMU has given me and helped me with, and I look forward to continuing my basketball career.”