MANHATTAN — When Nick Russell decided to transfer from Kansas State to SMU, he knew his life was going to change. Still, he never envisioned this.
How could he?
Russell made his pledge to the Mustangs thinking he would be spending his final two seasons playing in Conference USA under Matt Doherty. Instead, his team is now on its way to the Big East and his coach is Larry Brown, the only person to coach a collegiate national champion and a NBA title team.
No one could have seen that coming.
“It was not at all what I imagined, but I can’t complain,” Russell said in a phone interview. “I was excited when I heard he was our next coach, I mean, he’s Larry Brown. His background speaks for itself and I’m just blessed and fortunate to learn the game under him.”
A year after saying goodbye to the world of big-time college basketball, Russell is preparing for life as a member of one of the most-talked about programs in the country. SMU has experienced little success on the hardwood lately, last appearing in the NCAA Tournament in 1993, but Brown’s hiring has created unprecedented interest.
Some view the 71-year old coach as the man who can finally turn the Mustangs around, especially with the prominent assistants on his staff. Former Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, who has ties to K-State and Kansas, is the coach-in-waiting and former Illinois assistant Jerrance Howard is viewed as a top recruiter. Together, they have as good a chance of winning in Dallas as any coaching staff before them.
“It feels like SMU basketball has sky-rocketed over night,” Russell said. “I can honestly say I never heard SMU’s name on ESPN before, but now that Larry Brown is here I see SMU everywhere. I feel like big things are about to happen.”
Russell, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, hopes to be a leader of that transition. Though he left K-State with little on his resume, he has always been loaded with potential. Russell was a top-100 recruit coming out of Duncanville, Texas and has a smooth shooting stroke. He figures to be one of the team’s most talented players when he becomes eligible to play next season.
He spent his transfer season working on his body and his game and thinks he made several improvements.
“I’m a lot more explosive now,” Russell said. “I feel like my dribble is a lot better. I’m a lot more consistent shooter now, and I’m ready to defend. I’ve just been improving on all aspects of my game, just to become stronger at everything and compete at both ends of the floor.”
Whenever he needed motivation while he was sitting out, he took a look at the Mustangs’ on-court struggles. SMU won 13 games last season, and Russell watched every one, unable to help from the bench. Now that he is eligible to play, he won’t hold back.
“I don’t want to take any plays off, and just go as hard as I can,” Russell said. “There are no excuses from here. There’s no reason I shouldn’t succeed. I have the talent. I just had to find the work ethic to go with it. I want to be consistent. That’s the biggest thing I’ve worked on to help this team.”
Though he won’t know exactly where he fits in Brown’s system until he begins workouts with him next month, he can already tell he will enjoy playing for him. Russell says he is a regular in Brown’s office.
“He’s a great guy,” Russell said. “I’m getting to know him pretty well. We’re basically just trying to build that relationship that we would normally build during the recruitment process. We talk about basketball, and he tells me stories about his playing days or when he was coaching Allen Iverson or Reggie Miller. He has so many stories from the NBA. I love hearing them.”
Russell also enjoys speaking with Jankovich.
“We talk about K-State and Aggieville and the Big 12,” Russell said. “It’s interesting to know he went to K-State for some of the same reasons I did.”
Russell still thinks fondly of his time at K-State. He keeps in regular contact with his former teammates, and is thankful of everything former K-State coach Frank Martin taught him.
As a freshman, he played sparingly alongside Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, but enjoyed being part of a team that advanced to the Elite Eight. As a sophomore, he played well enough to start in 14 games, but was little more than a role player as the season wore on.
When he announced his decision to transfer, he said a lack of playing time was his main reason for leaving. But he now admits the true reason: He wanted to be near his sick father after cancerous cells were found in his back.
“My dad was ill at the time,” Russell said. “My mom wanted me to come back home and be close to family at a time of need. It was an important time in my life, and I felt like I needed to make the change.”
After 48 weeks of radiation treatment, Russell said his father is now in good health and ready to make the short drive to each of SMU’s home games.
Playing in front of him, and the rest of his family, on a regular basis will be a thrill. So will playing for Brown.
“I never thought all these changes were going to be made when I came to SMU, but God blessed me with a great opportunity,” Russell said. “I just hope I can go out there and do what I’m supposed to do — play well and help Larry Brown put SMU basketball on the map.”