Ben Moore (Photo by Matt Visinsky)

Ben Moore's rise to one of SMU's pioneers for basketball's resurgence

Ben Moore was always tall, but skinny. How he grew into the player that, along with Sterling Brown, pioneered SMU Basketball's rise to national relevance and what their legacy is as their SMU careers wind down with Senior Night on Saturday in Moody Coliseum.

SMU forward Ben Moore wasn't always the 6-8, 220-pound versatile big man that averages nearly a double-double a game during his senior campaign.

That journey started almost a decade ago at Bolingbrook High School, about 30 minutes outside of downtown Chicago, where Moore built a winning program at his high school.

Sound familiar? Moore did the same at SMU, where he contributed to the SMU Basketball team immediately once stepping on campus.

Now, he's the second all-time winningest player in SMU history trailing his teammate, Sterling Brown, who has one more game played and one more win than Brown.

The Illinois native has won 104 games in his SMU career, which has helped SMU be one of 14 teams to spend time in the Top 25 each of the last four seasons.

Moore averages 11.8 points and 8.4 rebounds and is shooting 57.1 percent from the field in his senior season. He's a fan favorite, and for good reason. Each year, Moore has improved across the board under Larry Brown and Tim Jankovich's direction, but you've got to start from the beginning to realize why he's been successful.

Bolingbrooks' best player had been on the bench

Yup. That's right. Bolingbrook coach Rob Brost admitted to his staff that his team's best player sat on the bench for three quarters of his team's 2010-11 season, Moore's sophomore year.

“I said to my staff, I’m the dumbest coach in a gym in Illinois," Brost recalled. "I’ve had our best player on the sophomore team for three quarters of the season.”

The reason was Moore coming in for his first game of varsity action as a sophomore and preceding to drop 16 points in the second quarter against Bolingbrook's rival, Juliet, on the road.

"I asked him if he was ready to go — it was his first varsity experience," Brost said. "He said 'I think so,' something very nondescript, very laid back. Just like he is now."

That's how Moore is now almost seven years later as a senior — even-keeled.

Brost, who has helped build Bolingbrook into one of the top programs in Illinois and the country, said he first saw Moore as an eighth grader, but he was just tall. Nothing more than that.

“He wasn’t overly touted or anything like that.”

Fast forward to Moore's first game of his junior year and it was on. The junior started off the 2011-12 season with a triple-double with points, rebounds and blocks.

That was the first jump in Moore's game Brost saw before the eventual All-State honorable mention and Mr. Basketball finalist averaged 16 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two steals per game in his senior year. 

By then, Moore's recruitment had taken off. That was a huge testament to the work Moore put into his game.

"Coach Brown used to say, ‘you did a great job with Ben,’ but Ben did a great job with Ben,” Brost said. 

"I want Ben Moore."

The Derrick Rose All-Stars featured not only Moore, but five-star forward Cliff Alexander, who was also playing at the time, for Rose's AAU squad. During the 2012 summer, SMU head coach Larry Brown and assistant Jerrance Howard made a trip out to Las Vegas to watch Alexander.

Howard told SMU's new Hall of Fame coach that Moore was tall, but he didn't think he could make an immediate impact for Brown's team, which was coming off a 15-17 campaign under the first-year coach.

“I told him they also got a thin kid named Ben Moore, whose high school coach says he’s skinny, but underrated," Howard told Pony Stampede. "I said I liked him at practice, but I wasn’t in love with him (as an early contributor). I didn’t think he’d have an immediate impact right away. I knew he was skilled.”

Howard told Brost that SMU was going to watch Moore in Sin City. Brost though didn't tell Moore. He trusted Moore to do what he does best: perform. Moore had 26 points with Brown and Howard in the stands. 

It was on. 

Howard called Brost, who was at a family reunion and with the time difference, it was around midnight. The two have a great relationship so when Howard told Brost that Brown wanted to talk with him, he thought "Snacks" was joking.

“Don’t call me at midnight and tell me Larry Brown wants to talk with me,” Brost told Howard. "Coach Brown called me back later and he told me they were offering Ben a scholarship."

The now Kansas assistant, Howard, recalls Brown telling him to not recruit the five-star forward in Alexander, but rather go after Moore. Brown says, he certainly would have taken both.

“I would have liked Cliff Alexander. We understood that," Brown quipped when talking with Pony Stampede before SMU's win on Thursday over Tulsa.

Moore's recruitment had gone from Division II schools to Summit League schools to Horizon League schools to Missouri Valley schools to SMU and the Hall of Fame coach wanting Moore. Brown maintains that if he was at Kentucky or Kansas, he would have recruited the 6-8, 185-pound forward.

“Once coach Brown said that he wanted him, everybody wanted him,” Brost said.

Brown sealed the deal, but Moore believed in a vision

Despite late pushes from Illinois, Northwestern and Missouri, Moore committed and signed with SMU for the 2013 class, which included Sterling Brown, Keith Frazier and Yanick Moreira — all key contributors in SMU's rise under Larry Brown.

The difference was SMU's academics, which Ben's mother, Teri, said were the No. 1 factor in his recruitment. 

After academics, Brown's resume helped seal the deal. 

"It was really chaotic for quite some time, but his dad and I — the three of us," Teri explained. "We talked about the different opportunities that each school provided, but Larry Brown made it a done deal.”

It was a final presentation from Howard and assistant Ulric Maligi that showcased just how much Brown could develop Ben at SMU.

“Larry outweighed them all. It wasn’t hard to do," Moore's mother explained. "We knew his reputation upfront, but looking at it side-by-side with the other coaches, plus our experience with the on-site visit, is what it boiled down to for Ben. We all had consensus around that.”

Ben echoed his mother's sentiments that Brown played a big role in him coming to SMU.

“I think more than anything it was coach Brown because he believed in me when a lot of people didn’t," Ben said. "I had a tournament in Las Vegas and I didn’t have a lot of offers then I got a look from him and the offers started flying in. I owe a lot to coach Brown."

What Brown had to sell was a soon-to-be renovated arena in Moody Coliseum, some returning players and a few high-profile transfers along with his reputation as a Hall of Fame coach.

“They believed in a vision that me, coach Brown, coach Jankovich believed in that they couldn’t see,” Howard said. “They believed in the school and making the tournament. Everything we told them would happen. Best story in college basketball. I know all the other stuff, but SMU Basketball is relevant now.”

Brown would fly up with Howard every Wednesday, when Bolingbrook held open gyms, to see Moore. Dressed in a full suit and still learning that coaches in today's recruiting world are a little more lax in their dress code, Brown showed Ben just how committed the staff was to landing him.

When Moore had a bad game while wearing another teammates' pair of shoes because he had forgotten his, Brown reassured him that they weren't going anywhere.

“Coach, we love Ben more now more than we did before the game,” Brost said that Brown told him.

The toughest part of the recruiting process was once Moore decided on SMU, his parents realized that going to every game, which would have been easy with a quick drive to Illinois, was not in the cards. The Moores put a lot of trust into the coaching staff.

“That was a big sacrifice for us. It was not a place we had the means or the time, given our jobs, to go down frequently. We just kept those reservations to ourselves," Teri Moore said. "Bottom line was what is going to be best for what he wants to do and he wants to do. People don’t always appreciate what a sacrifice it is for parents with 1,400 miles away and you can’t get to a game and you’d love to be there."

Having the chance to make the decision again, knowing what the family knows, it'd still be SMU. 

“I still think the decision would be the same," Teri explained. "There was pain, but there was growth throughout. That’s what’s important.”

That growth came from believing and trusting the vision that Brown and now Jankovich have for the SMU program.

It wasn't always easy, but Moore's stronger for sticking with SMU

It wasn't always easy with SMU being snubbed by the NCAA selection committee Moore's freshman year, losing to UCLA on a controversial goaltending call his sophomore year, and being ineligible for postseason play last season due to NCAA sanctions.

The list can go on. Moore is stronger for having to endure some setbacks in his career at SMU.

"The bigger part is I know in my lifetime in college basketball, I haven’t seen a couple guys have to go through more extraordinary adversity than those guys did," Jankovich said on Tuesday. “All they did was just wiped it off their back and said, ‘Next play’ and never griped, never bitched, never left. Pretty incredible.”

Moore's mother said that if they had to do it all over again, they would still pick SMU, which confirms Jankovich's thoughts that Moore and Brown weren't going anywhere despite looming NCAA sanctions.

“If they were thinking it, they sure never showed it,” Jankovich said. “Knowing them, I doubt it. They’re also human. It was a pretty big blow. Lot of loyalty there.”

The biggest lesson for Jankovich's squad from the days of sanctions and snubs? It was just a taste of the real world.

“I think what it gave them was a little bit of real life. Real life is a whole bunch of things not going exactly how you want it to go," Jankovich said. "That was one I bet they’ll never forget, that’s for sure.”

Ben saw no other option but to play through them.

“Sometimes there’s sanctions that are out of our control, but we just got to play through them," Moore said.

Growth seen in mental side of the game more than anything

When you watch Moore play, Jankovich says it makes him laugh, crack a smile and just enjoy watching film because Moore's play on the floor is not about baskets, rebounds or other stats, but about the plays he makes when the ball isn't coming his way.

"Ben is so good for me that I actually laugh watching film because when a guy is doing so many things, people don’t recognize it and he’s so far ahead of a lot of what’s going on in the game," Jankovich explained. "It’s also because how talented and unselfish he is and how many different ways he’s tried to help us win games.”

Jankovich said that didn't just happen overnight and while he puts up numbers, it's the plays that don't do anything for one's stats that show up to Jankovich.

"He’s gone from that as someone who was very valuable even as a freshman to someone that if you really study him, it’s pretty incredible how many different ways he figures out how to help you win or even a possession,” Jankovich said.

Brost said that part of Ben's growth is that he's never let any moment be too big for him. He's always shown up to compete, even if it doesn't seem that way.

“He’s always worked hard. When the expectations that they are for a player of his caliber, that comes with a little pressure,” Boost said. “Just like at SMU, the pressure doesn’t phase him whether we’re playing the No. 1 team in the league or the worst team in the league. Sometimes it’s frustrating because he’s so laid back and quiet. He’s just such a good, good kid.”

What Howard loves about Ben is his desire to do anything for the team.

"What I love about Ben, is that you could tell him to run through a wall and he says, 'I got you coach,'" Howard said.

Moore said that his ability to think through sequences is the biggest change in his game since arriving in Dallas.

“I think it’s definitely how I think the game. Going into high school, I didn’t know how many different aspects of the game you have to pay attention to," Moore said. "Defensively, there’s a bunch you have to pay attention to so I didn’t think I was prepared for that out of high school, but now I think I’m pretty in tune to it.”

While focused on season, Moore acknowledges pro aspirations

Larry Brown called Ben Moore Derrick McKey, a 6-10 forward, who Brown coached on the Philadelphia 76ers and also that Moore's frame in high school was what every NBA wing is.

“He’s an undersized 4-man that can shoot the midrange jumped. He’s skilled and has good size,” Howard said. “Think about the progression he’s made. He’s gotten better. They’re both getting degrees. That means a lot to me that they’re getting a degree from SMU.”

Does that mean there's a future in the NBA for Moore? Brown and Howard think so.

That same hard work that got Moore to where he is at SMU, will need to be showcased to earn a spot on a pro roster.

“Working hard. I got to put a lot of work in so that’s what I’m going to do when this season ends," Ben said. "Just take it as it comes. Just be smart with your decisions. Just take your best path for you.”

Brown said that forward like McKey and Rasheed Wallace didn't always show up on a stat sheet, but made winning plays, which he said will be a big plus for any team.

"Those guys, you could look at the stat sheet and never realize the value that those guys had on your team," Brown said. "He gives the team a chance every night."

Playing against Sterling, who Howard called a pitbull, everyday for the last four years, Ben has shown how hard he push others and how hard he competes.

“Learned just always to go hard. He go hard on all ends. He thinks the game. I learned that from him," Sterling said of his teammate.

Moore's Hall of Fame coach said that while he doesn't understand the NBA Draft anymore and what goes into picking players, he said that any NBA team should pick up his two former players if they had the chance to because they're winners and will have degrees.

“I think if you want to win, you put them on your team — both of them," Brown said.

Brown though, wouldn't let you get too far with the idea of draft prep or losing focus.

“I’m hopeful, but we’ve got a lot of work to do right now.”

Brown said that the seniors not changing who they are, staying loyal to SMU and continuing to win has been most impressive to him as Sterling, Ben and Wilfong wind down their careers.

"To see how many games they’ve won and to see what they’ve gone through, so many of them so unfair, it’s never changed them, which is really special.”

Unfathomable what emotions will come on Senior Night

It's one of the toughest nights for any player in their career. Senior Night comes and not many players get to enjoy it in a building where the team has won 21 straight games, tied for third nationally among active streaks, but on Saturday, Moore, Brown and Jonathan Wilfong will do just that.

Ben will be joined by his parents — making just their second trip to Moody Coliseum — and Brost among others, but the night itself is tough to put into words.

“It’s crazy. I can’t fathom it,” Ben said. “I’m just excited for my parents. I’m glad they get to come down and see us get the conference championship. I’m glad they get to see LB (Larry Brown) and what not.”

Former SMU forward Shawn Williams said that it's different than his Senior Night, when he knew already that he was done playing basketball as a career, but the now Irving (Tex.) MacArthur assistant coach said that the seniors' winning ways will make it even more special.

“Him (Sterling) and Ben both tried to send me out the right way and I really appreciated that aspect of them,” Williams told Pony Stampede on Thursday before the Tulsa game.

Like most parents, Teri is going to try not to cry while enjoying the moment with her son, who acquired his even-keeled personality from his mother.

“We’ve missed too many games. We’ve always had the opportunity to see him on TV, which was a plus for attending SMU, but we’re excited,” Teri said. "Who would have thought the time would have gone as quickly as it has? I’m happy for him and the entire team. No obstacles in their way.”

Jankovich did tell reporters on Tuesday that there's still a game to be played after the ceremony on Saturday afternoon.

“There’s some dangers because emotions run so high on Senior Night," Jankovich said. "I promise that every one of these guys will as focused as possible."

Moore's trying to put on a smile for his family and get through the ceremony without his emotions taking him over too.

“I tried to (think about what it will be like), but I can’t really put my mind to it," the senior said. "Hopefully, I just step out there and see my parents smile. That’s the biggest thing.”

Matt Visinsky

Winning culture a part of lasting legacy

It started from players like Nick Russell, Shawn Williams, Ryan Manuel and Cannen Cunnigham according to Larry Brown, but Jankovich says Moore and Sterling Brown are the two "pioneers" of the program.

"They signed up when we were telling them what we think we’re going to do, what we plan on doing, with no proof,” Jankovich said. “They took a huge leap of faith."

Former SMU guard Nick Russell says Moore's and Sterling Brown's love for the game and competitive nature made them great teammates. 

“Ben is a great player. He was a great player when he came in. I like his feel for the game," Russell said. "Really, he’s gotten better. He may not take a lot of shots, but that doesn’t matter. He does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet."

Guard Shake Milton said Ben's mindset going into each game is crucial for the Mustangs.

“They’re just tough guys. Jamin (Ben) is the voice and making sure everybody’s attitude is right and locked in,” Milton said after SMU's win over Tulsa on Thursday.

It was a long journey from playing their games for the first half of their freshman season in Garland, but Ben says the fan support through the years has been huge in building one of the best home court advantages in college basketball.

“I don’t want to say winning because that’s pretty cliche, but just seeing the progression from moving from Garland to Moody and how many fans support us. We really appreciate that fan support so that’s a pretty big deal.”

Don't forget Ben and Sterling's impact on the national reputation of SMU, especially in the Chicago area, Howard says.

“They won’t know about 10 years later as to what they’ve done, but for the Midwest and Chicago, kids are interested in SMU," Howard said. "They changed the culture. That’s pretty cool. Kids want to go to SMU.”

The culture was established early on in the Larry Brown era, "Family Over Everything" or affectionately known as FOE. That mindset still holds true as SMU breaks every huddle with "Family."

“I think it’s the culture that SMU has built. Freshman year, the seniors built that culture and we’ve just continued it on,” Ben said. “Though any adversity or obstacles, we’re just trying to overcome.”

With their attitudes and work ethic, Jankovich isn't surprised at the end result that both players earned in their time at SMU.

“The end result is they’re the two winningest players in program history. Who deserves it more?,” Jankovich said.

Moore has a simple way of putting the senior class' legacy.

“Just winning basketball.”

Still another goal left to accomplish

SMU has had bad luck and had to go through adversity the past few seasons with the seniors on campus, but this season, which saw SMU start slow, but now reel off 22 wins in its last 23 games, has more magic left in its tank.

"I think they have a little bit of good luck this year as well and I hope that keeps going for them,” Teri said. 

As luck might have it, Kansas might end up in SMU's path to the Final Four. Howard said that the Jayhawks would have to be focused to take on SMU.

“Knowing the committee, they may do that. Everybody in the tournament is good so you just gotta play basketball,” Howard said. 

It wasn't always this easy for SMU to make the tournament, especially after a 4-3 start to the season. Moore said the team's ability to keep a positive attitude made all the difference.

Moore said that now that the team generally knows it will play in the NCAA Tournament, it's all about continuing to prepare the right way, which is one day at a time.

“Now that we know we can play in the postseason, it’s great, but we’re just trying to take it one game at a time, one day at a time, one practice at a time. We’re going to get to our destination.”

What's that destination, you might ask?

“Championships,” Moore quickly responded.

That's the final piece of Moore's legacy at SMU.

Tim Jankovich discusses Senior Night


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