Dennis Smith Jr.’s unconventional path to stardom at N.C. State

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
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The idea took Mark Gottfried completely by surprise.

The N.C. State head coach was preparing for the 2015-16 season when he received a call from five-star Wolfpack signee Dennis Smith.

But Gottfried’s future point guard — at the time a high school senior — wasn’t making an ordinary phone call to talk about next season. Smith was pushing his future head coach to let him go to N.C. State early by enrolling during the second semester at the start of 2016.

“I was in the car with my pops, we was heading to the gym, and then I just mentioned it to him, like, just threw it out there, thinking out loud,” Smith said of his idea to enroll early. “And he was like, ‘Well, that sounds like a good idea.’ And we got on it that day. Cleared up everything with my teachers. I had an interest to do it then so we got it done.”

Rehabbing a torn ACL suffered at adidas Nations in August 2015, Smith’s high school senior season was lost. Enrolling a semester early would help him recover with the N.C. State training staff while getting acclimated to the team and campus life.

“It’s amazing. I think it’s one of the best decisions I made in my life,” Smith said. “Rehab was great, I could do it every day. And then, from a school standpoint, as far as work, I got on top of my work. I got a good amount of hours to make it a little bit lighter on myself this semester so it all worked it.”

Recovered and fully healthy before the 2016-17 season, Smith is primed and ready for a potentially big season. And part of why Smith is so confident was his unique decision to head to N.C. State a semester early.

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“Handling business” is an expression that Smith likes to use with regards to how he lives his life.

When he enrolled at N.C. State last winter, Smith couldn’t handle any business on the court while he was still recovering, but Gottfried was pleased to see how competitive and engaged Smith was away from basketball. Gottfried knew Smith pretty well from recruiting him since the 9th grade. After spending significant time with Smith for the first time during that semester, Gottfried knew he had a future team leader.

“If he hasn’t got a grade on a test that he’s satisfied with, it bothers him. He wants to conquer it. He’s competitive in the classroom, he’s competitive on the court,” Gottfried said. “We joke around about great all-time teams and players and he’s competitive with that. He’s just a very competitive guy with everything.”

Hyper-competitive guys have a habit of rubbing some the wrong way with their mentality and approach. This is especially apparent when you hear stories of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant intimidating inferior players. Gottfried doesn’t see any of that negative attitude from Smith with his teammates. Even though he was a highly-touted five-star prospect who Gottfried once visited by helicopter, none of that seemed to go to Smith’s head when he arrived on campus.

“Dennis is one of those guys, not only is he a great talent, but he’s very likable. He’s got the support of his teammates so I think that’s been a big reason why our guys have such an optimistic attitude every day,” Gottfried said.

“He’s a very thoughtful person. He’s socially thoughtful on issues that are going on. He’s very in-tune with his teammates and what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. He’s very interested in all of those things. I talk to him and he’s one of those young kids that seems to see the bigger picture a lot different than most young kids.”

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DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 06: Head coach Mark Gottfried of the North Carolina State Wolfpack reacts during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Head coach Mark Gottfried (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

When it came to practices and games, Smith spent every moment soaking things up from the sidelines. N.C. State had a disappointing season in 2015-16 but Smith had future teammates to learn and an offense to master. Smith noticed where his shooters liked to receive the ball on passes. As Cat Barber put up monster numbers in an All-ACC season — and eventually left for the pros — Smith took mental notes about how hard Barber played during every game, even though the season didn’t produce anything promising.

“It was great for me, especially now because it’s helped me build relationships with the guys. I saw a lot of things that I wouldn’t be able to see if I was a recruit. I think it was essential to me being the leader of this team,” Smith said.

“I watched how people moved and watched how people reacted to certain situations. And I paid attention to it because I knew I would have to take over eventually. I took everything that I’ve learned and brought it in. Knowing the offense, what different guys like, things like that.”

Things finally started looking good for Smith’s health towards the spring. Social media videos of Smith dunks started emerging around April and he was publicly given a clean bill of health late in the summer.

There were still doubts, however, as to how Smith might look at game speed against legitimate competition. Since he hadn’t played a competitive basketball game since the summer after his junior year, the basketball world anxiously watched as Smith took the floor at adidas Nations in Los Angeles this past August.

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The event was significant for Smith not only because he would be playing talented college players in front of NBA personnel, but adidas Nations was also the event where Smith tore his ACL the year before.

Drawing rave reviews from everyone in attendance, Smith dominated the other college counselors and saw his name vault back into the discussion for the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Suddenly, the buzz for Dennis Smith was back in full force.

“I shocked everybody. I was playing the most minutes out there. I played more minutes than anybody else out there. I shocked a lot of people. I think most people who pay attention realized my health wasn’t an issue anymore, Smith said.

“I think adidas Nations was kind of a mental thing for him because that’s where he hurt his knee,” Gottfried said. “It was like, okay, I’m back, and I’m dominating again. So I think that gave him more confidence.”

Fully healthy and brimming with confidence heading into the new school year, expectations for Smith — and subsequently N.C. State — have skyrocketed. Gottfried was able to add more talent around Smith this spring with another five-star caliber talent in Turkish center Omer Yertseven. Additional reinforcements like big man Ted Kapita and guard Markell Johnson were also added as the Wolfpack now looked like a dangerous team in a deep ACC.

Smith didn’t play at all his senior year of high school but now he’s in the discussion for the No. 1 pick. It’s a unique situation that not many have ever faced entering a freshman season of college but that kind of pressure doesn’t seem to bother Smith.

“I think more than anything, he loves the challenge of the expectations. He likes it. I talk to him, and he knows how I see it,” Gottfried said. “I feel like he’s the best guard in the country. I’ve told him that. Even before media day, I mentioned to him that I’d say that — I don’t want to add additional pressure on him. His response was, ‘Yes, absolutely, Coach. Go ahead. I want you to.'”

The star power of Dennis Smith will be fascinating to follow this season. Some N.C. State backers believe he’s the most talented player the program has seen since David Thompson. At the team’s scrimmage in late October, Smith had the fans buzzing with some electric dunks and high-speed plays in transition.

The ACC is going to be absurdly deep this season — with potentially double-digit NCAA tournament bids — but Smith is confident that he can lead the Wolfpack to a great season.

“I see ourselves being a top team in the ACC, and if everything goes as planned, I think we can be one of the top teams in the country and make a run in the tournament,” Smith said.

“I feel great. I had a long process of rehab, I feel great going into the season and I’m confident about my body.”

Smith’s N.C. State career will be an unconventional one. If all goes to plan, he’ll leave Raleigh as college basketball’s first 1.5-and-done star.

But his situation was unique, and while torn ACLs are no longer career-derailing injuries, in the last week both Jamaal Charles and Ray Smith have proven that recovery is not guaranteed.

To date, Smith isn’t in that same boat, knock-on-wood, and it is a bit of outside the box thinking that he has to thank for it.

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics

 

 

Tulane secures 101-94 OT win over Cincinnati

Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – Kevin Cross and Jalen Cook scored 27 points each as Tulane took down Cincinnati 101-94 in overtime on Tuesday night.

Cross added 15 rebounds and six assists for the Green Wave (16-7, 9-3 American Athletic Conference). Cook added 14 assists. Jaylen Forbes scored 24 points and shot 6 for 15 (3 for 6 from 3-point range) and 9 of 9 from the free throw line.

Landers Nolley II finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists for the Bearcats (16-9, 7-5). Ody Oguama added 16 points and 13 rebounds for Cincinnati. In addition, David Dejulius finished with 12 points, eight assists and three steals.

Tulane entered halftime down 37-28. Cross paced the team in scoring in the first half with 10 points. Forbes scored 18 second-half points and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.

Tulane scored seven unanswered points to break a tie and lead with 42 seconds left in overtime.

No. 16 Oklahoma women take 1st lead in OT, rally past Baylor

Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman
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WACO, Texas – Ana Llanusa and Skylar Vann each scored 20 points and No. 16 Oklahoma took its first lead of the game in overtime before rallying past Baylor 98-92 on Tuesday night.

The Sooners trailed for 39 minutes in regulation and were down 75-63 with 5:19 left in regulation.

Baylor turned it over twice on inbounds plays in the closing seconds of regulation and Taylor Robertson tied at 83-all on a wide-open 3-pointer with 14 seconds left.

Llanusa started overtime with a 3-pointer, and she finished with eight points during the extra session. Baylor never led in overtime, shooting 2 of 6.

Robertson, who tied Danielle Robinson’s program record of 140 starts, finished with 14 points and three 3s for Oklahoma (19-4, 9-3 Big 12), which trails Texas (18-6, 9-2) in the hunt for its first conference title since 2009. Nevaeh Tot added 13 points, Liz Scott added 11 points and eight rebounds and Madi Williams had nine points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

The Sooners, the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense at 86.5 points per game, have scored at least 88 points 14 times this season, seven in conference.

Caitlin Bickle scored a career-high 30 points with four 3s and Sarah Andrews added 20 points for Baylor (16-7, 7-4). Freshman Darianna Littlepage-Buggs had 14 points and 17 rebounds and Ja’Mee Asberry scored 11. Jaden Owens had 14 of Baylor’s 25 assists on 32 field goals.

Bickle was 8 of 11 from the field, including 4 of 7 from distance, and Littlepage-Buggs recorded her sixth double-double in the last seven games.

It was the first time in 20 years the Sooners were ranked in game against an unranked Bears squad. Oklahoma continues its road trip at Kansas State on Sunday. Baylor plays at Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Newton has triple-double, No. 21 UConn tops No. 10 Marquette

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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HARTFORD, Conn. – UConn appears to have its mojo back.

Jordan Hawkins scored 20 points and Tristen Newton recorded his second triple-double of the season as No. 21 Connecticut ran away from No. 10 Marquette 87-72 on Tuesday night.

Newton had 12 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for the Huskies (19-6, 8-6 Big East), who won their third straight game after losing six of eight. They started the season 14-0, rising to No. 2 in the AP Top 25.

“Teams go through tough stretches during the course of the season,” coach Dan Hurley said. “The bottom line is we’re 19-6. You know, we beat some of the best teams in the country.”

Adama Sanogo added 18 points, while Alex Karaban and Nahiem Alleyne each chipped in with 13 for Connecticut, which never trailed.

Tyler Kolek had 17 points to lead Marquette (19-6, 11-3), which had its five-game winning streak snapped. Ben Gold and Stevie Mitchell each scored 12.

The Huskies outrebounded Marquette 48-24 and used 21 offensive boards to help them get 27 second-chance points. The Huskies also had 20 assists on 31 baskets, while holding Marquette to just seven assists.

UConn opened the game on a 22-6 run, highlighted by a fast-break lob from Newton to Andre Jackson for a dunk that brought the crowd to its feet. The Huskies made their first four 3-point shots, three by Hawkins, who had 14 points in the first half.

A hook shot by Sanogo gave UConn its first 20-point lead at 32-12 .

A late first-half run by Marquette cut the margin to 43-29, but Alleyne hit a 3-pointer from almost half court to send UConn into the break with a 17-point cushion.

Another 3-pointer from Alleyne gave the Huskies a 59-38 lead in the second half.

UConn led by 25 before Marquette went on an 8-0 run to pull within 17. But the Golden Eagles never threatened to get back in the game.

“We won two or three games in January,” Hawkins said. “It was definitely a tough stretch, definitely going to shake your confidence. But you just have to stay the course, trust the process and that’s what we did and that’s what we’re going to continue to do during this last stretch.”

BIG PICTURE

Marquette: The Golden Eagles had won nine of 10. They are trying to win a regular-season conference title after being picked ninth in the preseason poll by the league’s coaches.

UConn: Entered 1-5 against the top five teams in the Big East and 1-3 versus ranked opponents. UConn lost 82-76 at Marquette on Jan. 11 after leading by 11 points in the first half.

“The rankings mean nothing,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. “It’s amazing the disparity – no disrespect to anyone here – between what the ranking means to media and fans in the middle of a season and what it means to players and coaches. It just doesn’t mean anything.”

BACK FROM INJURY

Marquette’s Sean Jones, who missed the previous three games with a wrist injury, had 11 points in just over 19 minutes. He came down hard on the wrist in the second half, but appeared to shake it off and continued playing.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE

Newton’s first triple-double came in November against Buffalo, when he had 22 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He joined Shabazz Napier as the only Huskies players to get more than one.

“My amigos right here, they were going crazy hitting shots,” Newton said. “They were boxing out and I was getting the rebound, so I just had the easy job, just get them the ball.”

UP NEXT

Marquette: At last-place Georgetown on Saturday.

UConn: Will visit No. 23 Creighton on Saturday.

Jackson-Davis leads No. 18 Indiana past No. 24 Rutgers 66-60

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The milestone moments keep piling up for Trayce Jackson-Davis.

Only one really mattered Tuesday night.

While he scored 20 points to become the sixth player in Hoosiers’ history with 2,000 and the first among that group with 1,000 career rebounds, the most satisfying celebration came after No. 18 Indiana beat No. 24 Rutgers 66-60 – Jackson-Davis’ first win in the series.

“I think that’s the last team in the Big Ten I hadn’t beaten,” Jackson-Davis said after finishing with 18 rebounds and six assists.

From the moment Jackson-Davis announced he would attend Indiana, the expectations were great even as critics contended the results were underwhelming.

Nobody’s complaining now. Jackson-Davis now has 2,004 points, 1,035 rebounds, a school-record 242 blocks and ranks fourth all-time with 44 double-doubles after breaking a tie with Steve Downing.

After helping the Hoosiers snap a five-year NCAA Tournament drought last season and falling out of the rankings after three straight January losses, Jackson-Davis has almost single-handedly led the Hoosiers (17-7, 8-5 Big Ten) into a second-place tie by winning seven of eight.

And his dominance is starting to open things up for his teammate. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better playing around Trayce, giving him space,” Miller Kopp said after scoring 18 points. “It comes down to getting better at what the coaches are asking us to do and we’re all feeling more comfortable with where our looks are coming from.”

It certainly showed against the Scarlet Knights (16-8, 8-5), who had won six straight over Indiana including a 15-point blowout in December.

This time, though, they spent most of the game playing catchup. Clifford Omoruyi had 15 points, Cam Spencer had 14 and nobody else made more than three baskets.

“It’s a one-possession game with three minutes left, but I look at the (free throw) disparity and you can’t defend the foul line,” coach Steve Pikiell said. “Give Indiana credit, they got there. Tracye Jackson-Davis was a problem.”

The Hoosiers started fast and then scored 12 straight points to take a 30-14 lead midway through the first half but even without injured starting forward Mawot Mag, Rutgers charged back. It closed the first half on an 11-2 run, then tied it at 38 when Spencer opened the second half with a 3-pointer.

Kopp broke the tie with his third 3 of the game to start an 11-0 run and Jackson-Davis’ monumental basket, a putback dunk off his own miss, made it 54-44 with 11:13 to go.

The Scarlet Knights could have tied it on Caleb McConnell’s 3 with 3:02 left, but it bounced off the back of the rim and the Hoosiers closed Jackson-Davis’ big win with a 7-2 spurt.

“He’s a man who’s done a lot since he’s been here,” said coach Mike Woodson, who is 57 points ahead of Jackson-Davis on the Hoosiers’ scoring list. “He’s a phenomenal player who does a lot of beautiful things on the court. To get 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds says a lot.”

BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: Mag missed his first game with a torn ACL in his right knee and Rutgers struggled against Indiana’s size and speed. There could be similar challenges over the final eight regular-season games.

Indiana: Woodson’s team is playing, at times, like the conference’s preseason pick to win the league title. When the Hoosiers make perimeter shots and defend well, they’re a difficult matchup for anyone. They just need fewer lulls.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The victory should help solidify Indiana’s top-20 status – at least until it hits the road for their next two games. Losing Mag and Tuesday’s game may make Rutgers’ return to the rankings short-lived regardless of what happens later this week.

UP NEXT

Rutgers: Visits Illinois on Saturday

Indiana: Heads to Michigan on Saturday.

Pitt moves into 1st-place ACC tie destroying Louisville

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Nike Sibande scored 15 points off the bench, nine Pittsburgh players entered the scoring column and the Panthers demolished Louisville 91-57 on Tuesday night and moved into a first-place tie with Clemson in the ACC.

Entering play Tuesday, the top five teams in the ACC were separated by just a game in the standings. A win by No. 8 Virginia against No. 22 North Carolina State Tuesday would create a three-way tie for first between Clemson, Pitt and the Cavaliers.

Against Louisville, the Panthers (17-7, 10-3) distributed 23 assists on 28-made baskets. Defensively, Pitt held Louisville (3-21, 1-12) to 27.6% (16 for 58) shooting and outrebounded the Cardinals 37-30. Mike James scored 11 points for Louisville.

El Ellis made a pair of foul shots to bring Louisville into a 14-all tie with 13:36 before halftime. Pitt then went on a 16-2 run over nearly the next five minutes. Six-different Panthers scored during the run. Nate Santos’ 3-pointer with 9:38 before the break made it 27-16 and Pitt led by double digits the rest of the way. A 47-27 halftime lead turned into a 58-28 margin just 1:59 into the second half.

With the win, the Panthers reached double digits in conference wins for just the second time in 10 ACC seasons. Pitt went 11-7 in its first year in the ACC following its 12-6 campaign in its final year in the Big East in 2012-13.

Louisville will continue its road trip when it takes on No. 19 Miami on Saturday. Pitt travels to face Florida State on Saturday.