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

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

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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

 

 

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.