TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana State swingman Khristian Smith was a fixture at Sycamore basketball events during the 2011-12 season.
Smith was ever-present at practices and games. He always had a smile on his face. It was evident he was happy to be a Sycamore.
The positivity that Smith projects is just how the affable freshman from Indianapolis is. But on another level, the smile was just there trying to fool the public.
Deep down inside, the 2011-12 season was torturous for the former Indianapolis Pike standout. Smith did not academically qualify to be eligible last season. His grades were good enough to enroll at Indiana State, but not good enough to qualify through the NCAA clearinghouse.
As a result, he had to sit last season out and get his grades to a level where he could be eligible for the 2012-13 campaign.
That meant, for the first time since he was 4, Smith would play no organized basketball for an entire season.
“I appreciate the game a whole lot more now. I’ve played basketball since I was 4. Having a year taken away? That was real hard, especially coming into college. I expected to come in right away, but it didn’t work out,” Smith said.
The path to ISU was circuitous for Smith, but mainly, it was frustrating. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound swingman initially committed to Cincinnati. However, Smith did not academically qualify upon leaving Pike.
He elected to attend a year of prep school at Maine Central Institute (and was MVP on Maine Central’s tournament championship team) to get himself in good stead academically with the NCAA’s standards. But it didn’t happen there either.
Smith decommitted from Cincinnati and committed to ISU in November 2010. Smith was not able to academically qualify for the 2011-12 season and sat out last season as a grayshirt.
“He’s been though an awful lot. He didn’t qualify out of high school. He went to prep school and didn’t quite make it. He took the ACT and SAT tests multiple times, but it just didn’t happen,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
Lansing said that the will was there for Smith to get his grades in order, but he never had the support system to get over the hump. Lansing said it’s a common problem as players are often ignorant that the poor grades they receive as underclassmen in high school can and will come back to bite them when college offers get serious.
“We have great academic support here and he needed it. Young guys [in high school] don’t realize that those grades count when you’re a freshman and a sophomore. If they’re falling through the cracks then, you have a lot to overcome. These guys in high school need great guidance starting when they’re freshman,” Lansing noted.
Smith could have left ISU and enrolled in a junior college, but he elected to stick it out. It wasn’t easy. Smith could not participate in any official team activities.
“My basketball court was the classroom. I knew I had to get in, study real hard and do everything I had to do,” Smith said.
Though Smith could only watch, Lansing lauded him for projecting the right attitude.
“He was around the guys, but he couldn’t do anything with the team. The only thing he could do is work with [strength coach Dave] McManus,” Lansing noted. “He couldn’t do anything, but the funny thing was he was a great teammate last year. He supported them and pulled for them, but to be stripped of something you love so much was tough for him.”
Smith bonded with ISU’s 2011-12 redshirt freshmen — Devonte Brown and Brandon Burnett — as well as Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop. All had to sit out last year.
But they could practice and Smith could not. He did his best to learn via observation.
“I saw the little things that people do. You’re able to see little gaps you can take advantage of. I watched Devonte [Brown] and Brandon [Burnett] struggle a little at the beginning and now I’m a little unsure now with it being my first time out there,” Smith said.
If Smith is unsure, he’s done a good job of hiding it. As ISU practices ahead of its exhibition trip to the Bahamas on Aug. 12, Smith has been impressive and as athletic as advertised. Smith has a nice touch on his outside shot and is quick to get to the basket. Defensively, he made one unfortunate ISU shooter pay for a weak shot during Thursday’s practice when he swatted it onto the adjacent court.
“He’s tough. He’s a tough guy. He had a rough year last year. I think it builds fire. I think it’s like the guys who sit out and redshirt for a year. You get that itch for the game. He’s a talent no one really knows about in the league. I think he’s going to surprise some people,” ISU point guard Jake Odum said.
Since Smith arrived, its been whispered among those close to the Sycamore program what kind of potential he could have. Smith acknowledged how hungry he is to finally get to play and knows there’s anticipation about his potential.
But he’s also matured through his long wait. There were no bold statements about what he thinks he can do as his ISU career is finally upon him.
“There’s a lot of anxiousness to get out on the court. We’re all anxious. This is a new team with a whole new focus. We have something to prove. Everyone has had my name written on things and I haven’t done anything. I’m just trying to work hard to prove myself,” Smith said.
• Rhett Smith suffers finger injury — On the first play of ISU’s Thursday practice, freshman forward Rhett Smith suffered a dislocation of his pinky.
Khristian Smith also suffered a toe injury near the end of Thursday’s practice, but it was not believed to be serious.
• ISU completes nonconference schedule — The last two dates on ISU’s nonconference slate have been filled. The Sycamores will play host to Winthrop on Nov. 13 and Division II Truman State on Nov. 17.
ISU will play five nonconference home games in 2012-13, including February’s BracketBusters game.