Alpha Dog

Louisiana Tech PG Speedy Smith is a passing maestro and elite defender.

by November 07, 2014

speedy_smith

In late January of 1993, Delores Smith sped to the hospital, a baby on the way. She went into labor far earlier than she’d expected.

The result: She gave birth to her son Kenneth in the hallway.

A nickname was soon created, courtesy of Kenneth’s grandmother, who saw a boy who couldn’t wait to get going in this world. It just had to be Speedy.

So began a story that can’t help brushing up against the burnish of legend. Speedy Smith is years removed from his beginning, and has now emerged as one of college basketball’s best point guards. His coach at Louisiana Tech, Michael White, a former DI point guard himself, considers him the best passer in the country.

All of this converges upon Smith’s senior season. For the past two, the Bulldogs have won their conference’s regular-season championship, only to lose in the conference tournament title game, and thereby miss the NCAA Tournament. The program has not danced since ’91.

It’s been devastating, but White has fostered a resilient bunch. A four-year starter at Ole Miss, from ’95 to ’99, White led the Rebels to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Now, both he and Smith enter their fourth seasons in Ruston.

It’s Smith’s time. With a strong senior class, and a batch of talented newcomers, Louisiana Tech will be very good. NCAA Tournament-good?

We’ll see, but if there’s one thing you should know about Speedy, as gritty a competitor as can be found in the sporting scene, it’d behoove you not to bet against him reaching his goal.

***

This past March, Louisiana Tech suffered an immense disappointment at the hands of Tulsa. The Bulldogs had defeated the Golden Wave at home during the regular season, but it had resembled a root canal layered in some serious good fortune. White told reporters afterward that Tulsa would be a factor in the conference tournament.

In a big way. Tulsa beat Louisiana Tech 69-60 in the tournament final and punched its own ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

In the ensuing press conference, White graciously congratulated the victors. Moving to his own team, he expressed immense gratitude at having been able to coach such a group. These kids were special. He was only sorry that the four seniors wouldn’t be able to taste the NCAA Tournament.

Then, Smith was asked to describe how he felt. There was no way to explain it, he said.

The Bulldogs were gutted. But, as junior guard Alex Hamilton says, White has forged a resilient bunch. On Selection Sunday, their name was not called, but they did earn a bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). In vintage fashion, they dusted themselves off and made a run. Take the opener, a home bout against a very talented Iona team. There was this way that it ended, that won’t soon be forgotten in Ruston. With just 12 seconds remaining and his team trailing 87-86, Gaels forward David Laury stepped to the line. He sank the first to tie it.

At that point, Smith made eye contact with White. Let’s get a push here, the coach said. Laury made the second. The Bulldogs now trailed by one. Smith did what his coach intended, and pushed. He used an on-ball screen at the top of the key and dished to Hamilton, who missed his 12-footer. No matter—all five Bulldogs crashed the glass. Smith rose above the rest for the decisive tip-in. Then, Smith had the presence of mind to step in front of the ball as Iona tried to push for a game-winner of their own. They missed.

As he watched that shot fall short, Smith wanted to tell anyone—everyone—that the Gaels were not done yet. He bounded after Raheem Appleby, his right-hand man, who scampered away for fear of tweaking his tender ankle. Smith caught him and told him anyway.

Louisiana Tech took down Georgia before falling at Florida State, 78-75, in the NIT quarterfinals. Smith finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. Fourteen rebounds. He led the Bulldogs in all three of those single-game statistical categories.

Soon after the loss, he began preparing for the season at hand.

***

Growing up in St. Petersburg, FL, Smith always played against older kids. His dad, Kenneth, who’d started at point guard for Boca Ciega (FL) High in the mid-’80s, knew it would steel him as a competitor. So when Smith entered Boca Ciega, and was thrust into the starting point guard role on varsity by his second game as a freshman, there was no deer-in-the-headlights response. Yes, it was tough, but Smith’s biggest concern, in vintage fashion, came outside of himself. He wanted to help the seniors end their career on a fitting note. “And that’s one of the reasons I became a leader,” Smith says. “It was a pressure situation, but I had to get way more mature. It made me what I am today.”

Despite spearheading Boca Ciega coach Randy Shuman’s vaunted fast-paced attack, by late spring of his senior year, Smith had just two scholarship offers—and one was from a Division II school. Local DI programs, most notably South Florida, had shown interest, and Wofford, in South Carolina, had checked in, but nothing would come of either.

Then Michael White took his first head coaching job at Louisiana Tech on March 31, and he got to work looking for a point guard who could serve as the lightning rod in his frenzied pressing scheme. Shuman, who had been shaking his head ruefully at Smith’s lack of luck on the recruiting trail, told him, “If you want a point guard, he’s your guy.”

Speaking of which. For the past two seasons, Smith has been named to the First-Team all-conference and all-defensive teams. (Louisiana Tech moved from the WAC to Conference USA ahead of ’13-14.) He finished second in DI with 7.7 assists a season ago. His 3.25 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked ninth in the country. His 90 steals were fourth. This kid had just one DI offer?

Seems the height of injustice, the type of thing that could fuel a kid’s fire. But that’s not how Smith looks at it. “I think it’s just that God wanted me to be at [Louisiana Tech],” he says softly.

White has factored hugely into this perfect puzzle-piece fit in Ruston. He’ll sit down with Smith and talk. Life goals, how to lead, how to talk to players. Basketball stuff, too. White’s experience as an Ole Miss player means his message packs weight. “He knows what it takes,” Smith says. “He knows what has to be done in practices, film sessions, and the 40 minutes of a game. “He’s got the ingredients, and he puts us into positions where we can make things happen.”

How best to describe Speedy? His junior teammate Alex Hamilton goes with “heart.” Oh, and also, this: “He’s one of the top passers you’ll see. He’ll get to the rim and create, and he always finds somebody that’s open.”

There were things Smith needed to work on in college. Namely, his strength and his shooting. Rail-thin when he entered the program, Smith now checks in at 6-3, 180 pounds. In ’13-14, he shot 37 percent from beyond the arc, good for second on the team. He grabbed 3.8 boards, which ranked third.

Just give Smith a challenge. Watch him move mountains to complete it. Watch him do everything in his power to win.

***

When asked to describe Louisiana Tech, coaches often hit upon this: The Bulldogs are a very good team, but when they can get out and run, they become elite. White’s relentless full court press morphs seamlessly into blood-pressure-spiking half court man-to-man. Teams often can’t adjust. Last season, opponents coughed up the ball an average of 16.4 times per game. Louisiana Tech’s 339 steals ranked fourth in the country.

The Bulldogs are long, athletic and skilled. They come at you in waves. Eight players averaged over 20 minutes a game in ’13-14. Smith, who clocked a team-leading 30.4 minutes, makes that thing go, keying the press and the fast break.

They endure very few losing streaks—last season, they never lost back-to-back games. That included navigating through Appleby’s injury in mid-January, which could have scuppered the campaign. (Appleby returned for a February 27 game against Middle Tennessee.)

“Knowing my right-hand man wasn’t going to be there, I had to do more,” Smith says. “It made me better. Now, I know what I need to do to always be productive. And with [Appleby] back, it’ll be tougher for opposing teams.”

Smith did so while battling nagging hamstring and groin problems. Tendinitis gnawed at him the entire campaign. By midseason, he was coming out of games to give his aching knees a quick rest. Did it affect him? Smith classically demurs. “Mentally, I’m 100 percent at all times,” says Smith. “That’s really all that matters to me. As long as I want to win, I’m OK.”

You might say the team embodies that tough-minded ethos. In Smith’s sophomore season, they went on an 18-game winning streak, the longest in DI that term. Last season, in a game at Oklahoma, Louisiana Tech trailed by 14 in the first half. They rallied back to take the lead, only to find overtime foisted upon them by a last-second Sooners three. The Bulldogs picked themselves up and won in OT.

***

Smith speaks quietly, but thoughtfully. Every phrase is measured. There are themes that you can tell have been years in the making. Kid has very strong faith, and he believes wholeheartedly in this Louisiana Tech team and its potential.

This summer, Smith and his two fellow seniors, Appleby and Michale Kyser, met and brainstormed over the most effective way to lead this team. How would they go about their goal of making the NCAA Tournament: Would it be better to not talk about it, or come right out and express what they wanted to do? They decided upon the latter. The team word became Finish, referencing the Bulldogs’ desire to get past that doggone conference tournament title game and vault into the tournament. As White said in a press conference in October, those three seniors won’t let him not talk about the tournament. “It’s daily dialogue,” White told reporters. “It’s out there.”

White says the Bulldogs have a chance to be really good defensively this season, which is downright scary for opponents. Nine newcomers factor into the fold. They are raw, but they are talented. When Smith took his visit to the Louisiana Tech campus in Ruston, more than three years ago now, he remembers White telling him his vision. He wanted to play up-tempo, and he felt strongly that Smith could factor hugely into that. The past three years have been about building a program. Wouldn’t it be fun to watch it come good, now.

Despite so much youth, Smith can’t help rein in his excitement. They’ve been getting after it in practice. They played well during a pre-season tour of the Bahamas. With so much new talent, those 10 additional practices were vital. Oh, and on the tour, Smith finished with 36 assists over three games. Consider him ready to rock.

***

Here’s a couple of stories to close.

Smith remains in contact with Shuman, his high school coach. Every now and then, he’ll send Louisiana Tech game posters to Boca Ciega. Shuman tacks them to his office wall. As the coach spoke on the phone several weeks ago, he recounted some of his favorite Speedy memories.

“There was this one time, we had to play a game at 7 at night, and his dad called me at 6:15 and said, ‘Speedy’s got a temperature of 102, he’s not going to make it.’ He’s been dehydrated, retching all day. So we go out to warm up, come back in the locker room and there’s Speedy, getting dressed. I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ But his dad says it’s all right, they had him drink a lot of Gatorade. I said, ‘Well, we’ll keep an eye on you. If you can give us a couple minutes, great.'” Speedy went out and scored 35.

Afterward, he went to the hospital for an IV. “It just shows the tough-ass kid he is,” says Shuman. “That’s why I can say he doesn’t like to lose. He’ll sacrifice everything.”

Then there was Smith’s final game at Boca Ciega, in the state playoffs. “We had hopes of going deep, but it was just one of those bad nights,” says Shuman. “Afterward, we couldn’t get the uniform off him. He went outside, and he was so distraught that it took 45 minutes to get him settled down. He wore his uniform home that night. (Of course, he brought it back, cleaned, the next day.)

“He laid his heart out,” Shuman says, before adding, “Always did. You don’t run into kids like that anymore. You just don’t.”