In the wake of an unpredictable season, the rise of a certain guard on the Belmont men’s basketball team has given fans reason to set their worries aside.
After a rollercoaster of an off-season, the Bruins were in need of a shooter that could accompany the likes of post-monster Nick Muszynski and floor manager Grayson Murphy.
Undoubtedly, roster concerns were why the Ohio Valley Conference tagged the defending champions as third in the OVC preseason poll – after hemorrhaging a slew of star players, the Bruins had something to prove again.
The OVC and fans alike need look no further after the jaw-dropping performance of junior transfer Luke Smith, as the Bruins hit a stride in their conference campaign.
Smith arrived at Belmont in the 2019-20 season, spending that season’s entirety on the bench due to transfer restrictions. Once he was cleared to hit the floor, though, Smith seemingly had answers to all the league’s questions.
Smith hit the ground running, rocking the conference and shocking fans with his ability on the court.
He opened the season in explosive fashion, averaging 18 points per game in the DC Paradise Jam, Belmont’s season-opening tournament. His performance earned several accolades, including the tournament’s MVP and first-team awards, as well as the OVC’s newcomer of the week.
From there, Smith’s foot remained on the gas.
He spent weeks as Belmont’s leading scorer and remains as one of the best shooters in the OVC today. It took only a matter of months for Smith to make program history as the only player in Belmont’s Division I era to put up 100 points or more in his first five games.
But Smith’s journey to Division I basketball demands just as much attention as his automatic shot.
He began his college basketball journey at a Division III school, the University of the South. Whether it was a case of under-recruitment, or Smith has just improved that much, he was mostly concerned with playing the game he loved.
“Countless hours were put in between practice, weights, and working out on my own time. Basketball is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” said Smith.
He also took academics and coaching into consideration, as he chose Sewanee’s program over two at the Division I level.
“Outside of Sewanee, some D2s were looking at me, Davidson and UAB asked me to walk on,” said Smith. “Ultimately, I chose Sewanee because it was a great balance of academics and athletics and I had a great relationship with Coach Hedgepeth.”
Smith led the Southern Athletic Association, in scoring at 20.1 points per game his sophomore season and led Sewanee’s program to its first Division III NCAA appearance since 1998 — catching the eye of now-Belmont head coach Casey Alexander.
“I recruited Luke a little when I was at Lipscomb, but the timing just wasn’t right. Then our Lipscomb team played against Luke his sophomore year at Sewanee,” said Alexander.
After Alexander’s transition from Lipscomb to Belmont’s program, he also happened to welcome the now former head coach of Sewanee Mick Hedgepeth, which seemed to be the kicker for all parties involved.
“When I came to Belmont, we hired Mick Hedgepeth to our staff, a great former player for us at Belmont,” said Alexander. “Mick happened to be the Head Coach at Sewanee, Luke decided he wanted to transfer and he called us. It was a no-brainer for me.”
When Smith arrived at Belmont as a transfer, his plan was to keep his head down and work on proving to his team he could live up to the standards of Belmont’s program through hard work at every practice. Looking back on his benched season, he’s happy to finally see the results he was looking for.
“I really came in wanting to show the coaches and my teammates that I belonged at this level,” said Smith. “Just bringing it every single day in practice was very important to me, especially because I couldn’t play. It feels awesome to see the work paying off, and that I am playing well right now.”
Alexander is just as pleased with Smith’s game, work ethic, and personability with the team after watching him grow over the past year.
“Luke is as easy to coach as they get. He always gives a great effort and he’s as smart of a player as any that I’ve coached,” said Alexander. “He’s very well-liked and is a perfect fit for our program at Belmont. Luke had seven different players vote for him as captain before he ever played a game here.”
And now that games are fully underway for the 2020-21 season, Smith is looking forward to defending the Bruins’ conference. He and the team plan on taking each matchup game by game until there are none left in the way of a national tournament appearance.
“Winning is always the number one thing on my mind,” said Smith. “Our mindset is to win the OVC, go to the NCAA tournament, and win games in the NCAA tournament. We’re going to do that by practicing hard day in and day out and executing our game plans every time we step on to the court.”
This article written by Julieann Challacombe.