A changed Smith gives Loyola new lease on life Greyhounds' turnaround started with his return

March 02, 1996|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

To say that Loyola basketball coach Brian Ellerbe hadn't included junior forward Anthony Smith in his plans for this season would be an understatement.

"No thought of him playing had crossed my mind," Ellerbe said. "He was done. He was finished."

But without Smith, the Greyhounds' chances of winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament would have been over, as well. The Duquesne transfer became eligible in late December, just in time for the eighth game.

And just in time for a dramatic rescue.

Loyola was 1-6 without Smith and was losing point guard John McDonald, who enrolled at Iona after the Christmas break.

Since then, the team has gutted out several injuries to post its best MAAC record in four seasons and land the No. 4 seed in this weekend's tournament in Albany, N.Y.

Smith is Loyola's second-leading scorer at 14.0 points and its top rebounder at 5.9. He is first in blocked shots, second in steals and third in assists. And on any given night, he can switch to a fourth position.

"Sometimes," Ellerbe said, "it takes kids to hit rock bottom in a certain area before they learn."

Smith's area was academics, and the lesson was hard. He almost flunked out last year while redshirting, and had decided to give up basketball and perhaps transfer again. But his pride kept nudging him back to Loyola.

"I didn't know if I made the right decision to come here and got a little down on myself," he said. "But I decided to come back and prove to myself and the people around here that I could do the work."

A communications major, Smith posted a 2.9 grade-point average last semester. "And he had major-league classes," Ellerbe said.

"My first couple of years [in college], I was very immature," Smith said. "I didn't take care of my responsibilities. But you have to be able to balance everything. Nobody's going to want to know why you did this or that; they just want to know the final result. So, I'm just trying to focus on both. And it's easier now because I have my head on straight."

What the skinny, 6-foot-4 New Jersey native lacks is his scholarship, which he relinquished over the summer.

"I was thinking about quitting basketball for good because it wasn't doing anything for me," he said. "I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do the schoolwork. But then I started thinking about basketball, and I thought, 'I can do the schoolwork and play, too.'

"I decided to come back to Loyola, but I didn't ask for the scholarship back. I didn't think I had earned it. I'm trying to earn it now."

No one questions that he has done that. Blessed with tremendous leaping ability, Smith was dubbed by Ellerbe the team's best athlete as soon as he stepped onto the floor for the first time.

He's certainly its most versatile, beginning the season at small forward but spending more time at point guard, along with sophomore Mike Powell. He also can move to shooting guard or venture inside and fill one of the voids left by a rash of frontcourt injuries.

Other than Powell, no Greyhound averages more minutes per game than Smith at 33.0.

"I'm not surprised at one thing Anthony Smith's doing," Ellerbe said. "He's a kid who has a lot of physical ability. He has a chance to do phenomenal things when he takes the floor."

Like during a recent home game, when he chased down a Canisius player and swatted away an attempted dunk, then soared over a defender for a one-handed jam.

And yet, at that same game, a spectator who was engaged in a conversation with two of Smith's cousins said the Loyola forward could be even better if he tried harder.

"I do have a laid-back game," Smith said, "but it's not that I'm lazy."

"He's very quiet," said Ellerbe, whose team went 8-6 in the MAAC. "But he has an internal fire that I've seen, knowing the body language."

At Duquesne, the two assistants who recruited Smith left shortly after he got there, and he never felt comfortable as a "straight shooter" who wasn't given the freedom to slash and create.

At Loyola, he found a first-year coach, "and a brand-new situation for me. I could start over," he said.

And not just on the court. "I definitely made the right decision," he said. "It's a good school academically and I'm now learning that academics are important. Basketball is not life."

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