Former Walbrook star Roscoe Smith contributing to UConn's success

April 01, 2011|By Kevin Cowherd, The Baltimore Sun

Roscoe Smith is calling from the noisy University of Connecticut team bus that is headed to the airport for the flight to Houston and today's Final Four meeting with Kentucky in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

His cell phone crackles as the 6-foot-8 freshman forward from Baltimore talks about his first year playing for coach Jim Calhoun and this magical run the Huskies are on.

But when asked about the state of mind of this UConn team, which has won nine games in 19 days — five to win the grueling Big East tournament and four in the NCAA West regional — Smith's voice comes in loud and clear.

"We're not tired," he said. "We're ready. We're very anxious to get back on the court and do what we do best."

A two-time Baltimore Sun All-Metro selection at Walbrook, Smith is averaging 6.5 points and 5.2 rebounds for the 30-9 Huskies.

He's been a starter for UConn since the third game of the season. And while highly touted freshmen often have a hard time adjusting to the rigors of big-time college programs, that hasn't seemed to be the case with Smith.

"When I first got here, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I knew we had a Hall of Fame coach and a great program. I knew my role wouldn't be as big as I expected. But the coaches and the players kept telling me to be patient and keep my head up."

Steve Smith, his coach at national power Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., his senior year of high school, said Roscoe Smith is not merely surviving, but thriving with the Huskies.

"It's always hard on freshman," said Steve Smith, who has coached Oak Hill for 26 seasons. "But he seems to have accepted his role and what Coach Calhoun wants him to do. He'll play defense, he'll rebound — he does all the things they want him to do.

"I've seen him have a 15- or 17-point game, and the next time have a 6- or 7-point game, and it doesn't bother him. He looks to me like he's happy on the floor and enjoying playing college basketball."

Even with the Huskies in their fourth Final Four and two wins away from their third national title, Smith seems unfazed by the pressure.

Much of that has to do with the fact that the Huskies' offense revolves around their dynamic junior guard, Kemba Walker, who averages 23.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists and was recently named an Associated Press first-team All-American.

It also helps that UConn freshman guard Jeremy Lamb is on a tear, averaging 14.2 points in the Big East tournament and 18.3 in the NCAA tournament.

Like all freshmen playing at the Division I level, though, Smith has struggled at times and made his share of mistakes.

His most glaring one occurred in UConn's big 82-81 win over Texas earlier in the year, and it became an instant YouTube classic while being endlessly replayed on TV sports highlight shows.

With the score tied and 11 seconds left, Smith picked up a loose ball after teammate Alex Oriakhi blocked a shot by the Longhorns' Gary Johnson.

Thinking time was about to run out, Smith heaved a desperation shot the length of the court. Incredibly enough, a male Texas cheerleader caught it in his megaphone.

The blunder gave Texas the ball with seven seconds left. Luckily for Smith, who had played superbly until then with 13 points and six rebounds in 33 minutes, the Longhorns failed to score. The game then went into overtime and the Huskies held on for the win.

In the UConn locker room after the game, Smith took a ton of good-natured ribbing from his teammates.

"We joked about it," Smith said. "I thought the clock said .1 seconds, not 11 seconds."

Even though he's a bit preoccupied right now with the Huskies' dazzling postseason run, Smith makes no secret of his desire to play in the NBA some day.

Part of the reason he selected UConn over Duke and Georgetown, he told reporters last year, was because "UConn's style of play appealed to me. Coach Calhoun has a great legacy and puts players in the pros."

Especially players who have played the wing for the Huskies, including such big names as Rudy Gay (Archbishop Spalding), Rip Hamilton, Caron Butler, Ben Gordon and Ray Allen.

In Steve Smith's time at Oak Hill, the Warriors have sent some 22 players to the NBA, including Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic), Rajon Rondo, Josh Smith, Steve Jackson, Steve Blake and Brandon Jennings.

Roscoe Smith definitely has the potential to join that list, says his old coach.

"Roscoe's got size, length and athleticism," Steve Smith said. "At that [NBA] level, a lot of it depends on their work ethic and how they're going to develop each year.

"He's got a chance, but it's up to him to develop his skills to make it. … It depends on how much he continues to improve."

But before thinking of that, there is another matter that demands his concentration: tonight's matchup against 29-8 Kentucky.

Asked if he ever envisioned playing in the Final Four in his first season at UConn, Smith paused for a moment.

"No," he said finally. "But we're ready."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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