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Inside College Basketball | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Smith Is More Than an Afterthought

January 30, 2003|Robyn Norwood

The best freshman from Los Angeles this season might be one who could hardly be farther from home.

Consider Craig Smith, the lightly recruited former teammate of Evan Burns at Fairfax High who is averaging 21.8 points and 8.5 rebounds for Boston College.

Burns was everybody's all-star. Smith? He couldn't get much closer to playing in the McDonald's All-American game his senior season than ordering a Quarter Pounder.

Now Smith and Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse are trading Big East rookie-of-the-week honors. Smith ranks 15th in the nation in scoring this week and was leading the Big East in field-goal percentage at almost 63%.

"A lot of guys on the West Coast have told me, 'We missed one, Coach,' " said Fairfax Coach Harvey Kitani, who tried in vain to make a match between Smith and a California school. "This kid could have helped a lot of people out here."

In a particularly bleak year for Southern California basketball, that's certainly the truth.

In fairness to some of those who passed on Smith, he didn't have a qualifying aptitude test score as a senior in 2001 and didn't become eligible until he went to a prep school near Boston, Worcester Academy, to shore up his academics last year.

Still, the only Southern California school to offer a scholarship was Cal State Fullerton. Everybody else took a pass on the 6-foot-7 forward.

"UCLA looked at me; I think I got one phone call," Smith said. "USC, I remember I saw Henry Bibby my senior year in high school and he said, 'I'm very interested,' and I said, 'I am, too.' He came to one of our practices, I think just to watch Evan. I went up to him and said hello, but that was about it.

"Oregon State was my first scholarship offer. Then [former coach Ritchie McKay] took it back because he said I was pudgy. It was kind of devastating.

"Al Skinner believed in me. He did take a chance on me. So far, so good."

Skinner, the Boston College coach, has found overlooked players before.

Boston College's Troy Bell, the nation's seventh-leading scorer, wasn't highly recruited. Nor was Cuttino Mobley, the Houston Rocket guard who was recruited to Rhode Island by Skinner.

"I think it was just a case of Boston College doing a great job of seeing things in him, and then player development," Kitani said.

Oregon State's assessment that Smith was pudgy wasn't baseless.

"He had a lot of baby fat," Kitani said.

Smith said that after weighing as much as 272 pounds, he worked feverishly to trim down last summer and is playing at about 260.

"My body's changed tremendously. I have way less body fat, and I'm much quicker," he said. "I knew I'd have to be able to run the floor well like most big guys do in college.

"My body is more slim, more solid, more muscle. No more pudge."

Maybe in time, the more heralded players from L.A. will surpass Smith.

Arizona's Hassan Adams, a freshman from Westchester High, averages 12 points a game, and he plays for the nation's No. 1-ranked team.

Burns, Smith's best friend from high school, ended up at San Diego State after he wasn't admitted to UCLA and is averaging about eight points off the bench.

But Smith, the guy recruiters kept overlooking when they went to watch Burns, is the second-leading freshman scorer in the nation, trailing Keydren Clark of Saint Peter's.

In his first start for Boston College, Smith went 10 for 10 against St. Bonaventure and scored 27 points. In his second, he made all six of his shots. He has scored as many as 30 points in a game, against West Virginia, and had 16 rebounds against Providence.

He's the homegrown product who got away.

"I knew I'd be an X-factor, but not this big," Smith said.

"My mom [Linda Christian], she works at UCLA Medical Center as an administrative assistant. They tell her every day they wish I was there."

Butler's Night Onstage

Maybe you remember the Butler Bulldogs.

They're the team that went 25-5 last season, pulled an upset of Indiana -- a team that went on to reach the NCAA title game -- and went undefeated in the Horizon League before stumbling in the first round of its conference tournament, losing to Wisconsin Green Bay by one point.

Just like that, Butler, with an RPI rating in the 70s, was left out of the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday.

Tonight at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, the 16-2 Bulldogs get their big "chance" of the season -- a shot at No. 5 Duke on its home court, where the Blue Devils have won 22 games in a row and have sold out every game since 1990.

"I mean, it's challenging, but at the same time, it's an opportunity for this program," said Joel Cornette, a senior forward. "The game will be on ESPN2, and we'll get a chance to show how good we are against one of the best teams in the country."

It will be Duke, currently No. 7 in the ratings, against No. 52 Butler.

The good news is the Bulldogs' RPI will go up, at least temporarily.

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