March 15, 2005
By Simit Shah – Now Jeremis Smith knows what all the fuss is about.
A Texas native, the freshman didn’t have much exposure to the tradition and ultra-competitive nature of the Atlantic Coast Conference, but he got a big taste of it last weekend at the ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C.
“Growing up in Texas, the Big 12 was the big thing,” he said. “After I committed to Georgia Tech, I started to watch more ACC basketball on TV, so I started to realize that the ACC was a very aggressive, competitive conference.”
Smith and Jackets downed Virginia Tech in their opening game, 73-54, setting up a Saturday afternoon showdown with top-seeded North Carolina. Tech held off the Tar Heels for a 78-75 victory to reach the ACC title game for the first time since 1996. The Jackets lost a hard fought, 69-64, game to Duke.
Although Tech came away without the championship, the Jackets’ performance earned them a No. 5 seed in the Albuquerque Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Tech begins play Friday, facing 12th-seeded George Washington at 9:45 p.m. in Nashville, Tenn.
The fact that Smith is playing at all is remarkable, overcoming a frightening knee injury suffered early this season to become a key part of Coach Paul Hewitt’s rotation down the stretch and into postseason.
Smith came to Tech as the most highly-touted of a strong four-member freshman class. At 6-6 and 232 pounds, he possesses the size to play underneath but also the quickness and finesse to create mismatches. His tremendous prep career included over 3,000 career points, a state title and numerous individual accolades.
That was supposed to translate into immediate success on the collegiate level, and in the preseason, Smith showed signs of fulfilling that promise. But all that came to a crashing halt on November 26. In just his second game, he got his legs tangled while defending a fast break and went down on the Alexander Memorial Coliseum floor in agony.
The prognosis of a dislocated kneecap shed some hope on the situation, but his recovery was a slow process.
“Coach Hewitt and I sat down and thought about it,” he explained. “We picked a date–February 2nd against Florida State. If I wasn’t back by that date, we’d go ahead with the redshirt and sit out the entire year.
“Of course, I wasn’t back by that game, but I was making steady improvement in individual workouts and getting back in shape. I told Coach before that I didn’t want to redshirt, because I thought it would be a selfish thing to do. I wanted to come back and help this team.”
Smith finally made it back on February 8 against Clemson, playing 15 minutes and contributing to Tech’s first road victory in the ACC as his mother watched.
“My mom was there, she was smiling,” he recalled. “She was happy. She was almost to the point of crying. She was nervous, and honestly I was nervous. Coach Hewitt was nervous, and even our trainers were nervous. As the game went on, I felt and looked a lot more comfortable.”
It’s clear that Hewitt is convinced that Smith is healthy, as he averaged over 22 minutes a night over the last four regular season games. Against Virginia Tech, he scored four points and grabbed seven rebounds in 18 minutes.
He’s brought an element of toughness and tenacity that the team has lacked at times, and his teammates have taken notice of the impact he has on games.
“Any good team needs that one bruiser, the guy that can come in and do all the dirty work that nobody else wants to do,” Jarrett Jack said. “With his emergence back in the lineup, I think he’s that guy. He took two charges out there (against Clemson). That’s something you can’t teach, that something that’s within you. He brings that to the table every night.”
“I feel like I’ve filled a void that Clarence Moore left,” said Smith. “Last year, everyone said that Clarence Moore was the enforcer. I was sitting there looking at the team, and I figured that’s what we needed–somebody aggressive, somebody who wouldn’t come into the game timid. When I came back, that’s the role I tried to play, bringing the intensity back to the team.”
His teammates also respect the decision that Smith made to play again this season. Since he had appeared in only two games, the freshman could have applied for a medical redshirt, reinstating a year of eligibility.
“He could have easily said, `I want to save my years and come back next year.’ That’s not the type person he is,” said senior forward Anthony McHenry. “He’s going to do everything he can to help the team.”
“He was definitely hungry,” added B.J. Elder, who sat next to Smith on the bench while recovering from a hamstring injury. “A lot of people thought he should redshirt this year, but it was something he didn’t want to do at all. He said he wanted to come back and play. I give a lot respect to him for doing that.
“That says a lot about him and his character, the type of person he is. He’s just a warrior. He wants to go out there and battle. That trickles down to everybody.”