Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Smith has seemingly emerged overnight to become a bonafide point guard on one of college basketball's most surprising teams.
Smith, a Boca Ciega High graduate, helped the Bulldogs win 18 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in Division I this season. They were ranked in the top 25 for a time and earned the program's first No. 1 seed in the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
After being upset last week in the first round, Louisiana Tech missed out on an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Bulldogs (26-6) play tonight at Florida State in the first round of the NIT Tournament.
It is the first time Smith, a sophomore, will play a college game in Florida. Better still, he will get to face the Seminoles' Okaro White, a Clearwater graduate who played against Smith in high school.
"It's been a great year, a great run," Smith said Saturday by phone. "We're just trying to keep the momentum going we had in the regular season."
At Boca Ciega, Smith was one of the area's top guards, 17 points, nine assists and four rebounds per game as a senior. But during recruiting, Smith was underestimated and overlooked, disregarded by major college coaches and ignored in website rankings of top prospects.
"I would have liked to have played in the state but didn't get a lot of interest," Smith said. "USF did show some but never really offered a scholarship. Louisiana Tech turned out to be a great fit for me."
Louisiana Tech was not only the one school to gave him a scholarship, but gave him a chance to play right away. The Bulldogs also fit his style, with an up-tempo offense that allows Smith to shine by distributing the ball with passes through slivers in the defense to his cutting teammates.
Last season, Smith set the school record for assists in a game with 15. He also set school records for assists (142) and steals (42) by a freshman.
In the offseason, the 6-foot-3 Smith worked to have a sharper view of the court — enhancements that came gradually, subtly, through study, practice and hours spent with coaches.
It shows in his diverse skill set. This season, Smith averaged 6.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists. The ability to score has been big. Three times this season, Smith has led his team in points, including the opening game of the WAC tournament in which he scored 16.
But that wasn't enough to prevent Texas-San Antonio from winning 73-67 on Thursday, the Bulldogs' third straight loss after a 26-3 start.
"We didn't like the way our season ended," Smith said. "We could possibly have gotten into the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid, but we were really focused on going out and winning the (WAC) tournament."
Louisiana Tech still has extended its season. But the Bulldogs are heading into postseason play overlooked and underestimated.
It is a position Smith knows — and thrives under.