The problem with suggesting that any particular basketball player who chooses to move up from NCAA Division III to their highest level of competition could become “the next Duncan Robinson” is this: Robinson’s story does not happen. is not stopped there. He didn’t just make the unprecedented rise from D-3 to the Final Four. He added another monumental chapter when he then started the 2020 NBA Finals.
Is anyone willing to suggest that Belmont’s Luke Smith is heading there? It’s a lot of heat to deal with for a young player.
Rather, let’s celebrate what Smith is now accomplishing as a 6-0 junior goalie at Belmont, in his first season since his transfer from University of the South, or Sewanee, as it’s commonly known. He averages 14.8 points and 46% shooting from 3 points and fills the huge perimeter scoring void created when Tyler Scanlon ended his career with the winning basket of the Ohio Valley title game. Conference and Adam Kunkel was then transferred to Xavier. The Bruins are 12-1 and are first in the league for Thursday night’s game at Tennessee Tech.
This is possibly the biggest rise in college basketball since Robinson rose from a freshman star at D-3 power Williams College to a regular senior on the 2018 Michigan Final Four team.
“It wasn’t as big an adjustment as I thought it would be,” Smith told Sporting News. “I played better than I thought. But no, I never expected it.
There was no way he could have anticipated becoming a starter at the shooter – as he has never played the position until now. A playmaker throughout his basketball career, Smith expected, after spending the 2019-20 season establishing his eligibility, to save Grayson Murphy’s starting point. But Kunkel’s transfer opened up the possibility of changing positions. The movement has been seamless, mainly because Smith has an impressive grasp of the game.
“He’s always on the job. For a coach, you can’t really praise more than that, ”Belmont coach Casey Alexander told SN. “It’s more than scoring points. We knew last year: the guy just knows how to play the game.
Smith practiced last season against the Belmont team that won the OVC title game against Murray State and was ready for the NCAA tournament until it was called off. So he had an idea of what it was like to play Division I hoops at the start of the current season.
This transition to Division I seemed almost too easy, however. He scored 20 points in his first game, a 95-78 victory over Howard. He scored in double digits in his first nine.
“I can’t tell you how nervous I was going into that first game,” Smith said. “I figured I was going to shoot any open plan. I wasn’t going to shy away from it. Because we really only had eight guys and four perimeter players, because we had guys back in Nashville because of COVID and stuff. I knew I was going to play a bunch regardless of how I played.
“But it’s not an easy game. You need to be focused and ready. “
Belmont continued to excel even though Smith’s scoring production declined. He was such a huge and immediate success that opponents began to orient their defensive game plans to stop him, leading him to pass more often (14 assists in the last four games) and shoot less (double-digit shooting attempts only once in this range).
“If we have a coach on the floor, it’s him,” Alexander told SN. “If we have a real leader in the field, it’s probably him. It goes way beyond just being able to shoot 3 points with a high percentage. The guy knows how to play. He’ll be a great coach one day, if that’s what he wants to do.
Oh he does. But he didn’t always do it. After an all-state career in Knoxville Catholic, Tennessee, he had offers to walk on several D-1 programs, including Lipscomb, where Alexander was the head coach at the time. One of the main reasons Smith chose Sewanee was, “At that point in my life, I didn’t want basketball to be my whole life. When you’re at level D-1 it’s definitely more of a part of your life and much more of a goal.
Now that is exactly what he wants basketball to become.
“During my two years there, I really enjoyed preparing for basketball games and stuff like that: going to train every day, planning a game, implementing a game plan, stuff like that, ”Smith said. “Now I know what I want to do after college is to coach.
“So I was ready to try it at a higher level. And to get into coaching, I don’t think there is a better place to learn or a better person to learn than Coach Alexander and the rest of the staff here at Belmont.
In his sophomore at Sewanee, Smith averaged 20.1 points and shot 43.4% from 3 points. He led the team to its first place in the NCAA Division III Championships in more than two decades.
Smith began considering the D-3 move after the coach who recruited him from Sewanee, Mick Hedgepeth, accepted a position on Belmont’s staff. Alexander said he always believed Smith had the ability to excel in Division I and welcomed him to the Bruins.
The interesting coincidence of this story? Hedgepeth had just been hired for Williams’ coaching staff when Robinson decided to move up to D-1.
“I knew Luke was an elite player at this level,” Hedgepeth told SN. “There is a very fine line between an elite Division III player and a good player at a higher level. He’s a winner. I think that’s the best way to describe Luke. He is the ultimate competitor and has great instincts. Like many college players, he made a huge jump from his freshman year to his sophomore year.
“In his second year in the conference tournament I think he was 18 of 24 of three, had 90 points in three games and just led our team and gave our team the win. It was a performance that I will never forget. He wanted the ball in the big moments and he delivered it.
Clearly, Smith didn’t move on from his last D-3 game to training Belmont. He’s had a year to compete with a great team in practice and to familiarize himself with how the Bruins operate their “old school move” attack, as Alexander calls it.
“There is definitely an adjustment when you level up. But on the other hand, if you can play, you can play, ”Hedgepeth said. “Luke can dribble, pass and shoot at an extraordinarily high level. This aspect of his game is reflected.
He obviously had to take time off last season, but he worked with our coaching team and our strength and conditioning coach and really continued to improve his game, added a few pieces to his game: finish around the rim against a longer competition and find out how to get shots in our system. He was able to adapt to a new position; he already knew the pieces of the five positions, anyway.
Smith said he had no trouble convincing his parents that Sewanee’s move would be best for him.
“Obviously your parents think you are the best player,” he said. “My dad wanted me to try and play at the highest level because he thought I could. He was extremely excited when I told him about it.
While he may not experience all that Robinson’s move from Williams to Michigan has spawned – the NCAA Championship game, the NBA – Smith really wants to at least have the opportunity to play in the NCAA. Although he would not have competed in 2020, he was with his teammates at Applebee last March, when they all learned through television that the tournament had been canceled.
If they’re in a game on CBS or TNT in March, you know the Robinson comparison will be mentioned.
“I’ve got some great shoes to fill if I’m ever going to reach that level for sure,” Smith said.
And it may become apparent that there are more than one or two guys in Division III who are able to excel at higher levels of the game.
“I played a few guys in D-3 – it’s just a normal thing on everyone’s mind. You hear D-3 and think it’s a slight step above high school basketball, ”Smith said. “There were nights I would go out there and get somebody squeezed in a D-3 program and I would score five points or something like that. There are really great players at all levels.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw more people coming, and you’ll see this type of success a little more than you do. It won’t be just Duncan Robinson.