Smith helped revive 'Hawks program
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Marland Smith came to play basketball for Southeast Missouri State when the program was at its lowest level.
Four years later, the member of coach Dickey Nutt's first recruiting class at Southeast is on the verge of breaking the school record for career 3-point baskets while continuing to draw praise for his enduring character and commitment.
"We said we were going to put a foundation in place when we started here. We were looking for foundation players, and Marland is certainly a foundation player," Nutt said. "He's a good player but a better person, an outstanding young man. What a character guy. If we had 13 [players] like him, we'd be in great shape."
Smith, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound senior guard from Little Rock, Ark., might not go down as one of the best players in school history.
But the soft-spoken Smith will go down as one of the more reliable and dependable players to suit up for Southeast.
And his mark on the program's record book will be undeniable.
Smith has made 216 career 3-point baskets, recently moving up to second all-time at Southeast. He is only three behind career record-holder Derek Winans, who played from 2001 through 2005.
"You set personal goals. That was one of my personal goals when I got here," Smith said of the impending record. "You always want to set high standards. Shooting has always been my strength, so it was a record I focused on. I think it's a great accomplishment."
Added Smith with a smile: "Any day now. ... I'd like to go ahead and get it out of the way."
Smith, who has a career scoring average of nearly 11 points per game, ranks seventh on the program's all-time scoring list with 1,269 points. He needs just eight points to move into sixth place, where he will likely wind up.
Smith is Southeast's career leader in 3-point field-goal attempts (634) and ranks third in career starts (90) and eighth in career steals (100). He has played in 116 career games -- never missing a contest -- and soon will crack the program's top five on that list.
"Marland is one of the best kids I've been around," said fourth-year junior point guard Lucas Nutt, who joins Smith as the only remaining members of Dickey Nutt's inaugural recruiting class at Southeast. "Me and him, we've been here since Day One. He's such a steady player. You can always count on him."
Leap of faith
Smith drew recruiting interest from various Division I programs after a standout career at Hall High School in Little Rock, Ark. He was the junior MVP of Hall's 2007-08 Class 6A state championship team and led the Warriors to a state runner-up finish as a senior in 2008-09.
Nutt had just been hired as Southeast's coach in the spring of 2009, but the former Arkansas State coach and Little Rock native was already familiar with Smith, having followed his high school career while at ASU and during his one year out of coaching.
Nutt knew he wanted Smith to help him rebuild a program that ranked among the nation's worst when Nutt got the job. He inherited a team saddled with NCAA probation and coming off a 3-27 campaign that featured a winless Ohio Valley Conference season.
"When I got the job, I walked into his home and I told him, 'We really need you to help build this program,'" Nutt said.
Nutt laughed when recalling Smith's reaction.
"He said, 'We're 345th out of 345 [Division I programs], we've lost scholarships, we're on probation,'" Nutt said. "But he said he'll come here."
Smith said he also considered Arkansas State, Bradley and Missouri State, among other Division I programs, but decided on Southeast for a variety of reasons.
"I knew coach Nutt from before. I had played ball with Lucas before, and me and Lucas were in the same [high school] conference. I would see coach Nutt at games," Smith said. "They had six or seven guys from Arkansas [who had signed] here, and I felt really comfortable."
The opportunity to help build a program from virtually the ground up was also enticing to Smith, who signed with the Redhawks shortly after Nutt was hired.
"You always want to build something. He had a vision, a plan. I wanted to be a part of that," Smith said.
It didn't take long for Smith to make his mark as a freshman for a depleted roster short on overall talent after Nutt got a late recruiting start.
Smith averaged 10.8 points per game in his rookie season, becoming the first Southeast freshman to lead the team in scoring in nearly a decade. His 63 3-pointers paced the Redhawks and ranked seventh in the OVC.
"Marland came in and did a good job for us right away," said Nutt, whose first Southeast squad won seven games, including three OVC contests. "He was a hard worker from the start. He hardly said a word. He just did everything you asked him to do."
Smith also had a solid sophomore season, finishing as Southeast's No. 3 scorer with a 12-point average. He again led the team with 62 3-pointers, which ranked fourth in the OVC, as the Redhawks improved to 10 wins, including six OVC triumphs, and earned their first OVC tournament win since 2004-05.
Smith had his best season yet last year, his 12.3 scoring average ranking second on the team. His 63 3-pointers again led the squad and ranked eighth in the OVC. His 39.9-percent accuracy from beyond the arc ranked sixth in the league. He also was first on the Redhawks with 28 steals and third with 76 assists.
Smith was named second-team all-district after the Redhawks went 15-16 overall and 9-7 in OVC play. It was their most victories since the 2004-05 team also won 15 games, and their fourth-place OVC tie was their highest conference finish since the 1999-2000 NCAA tournament squad earned a share of the regular-season championship.
The Redhawks also posted OVC tournament wins in consecutive years for only the second time. The other time came during the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons when Southeast reached the finals both campaigns.
"I felt like I played pretty good the last few years and the team really improved, which is the most important thing," Smith said. "We've gotten better every year."
Smith has had an up-and-down senior season after being voted preseason all-OVC following his impressive junior campaign.
Smith is averaging just 7.8 points, fifth on the team. He is tied for second on the squad with 28 3-pointers and is second in assists with 49.
But Smith has surged lately after being inserted back into the starting lineup.
"I feel like I'm starting to get my shots, knocking them down," Smith said.
Smith started 10 of Southeast's first 14 games, then came off the bench during the next six contests -- and his performance suffered as his playing time fluctuated.
Smith has started the past three contests. He scored 15 and 14 points, respectively, in the last two games after reaching double figures just once in the previous 10 contests. He is 6 of 13 from beyond the arc the past two games.
"Marland is really playing well now. He's really shooting the ball well," Nutt said. "We took him out of the starting lineup. We wanted to get some firepower in there with [junior guard] A.J. Jones. We found out pretty quick we need Marland's experience, his leadership."
Smith's up-and-down final campaign has mirrored Southeast's season after the Redhawks entered among the OVC favorites.
Southeast is just 11-12 overall and 3-6 in league play entering Saturday's 5:30 p.m. home game against Eastern Kentucky. The Redhawks, who have lost six of their last seven, have eight regular-season contests left, including seven OVC matchups.
"This year has been disappointing, but it's not over yet. We can still win 20 games, get to the NCAA tournament, accomplish our goals," Smith said. "We just want to get in that [OVC] tournament because I don't think anybody will be excited about playing us."
While Smith's primary focus the remainder of his final collegiate season is to help Southeast turn its season around, he also has an eye on the future.
Smith, majoring in recreation with a minor in sport management, is scheduled to graduate in May. He will be the first member of his family to earn a college degree, something he is as proud of as his on-court accomplishments.
"As far as personal accomplishments, I feel I've had a pretty good career," Smith said. "But getting an education was the most important thing. I'm real proud of that."
After earning his diploma, Smith would like to give professional basketball overseas a try. He is contemplating becoming a coach some day while also having his eye on cooking for a living.
"I want to go to culinary arts school and be a chef," Smith said. "I like to cook. Basically growing up, my parents worked, and I didn't want to wait around for them so I started cooking."
Looking back on his time at Southeast, the Redhawks' quiet leader -- "I try to lead by example. I'm not the most talkative person. I might be in the room and you might not even know I'm there," Smith said with a laugh -- has absolutely no regrets.
"I've had fun. I've enjoyed my time here," Smith said. "I met some of the best people in my life, some of my best friends that I'll have for life."
Nutt has no doubt that Smith, the only one among three Redhawk seniors who came to Southeast right out of high school, will be a success regardless of where the future leads him.
"I wrote Marland's parents about what a pleasure it's been to coach him. He'll be a guy we really miss," Nutt said. "He took a chance coming here when the program was at its lowest, and he helped us get it going. I really appreciate him. I'm really proud of him."