By Cam Huffman
Devon Smith is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. The 1993 Greenbrier East High School graduate went as a player in 1999, advancing all the way to the Final Four as a member of the Ohio State University basketball team. He was back in 2005 as an assistant coach, helping Oakland University get its first-ever appearance and victory, and in 2007 he was the director of basketball operations at Louisville when the Cardinals advanced to the second round under head coach Rick Pitino.
Now the manager of player development at Wichita State University, the Ronceverte native is enjoying the Shockers’ run to the Sweet 16. It’s an experience, he said, that never gets old.
“This is the fourth team I’ve been to the tournament with, and I consider it a blessing every time,” said Smith, now in his third season at WSU. “Once you’re in it, you never want to experience not being in it. It’s a special event.”
Wichita State is one of several teams playing the role of Cinderella in this year’s tournament. The ninth-seeded Shockers — who made it into the tournament with an at-large bid after falling to Creighton in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament — controlled No. 8 seed Pitt in the opening round, winning 73-55 and then knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga in the West, ruining plenty of brackets by living up to their nickname with a 76-70 comeback victory that clinched a spot in the Sweet 16.
WSU (28-8) will play another Cinderella, 13th-seeded LaSalle, tonight at 10:17 p.m. at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. The game will be shown live on TBS.
“They have one of the best backcourts in the country,” said Smith of the next obstacle standing in the way of the Shockers. “But I still think we’re is good as anyone left in the field.
“When you get to this point, anybody you play can win a national championship. There are no more Davids and Goliaths in college basketball because of the way the game and recruiting have changed.”
Smith has known WSU head coach Greg Marshall — a former Marshall assistant — for some time, and he actually interviewed for a position at Winthrop in 2004 when Marshall was coaching there, before eventually taking the job at Oakland.
Marshall left Winthrop for WSU in 2007 and prior to the 2010-11 season he offered Smith a job, one he said he thoroughly enjoys.
Smith’s duties are many — everything from individual instruction to being an academic mentor. He can’t go off campus to recruit, but he does help in that area when potential prospects visit WSU.
“I love it,” he said of the job. “If you don’t get to play this game (for a living), the second-best thing is coaching. I love being a role model and helping to mold young men.”
Smith’s ultimate goal is to eventually become a Division I head coach, and he believes he has the tools necessary to reach that level.
“I’ve learned from some of the best coaches out there,” he explained, crediting much of his career path to the lessons he learned in Greenbrier County from his grandparents, Bob and Louise Smith. “I have the pedigree to be a successful head coach, and I’ve always believed that if you outwork people and put God first in your life, your dreams will come true.”
Smith has won a Big 10 championship as a player, made multiple trips to the NCAA Tournament, cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden when Wichita State won the NIT in 2011 and taken the floor at some of basketball’s most hallowed grounds.
The only thing he wasn’t able to accomplish, he joked, was getting past Shea Fleanor, Ryan Culicerto and Woodrow Wilson.
“I still hate those guys to this day for that,” he laughed, before admitting that those two Flying Eagles eventually became his good friends.
Smith’s hopeful his next acheivement will be a national title for Wichita State, and he’s not convinced that’s as unlikely as many may believe.
“These guys love each other, and they work hard together,” said Smith. “There’s not a person that sees us play that doesn’t say we play hard. We have a great group of guys — guys from farms in Kansas, guys from Canada, a little bit of everything. We still feel like we have more work to do to reach our potential.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.