Basketball Notebook: Smithson Key For Blue Raiders

February 23, 2004 · MT Media Relations
Seldom are freshmen so important to a team's overall success, but Middle Tennessee's Bryan Smithson has been a focal point for the Blue Raiders all season, and when the balloting for Sun Belt Conference Freshmen of the Year is tallied he should be a leading candidate.

The heady point guard from Kennesaw, Ga., has seen action in all 25 of Middle Tennessee's games this season, and his 24 consecutive starts are best on the team.

"There are several talented young players in our league and we believe Smithson is one of them," Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "He's meant a lot to our team. We've asked Bryan to run our team from the point guard standpoint and that's asking a lot of a first-year player, especially in this league, but he's done a good job for us and earned the respect of his teammates. There was a stretch where Bryan hit a little wall a few weeks back, like most all young players do, but he's bounced back and had a good road trip last week."

Smithson's performance at Arkansas State last Thursday was better than good. It was a decisive factor in Middle Tennessee claiming a pivotal 70-69 Sun Belt Conference triumph. Smithson poured in a career-high four 3-pointers on 4-of-6 shooting and dished out six assists, while playing a career-high 38 minutes, including all 20 minutes in the second half. Key in Smithson's performance was that he contributed 10 points in the first half when the team's two leading scorers - Tommy Gunn and Mike Dean - were on the bench in foul trouble.

"With those guys on the bench we knew that someone else was going to have to step up and help the team during their absence," Smithson said. "It just happened to be me, but we are an unselfish team, and we have several players who can contribute on any given night."

Unselfish certainly has been a key for Smithson, who averages 30 minutes per game. It takes a special kind of player to earn the responsibility of running his team, from a point guard standpoint, and Smithson has earned the responsibility at Middle Tennessee. He is averaging 8.1 points per game, but Smithson's role in the Blue Raider offense is to distribute and few in the Sun Belt Conference, regardless of class, have been better.

The talented Smithson has been among the league leaders in assists and steals all season.

Smithson's 100 assists in 25 games averages to 4.0 assists per game - fourth in the SBC overall (tops among freshmen) - and his 1.52 assist/turnover ratio is sixth in the league (also best among conference freshmen.) Smithson averages 1.44 steals per game, which is best among conference rookies and ninth in the SBC overall.

"I feel like I've had a pretty good season, all things considered, but there's so much more I can improve on and become a better player," Smithson said. "The experience this season has helped me, especially playing against so many of the talented players we have in the Sun Belt, but I've also seen areas where I have to improve my game in the offseason. I'm just glad I've been able to step in and help contribute to what we are doing here at Middle Tennessee."

YOUTH IS SERVED: Davis said several freshmen would see playing time for the Blue Raiders this season and the veteran coach hasn't backed away from sending his rookies into the fire.

In addition to Smithson's play, freshmen forwards Alex Weekes and Kyle Young have seen action in virtually every game this season. In fact, Davis has started at least two freshmen in 22 of the team's 25 games.

Young has played in all 25 games and started 20, while Weekes has played in 24 games and earned five starts, including three straight. Freshman guard Wes Durrant has played in six games and freshman forward Keith Christmas has played in 14 games.

It's been on-the-job training for the Blue Raider rookies, but they have held their own for the most part and not only earned valuable experience during their freshmen seasons, but they have helped contribute to what has been another successful season for Middle Tennessee.

EARNING THE START: The starting lineup for Middle Tennessee is not a given.

Davis bases his lineup on practices and the Blue Raiders have used eight different starting lineups this season. The combination of Smithson, Weekes, Tommy Gunn, Mike Dean and Michael Cuffee has been on the court at the outset of the past three games. The group was 2-0 before losing a 59-54 decision at Arkansas-Little Rock last Saturday.

The combination of Smithson, Gunn, Dean, Cuffee and Young has been the most popular starting quintet, drawing 15 starts. The team is 8-7 in those starts. Dean is the only Blue Raider to start each game he has played, earning 20 starts.

BACK-TO-BACK: Middle Tennessee assured itself of consecutive winning regular seasons for the first time since 1996-97, 1997-98 with its 70-69 win at Arkansas State last Thursday. The Blue Raiders are currently 14-11 with two regular-season games remaining, and they were 14-13 during the regular season in Davis' first year in 2002-03. The 14 regular-season wins are the most for the Blue Raiders since they won 18 in 1997-98.

TIDBITS: Gunn moved into fifth-place on the Middle Tennessee all-time scoring list with 14 points at Arkansas State, giving him 1,458 points to surpass Ken Trickey's 1,456 (1952-55). He added 10 points at Arkansas-Little Rock and needs 16 points to tie Randy Henry (1,484) for No. 4 ... Dean is No. 8 on the single-season 3-point field goals made list with 56 ... Cuffee has scored at least 12 points in 10 of the team's 12 SBC games, and he has pulled at least six rebounds in eight of 12 contests.

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