The journey is not the same for everyone. Sometimes, you don’t understand what’s to come until you leave something behind.
They didn’t sit in a dorm room and decide as a group.
They didn’t pressure one to follow the other.
“I’m no recruiter,” Shabazz Napier said. “I was telling guys, ‘Whatever you want to do.’ At first, I was upset about guys leaving, but people do things they believe will better their lives and the lives of their family. I can’t be mad or not be Roscoe’s friend because he left. No way. We’re still close. He felt he had a good reason.”
Napier has led Connecticut’s basketball team to another Final Four, where the Huskies and their senior point guard play top-seeded Florida in one national semifinal today at the mammoth venue that is AT&T Stadium.
Three years ago, Connecticut won the national championship.
Napier was a freshman on that team. So too was Roscoe Smith.
But a year after they each climbed a ladder and snipped away a strand of net and sized their fingers for rings, UConn players were faced with this: The program’s Academic Progress Rate score had dipped below the minimum standardized levels and the Huskies were banned from participating in the 2012-13 postseason.
No Big East Conference Tournament.
No NCAA Tournament.
No NIT or CIT or CBI.
Alex Oriakhi, starting center on the championship team, transferred to Missouri for his senior season. Smith also waved goodbye to Storrs.
He sat out a year at UNLV before averaging 11.1 points and 10.9 rebounds this season. On Friday, he announced he was declaring for the NBA Draft and wouldn’t return to the Rebels as a senior.
Meanwhile, some 1,200 miles away, the UConn team he would have been on, played on, perhaps started on, prepared for another shot at another ring.
“Roscoe was a very good player for us, a developing player with a high ceiling, like a lot of our guys back then,” UConn associate head coach Glen Miller said. “He would have been a very good player on our team now. We wanted everyone to stay and were disappointed when they didn’t, but we’re appreciative of those who did. Those guys are being rewarded for their loyalty now.
“Roscoe wanted to be a small forward. We played him at power forward but stressed we were position-less. Just be a player and we will utilize your talent and strengths. He went on to be a terrific rebounder at UNLV and we moved forward. I think it worked out for everybody.”
That last part isn’t a finished script for Smith, who issued a statement about declaring for the draft but was unavailable for further comment.
He didn’t play small forward at UNLV because his skill set doesn’t suggest he could do so at a high level, and his chances of being drafted and making the NBA are minimal. His is likely a path that leads to playing professionally abroad.
He started 33 games on the national championship team, then played in 33 (starting 14) as a sophomore at UConn, an undersized, energetic forward who has a similar look to frontcourt players who will compete for the Huskies today.
Connecticut isn’t all that physical and gets into trouble when fouls begin to mount against forwards Phillip Nolan and DeAndre Daniels. The bigs don’t move all that well. If you can space the Huskies out and attack off the dribble, UConn becomes more than vulnerable.
Smith could have added depth in a needed area. He could also have aided a team that outrebounded opponents this season by an average of just one per game.
“At the end of day, I told Roscoe to think about his decision, that I wanted to be his coach, that I wanted him to stay because I believe we have the greatest program in America,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “He decided to go to UNLV. That’s how life is. You ask for wisdom and he thought in his heart it was the best decision for him.
“I love Roscoe to this day. He had a great run this season rebounding the basketball, doing some of the things he did for us when he was here. But I’m glad I have this team. I’m glad these guys believed in the program, believed in me, believed in each other to stay and fight through the tough times. Now, they’re reaping the benefits.”
Journeys can be wild, crazy, unpredictable things, for those who leave and those left behind. Roscoe Smith made a major decision about his future Friday. Some 1,200 miles away, his past was again basking in the spotlight of college basketball’s biggest moment.
What might have been, indeed.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.