Coming to Goucher College as a decorated high school athlete, Jacob Smith figured he would get some playing time and be able to contribute for the Gophers men's basketball team until adjusting to the college game and playing a larger role.
He was partially right.
The freshman engineering major did get some playing time right away, but he adjusted quickly and became one of the team's go-to players. And on Feb. 28, Smith was named the Landmark Conference Rookie of the Year, becoming the first Goucher men's basketball player to receive an individual award since the conference was established in 2007.
"I didn't even really know that there was an award like that until my teammates starting talking about it the past few weeks," Smith said. "I know that it meant a lot to the college and the athletic department for me to win it, so I'm glad that it means so much to everyone. It's great to be able to represent the college well."
Smith also was the first Gopher to earn an individual conference award of any kind since Garrett Smith was named the Capital Athletic Conference Player of the Year following the 2004-05 season. The accomplishment is made even more impressive considering he played for a team that went 0-24.
"I think it speaks volumes to his ability that he was able to perform that well," head coach Tom Rose said. "And like any other freshman, he had to do it playing predominantly against experienced upperclassmen. He was able to impress the other teams in the conference and win the award as part of a very young team. It was a real bright spot for us."
Smith, a solidly built guard/forward at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, became the leader of a productive freshman class that had five players average better than 12 minutes a game and accounted for more than 40 percent of the team's scoring. He averaged 10.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in 32.3 minutes per game and ranked second on the team in scoring, rebounding and minutes played.
"It's great for us that he could get recognized," Rose said. "It obviously was a challenging season for us, but this is one of the positives from the season that we can build on. Our freshmen got a lot of experience that freshmen normally shouldn't get, but that experience will really allow the program to grow and get moving in the right direction."
Smith agreed that the experience the rookies got will help the program in the future.
"It definitely gives us something to build on and a good foundation," he said.
While Smith wasn't sure how much he would play entering the season, Rose was confident Smith would be a key contributor because of his tireless work ethic and athleticism. Smith was an all-state basketball player and all-conference in football at Franklin County High School in Rocky Mount, Va.
"He was in a lot of big games in high school," Rose said. "Guys get those accolades for a reason, and that really allowed him to step in and be ready to play. That was huge for the team. After recruiting him I had high expectations when he got here. Because he was a freshman, I thought the biggest thing for him would be to develop confidence. I didn't think he would get as many minutes as he did, but when he showed how well he could perform, I just kept him on the court."
Consistency can be a big challenge for freshmen making the leap to college basketball. A quick glance at Smith's numbers reveals that there weren't many peaks or valleys in his performance. His season-best scoring total was 20 points against Elizabethtown Feb. 20. He recorded two double-doubles and pulled down double-digit rebounds four times. And he finished eighth in the conference in total rebounds, ninth in rebounding average and ninth in minutes played.
While his performance was good enough to earn him a starting role, Smith said he still had to adjust to the speed of the game. And when his outside shots weren't falling, he took the ball into the paint to score.
"Being able to get inside to score when I couldn't shoot well from the outside really helped me," Smith said. "I felt more like a forward this year even though I'm more the size of a guard. It made sense because I was really one of the bigger players. I was pretty comfortable, because all throughout high school we didn't have very big players, so it was pretty much the same for me."
Rose said it's not unusual for freshmen to struggle with their shooting, but he wasn't surprised Smith could be effective inside.
"We knew that he would be able to score pretty well near the basket because of his strength," Rose said. "He shoots pretty well actually, but when his shot was not falling early in the year, we told him that if he could get to the rim he could score, and I think that really helped his development."
A 4.0 student, Smith credited his coaches with helping him adjust academically and said the positive practice environment they created allowed him to adjust on the court as well.
Rose, on the other hand, gave all the credit to Smith.
"He's a very hard worker," Rose said. "He's the type of guy who will spend an hour and a half in the weight room and an hour and a half working on his basketball skills and still do well academically. He's quiet, but he's very competitive and leads by example. His teammates rally around him and really respect him because of his work ethic and what he's able to do on the court."
Photo Credit: David Sinclair/Goucher Athletics