It's pretty noticeable at every sellout this year; the CSU Bakersfield men's basketball team is starting to become something. Senior forward Matt Smith says in years past he could wander through Bakersfield with relative anonymity. But now? "It happens all the time," he said about being recognized. "I was at the movie theater and someone was like 'That's Matt Smith!"
While he's still adjusting to team's 'celebrity status', he's been taking care of business on the court. He finished the regular season fourth on the season in minutes, third in scoring and has become one of the Runners vocal leaders in the locker room. "Matt Smith is the talker," said head coach Rod Barnes. "He's the rah rah guy this year."
After watching him play, it'd be easy to assume basketball has always been his life. But it wasn't even his first sport. Growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, Smith was drawn to football. Although the wide receiver didn't start playing competitive basketball until high school, his athleticism caught the eye of Coach Barnes.
Smith red-shirted the 2014-15 season and said it was one of the hardest things he's had to go to. "To come here and sit out a whole season after never having to do that...that was pretty tough," he said.
But times would get even tougher after a practice just before the start of his junior year. He dislocated his ankle on October 16th, just days before the season would start in November. Although he was told he wouldn't return to play until February, he missed just seven games and helped the Runners to the program's first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
This season, coach Barnes asked for more out of his senior forward. "For the last two years he's been here he's been a back up guy," Barnes said. "Now he's starting every game and we're asking him to play 25-30 minutes."
From always being a "pass-first" type of player, he admits that adding a scoring element to his game was difficult. But any test on the court was put into perspective in December when he added college graduate to his list of accolades. "My brother was a great basketball player and he was just a semester away from graduating and I know that made my mom feel a certain way," Smith said. "Me knowing I could do that (graduate), it meant a lot to me."
So while he may be shocked by all of the attention he's been getting of late, Smith is doing his part in showing what it takes to be a "program guy."
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