Joshua Smith lumbered off the court, blinders fully extended, his singular focus on the space his teammates had cleared for him on the bench.
After fouling out in UCLA’s 66-58 loss to Arizona, the sophomore center didn’t hesitate for even a millisecond when he plodded past UCLA coach Ben Howland.
The pair had nothing to say to each other.
Perhaps their spat from Wednesday, when Smith missed the team bus and was suspended for the first half of UCLA’s opening-round win against USC, carried over to Thursday. Smith had picked up five fouls in nine minutes of play.
Smith then ripped his mouthguard out of his mouth, threw it in a nearby trash can and put on his warm-up shirt. The end to one of the more perplexing individual seasons for the big man had finally come to a close.
Smith wasn’t the only one under fire from the referees’ whistles; UCLA committed 18 fouls in the second half alone.
“I feel like it slowed the game down and made it a little choppy for us,” senior guard Jerime Anderson said. “We weren’t able to keep the momentum that we had.”
Howland rolled the dice, as he’s done before, by putting Smith into the game with more than 10 minutes to play. It didn’t pay off.
“It’s been a problem for him all year to stay out of foul trouble, as it has been these last two years really,” Howland admitted.
Foul trouble is just one issue among a web of problems that Smith has struggled with this season. Instead of staying on campus and working on his game last offseason, Smith admitted to going home to Kent, Wash., to relax and came back to Westwood in far worse physical condition than he left in.
His numbers reflect that work ethic. Smith played four fewer minutes per game this season compared to last, a product of growing tired and committing fouls. He also took 42 fewer shots, his per-game scoring average went down almost a point and he pulled down one fewer rebound per game.
Although it seems like a decade ago now, Smith was the talk of the NCAA Tournament last season when he showed a glimpse of what he could become, scoring 14 points in a second-round win against Michigan State.
Now, Smith is the first to recognize that adjustments must be made. After Thursday’s loss, Smith said he was “extremely upset” with himself.
“I realize that the way I’ve been playing and with my numbers this year compared to my freshman year, I was supposed to make that jump and I didn’t,” Smith said. “That’s all on me. For me to be the player that I want to be and that my team needs me to be, I need to put in the work in the offseason.”
UCLA fans and pro scouts alike get frustrated watching Smith play because he has the ball skills and footwork to be a first-round NBA draft choice. Conditioning and work ethic continue to hold him back. Smith said Thursday he has no thoughts of leaving UCLA to go pro after this season.
He said he would wait to see if UCLA receives a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, as an NCAA Tournament bid is out of the question, and then “go to work.”
“I’m coming back,” Smith said. “There’s no way I’ll ever leave on a note like that. Whenever I leave, I’ll make sure we go out with a bang and I go out with a bang. Nothing like this.”