Men’s basketball’s Chris Smith to return to March Madness from the sidelines
After a season-ending injury on New Year’s Eve, senior guard Chris Smith has transitioned to a role from the bench for UCLA men’s basketball – coaching and cheering on his teammates as they begin their March Madness run. (Andy Bao/Daily Bruin staff)
By Sam Connon
March 18, 2021 12:13 p.m.
Of all the Bruins who got an all-expenses-paid trip to Indiana this week, one of them won’t be taking the floor.
Instead, Chris Smith will be cheering his teammates on from the bench, still recovering from the torn ACL he sustained in a home game against Utah on Dec. 31. Coach Mick Cronin joked Wednesday morning that that wasn’t enough to warrant all the March Madness perks the guard had been collecting in Indianapolis throughout the week.
“(Smith) should have to pay his own way,” Cronin said. “Right now, all he’s doing is taking the free gifts and the meal money, and he’s not producing for us.”
Cronin said he couldn’t get rid of Smith, UCLA men’s basketball’s lone senior, even if he tried. He’s been on campus and in team facilities nearly every day since his successful surgery, staying close to the team and working on his recovery while others – such as Duke forward Jalen Johnson – showed that opting out was a viable alternative for NBA hopefuls like Smith.
“A lot of kids in his position maybe would have just finished school online and went and rehabbed, hired an agent and went and rehabbed on their own,” Cronin said. “He’s at UCLA every day, he’s at every practice, he’s rehabbing.”
Smith admitted he didn’t even know leaving the team was an option but said he wouldn’t have been able to stomach watching his teammates on TV all season long anyways.
“For a couple trips, I couldn’t go since they were too close to post-op,” Smith said. “Watching them at home was definitely worse than watching them with them. Even if we lose and I’m there, I’d still rather be there than at home.”
The Bruins have gone 11-7 since Smith’s injury, slipping from a Pac-12 title contender to a bubble team in the NCAA tournament without the senior’s 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. UCLA was able to cling onto a No. 11 seed without last year’s Pac-12 Most Improved Player and will face No. 11 seed Michigan State in the First Four on Thursday.
The last time the Bruins were in March Madness was Smith’s freshman year, making him the only player on the roster who has appeared in an NCAA tournament game. Smith said he doesn’t think much of the 10 minutes he played in UCLA’s loss to St. Bonaventure in 2018, but that didn’t stop one of his younger teammates from valuing his admittedly limited experience.
“He’s just told me that this is just a great experience. That’s what I got from him,” said redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell. “It’s good having a vet that’s been to the tournament. I’m not going to say I picked his brain yet, but … he’s definitely tried to make sure that I’m ready to play on Thursday.”
Smith said becoming a more vocal leader was one of his goals coming into the season, and that getting sidelined by a season-ending knee injury only pushed him harder to hone that skill. Although he lost his voice during a couple games over the past few months, Smith said he still isn’t a naturally loud person.
The senior said he usually leads by example, and that not being able to demonstrate things visually has hamstrung him a bit. As a result, Smith said he’s had to act more like a coach than a player, something he’s struggled to adjust to.
“At times I feel like a bit of a hypocrite because I’ll yell at them for making some mistake and make it seem as if I wouldn’t make the same mistake from time to time,” Smith said. “At least when I’m out there on the court, they can yell at me just as much as I yell at them, but now it’s just me screaming at them like I’m a coach.”
His head coach saw things differently, highlighting moments when Smith has been the most constructive and optimistic voice on the bench.
“The thing about (Smith) is he’s always positive,” Cronin said. “The last couple games, we had issues with guys missing big free throws – (Smith) is the first guy to have his arm around those guys (and) tell them to keep their head up. He’s a really, really, really good teammate.”
Nearly every scholarship player on the active roster has gotten real minutes over the past month with Smith and redshirt junior forward/center Jalen Hill both out and redshirt junior forward Cody Riley and sophomore guard Johnny Juzang missing time as well.
That leaves Smith on the end of the bench with walk-ons freshman forward Logan Cremonesi and junior guard Russell Stong, where the three of them spend the better part of two hours jumping, cheering, giving high-fives and supporting their teammates for better or worse.
Smith said that’s where he’s most comfortable as a leader anyway.
“I’ve always been that person,” Smith said. “If you’re my teammate, I’m going to pick you up because I want you to do the same for me, because I know that I’m not always going to be hitting.”
Smith will continue to lead from the sidelines Thursday against Michigan State, and he said it’s hard to put into words what a victory would mean to him in his new role.
“A win would mean a lot to me because it’d be my first tournament win ever, even though I’m not doing a single thing for it,” Smith said. “It’d be the first time I’m part of a team that’s won a game in the tournament. That’s a really, really hard thing to do, even in the play-in game.”
At the same time, Smith said he definitely doesn’t want any pity parties thrown in his honor – just a win.
“I don’t want them to think that I’m some burden just because I’m a senior and I can’t play, blah, blah, blah – that’s whatever,” Smith said. “I don’t want them to worry about me or play for me, I went them to play for themselves and play for each other.”