How much longer Lehmon Colbert and Ben Smith are college teammates is an unknown, but if their union ends in the next few days, it will come in a city that sits between their hometowns.
And it’s fitting that friends and family are closer for this curtain call and get one more chance to watch them play. Jacksonville basketball fans have seen one of the program’s best duos lift the Dolphins since their arrival, when Jacksonville wasn’t on overly attractive program.
“It’s changed so much,” said Smith, the all-conference senior point guard from Dublin. “Now, it’s almost expected for us to win. There’s a lot more enthusiasm and excitement about basketball on campus.”
The Dolphins went from 16-13 in Hugh Durham’s final season as their head coach to 1-26 in Cliff Warren’s first season. But Colbert saw promise.
“The games they lost, they were basically in every game,” he said. “I felt like I could come in and make up that difference.”
The two had known each other courtesy of AAU play with the Smyrna Stars, but that was for less than a year. Still, they kept in contact during the recruiting process.
Colbert committed first, and that eventually swayed Smith.
“I loved playing with him,” Colbert said. “I needed a partner in crime, so I kind of pushed him a little bit.”
What was Colbert like back then?
“He was much more skinny,” Smith said with a laugh. “He played more on the wing. He ran the floor, caught a lot of lobs. He’s put on at least 20 pounds.”
Indeed, the transition from GHSA Region 4-AA to college basketball had to be dealt with.
“I had to bulk up,” Colbert said. “I was the biggest person on my team in high school. It was a lot faster, and I had to get a lot stronger.
Colbert also looked at Kennesaw State, Wichita State and Northeastern. Kennesaw State was closer to home but was just starting the process of going from Division II to Division I, so Colbert would have no chance at any postseason. At Jacksonville, Colbert got to play in last season’s NIT, thanks to winning the A-Sun’s regular-season championship.
That’s a pleasant change from the debut of Colbert and Smith at Jacksonville as the Dolphins lost to Savannah State. And they entered that Christmas break at 4-6, with the wins coming over St. Leo, Division II Florida Tech, South Carolina State and Coastal Carolina.
Smith picked Jacksonville over Tulsa. Amazingly, he wasn’t highly recruited, although Georgia came in late but talked about automatically redshirting. Both Smith and Colbert saw the facts: Jacksonville was a one-win team a years earlier with youth, walk-ons and stopgap players. A good freshman would get serious minutes immediately, but Smith actually had a crisis of confidence as a freshman.
“I think everyone thinks that your freshman year,” he said. “The ups and downs from playing well to not playing and going to class, I was like, ‘This may be too much.’ But I got through it, and we got through it as a team.”
The Dolphins rallied from their scary start, won seven of eight late and finished 15-14.
Colbert averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds on 28.7 minutes as a freshman, and he has a career average of 12 points and six rebounds while playing 28 minutes per game.
Smith enters the tournament as Jacksonville’s all-time leader in games played, minutes played, steals and made free throws, and he is second in assists (six behind the leader) and 3-point field goals.
Together, they have scored 3,287 points, comprising the top scoring duo in Jacksonville history in reversing the Dolphins’ fortunes.
Macon has been good to Smith as a senior basketball player. He scored 28 points to lead Dublin past Thomasville 96-84 in the AA title game at the Macon Coliseum on, yes, March 4 back in 2006, one day short of four years before the conference tournament opener.
After he was smothered by teammates on the court, he ran tearfully to the front row to hug his parents.
“I can remember my state championship game like it was yesterday,” Smith said. “It is crazy that our (conference) tournament is in Macon our senior year. Hopefully, it won’t end there, and we can have the same result we had in high school in college.”
The city has been good to both in college. Smith and Colbert are 3-1 at Mercer, winning 76-64 on Feb. 20. Regardless of their fate this week, Smith and Colbert leave Jacksonville on the opposite end of the spectrum they found it.
The Dolphins have had four straight winning seasons, the second-longest such streak in program history. They are the first four-year seniors to depart Jacksonville without going through a losing season.
Warren is already the fourth-winningest head coach in program history, and Jacksonville is two victories away from a 20-win season.
Jacksonville is 69-52 with Colbert and Smith in uniform, and the Dolphins definitely will have support tonight when they battle North Florida.
But they know the clock is ticking.
“Since I’ve met Ben, he’s been that type of player,” Colbert said. “He takes the big shots; he makes the big shots.
“I know he’s going to find me when I’m open. Four years later, I’m still playing with him. I love it.”