If you haven’t made it to a Jacksonville University basketball game this season, put it on your to-do list this week because a player the likes of Ben Smith must be appreciated by being there.
The senior point guard might be only 5-foot-10, but he is, in fact, Big Ben.
I’ve covered or watched JU hoops for 28 years. I can count on one hand the players whose game, character and presence are so special, the total package literally uplifts a program.
Let me put this in a context most people will understand: Ben Smith is in a league with the school’s most famous Smith, Otis (now the Orlando Magic general manager), for overall impact. Not necessarily as an NBA prospect, but for his ability to ensure that a team maxes out its talent.
It’d just be wrong for Ben Smith’s last two home games at Veterans Memorial Arena — Thursday against Campbell and Saturday against East Tennessee State — to pass by without acknowledging the biggest difference-maker in a generation of JU basketball.
No disrespect to any of Ben’s teammates, especially fellow senior Lehmon Colbert, also instrumental in resurrecting a previously stagnant program. But if there’s one player that illustrates why the Dolphins are relevant under fifth-year coach Cliff Warren, it’s the smallest guy on the floor.
Smith is third on JU’s all-time scoring list (1,842 points), a nice statistic. But these numbers truly demonstrate what Big Ben means to the Dolphins: he’s been on the floor for 4,238 of a possible 4,805 minutes. Plus, JU’s Atlantic Sun Conference record is 51-21 during his four years as a starter, compared to 28-48 in four years before his arrival.
Warren recruited Smith out of Dublin (Ga.) High because his skill and work ethic captivated him, including a 96-84 Class AA state title win over Thomasville. The JU coach watched Smith account for 16 consecutive points (scoring or passing) in a second-half surge.
“Ben’s will to win that game was evident,” Warren said. “I said to myself, 'We have to get this guy.’ ”
What JU got is a player of more substance than style. He sets a strong example on and off the court, thanks in no small part to his upbringing from parents Curtis and Brenda Smith.
“I wish I could take credit for something Ben has done,” Warren said. “Everything was instilled in Dublin [Ga.].”
Ben’s mother nurtured most of his spiritual side at William Grove Baptist Church. His father, who played one year of college basketball and works in the Dublin recreation department, served as Ben’s basketball coach until junior high. That produced a gym rat who never strayed from his value system.
“Toughness, hard work, doing whatever it takes, those are the things my Dad taught me,” Smith said. “He said, 'Son, you’re little, and when you’re little in basketball, you got to be special.’ He wouldn’t allow me to get complacent.”
There’s not enough column space to fully explain Smith’s value to JU, which can clinch a share of a second consecutive A-Sun title by beating co-leader Campbell on Thursday.
All spectators will be allowed into the Campbell game for free. If you go, there’s a good chance you’ll come away feeling Ben Smith is worth any price of admission.