Wake Forest, Kentucky travel in fast lane
NEW ORLEANS – Almost three years before they enrolled at Wake Forest together in 2006, L.D. Williams caught his first glimpse of just how fast Ishmael Smith is.
Williams inbounded the ball to Smith during a full-court scrimmage at a camp they both attended and watched in amazement as his future Wake Forest teammate beat everyone down the floor for a transition layup before the rest of the team even reached mid-court.
“I don’t understand how he does it,” Williams said Thursday. “It’s crazy. He’s like a blur, to be honest with you.”
If Smith is the consensus fastest man in college basketball, his only possible challenger for that title will defend him on Saturday in New Orleans. Smith and Kentucky freshman John Wall will go head-to-head for the first time when the ninth-seeded Demon Deacons and top-seeded Wildcats meet in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Because neither Kentucky (33-2) nor Wake Forest (20-10) are adept at perimeter shooting, they’re both at their best when their point guards are pushing the ball in transition or knifing into the paint to draw help defenders and free up big men for offensive rebounds. As a result, look for Smith and Wall to put pressure on the defense whenever possible on Saturday, a potential nightmare for an out-of-shape referee but a rare treat for fans who like basketball at a dizzying pace.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” said Wake Forest assistant coach Jeff Battle, who has watched both guards play since high school. “It’s a matchup people are going to want to see. I know back in North Carolina people have been talking about this matchup for a while. If any two guys are faster, I’d like to see them.”
Speed has been a trademark of each guard’s game since they were in grade school, though neither could think of any relatives from whom they might have inherited their gift. Wall smoked classmates in the 100-yard dash in elementary school and burst through holes untouched as a high school running back, while Smith raced friends for fun every day after school as a kid.
About the only thing neither Smith nor Wall are quick to do is claim the title of college basketball’s fastest man. Neither has recently been clocked from baseline to baseline, nor in a 40-yard dash.
“He’s the fastest player with the ball in his hands in college basketball,” Smith said of Wall.
“He’s right there with me,” Wall said about Smith.
Whereas the 6-foot-4 Wall entered college with a rare combination of size, speed and savvy, the 6-foot Smith was much more raw when he arrived at Wake Forest. He couldn’t properly read screens and played only at supersonic speed, meaning he’d often fly down the court 1-on-4 in a misguided attempt to make something happen.
Wake Forest’s coaching staff showed patience with Smith because his speed was the perfect catalyst for the up-tempo offense the late Skip Prosser installed. Smith has rewarded that patience as a senior, reclaiming the starting point guard job from NBA first-round draft pick Jeff Teague and averaging a career-high 13.6 points and 6.0 assists.
“He used to just go one speed at all times: 100 miles per hour,” Battle said. “We talked to him about changing speeds, keeping the defense off-balance, and he’s done a better job of picking his spots about when to go and when not to go. He put in a lot of work this summer once he knew he was going to have to carry the load for us, and it has paid off.”
Smith’s crowning moment came in overtime on Thursday night when he weaved through the Texas defense, crossed over on guard Avery Bradley and pulled up to sink the game-winning jumper with 1.7 seconds to go. It was enough to impress his counterpart Wall, who was watching from his New Orleans hotel room.
“He’s a player that wants the ball in those situations,” Wall said. “And that was a big-time shot.”