The moment Bruce Smith knew his son had regained the confident swagger he once had in high school actually came during the Purdue guard's worst shooting game of the past few weeks.
Ryne Smith was fighting for a rebound in Purdue's victory over Northwestern two weeks ago when he became tangled with a pair of Wildcats in a scrum underneath the basket. Instead of walking away, Smith popped up and got nose-to-nose with guard Jershon Cobb until an official separated them, exactly the sort of moxie the scrawny guard once routinely showed as a high school star in Toledo.
"A 155-pounder should not be a hard ass but sometimes he couldn't control his emotions in high school," Bruce Smith said. "The fact that he got in that guy's face, I think it shows his confidence is there again."
Ryne Smith has every reason to be confident right now considering how well he's shot the ball lately. The 6-foot-3 guard has averaged 17 points per game and shot 67 percent from the floor since Purdue started Big Ten play two weeks ago, helping propel the first-place Boilermakers to a trouble-free 4-0 start.
For a Purdue team searching for a third scorer to complement stars JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore in the absence of Robbie Hummel, Smith suddenly appears to be a viable long-term solution. The junior had only scored in double figures twice in his career prior to this four-game stretch, but he's taken advantage of his opportunity, punishing opposing defenses for paying too much attention to Johnson and Moore.
I think having that third and fourth scorer is a big deal for us, I honestly do," Smith said. "Once you get into Big Ten play, teams know you and they know tendencies, so you've got to have that third scorer to help your stars out. I'm not going to force any shots, but I'm going to stay aggressive when the openings are there."
It sometimes amazes Smith that he's now playing college basketball because as a kid it's the last thing he thought he'd be doing.
Because his older sister Nikki was a basketball standout in high school who went on to play in college at Indiana, Smith dabbled in other sports in elementary and middle school in hopes of forging his own path. Only an 11-inch growth spurt in eighth grade and some newfound maturity persuaded him to give hoops a try in high school.
Smith blossomed into a pesky defender and dangerous outside shooter playing for his father at Toledo's Whitmer High School, but interest from even the local junior college was scant until after his junior season.
Motivated by the disappointment of an early playoff loss, Smith began working out with his father two or three times a day in order to transform himself from a good high school player into a college prospect. The 6 a.m. weight lifting and shooting sessions paid off a few months later when he lit up a star-studded Detroit-based AAU team for 36 points in front of dozens of marquee college coaches.
"Billy Donovan was there and Bob Huggins, Tom Izzo and Thad Matta," Bruce Smith recalled. "Ryan lit it up and that got his name on people's lists. Then in the July period he absolutely blew up."
Smith chose Purdue from a long list of suitors because he trusted Matt Painter and his staff and felt confident the Boilermakers wouldn't experience the coaching turnover that his older sister had endured at Indiana. That bond with Painter was tested, however, when Smith's playing time off the bench evaporated in the second half of his sophomore season last year.
After shooting a combined 1-for-11 in three straight losses to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern in Jan. 2010, Smith logged less than three minutes a night in Purdue's next 13 games. Others in his position might have considered transferring to a smaller conference where playing time would be guaranteed, but Smith only used the rough patch as motivation to study more film and work harder in the gym and the weight room this past offseason.
"It never really crossed my mind to transfer," Smith said. "I was brought up to be a team guy and to realize that the ultimate goal is winning games. The games that I was sitting on the bench last year, we were winning. It was tough, it was hard and I didn't know what was going to happen, but I kept my head up and kept working hard and it has paid off."
Since replacing fellow guard Kelsey Barlow in Purdue's starting lineup prior to the start of Big Ten play two weeks ago, Smith has thrived as a spot-up shooter capable of making teams pay for leaving him free. All but one of his 27 shots in those four games have been from behind the arc, yet he's hit 17 of them, elevating his three-point percentage for the season to a blistering 51.6 percent.
"Our point guards have done a better job of looking for him and he's done a better job of moving without the basketball," Purdue coach Matt Painter told reporters on a conference call this week. "Just got on a very good roll here and got some rhythm to his shot. "
Purdue's 4-0 Big Ten record is a bit deceiving since the Boilermakers haven't faced any of their fellow conference contenders yet. The competition will ramp up quickly this week when Purdue visits Minnesota on Thursday before a stiff non-conference test on Sunday at West Virginia.
It's probably unrealistic to expect Smith to keep shooting above 50 percent from behind the arc, but Purdue's hopeful he can remain enough of a threat to prevent defenses from collapsing on Moore and Johnson.
"I think he's going to pull defenders away from Johnson and Moore," Bruce Smith said. "Teams are going to have to start guarding him closer. If they continue not to, they're dumb."