PITTSBURGH – Two years ago a dream became a reality for Smethport graduate Zach Smith when he laced up his basketball shoes as a member of the Pitt Panthers.
A lot has changed surrounding the Pitt program the last couple of years including Kevin Stallings replacing Jamie Dixon as the Panthers head coach, but to Smith the dream is still alive as one of just four seniors or graduate students on the team and one of just three returning players from last season’s squad – Ryan Luther and Jonathan Milligan are the others.
“It still feels like a dream every day,” Smith said. “It’s pretty surreal. It’s incredible. I always wanted to play Division 1, do something people never thought I’d do. No one thought I’d be playing for Pitt, that’s for sure.”
The story is a well-traveled one for Smith, who went from being the all-time leading scorer at Smethport (1.628 points) and leading the Hubbers to the PIAA Class 1A quarterfinals as a senior in 2013 to nearby Pitt-Bradford where he was a standout for a pair of 15-win Panther squads scoring 496 points in two seasons.
But his basketball career seemed over following the 2014-15 season at Pitt-Bradford because Smith’s major, Civil Engineering, required him to make the move from the Bradford campus to Pitt’s main campus in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. And the basketball team at the main campus is a Division I program that plays in the highly touted Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Add that to the fact that very few kids from District 9 every end up at a big-time college basketball program and that likelihood of a D3 player making the jump to D1 is almost unheard of and the Smith basketball legacy seemed to be over.
Except, Smith’s coach at Pitt-Bradford at the time, Britt Moore, had other ideas and reached out to the coaches on the main campus. One thing led to another and Dixon, the highly successful Panthers coach who left after the 2015-16 season to take the head job at TCU, offered Smith the opportunity to walk on, which Smith gratefully accepted.
After Dixon left and Stallings, formerly the head coach at Vanderbilt was hired, Smith continued as a walk-on until early January 2017 when, thanks in part to some players leaving, Stallings offered Smith a scholarship for the second semester of last season.
While no longer on scholarship – just the thought of being on scholarship at any point was more than Smith could ever imagine – the opportunity to do so was a jaw-dropping one for the humble kid from the tiny town not all that far from the New York state border.
“It was pretty incredible,” Smith said. “That was a pretty emotional day. I always dreamed of being on scholarship, and to be on scholarship for an ACC team in basically my hometown, it was pretty amazing and humbling.”
Even though Pitt needed that scholarship for one of its incoming players this season, Stallings still saw enough in the player and the person to ask Smith to be one of the leaders of what is a very young team this year with nine freshmen and sophomores.
“As one of just three returning guys, Stallings called me in and told me I was going to have to be a leader,” Smith said. “He said we’ve seen it and one it. We have to be a voice on the team. I try to do that every day.”
Through Friday’s game with Duquesne, a 76-64 Panthers win that improved Pitt to 4-4 on the year, Smith had barely seen action this year getting into one minute in one game after appearing in eight games a year ago. But that hasn’t stopped him from feeling involved and from being that leader Stallings was looking for.
“I’m 100 percent involved,” Smith said. “I try to tell the young guys not to get frustrated, to stay together when things go bad to stick to the team 100 percent. Last year, we kind of pulled apart (as a team) and it kind of killed our season. I tell them to keep everyone together and to be a part of the team.”
With so many players leaving the Panthers after a disappointing 16-17 overall record and 4-14 ACC mark a year ago and so many young players coming in, expectations are probably at the lowest they have been for the program in almost 20 years. But Smith said those are outside expectations.
“You just kind of ignore it,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter. As coach says, the book has not been written. We can do anything. We were picked last by a lot of people. We can prove to them by going and doing what we can do.”
Being in an underdog role is nothing new for Smith, who believes he has been playing that role his entire career.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” Smith said. “Whether it was in high school or my entire hoops career. I’ve always been told I can’t do that or my team won’t do that. For the most part, we’ve always proved people wrong and always done better than expected. I try to voice that in practice that I’ve always been part of the team that proved them wrong.”
While Pitt is young, and the Panthers have taken some early lumps including a 31-point loss to rival Penn State, Smith said he sees the young players and the team getting better game by game.
“Every game these guys get better,” Smith said. “Every day they are getting better. It’s important to get some wins now, and hopefully, we can have some confidence going into conference play.”