Luke Smith’s journey from Division III to Ohio Valley power Belmont has echoes of Duncan Robinson’s improbable climb

The problem with suggesting that any particular basketball player who chooses to ascend from the NCAA’s Division III to its highest level of competition might become “the next Duncan Robinson” is this: Robinson’s story did not end there. He did not merely make the unprecedented climb from D-3 to the Final Four. He added another monumental chapter when he subsequently started in the 2020 NBA Finals.

Is anyone ready to suggest that Belmont’s Luke Smith is headed there? That’s a lot of heat for a young player to handle.

Let us, instead, celebrate what Smith is achieving now as a 6-0 junior guard at Belmont, in his first season since transferring from the University of the South, or Sewanee, as it is commonly known. He is averaging 14.8 points and 46 percent shooting from 3-point range and filling the huge perimeter-scoring void created when Tyler Scanlon completed his career with the game-winning basket in the Ohio Valley Conference title game and Adam Kunkel subsequently transferred to Xavier. The Bruins are 12-1 and first in the league entering Thursday night’s game at Tennessee Tech.

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This likely is college basketball’s greatest climb since Robinson rose from freshman star at D-3 power Williams College to senior regular on Michigan’s 2018 Final Four team.

“It was not as big of an adjustment as I thought it would be coming in,” Smith told Sporting News. “I played better than I thought I was going to. But no, I never expected this.”

There was no way that he could have anticipated becoming a starter at shooting guard — because he never played the position until now. A point guard for his entire basketball career, Smith expected, after spending the 2019-20 season establishing eligibility, to back up starting point Grayson Murphy. But Kunkel’s transfer opened the possibility of switching positions. The move has been seamless, mostly because Smith owns such an impressive understanding of the game.

“He’s always on task. For a coach, you can’t really give any praise higher than that,” Belmont coach Casey Alexander told SN. “It’s more than just scoring points. We knew last year: The guy just knows how to play the game.”

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Smith practiced last season against the Belmont team that won the OVC title game over Murray State and was set for the NCAA Tournament until it was canceled. So he had an idea what it was like to play Division I hoops when the current season began.

That transition to Division I almost seemed too easy, though. He scored 20 points in his first game, a 95-78 victory over Howard. He scored in double figures in his first nine.

“I can’t tell you how nervous I was before that first game,” Smith said. “I told myself I was going to shoot any shot that was open. I wasn’t going to shy away. Because we really only had eight guys and four perimeter players, because we had some guys back in Nashville because of COVID and stuff. I knew I was going to play a bunch regardless of how I was playing.

“But it’s not an easy game. You’ve got to be focused and ready.”

Belmont has continued to excel even as Smith’s scoring output has declined. He was such an enormous, immediate success that opponents began orienting their defensive game plans to stopping him, which has led to him passing more often (14 assists over the past four games) and shooting less (double-figure shot attempts only once in that stretch). 

“If we have a coach on the floor, it’s him,” Alexander told SN. “If we have a real leader on the floor, it’s probably him. It goes well beyond just being able to shoot 3-pointers at a high percentage. The guy knows how to play. He will be a great coach someday, if that’s what he wants to do.”

Oh, he does. He didn’t always, though. After an All-State career at Knoxville Catholic in Tennessee, he had offers to walk on from multiple D-1 programs, including Lipscomb, where Alexander was head coach at the time. One big reason Smith chose Sewanee was, “At that point in my life, I didn’t want basketball to be my complete life. When you’re at the D-1 level, it’s definitely more a part of your life and it’s much more of a focus.”

Now, that’s exactly what he wants basketball to become.

“During my two years there, I just really enjoyed the preparation for basketball games and stuff like that: going to practice every day, game planning, implementing a game plan, stuff like that,” Smith said. “I know now what I want to do after college is coach.

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“So I was kind of ready to try it at a higher level. And for going into coaching, I don’t think there’s a better place to learn or a better person to learn under than Coach Alexander and the rest of the staff here at Belmont.”

As a sophomore at Sewanee, Smith averaged 20.1 points and shot 43.4 percent from 3-point range. He led the team to its first berth in the NCAA Division III championships in more than two decades.

Smith began considering the move from D-3 after the coach who recruited him to Sewanee, Mick Hedgepeth, accepted a job on the Belmont staff. Alexander said he always believed Smith had the ability to excel in Division I and welcomed him to the Bruins.

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The interesting coincidence to this story? Hedgepeth had just been hired to the coaching staff at Williams when Robinson was deciding whether to make his move to D-1.

“I knew Luke was an elite player at that level,” Hedgepeth told SN. “There’s a very fine line between an elite Division III player and a good player at a higher level. He’s a winner. I think that’s the best way to describe Luke. He’s the ultimate competitor and has great instincts. Like a lot of college players, he made a huge jump from his freshman to his sophomore year.

“His sophomore year in the conference tournament, I think he was 18-of-24 from three, had 90 points in three games and just led our team and willed our team to victory. That was a performance I’ll never forget. He wanted the ball in big moments, and he delivered.”

Smith obviously did not walk from his last D-3 game into the Belmont lineup. He had a year to compete against an excellent team in practice and to become familiar with how the Bruins operate their “old-school motion” offense, as Alexander calls it.

“There is definitely an adjustment when you go up a level. But on the other hand, if you can play, you can play,” Hedgepeth said. “Luke can dribble, pass and shoot an extraordinarily high level. That aspect of his game translates.

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“He obviously had to sit out last season, but he worked with our coaching staff and strength and conditioning coach and really continued to improve his game, added some pieces to his game: finishing around the rim against longer competition and figuring out how to get shots in our system. He was able to adjust to a new position; he already knew the plays from all five positions, anyway.”

Smith said he didn’t have any trouble convincing his parents that the move from Sewanee would be best for him.

“Obviously, your parents think you’re the best player,” he said. “My dad wanted me to try to play at the highest level, because he thought I could. He was extremely excited when I told him about it.”

Although he may not get to experience all that Robinson’s move from Williams to Michigan engendered — the NCAA championship game, the NBA — Smith definitely wants to at least get the opportunity to play in the NCAAs. Although he would not have competed in 2020, he was with his teammates at Applebee’s last March, when they all learned via television that the tournament had been canceled.

If they’re in a game on CBS or TNT in March, you know the comparison to Robinson will be mentioned.

“I’ve got some big shoes to fill if I’m ever going to get on that level, for sure,” Smith said.

And it may become apparent that there are more than just one or two guys in Division III capable of excelling at higher levels of the game.

“I played some guys at D-3 — it’s just a normal thing in everyone’s mind. You hear D-3 and think it’s a slight step above high school basketball,” Smith said. “There were some nights I’d go out there and just get clamped up by someone on a D-3 program and I’d score five points or something. There are really, really good players at every single level.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw more people come up, and you’ll see this type of success a little more than you have. It won’t just be Duncan Robinson.”