EDINBURG — Everything UTRGV graduate senior guard Tyson Smith did with the game of basketball was designed to pay off for him this season, his final year of eligibility. Coming to Edinburg was the hard part, although much of that had to do with geography.
Smith grew up in an East Baltimore household where the expectations were high.
“It was kind of a rough neighborhood, but it was oriented in a sense where you had to work hard to get what you want,” Smith said. “I credit my mother because she helped keep me busy. She’d make me write things down. She always reminded me as a young child to stay focused and make the right decisions when I grow up and become my own man.”
Smith wasn’t getting looks from the colleges he wanted after his four-year stint at Baltimore’s Milford Mill Academy, so he elected to spend a post-grad year at Westwind Prep Academy in Phoenix.
In 2013-14, Westwind Prep, which was then coached by UTRGV assistant coach Jai Steadman, fielded several players who went on to compete on the Div. I level, including Smith’s UTRGV teammate Terry Winn III.
“I’ve known those guys since I was 17 or 18,” Smith said. “We had a good relationship and always kept in touch.”
Smith spent a season at the College of Southern Idaho, one of the most-storied programs in junior college basketball. He played well enough to earn a scholarship at Loyola-Chicago. But Smith’s time as a Rambler was filled with ups and downs.
He was mainly a reserve who played in 49 of Loyola’s 64 games during his first two seasons in Chicago. Smith then took a medical redshirt to rehab an ACL injury last season.
“I strained my ACL. It wasn’t a tear, but I had problems on and off with it,” Smith said. “There was some inflammation, so I wanted to make sure my life was OK and get back to a normal, healthy life. My mindset was to get healthy enough to get back on the court and do what I love. This is what I wake up every day wanting to do.”
Smith’s redshirt year coincided with his team becoming one of the most fascinating stories of the college basketball season. The Ramblers were considered as a team on the bubble entering the week before the NCAA Tournament, but they clinched the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.
Fast forward through unforgettable buzzer-beaters, monumental upsets and the meteoric rise of then-98-year-old team chaplain colloquially known as Sister Jean, Loyola-Chicago crashed its way to the 2018 NCAA Men’s Final Four.
“That ride was amazing whether you were on the court or not,” Smith said. “I can’t put into the words that type of feeling or that atmosphere. That type of basketball was probably one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’m proud to be a part of that team and start that culture over there.”
It was at last year’s Final Four in San Antonio where Smith bumped into a familiar face: his old prep school coach Steadman.
“Coach Stead(man) and I always found a way to see each other on the road,” Smith said. “We talked about some things and I thought about how much I enjoyed doing life with him and Terry.”
The relationships formed at a one-year prep school in Arizona helped Smith make UTRGV his final collegiate destination.
“He brings a winning mentality to a program that hasn’t had a lot of winning,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “There’s a leadership quality about him. I talked to (Loyola-Chicago coach) Porter (Moser) and he told me about how hard he competes and how well he shoots the ball. I like those qualities and I felt like we needed those.”
Smith began this season off the bench, but he worked his way into UTRGV’s starting lineup at the end of November. He’s fourth on the team in scoring (9.2 points) and is the club’s top 3-point shooter (33.0 percent).
A Smith 3-pointer late in the second half of UTRGV’s WAC opener at California Baptist put the Vaqueros (9-11, 1-3) in front for good.
“I work on that shot all the time,” Smith said. “To knock it down in a big game tells me that my hard work is paying off. I’ll even say the night Terry had (20 points vs. CBU) was better than the one I had (21 points). A lot of times I’m playing off his energy or Javon (Levi)’s or Lesley (Varner II)’s or Jordan (Jackson). Those guys bring it every night.”
Smith lost his starting spot in December.
“He went into a slump and he lost it,” Hill said. “But he didn’t pout. He came back, kept grinding and he earned it back. I believe in ‘The Earn Policy.’ When you earn something, I reward you with it. He understood and was more comfortable with what we needed from him the second time around.”