Ohio State title dream still alive for Zion native Smith

Ohio State title dream still alive for Zion native Smith
November 2, 2013, 8:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Lenzelle Smith Jr. has unfinished business.

As an 18-year-old, Smith, a senior playing basketball at Zion-Benton High School in the northern suburbs of Chicago, picked Ohio State. And he did it mostly because of who would be joining him in Columbus.

Buckeyes coach Thad Matta landed a six-man recruiting bonanza that season, and the group, including Smith, established the goal of winning a national championship.

"As seniors, if we would have still been together, I think we would've been hands down the best team in college basketball," Smith said at Big Ten basketball media day earlier this week. "That would have been me, Aaron (Craft) as seniors, Jared Sullinger still here as a senior, Deshaun Thomas still here as a senior, Jordan Sibert, J.D. Weatherspoon. That's six guys coming in, and in our senior year I feel like we would've been a force to shock college basketball.

"I think that's pretty much what sold me, I was looking bigger picture down the road. Obviously, you don't take it into account that guys would've been leaving early. You want to get in, and what can you accomplish at the college level? I thought, with the guys that I was coming in with, I thought everybody wouldn't be satisfied until they won a national championship, which is kind of why I swayed (toward Ohio State). I didn't want to go play with guys that only think about getting themselves to the NBA because that's no fun in college. That's a buzzkill."

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The more notable "buzzkills" among that class include Sullinger, now playing in the NBA for the Boston Celtics, and Thomas, drafted earlier this year by the San Antonio Spurs. Smith and Craft, the two remaining Buckeyes, have come close in their three years, reaching the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and the Final Four. That leaves one more level to reach, of course, and Smith is happy that he's fortunate to still have an opportunity to accomplish that goal he set as an 18-year-old.

"A lot of guys don't have that opportunity at all, but I was fortunate enough to still be left with Aaron, one of the guys I came in here with. And as seniors, I think it's a great opportunity for us," Smith said. "We've been to the Final Four, we've been to the Sweet Sixteen, we've been to the Elite Eight. The only thing we haven't done yet is win a national championship, and I think out of Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen, Final Four, the only way to go is up and that's to the national championship. I think that would be a great thing for us.

"It's a great feeling. It's not very likely in life that you set a goal and you're able to stick to it because life hands you so many bad cards. And trying to play a straight hand with bad cards, it could be disastrous. I think me being able to stick to this plan that I've had ever since I graduated high school, it's a blessing in itself and it's a great opportunity for me."

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Though he lives in Columbus, Smith always tries to keep a connection to his hometown of Chicago through friends and family. He said social media helps him keep his finger on the pulse of what's going on back home, and frequent visits from his parents certainly help, too.

"My mom and dad, they've done a pretty good job of coming up. And any game that they can make it to, any time they can come and see me, I see them a lot," Smith said. "We don't have many breaks to be able to go back home and see my family. But through social media, I can talk to people back home, I'm able to keep grips on home a lot."

In the end, though, this senior season for Smith will be all about that unfinished business. The Buckeyes could very well be in the hunt again with another strong group led by Craft and Smith. If the Buckeyes do reach college basketball's ultimate plateau, don't expect Smith to be modest when it comes to the guys who left Ohio State behind.

"If we're able to pull that off this year, those guys that did leave early, I think we get to wear our rings proudly and rub it in their face a little bit."