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Jerry Sullivan: Ikenna is smart and a true student-athlete

BOISE, Idaho – When he first arrived at UB four years ago, Ikenna Smart used to keep a photo of his parent’s modest rural home in Nigeria on the screen of his cell phone. He told people that he wanted it there to keep him humble, and to remind him how far he had come.

Smart has indeed come a long way since leaving Umuahia, an agricultural city of about 400,000 in the southeast corner of Nigeria, to live with a host family and play high school basketball in North Carolina when he was 16 years old.

The 6-10 junior is the only Bull to be part of all three NCAA Tournament teams, and he will graduate in May with a dual major in geography and international trade. He’s engaged to Jillian Michael, an Orchard Park native who met Ikenna when she was on the women’s rowing squad at UB. She’s living in North Carolina.

Could Smart be a more fitting surname? At a time when the FBI is looking into corruption and possible payoffs in college basketball (including UB’s first-round opponent, Arizona), Smart is a shining example of what the college student-athlete is supposed to be about, a player who values academics above all else.

“It’s always a dream when you’re a basketball player to get to the NBA,” Smart said Wednesday. “That was my dream, but it wasn’t my number one. To me, it was about getting an education and getting a better opportunity in life. From the jump, I knew my academics were very important and I took that very seriously.”

Smart was never a big pro prospect. He has undergone two back surgeries since coming to UB. His numbers haven’t improved over the years. He’s averaging 3.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 13-14 minutes a game. But he starts every game, and coach Nate Oats considers him a vital cog both on and off the court.

Over three games in the MAC Tournament last week, Smart played 33 minutes and had 17 points (on 7 of 9 shooting), with 10 rebounds and two blocks. He’s productive when he’s out there. Those would be fine stats over one full game.

Smart said he understands his role and has no resentment about playing time. Oats said the other players tease Smart about being the old man of the group. He’s 22, but carries himself with the air of a more experienced man.

“He wants to get a master’s,” Oats said. “When you’ve got a program with a lot of unselfish kids, there’s got to be somebody who sets the tone. He’s not our best player, but he sets the tone in all the meetings. The chemistry and togetherness of this group are unbelievable, the best I’ve ever coached, and he’s a big reason.”

You gain a certain perspective when you leave home at 16 years old, leaving behind a large extended family for the promise of a good education in the U.S. and a college hoop career. Smart settled in Greensboro, N.C., with Nick and Cinda Purrington, who had three kids of their own but treated him like their own.

Smart’s brother, Osinachi, followed him to Greensboro, where he also lived with the Purringtons, and is a freshman at Charleston, which also made the NCAA field this season. Last spring, Ikenna returned home with Osinachi to Nigeria for the first time since coming to America six years ago.

Remember the photo of the house on the Smart phone? He never forgot what it was like as a boy, trying to find sneakers to wear for a basketball game. Ikenna had been collecting used basketball shoes for the last several years. His brother followed suit; they brought about 90 pair to Africa to hand out to needy kids at a clinic.

You see, Smart has a mature perspective on what it means to be a privileged college athlete in America. A lot of gifted kids see the game as a means to a pro career and wealth, and studies as an inconvenience. Some, aware that adults are getting rich off their talents at the highest level, are looking to get paid along the way.

For Smart, a power forward with limited offensive skills and a balky back, college ball was a vehicle to a larger dream.
“I understand that nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “You could blow your knee out. Anything can happen at any time. What do you have as a backup? People have to think about that. This could be taken away from you, just like that.

“I’m going to try to get into business,” he said. “I’d like to work with a country that deals with international matters. The world is changing. It’s becoming so globalized. I’d like to be with any company I could get into that goes overseas.”

Smart has one year of eligibility after this one. But he won’t be playing for the Bulls next season. He’ll be moving to Greensboro to live with Jillian and go to grad school. He’s hoping to play one last season with a college in North Carolina. As a graduate in good standing, he can play as a transfer without sitting out a year.

First, there’s the matter of Arizona, and its phenomenally talented 7-1 freshman, DeAndre Ayton, who is seen as the best center to come along since Shaquille O’Neal and the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Ayton also represents the more mercenary side of the sport. If not for the NBA’s “one and done” rule, which prevents players from being drafted until a year after their high school senior class graduates, Ayton would almost surely be in the league.

Arizona’s recruitment of Ayton has been part of a wider FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. An ESPN report, which contained some dubious details, claimed that Ayton was offered $100,000 to play a year with the Wildcats.

The real story hasn’t come out yet. But anyone who saw Ayton dominate the Pac-12 tourney knows that Ayton would be worth bending the rules for. But Smart, who will square off against the best player in the nation at the start of Thursday night’s game, is far from intimidated.

“I’m not worried,” Smart said. “This guy was playing high school basketball a couple of months ago. You know what I mean? I’ve been in college for four years. He’s still a freshman; it doesn’t matter how talented he is or how tall he is. If I can make him uncomfortable, that’s going to get him out of his place.

“And that’s my goal, to make him uncomfortable.”

UB's Ikenna Smart on Arizona star DeAndre Ayton: 'He's still a freshman'

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