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

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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.

MORE: How college bench players hype up their team in empty arenas

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.”

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.

“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.

MORE: NCAA files trademark for “Mask Madness”

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.

“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.”

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Coach K belittles Duke student reporter instead of examining own flailing team

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Coach K belittles Duke student reporter instead of examining own flailing team

Maybe what Mike Krzyzewski didn’t like was the challenge to his authority by a journalist.

Because he shouldn’t have been upset about the question, which was absolutely fair under the circumstances. And he shouldn’t have cared about the age of Duke Chronicle reporter Jake Piazza, who as an independent scribe had every right to be there. So perhaps when he unleashed his snark-filled response to the student reporter Saturday night after Duke lost 70-65 to Louisville and fell to 5-5 this season, he was just upset someone would confront his failure so directly.

It’s a mindset found consistently in the college ranks, where the heads of basketball and football programs double as university deities in many parts of the country.

“I’m just curious as to what the next step forward is for the team as you guys move into another week of basketball,” the reporter asked Coach K on a virtual news conference not long after Duke had turned the ball over 15 times while dishing just seven assists.

Not the most incisive query, to be sure, but one worth putting forward as Duke continues its worst start to a season in decades.

It was enough for Krzyzewski to dig in.

“Why don’t we just evaluate this game?” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not into what our next step forward is right now. We just finished a hard-fought game. What’s your major? What’s your major at Duke? What’s your hardest class?”

When the reporter answered that he was an economics major, Krzyzewski continued, “OK, say you just had the toughest econ test in the world, and when you walked out, somebody asked you, ‘What’s your next step?’ You see what I mean? Do you have some empathy? Just give us time to evaluate this game and we’ll figure it out, just like we always try to do.”

MORE: Auburn’s Sharife Cooper on an outrageous five-game streak

Coaches say far worse things to young interviewers — hazing rituals often target the most anxious and inexperienced questioners. It doubles as a sort of “test” from coach to reporter.

But what’s the point of the intimidation tactic? Why do the very people tasked with guiding the lives of teenage athletes — and who work those players as if they were paid pros — think it’s reasonable to belittle journalists of any stripe?

In the end, the exchange between Coach K and the Duke Chronicle reporter probably served as a different type of learning experience than intended. Rather than discourage tough questions, Krzyzewski shattered the illusion of his own infallibility. Now the writer knows the people he covers are not worth the pedestal many place them on, and that when he touches a nerve with a probe, it’s a sign he might be on the right track.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know how Duke plans to avoid its first NCAA Tournament miss since 1995.

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Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 live fight updates, results, highlights from UFC 257

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Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 live fight updates, results, highlights from UFC 257

The highly anticipated return of Conor McGregor is set to take place Saturday night (Sunday morning local time) when the former two-division champion meets old rival Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.

A lot has changed since McGregor stopped Poirier in the first round more than six years ago at UFC 178. McGregor became the biggest star in the UFC while also becoming the first fighter to hold world titles in two divisions simultaneously. Poirier, meanwhile, built himself back up with marquee wins over Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway, Dan Hooker and Justin Gaethje while also claiming the interim UFC lightweight title.

MORE: McGregor poised to become the best version of himself after finding calm amid chaos

Aside from their accomplishments, both McGregor and Poirier have seen their lives change outside the Octagon. Both have become fathers and are now fighting for more than just themselves. 

Unlike their first meeting, there has been no bad blood; McGregor appears to have put his controversial past behind him and will enter the Octagon as a competitor who has seemingly found a new reason for fighting. Poirier made the mistake of allowing McGregor to get into his head before their first fight; this time, a seasoned and mature fighter will stand across the cage from the sport’s biggest star as he attempts to stake his claim as the best lightweight in the world 

There is a lot at stake in this fight as Khabib Nurmagomedov remains retired. The winner will certainly be near the front of the line for a title opportunity while the loser will fall to the back of the pack.

The co-main event features another pair of lightweights who are jockeying for position in the title picture. Michael Chandler will make his UFC debut against the battle-tested Dan Hooker. Chandler arrives after a stint in Bellator, where he is widely recognized as one of the greatest fighters ever in that organization. Can he prove that he’s worthy of having his name among the best in the UFC, too, or will Hooker turn back the challenge?  

Sporting News is tracking live fight updates and highlights from Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2. Follow below for complete results from UFC 257’s main event and undercard.

MORE: Save over 30% when you buy UFC 257 and an ESPN+ Annual Plan for only $89.98

Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier live updates, highlights from UFC 257

9:41 p.m.: The final fight on the televised prelims is up next and takes place under curious circumstances. Matt Frevola takes on Arman Tsarukyan in a catchweight bout. Frevola was originally set to take on Ottman Azaitar until Azaitar was removed from the card, and the UFC, for violating COVID-19 safety protocols after attempting to sneak a teammate into his hotel room in Abu Dhabi. It was absurd and cost Azaitar his UFC career. Fortunately for Frevola, Tsarukyan needed an opponent after Nasrat Haqparast was removed due to illness. And here we are. 

9:37 p.m.: Brad Tavares earned a decision over Antonio Carlos Junior in middleweight action. The takedown defense from Tavares was impressive as he prevented “Shoeface” from bringing the fight to the canvas. He also showcased some solid counterstriking. That performance is a start for Tavares as he attempts to work his way up the middleweight ladder.  

9:01 p.m.: Just when you thought we were heading to another decision, Pena managed to get McMann’s back in the final round and cinch in a rear-naked choke to earn the submission victory. It’s a win that Pena needed to end a skid as she tries to work her way back into title contention. The best part was that Pena called out Amanda Nunes and accused the champion of “ducking” her. Interesting. 

 

 

8:45 p.m.: Welcome to Sporting News’ coverage of UFC 257: McGregor vs. Poirier 2. As we continue through the prelims, we have had a stretch of three consecutive decisions. Sara McMann and Julianna Pena are up now. Will this fight also be decided by the judges or will Pena or McMann take it out of their hands. 

McGregor vs. Poirier 2 start time

  • Early prelims: 6:30 p.m. ET
  • Prelims: 8 p.m. ET
  • Main card: 10 p.m. ET
  • Live stream: ESPN+

The main card of UFC 257 is scheduled to start at 10 p.m. ET, following the early prelims (6:30 p.m. ET) and preliminaries (8 p.m. ET).

How to watch McGregor vs. Poirier 2 on PPV

  • UFC 257 early prelims TV channel: ESPN+, UFC FIght Pass
  • UFC 257 prelims TV channel: ESPN+, ESPN 2
  • UFC 257 main card channel: ESPN+ (pay-per-view)

The early prelims and preliminaries at UFC 257 are free to watch on ESPN+ for those who are already subscribed to the streaming service. The pay-per-view portion (i.e., the main card) can be purchased for $69.99. New subscribers can pay a bundle price of $89.99, which includes the fight and an annual subscription to ESPN+.

Click here to learn about the different pricing and bundling options with the ESPN+ platform.

UFC 257 fight card

Main card

  • Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier; lightweights
  • Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler; lightweights 
  • Jessica Eye vs. Joanne Calderwood; women’s flyweights 
  • Marina Rodriguez vs. Amanda Ribas; women’s strawweights 
  • Andrew Sanchez vs. Makhmud Muradov; middleweights 

Prelims

  • Matt Frevola vs. Arman Tsarukyan; catchweight (157 pounds)
  • Brad Tavares def. Antonio Carlos Junior via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27 & 29-28) 
  • Julianna Pena def. Sara McMann via 3rd round submission (3:39)
  • Marcin Prachnio def. Khalil Rountree Jr. via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28 & 29-28)

Early prelims

  • Movsar Evloev def. Nik Lentz via split decision (29-28, 29-28 & 28-29)
  • Amir Albazi def. Zhalgas Zhumagulov via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28 & 29-28)

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Matthew Stafford trade rumors, possible destinations: Colts, Patriots, Steelers & more

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Matthew Stafford trade rumors, possible destinations: Colts, Patriots, Steelers & more

Another productive NFL quarterback is on the trade market, expanding the deep pool of available passers this offseason.

Matthew Stafford is reportedly done with the Lions and has requested a move elsewhere, according to multiple reports. He has spent his entire 12-year career in Detroit, but wants the opportunity to return to the playoffs before retirement.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft joins Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz and Tua Tagovailoa as passers potentially set to leave their teams via trade — not to mention the likes of Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton, who hit the open market in free agency. After a healthy 2020 season produced more than 4,000 passing yards and 26 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions, Stafford will be one of the most sought-after options of that group, perhaps behind only Watson in stature.

Several AFC teams seem to be good matches for Stafford, including the Colts, Patriots and Steelers. The 32-year-old — he turns 33 in February — is better suited for a roster able to compete immediately than one needing to execute a multi-year rebuilding plan. ESPN reported Saturday that the Lions would likely receive at least a first-round pick for him.

MORE: Deshaun Watson trade tracker

Stafford is owed $43 million through next season — part of a contract amount that was considered onerous when he first signed, but is now viewed as team-friendly, given escalating payments for quarterbacks around the league and his continuously solid performance.

Below is an overview of where Stafford might be headed once the offseason begins:

Possible trade destinations for Matthew Stafford

Colts

With Philip Rivers retiring, Indianapolis has reason to dip into its cap space for Stafford, who would provide the same steady hand Rivers did during an 11-5 season. The Colts boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the NFL; with the Texans and Jaguars nowhere near contention, they have only the Titans to contend with in the AFC South.

As Stafford ages, having a capable running game to keep defenses from honing in on his arm would be helpful. Rookie sensation Jonathan Taylor, then, would be a crucial ally in his success. Stafford also had to play from behind in Detroit much of the time, an occurrence that would probably be less frequent in Indianapolis.

The Colts aren’t exactly loaded with wide receivers — Michael Pittman Jr. is the only one with obvious upside — but they have enough going on outside for Stafford to feel supported.

Patriots

Just because the Cam Newton era was a dud doesn’t mean New England plans to accept a losing record and high draft pick next year. Eight Patriots players opted out of this past campaign because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but their defense still ranked seventh in points allowed. With the expected returns of Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower to that group, a return to contention isn’t impossible.

Stafford would give the Patriots an exponential offensive lift, though the franchise needs to find more effective receivers than the Jacobi Myers-led corps that floundered in 2020.

Steelers

Stafford would be an exciting replacement for Ben Roethlisberger if the latter retires this offseason. Even if JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves Pittsburgh in free agency, the Steelers’ pass catchers should be among the NFL’s best. It has been a long time since Stafford had a duo with the potential of Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool.

A lack of cap room makes a Stafford trade to Pittsburgh extremely difficult — Roethlisberger alone has a dead cap of $22.25 million and the franchise is projected to be well above its allotted 2021 space — but the potential reward for the franchise, if the money can be worked out, would be immense.

Other landing spots

The 49ers, Dolphins, Panthers, Washington Football Team and Broncos are among the teams that have also been discussed in Stafford trade rumors.

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