Caught in a swarm of reporters, most of whom stood a full foot shorter, Joshua Smith basked in the attention, joking and giggling and eliciting guffaws from the charmed group on Friday afternoon.
Smith will get no less attention from Florida tomorrow.
The way the Gator players and coaches talked about the UCLA freshman center as the two teams met the media in advance of tomorrow’s 11:45 a.m. NCAA Tournament third-round matchup at Tampa’s St. Pete Times Forum, you would have thought they were talking about unicorns.
They haven’t seen a player of Smith’s size and strength, not many have, and they stood in awe.
“He’s a mountain, sure,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of UCLA’s gentle giant. “He’s a freight train. I would say every game that Josh Smith goes into, he has a physical advantage. I don’t think there’s a question about that. He has a physical advantage against everybody he plays against.”
The Gators are expecting a full serving of Smith – that’s seconds or thirds compared to anyone else – and they should be expecting it early.
Smith started in the Bruins’ 78-76 win over Michigan State on Thursday night in the second round, his first start since UCLA’s 63-52 loss at USC on Jan. 9. Smith had 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, added three rebounds and two steals and had a monstrous block on Spartan center Adreian Payne that Donovan singled out specifically.
UCLA head coach Ben Howland said he finally realized after the team’s crushing 76-59 loss to Oregon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament that Smith had seemingly overcome his foul issues and that the Bruins needed to set the tone early.
Talk about a hearty breakfast.
“I just want to get off to a good start,” Howland said of the Bruins, who raced to a 42-24 halftime advantage against Michigan State only to eke out the two-point win. “He is one of our five best players. He should be our starting center. I just thought it was the right thing to do.”