Watch any game during the NCAA tournament, and you'll be impressed by the skills of some guy you've never heard of who's nailing threes, dominating the paint, controlling the tempo or locking down the other team's star. Chances are this player grew up ballin' as much as he could all the way through high school. In a pick up game, he's the guy you point toward the rim and actually complete an alley-oop. He's the one that casually swooped in on girls you'd piss your pants talking to. He probably got a scholarship to play in college. He's the BMOC, and the NCAA tournament most likely represents the highest level of competition he'll ever face.
Meet Travis Smith. In the same season Melo was boosting his draft stock and getting ready to carry the Orange to national championship status before entering arguably the best NBA draft class in history, Travis Smith was the starting point guard on the University of San Diego basketball team. A member of the West Coast Conference and certainly not a standout when it comes to storied basketball franchises, the Toreros were wrapping up an above average season (highlighted by a road win at 13th-ranked UCLA). Like most mid-major teams, their real shot of securing a bid to the Big Dance was winning their conference championship game. USD pulled off an upset against highly favored Gonzaga, and earned their spot in the top 64. As a #13 seed, they had a 21.43% chance of defeating #4 seed Stanford in the first round. Only five #13 seeds in history have made it to the Sweet Sixteen. None have ever won the national championship.
We caught up with Travis to learn a bit more about experiencing March Madness firsthand from the underdog's point of view. The rosters at Duke or Kentucky are used to playing on national TV against soon-to-be NBA draft prospects. They're expected to advance to the Final Four, to hit big shots when the game's on the line. But guys like Travis were not McDonald's All-Americans. He had no serious hopes of playing in the NBA. He proudly represents the tournament's everyman.
OK, let’s get right into it. The NCAA tournament seems to almost rival the World Cup in terms of popularity, at least in the US. How do you think it got to be so big? The connection to academic institutions?
Who doesn’t love March Madness?! I don't know if it's about filling out a bracket, or if it just gives everyone an opportunity to have some sort of rooting interest. I mean, I didn't even watch that much college basketball this year and I'm already really excited about the Final Four. Whether someone has or knows someone that has participated in the tournament, if their school is playing, or if it's someone’s mom who has no idea what she's filling out, everyone gets to participate and root for his or her picks.
You actually got to experience the madness first hand.
Yeah. We won the WCC Championship in 2003, which gave us an automatic bid into the tournament.
How special was that moment for your team?
That was a huge moment. We had returned a bunch of seniors, and there was a lot of pressure on our coach, Brad Holland, who played on the Lakers and had a pretty memorable career at UCLA. I was a freshman on the team, and we had a transfer from Oklahoma State named Jason Keep. He had sat out a year and was a kind of a dominant center, a focal player in the conference that year. It was nice that we were able to beat Gonzaga in the WCC conference finals. That gave us the birth to play Stanford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. So those were both huge moments.
Had you lost against Gonzaga, would you have received an at-large bid?
We wouldn't have gone to the tournament if we hadn't beaten Gonzaga. That's pretty much how the WCC is. Our strength of schedule isn’t good enough most of the time. It was cool to beat them and obviously a huge deal for our school, alumni, the athletic department and all of our students to get that national recognition.
What did you do that night after that game?
We went out! We partied! [laughs] We all got together, went out and celebrated the victory. But, we also knew that if we stayed focused we had a really good chance to get past Stanford in the first round. We thought we had a good game plan and the right players to actually compete at that level.
"We were in our team bus, and we had the police motorcade escorting us to the gym from our hotel. Needless to say that never happens in our conference."
Partying in San Diego sounds pretty good right about now. Was that the same year you beat UCLA?
Yeah, I had a leg injury that occurred about halfway through the year, so my playing time was dramatically reduced. As a result of that injury, and a little bit of the freshman blues, they ended up starting all five seniors toward the end of the season. I started against UCLA though, and played about 30 minutes in that game. It was a huge win for us cause they were ranked 13th in the country at the time. So for me, coming out as a freshman, playing with four seniors, and beating a ranked team in their building was a big deal. Also for our coach, who played at UCLA.
What was the game plan there, and how did it compare to the games against Gonzaga and eventually Stanford?
The big name player on that team was Jason Kapono. So he was the guy that we really had to stop. I mean, they had a couple other really good players as well, but he was the big one. We had a really good defensive wing player named Corey Belser, and he was the guy that would shutdown, if you will, the other team’s best player. So I think that's always key, to really stall or stymie the other team’s best player and just go out and try to play as a team.
Gotta love a good stopper! Anyway, what was the atmosphere like on campus between the Gonzaga game and the Stanford game?
Everyone was pumped! I mean, we're a small private Catholic school. I think we have something like 6,000 undergrads. It's a close-knit community. As a mid-major, it helped put our university a little bit more on the map. It was huge for the basketball program and all the seniors who had worked really hard for four years to get in that position. Anytime you're able to go to the tournament you can leverage that into recruiting better talent for the program. But all the students were pumped, and it just gave everybody an excuse to have a good time! [laughs]
What did your coach say to you before the game?
Just savor every moment, and leave it all on the court. That was something he always emphasized. Don’t feel like you could’ve done this or that differently, just play hard on every play.
What was your biggest concern against Stanford?
I thought we had a really good opportunity to beat them. They had a guy named Josh Childress, who would go on to play in the NBA. He was their big player. Then another guy, I forget his first name... last name was Lee. We hung tough the whole game, and were ahead with a couple minutes to play. Our main guy actually didn't have that great of a game. I think if he had gone out and played how he normally had played throughout the year, we would have beat Stanford. He just didn't have a good game.
Obviously your goal was to win the game, but was there any sense of accomplishment or feelings that you were just happy to be there?
I'll never forget it. We were in our team bus, and we had the police motorcade escorting us to the gym from our hotel. Needless to say that never happens in our conference. So you definitely felt a little bit of that stardom. It was an exciting moment from start to finish. We didn't win, but at the same time I think everyone tried to embrace the moment. You try to soak it all up and enjoy every moment of it because you never know if you're going to be back. During my time at USD we never got back to that point. The team actually did make it back to the tournament in 2008 and beat UConn in the first round.
I remember that.
I wasn't part of that team, but I did play with some of those guys. Was super happy for them.
Was playing in the NBA ever an expectation, or goal, of yours?
No, no. Not for me. My whole deal in high school was to get a scholarship to play in college, which I did. But I knew what my limitations were, and I didn't think I had what it took to get to that next level. When I was playing in college, I could see those certain players that just had something I knew wasn't going to be attainable for me. It's one thing to differentiate yourself from high school players, but once you get to college, that's a whole other step. Those guys I played against that did go on to the NBA, it was very obvious why they were going there. Jason Kapono, Josh Childress, even Adam Morrison when I was a senior. I think he was the third or fourth draft pick, wasn't he?
I think so, although he never panned out.
I don't even know if he's still in the NBA. If he is, he's fallen off the map. But he was legit!
Great mustache, too.
How did your participation in the tournament affect your post-basketball life?
Well, I'll always have those memories, and that's something nobody can take away from me. To be able to always draw from that experience is great. I do have a really positive relationship with the university in general. I loved my experience at USD. I still talk to coach Holland. It was a great college experience to be part of the athletics program.
Any predictions for the tournament this year?
I think it's wide open. Honestly, I don't really follow it that much. I haven't even looked at a bracket yet. Definitely going to do that today. But I have no predictions at this point [laughs].
What do you think of Gonzaga being a number one seed?
They're really solid! Their bigs are tough, that one guy with the long hair. It's just that it is so wide open. For me, I hate Gonzaga after years of competing against them. But on the other hand, they do represent our conference, so it would be exciting to see them go all the way.
Coming from a mid-major, do you always kind of find yourself rooting for the small schools?
Yeah, I would say so. I'm really rooting for anyone that ever comes out of our conference. First and foremost obviously comes my university, but then it's always about our conference. I'd love to see Gonzaga or St. Mary's go as far as they can. And of course I identify with other mid-majors, just because it's a whole different dynamic that I can relate to. They’re underdogs.
Travis Smith lives in Orange County, CA, and works alongside his father as a financial advisor at Meryl Lynch. He occasionally hoops it up with his two brothers (one also played Division 1 basketball, and the other has a pretty decent jump shot). He still enjoys throwing down some strong dunks for fun.