The big ‘O’

Sean Joseph

Junior guard overcomes adversity to help win MAC

Junior guard Omni Smith transferred to Kent State from junior college at the beginning of the season and has become one of the Flashes’ leading guards. MELISSA GAUG | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Omni Smith, the Omnipotent, O, Oscino, O-dogg.

Whatever people call him, the junior guard’s game has come full circle in the past year, and he now looks to help lead the Kent State men’s basketball team to a Mid-American Conference Championship this weekend.

Smith said a year ago, he had barely heard of Kent State and wasn’t 100 percent sure where it was. Last season, he played for Eastfield College, a junior college in Mesquite, Texas near Dallas.

And a year before that, right out of high school, Smith stayed home, worked and played basketball every day where he grew up on the westside of Chicago.

Chris Johnson, Eastfield’s basketball coach at the time, was scouting another player at a playground in Chicago when he saw Smith. He asked a few people about him, approached him and gave him an opportunity to play basketball in Texas.

Smith, who was not attending school at the time, said he jumped at the chance to play on the collegiate level.

But his career at Eastfield was short lived. NCAA infractions involving illegal student-athlete housing and scholarships suspended the junior college’s season after 10 games.

But Smith didn’t give up. Johnson took him around to basketball camps in Texas and Oklahoma, where his talent was eventually discovered. Last summer, an owner of one of the camps got scouts interested in Smith and eventually Kent State noticed him.

Smith first visited Kent State last summer to meet some of the team members and coaching staff, but he said the attention he was getting from Division-I schools was somewhat intimidating.

“I was nervous about visiting here because I didn’t know about Kent State, and I was really falling in love with Texas and liked it a lot,” Smith said. “But I wanted to come closer to home with family and friends, and the visit felt so good. From day one when I stepped onto campus, it just felt right.”

Senior guard Jay Youngblood gave Smith someone to relate to, since he had come from junior college the year before. The two talked a lot about the transition to D-I, and Smith said Youngblood has helped him stay focused this year.

Now, Smith is averaging almost 9 points and playing about 23 minutes per game. He has appeared on the starting lineup a few times and is usually the first player off the bench for the Flashes. Smith scored a career-high 24 points when he played 25 minutes against Ball State Jan. 11. More recently, Smith scored 21 points and made 4-of-6 3-pointers in Kent State’s come-from-behind victory against Miami Feb. 25.

Smith, who is the youngest of four children, was raised alone by his mother, an elementary school teacher in Chicago. He said he never really knew his father, and college would not have been an option without basketball.

“I came from a lot of adversity,” Smith said. “I want to be here. I’m not at Kent because someone said to come here or because my mom made me. When people see me, I want them to know how hard I’ve worked to be here.”

To some, Smith’s partial season at a junior college wouldn’t seem worth moving across the country to play basketball, but Smith said he would do it again.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Smith said. “(Playing at Eastfield) was the best time of my life, besides now. They taught me to play basketball there. I only played 10 games in one season, so coach had to teach me a lot for a D-I team to notice me.”

Smith, along with the rest of his teammates, is gearing up for what they hope will be a run for the MAC Championship and an NCAA Tournament berth. And he feels this is the best shot he’s had in his career to win a championship.

“I feel hungry,” Smith said. “We gotta have one-game winning streaks. We can’t look past anyone, and just take it one game at a time.”

Contact men’s basketball reporter Sean Joseph at [email protected]