One of the biggest reasons New Hampshire saw a resurgence last season was thanks to the development of Jaleen Smith.
After averaging 5.3 ppg as a freshman, he started every game and averaged 10.7 ppg in his second season. Now he ranks second on the team in scoring (12.8 ppg) and leads the team in assists, steals and three-pointers made.
However recently, the 6’4” junior said he has started to treat the end of this season with a sense of urgency, one that a senior might have.
“I’m just playing just like with like desperation now, so I’m just thinking each game like it’s my last,” Smith said.
The junior has become the Wildcats’ most dynamic scoring guard over the course of the last two seasons. His game helped lift New Hampshire to the America East Playoff semifinals and earned a spot on the All-Tournament team, but Smith knew he wanted to work on improving his 33% three-point field goal percentage from last season.
“I think that really helped me, the criticism of my shot, like when like if I’m not jumping high enough or if my head is moving. That really helped me a lot and then we have (director of basketball operations) Matt Miller on staff, so that helps a lot too.”
Head coach Bill Herrion has admired how Smith has become a quiet leader, leading by example, but right after their first cycle of round robin ended, Herrion had a conversation with Smith on his future.
“He’s a great kid and I think he’s a very unselfish player and he tries to get a lot of his teammates involved, which is good, but I think he can score more,” Herrion said. “I think he can give us more offensive production.”
Last season the Wildcats made 37% of their three-pointers, but they were almost dependent on the outside shot to tie a school-record 19 wins. However, this season they are taking fewer three’s, taking the third least amount of three’s in league play.
“We’re really kind of an inside out basketball team right now,” Herrion said. “I think what’s got to happen though is I think we need more perimeter help because teams down the stretch are going to really really gang up on our inside guys. I think it’s going to open up a lot of perimeter stuff and we’re going to need more help offensively on the perimeter.”
That’s where Smith comes in and where Herrion keeps giving the junior confidence to have the ball in his hands.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Smith said. “I mean not many coaches in America tell you you’re going to have the ball in your hands, just make plays, that’s what they basically told me at the beginning of this year. I just accepted it and took it head on.”
Since then he has, scoring a career-high 23 points in their win over Bryant in November and delivered 21 in their win over UMBC.
They sit just one game above Vermont in the America East standings, but through suspensions, the Wildcats have yet to find themselves and could still finish strong down the stretch to maintain a lock on a top three seed.
“We just have a long way to go,” Smith said. “I mean we’re still in the hunt, but we still got room to grow.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.