Smothers' impact evident at Niagara

Bryan Smothers

Niagara's size this season, or lack thereof, is well documented.

The Purple Eagles have played three straight games without a player taller than 6-foot-6, winning a pair last week at home over Canisius and Monmouth.

Head coach Greg Paulus has gotten all kinds of praise as his team, which was picked to finish 10th in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason coaches poll, sits in a tie for fifth place with six games to go. NU has displayed a smart, aggressive style very much in the image of the former Duke guard.

But Paulus isn't the only former scrapper on the Niagara bench. Assistant coach Bryan Smothers, a 5-9 guard during his playing days at Division II Wayne State, adds a very similar voice.

Smothers, a native of Pontiac, Michigan, was inducted into Wayne State's Hall of Fame on Saturday. He finished his career as just the second player in program history to record 1,100 points, 300 assists and 300 rebounds.

"It was really awesome," said Smothers, who grew up in Pontiac, Michigan — 30 minutes from Wayne State's Detroit campus. "And I think it was one of those things that, for my teammates and my coaches and my family, I think it was something that was also really important for them to be able to be there and kind of look at what we were all apart of."

Smothers spent seven years at Wayne State — four playing, two as a student assistant coach and one more as a graduate assistant. He then moved on to Michigan, spending five seasons as a graduate manager and then video analyst under Burt native John Beilein.

Not a bad start to a coaching career.

"The time spent there was priceless," said the soft-spoken Smothers. "The opportunity to learn from him and really a lot of the other great coaches — some of those guys have went on to be head coaches at this point or really top assistants. So just really honored to work with him and all of those coaches and learn from them. I think I could not have been more prepared for this opportunity."

When Patrick Beilein took over at Niagara, Smothers was one of his first hires, along with fellow assistant coach Brett Ervin. While Beilein worked to integrate his father's famous two-guard system, Smothers would focus primarily on the defensive end.

Beilein's abrupt resignation in late October obviously shook things up, but to its credit, the NU staff has settled in nicely under Paulus.

"Basketball is basketball," Smothers said. "And I think the one thing that's been consistent has been basketball, the ability to continue to work with our guys and help develop them and prepare them for the season.

"They're fun to be around. We got a good bunch that want to be coached, that listen, that are all those really good things. Through whatever, I just think it is really good to be around our guys every day and in our coaching staff. We all have really good relationships."

Smothers' impact has been evident in a few Niagara wins. Three times this season a NU guard has made a one-on-one stop during a crucial late possession that led to a win.

After hitting the tying 3-pointer Jan. 17 against Rider, Justin Roberts hustled back to get in position to force a Stevie Jordan miss, setting up Marcus Hammond's buzzer-beater.

Shandon Brown forced Canisius' Malik Johnson into a turnover when the Griffs had a chance to tie last Wednesday, leading to Roberts' insurance layup. Brown made a similar play Sunday against Monmouth, stripping George Papas and going the other way for the tying layup with 2:28 to play.

"We all sort of pitch in and give our information, our thoughts," said Smothers, who was quick to share credit. "Everything that we really do is really collaborative, and Coach Paulus has the final say in all decisions. But my eye tends to focus more on the defensive side of the ball and trying to come up with different ideas." 

It certainly sounds like the players are benefiting from their former all-conference defensive team coach.

"Bryan had a great career, and I think his recognition with the hall of fame certainly speaks to that," Paulus said. "He did whatever he had to do to get the team to win. ... You can see his competitiveness; he still jumps in in practice, will challenge the guys, guard them, go at them on the defensive end."

Niagara (9-16, 7-7 MAAC) is in Connecticut to take on Fairfield (10-15, 6-8) tonight.


Paulus addressed his team's lack of size with his second 2020-21 commit.

Touba Traore, a 6-11 forward prepping at the Massanutten Military Academy in Virginia, tweeted his commitment Thursday evening.

The Mali native lost a season of high school after breaking a patella in November 2018.

He set a post-grad team record earlier this season with 14 blocks in a game and also held an offer from Hampton.

Traore joins Rochester guard Tah'Jae Hill in Paulus' first recruiting class, with one open scholarship remaining.

Paulus was not allowed to comment on either commitment due to NCAA rules.


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