MADISON – When Wisconsin’s practice is nearing its conclusion, head coach Greg Gard will usually make the players line up for free throw shooting. And when Gard tells the players to line up from oldest to youngest, Jordan Smith never has the battle through traffic at the front of the line.
“I’ve stepped into that role of the old guy who has been around the block and knows the ropes,” said Smith, with a smile.
Wisconsin has put its seniors in the spotlight during the final home game in recent years, being escorted out to center court by their closest supporters to a rousing ovation, getting a framed jersey and enjoying a video tribute after the game.
When the Badgers (18-10, 10-5 Big Ten) host Michigan (20-9, 10-6) Sunday, nobody knows the protocol because Smith will be the first lone honoree at Wisconsin since 1996-97 (Paul Grant).
“It’s going to be so weird,” said Smith. “I’ve never seen that before at any senior day anywhere.”
Not only was this the first time in 15 season that Wisconsin hasn’t had at least one senior starter, this year marked the first time in the Bo Ryan/Gard era where the Badgers didn’t have at least one scholarship senior.
That wasn’t by design, of course. Wisconsin signed four prospects in the 2011 class and added Smith as a walk-on, but he’s the only one remaining after Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky graduated last year after not redshirt, George Marshall transferred to South Dakota State and Jarrod Uthoff left for Iowa.
And when Sam Dekker – the only initial scholarship player in the 2012 class – left for the N.B.A. following his junior year, Smith knew the spotlight was going to be shown only on him.
But while there’s a chance he won’t log any minutes on Sunday (he’s played five games and scored two points in a total of seven minutes this year), Smith’s fingerprints are all over the roster – from the work he’s done on the scout team simulating opposing team’s personnel to helping guide and mentor Wisconsin’s throng of first-year players.
“We have so many young guys – we have five true freshman and two guys who just joined the team, so really seven freshmen,” said Smith. “It’s been beneficial for me from a leadership standpoint to be able to step up and do that. And also for them because they can come to me, whether it’s about basketball or anything else, because I’ve been through it all.”
Although Wisconsin was signing two guards in 2011, the Badgers still wanted to add more depth in the backcourt. Gard’s recruiting connections in Minnesota run deep and he had a good relationship at Smith’s Orono High School after recruiting alumnus Jon Leuer. Gard was intrigued by Smith’s raw skill set (he was the school all-time leading scorer), perimeter game (career 47 percent) and team leader (Class AAA championship his senior year) and took a chance on him that has paid off.
“He’s had more experience around here in terms of the locker room and the culture than anybody,” said Gard. “From that standpoint, just his presence has helped a lot. Obviously the job he does on the scout team, I wish I had more nonconference opportunities to get him in, somehow, someway. He’s really improved. He’s come so far athletically. He was a slow, catch-and-shoot-only guy when he first got here. Now he has the ability to put the ball on the floor. His progression here has been remarkable.”
Like many walk-ons, Smith’s highlights on the court are few. He’s appeared in 36 games dating back to 2011 but has played more than two minutes only 10 times. His career high is five points from his true freshman season but is only 2-for-13 during his career.
While he opportunities to play at the division 2 schools and had an D-1 offer from Saint Louis, Smith doesn’t regret for one minute being a part of a program that has gone 131-44 over the last five years, won a pair of conference titles and made back-to-back Final Fours.
“This has been everything I could ask for,” said Smith. “Wisconsin is a perpetual Sweet 16 team. You know you’re going to make the tournament every year. To have the potential to do that and have that realized is a dream come true and more than I could ever expect coming in.”
Winners of nine of the last 10, Wisconsin has gone from a team that few expected to extend its N.C.A.A. tournament streak to 18 straight seasons to one that is again considered a darkhorse to make a deep run in March.
That’s the reason Smith calls his final season the most rewarding, even more so than the Badgers’ Final Four runs the last two years, and would be better than any minutes he might get during his final game on the home court.
“It means a ton,” said Smith. “As a team we expect to be there. We have from the beginning. That’s not a silly goal because that’s what we expect. To have everything go up and down and have a string where we didn’t play very well, Coach Gard comes in and turns things around very quick and we get back to the ‘old’ Wisconsin ways, that’s really something we’re going to be proud of at the end of the year.”