FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Sophomore Austin Smith originally signed out of high school with Liberty more than 1,800 miles away in Lynchburg, Va. One year later, he transferred to Northern Arizona to be closer to his Tucson hometown. He can't get much closer Thursday when his new team plays at Arizona at 7:30 p.m. at the McKale Center.
"The main reason I transferred here was to get closer to my family," said Smith, who played his prep ball at Tucson's Ironwood Ridge and originally signed and played at Liberty. "That is what I have done. I am happy about that. I love the school. I love the guys. I could not ask for more."
The game can be heard on 105.1 FM The Big Talker and seen on Fox Sports Net Arizona.
"I am a huge Wildcat fan," said Smith. "My father went to UA and my brother is going to UA. My cousin played football there. We have a lot of strong roots at UA and I have always been a diehard UA fan. It will be fun to go down there and play them."
Smith played for Coach Brian Peabody and led Ironwood Ridge to the 2008 4A Arizona State Championship, earning MVP honors at the state championship game. Smith was named second team all-state, first team all-southern Arizona and runner-up player of the year in southern Arizona, He averaged 18.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals per game as a senior, earning team MVP honors.
He sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules and has seen action in each of the first 10 games this season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.6 rebounds.
Smith returns to his hometown Thursday with 17 friends and family scheduled to attend the game.
"Hopefully, I get them tickets," said Smith. "My whole family wants to go."
Smith and NAU will take on an 8-2 Arizona team coming off a 22-point loss against BYU in Salt Lake City on Saturday. UA struggled offensively from the start, connecting on 28.1 percent of its shots from the field and committing seven turnovers in the first half before playing nearly even in the second.
"It is a team I have been voting in the USA Today Coaches poll all season long before this week," said Head Coach Mike Adras, who is a voter for the national poll. "I think they are a terrific team and they are one of the top three teams in the Pac-10 Conference. Everyone knows how well they play in Tucson. It is a very good team at home and they are probably ticked off from the way they played their last game. There are lot of things I am concerned about going into the ball game."
First and foremost is defending against Derrick Williams, who is the only Wildcat averaging double figures at 19.5 points per game. He is shooting 65 percent from the floor and has made 10-of-14 three-point attempts this season.
"That will be a battle," said Smith of defending Williams. "Help defense will be important. When I am at the four, I will have to play help defense all the time. When I am playing the five I will rely on help defense. It will be interesting to see how we play against them."
Adras agrees it will be a tough assignment against the preseason pick by the Sporting News to be the Pac-10 Player of the Year.
"He is terrific," said Adras of Williams. "He has added the outside game to his repertoire. He can shoot the three and a season ago he did not have that. He is a good offensive rebounder and is good around the basket. Now he can face up and do things. He has an all-around game that I don't know if we can put one guy on him to try and stop him all night. It will be a collective thing."
Smith is coming off a solid game at USC in which he had seven rebounds, which boasted a huge inside presence. He is averaging six points and six rebounds over the last three games.
"Give him a lot of credit," said Adras. "The stakes were big and he was playing against some big boys out there. It was great to see his performance battling for some offensive rebounds and getting some rebounds for us.
The game with Arizona is officially called the Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic. Long considered one of the finest in-season events in college basketball, the Fiesta Bowl Basketball Classic is in its 26th year. For the first 21 years, the event was a four-team tournament that regularly featured some of the nation's best programs. From 1985-2005, Arizona won 20 of 21 championships, losing only the 2000 title game, 75-74, to Mississippi State. The format was changed in 2006 to a one-game showcase that has spotlighted Memphis, San Diego State, Kansas, BYU, and this season, Northern Arizona.