Video: Meet the Keenan Raiders
The most valuable lesson Bradley Smith has learned this school year took place outside the classroom.
In mid-October, the Keenan High basketball player was involved in an altercation at the school, and his basketball plans were put on hold as he was required to attend an alternative school for 30 days. Once he was readmitted to Keenan, he was prevented from rejoining the basketball team by the school district.
"It was real hard that I wasn't going to be able to be there for my team," Smith said Monday during the Weekend of Champions news conference. "It was a major step back for me. I learned that you need to think before you do stuff."
Never miss a local story.
The Raiders finally welcomed Smith and fellow senior Jacob Green back from suspension at the midpoint of the region schedule (Green was involved in the same incident). Keenan coach Zach Norris knew it was hard for Smith to sit on the sideline while the Raiders struggled.
Smith was one of the leading scorers on last year's Upper State finalist, and not having him early in the 2009-10 season hurt.
But Norris didn't immediately insert Smith back into the starting lineup.
"He didn't start the first game back because I wanted to see the reaction of the younger kids," Norris said. "But you could see it in practice that it was only a matter of time before we had to put him out there."
Since then, it has been smooth sailing. The Raiders had lost the past two Upper State finals to Southside, but they overcame that obstacle with a 66-43 victory against the Tigers on Saturday at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville.
Keenan (20-8) will square off against Burke (26-2) at 5 p.m. Saturday for the Class 2A championship at Colonial Life Arena.
When Smith and Green came back, Keenan was 11-8 and off the radar as a title contender. But the addition of the 6-foot-5 Smith has added a dimension for the Raiders.
"He can face up, and he runs the floor like a guard," Keenan point guard Eric Washington said. "We can run some defenses that we weren't able to when he was out. He makes us a lot more flexible."
Washington said Smith opens up the offense as well.
"When he wasn't there, we didn't have a dominant (big guy) there that we could dish it off to for an easy layup. Teams would collapse, and that would force a turnover," Washington said. "His presence in there for us makes the lane more wide open."
Since his return, Smith is the team's leading scorer at 16.8 points a game, and he is pulling down 8.9 rebounds a contest. But beyond his stats, Smith brings intangibles, according to Norris.
"Everybody knows that he brings life to the team," Norris said. "He's got a nice personality, and he does the little things like blocking shots or taking a charge. He harps on playing defense, but he can score too when we need him."
Colleges were expecting to scout Smith during Christmas tournaments, but he wasn't on the court. That has slowed things on the recruiting trail, but Smith feels certain he will play on the next level.
For now, the most important thing for him is Saturday's game. He thinks the experience younger players gained in his absence will help when they get in the pressure-cooker of a state championship game.
"Everybody is more together now. It was good for the younger players to fill in when we were out," Smith said. "They got a feel for what needed to be done. I think it has made us more of a team. We made it through all the distractions, and we're just trying to win a state championship now."