Even though the Arizona Wildcats will technically be the road team when they face the Alabama Crimson Tide on Sunday, Dylan Smith will feel right at home.
The Arizona guard hails from Mobile, Alabama, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Tuscaloosa. The proximity will give him a rare chance to play in front of friends and family.
“Some of my family members haven’t seen me play yet, so it’s just going to be fun with them up there,” Smith said at local media day back in October. “Whether I play good or bad, as long as they’re there, I’m fine.”
That Smith even has an opportunity to play for the Wildcats in Coleman Coliseum is something he is grateful for.
“If you would have told me three years ago that I would’ve been at Arizona playing basketball, I would have laughed at you,” he said.
Or playing anywhere for that matter. Basketball did not come into focus for Smith until late in his high school career. Why would it? As a kid, he was “short, skinny and played football and baseball.”
“Those were my two main sports, but when I grew I actually got better and I started taking it more seriously,” said Smith, who’s now 6-5, 180 pounds. “I never took sports seriously until I started growing and I realized that I’m actually kinda good.”
But almost not good enough.
Smith hardly garnered any recruiting interest until his senior year of high school when UNC Asheville noticed him after he led Hoover to its first-ever state championship.
The Crimson Tide never gave him a look, but he doesn’t hold that against them.
“I never thought I was going to play basketball like that at the college level, so I wasn’t really worried about it,” he said.
He had other things on his mind.
Smith spent a season at UNC Asheville, bursting onto the scene as its leading scorer before transferring to Arizona in search of better competition.
Now a redshirt junior, Smith is averaging 5.7 points per game in his second season with the Wildcats. His shooting, length, and defensive mettle that he credits to his Alabama upbringing make him an intriguing 3-and-D wing off the bench.
“I just wanted to be pushed,” Smith said of his decision to head west. “Coach (Sean) Miller pushes me. Growing up in Mobile, I feel like I can handle any situation I’ve ever been in. Coach Miller has pushed me in ways nobody else has. I feel like I’ve been able to withstand it and I feel like he respects me and I respect him for that because he never takes a day easy on me.”
While Tucson is a long way from Mobile, a familiar face joined Smith in the desert this season in Justin Coleman.
The senior point guard from Birmingham transferred to Arizona from Samford this offseason, giving the Wildcats two players from the Yellowhammer State.
What are the odds?
“It’s crazy,” said Smith, who’s known Coleman since middle school. “I never thought someone from Alabama would be up here. He’s actually the first person I’ve met from Alabama in Tucson.”
Smith hosted Coleman on his visit and later took Coleman to munch on some buffalo wings when he finally arrived on campus as the newest member of the team.
“I actually told him to commit,” Smith said. “I was just saying, ‘man, me and you can do some good things here’, especially because he only has one last year. Might as well go out with somebody you know. Him being my teammate now is almost like we’re brothers.”
The Alabama game will be special for Coleman, too.
A former top-100 recruit out of high school, Coleman actually spent his first two collegiate seasons with the Crimson Tide, before transferring to Samford to be closer to home after his younger brother was diagnosed with cancer.
But his brother has beaten the disease, allowing Coleman to make the jump back into major-conference basketball where he has shined.
The short, but skilled, guard is averaging 11.8 points per game and earned the title of team captain, thanks to his natural leadership skills.
“I’ve been away from home for a while, so I’m excited to my mom, my little brother, my grandparents and some of my closest friends, but also have the opportunity to play against a lot of guys that I played at Alabama with, like Donta Hall and Dazon Ingram,” Coleman said. “I’ve been knowing John Petty since he was in seventh grade, so a lot of the guys on the team I have a good relationship with. So to be able to play with them on the court will be a blessing.”
And not as awkward as it might sound, apparently.
“I don’t feel like it will be weird,” Coleman said. “I have played against them plenty of times growing up, in open gyms, or rec league or whatever the case may be.”
Smith said he nearly wound up at the University of Alabama, too — but as a student, not a basketball player. Then UNC Asheville swooped in with a scholarship offer.
Smith just never thought he would play on a stage like that. And when he does Sunday against the Crimson Tide, he hopes his story resonates with kids in his home state.
“It’s just good, man. Us two being a part of that, it’s going to be good for kids back home,” he said. “Alabama is a big football state, but you don’t have to play football. You can play basketball. There’s other sports. Whatever dream you have, you can follow it. That’s just being a role model for the kids in both of our cities back home.
“And if you tell some kids back home that they’ll play basketball at Arizona, they’ll laugh at you. So just showing them that they can do it and everybody can, it’s big for me.”