MURRAY -- After suffering a season-ending broken ankle just five games into his final year, Murray State men's basketball senior forward Anthony Smith could only watch -- and root -- as the Racers motored to a 28-5 finish behind guys like Ja Morant, Shaq Buchanan, Tevin Brown and KJ Williams.
A medical redshirt, according to MSU men's basketball coach Matt McMahon, seemed like all but a slam dunk for a case like Smith, who missed more than 80% of the season. But it wasn't until this past Monday before Smith was officially cleared by NCAA officials to play the 2019-20 slate.
And that brings relief to a guy like Smith, who's just ready to get back in the mix.
"I'm coming into this year with all I have," he said. "No re-dos. This is my last run."
As Smith started to return to health last year, he could often be found making laps around the top of the CFSB Center, part of the slow grind of coming back from such an injury.
That, however, was only the beginning of his rehabilitation.
"Running the bleachers. A lot of squats. Balance things," he added. "Trying to make sure my mental thing is right, so I don't have to focus on everything that I do. Trying to get my running back to how I was. All the little things first, rather than trying to focus on the big things all at once.
"It's just a mental thing right now. Nothing's changed. My ankle is 100% good. Of course, getting back into shape … that's going to come in time. But it's all the mental things. The hunger that I have never left me. If anything, I'm more hungry than I was before, just to get back on that court. But you know, nothing's changed. I'm still the same me. Trying to work on my personal game, as well as (influence) these new guys coming in."
In five games last season, the 6-foot-7 Smith had already corralled 16 offensive boards and eight blocks and was on pace for 106 offensive rebounds and 53 stuffs had he played in all 33 contests for the Racers.
To give some context to just how prolific that would've been? Only five other players in the entire NCAA finished with more than 100 offensive rebounds and 50 blocks last season: Gonzaga's Brandon Clarke (117 blocks, 114 offensive rebounds), Cal State Northridge's Lamine Diane (72, 108), Samford's Ruben Guerrero (69, 108), UCLA's Moses Brown (62, 108) and Duke's Zion Williamson (59, 116).
After he was sidelined, however, several frontcourt players wound up making uplifting contributions for the Racers.
Freshman forward KJ Williams broke MSU's single-season field-goal percentage record, topping Tony Easley's .689 on 115-for-167 shooting during the 2007-08 season by shooting .698 and averaging 7.6 points and 4.7 boards per game.
Junior transfer forward Darnell Cowart put together an OVC All-Newcomer stat line, finishing the year averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 boards with 36 assists, 13 blocks and 25 steals in 33 games.
Sophomore forward Devin Gilmore appeared in 25 games and became an alley-oop specialist and solid shotblocker, chipping in 3.6 points and 2.8 rebounds rebounds per game.
And they're all coming back, alongside 6-8, 250-pound freshman Demond Robinson (7-5 wingspan) and 6-6 freshman forward Matthew Smith.
So even though he wasn't playing last year, he was spending time laying the example in those first games -- a blueprint, so to speak. And he's found comfort in the way things played out in the end.
"It was a good feeling (seeing them succeed), because one thing I try to make an emphasis on when I was playing was just to be hungry out there," he said. "Give it all you have. Don't leave anything up to chance. Give everything that you have on the floor. Good effort. That's all coach McMahon stresses he wants; whether you do it right or wrong. All he praises and preaches is that you 'give me your last.' And I felt when I was playing that I was doing that every single day. I try to be an example, and lead by example on the floor, and just making sure all my players and teammates on the floor are doing what they've got to do to get better."
McMahon, however, continues to note the eldest man on the team will also be one of its most important leaders this year -- and he seems up for this final challenge.
"Ever since I stepped into college my freshman year, I've always had to play a big a role in leadership; whether it's to put points up on the stat sheet, or being a great, huge defender. I've always had to be that leader in some type of way, either leading by example or in other ways. Being a leader is something I'm not too far from being. That's right in my alleyway. I don't have a problem being a leader. I've always had to take on that task."