Two decidedly un-Austin Peay-like seasons have head coach Dave Loos getting back to basics. Defense and ball-handling are going to be keys, and Loos has turned to a pair of home-grown talents to lead the way.
Damarius (D.D.) Smith and Zavion Williams, like everyone else involved with the program, are anxious for the start of the 2013-14 season and the opportunity for turn-around it represents. The stakes might be higher for those two than almost anyone else wearing the red-and-white this season. For two homegrown Clarksvillians – Smith played his high school ball at Kenwood, while Williams started out at Northeast before moving to West Creek when the district split – helping boost the program back to its former glory would mean more than just wins or (maybe) a ring. It would have a lasting effect on their legacies in their hometowns, a legacy that once looked like it may never happen at all.
“If we restore the program to that level, that would be something people would always remember,” Smith said. “That would be something special that would remain in Clarksville long after we were gone.”
“Not only would it be special just helping restore the program, it would be even better because we’re from here,” Williams said, echoing his teammate. “Not only would people talk about us as Austin Peay basketball players, but Kenwood High School and West Creek High School players. To be loved among the city that way would be a special feeling.”
Smith and Williams didn’t start out as Govs – both went to Lipscomb to begin their college careers. Smith, who graduated in 2010, redshirted his first season before moving into the lineup during the 2011-12 campaign, where he was joined by Williams, a true freshman. That team went 13-18 overall, with Williams averaging 9.1 ppg (third on the team) and a team-high 35 steals, despite suffering from knee problems that would eventually require surgery. Meanwhile, Smith chipped in 5.2 points and a team-best 98 assists.
The pair teamed to help Lipscomb beat Austin Peay, 67-59, Nov. 28, 2011 – Smith had nine assists in his role as point-forward, while a hobbled Williams scored four points in 14 minutes off the bench – but that was one of few highlights during their stay in Nashville. After having double-knee surgery, Williams elected to transfer while Smith was dismissed from Lipscomb in a coach’s decision before landing at Vincennes University, a junior-college power in Indiana.
Both players had their struggles last season – Smith in adjusting to a new situation away from home, Williams by being forced to just watch.
“I hated it,” Williams said of last season. “I didn’t want to come to games sometimes, didn’t want to come out of the locker room because I couldn’t do anything about it. Just sitting and watching was the worst.
“The perspective I got last year, from sitting with the coaches and watching, gave me a new perspective on the game. It’s different from being out there. It’s easier to catch the littler things that they notice from the sidelines.”
By going to Vincennes, Smith got on the floor and got to helm an offense that raced to an NJCAA Final Four trip with a 33-4 record. He finished second on the team in assists with 137 and averaged 3.3 points in 36 games alongside Division I commits Darius Carter (Wichita State), Jeremiah Williams (Canisius), Michael Bradley (Samford), Deshawn Delaney (New Mexico), Tyran de Lattibeaudiere (Lamar) and Monte Burney (Eastern Kentucky).
“Last year was a learning experience,” Smith said. “I got to play a specific role and that helped me become a defensive-minded person. They expected a lot out of me on the defensive end. I learned a lot and grew a lot and got a lot more self-disciplined under (Vincennes head coach) Todd Franklin.”
For an interlude, this mildly humorous anecdote:
Here’s how young Damarius Smith and Zavion Williams are: they don’t remember Bubba Wells, the basketball player.
“Nah,” Smith said, smiling and shaking his head.
“I didn’t really hear about it until I got here,” Williams said. “I knew who he was, but I didn’t know the whole story.”
(Just in case you needed to feel old, Coach.)
Defense. You’ll hear that word a lot from Coach Loos this season. If Smith and Williams are any indication, the players are listening.
“He’s pushing defense the most,” Smith said. “Defense wins championships; if you have a group of people willing to buy into that it’s a domino effect for the team. We want the defense to lead to offense where we push the ball and find great shooters like Travis (Betran), Thomas (Greer) and Cory (Arentsen).”
“It’s going to be very exciting” Williams said. “We’re both defensively minded. Our defense leads to our offense. We might not look like it, but we both like to trash talk and feed off the crowd. I feed off that.”
Picked to finish third in a highly competitive Ohio Valley Conference West Division, Austin Peay has its share of doubters heading into the regular season, which begins Nov. 8 against Oakland City in the Dunn Center. That’s fine by Smith and Williams.
“People are doubting us, but you have to be motivated by that,” Smith said. “I believe we’ll be in the tournament with a chance to win it, and I believe we can win the regular season. This time of year, you want to consider yourself as having a chance. We all believe that, we all feed off that and we want to stay up as much as we possibly can and build a strong foundation for this season.”
“I think we can win the OVC, regular season and conference,” Williams said. “It’s a strong league now; we put people in (the NBA) every year. People count us out because we lost AC (Anthony Campbell) and didn’t have a point guard last year, we don’t have this or that. Well, collectively we have a group that wants something bigger.”
They may not have a Bubba Wells or a Trenton Hassell – that once-in-a-generation All-American player who can single-handedly lift a program to greatness. But there are other ways to win an Ohio Valley Conference championship.
“Coach Gip (Corey Gipson) knows what it takes to win a championship with the kind of team we have,” Smith said. “We don’t have a Bubba or a Trenton Hassell, but we have guys that can star in their roles.”
No matter what happens during their return to Clarksville – Smith has two years eligibility remaining, while Williams has three – both are grateful for the opportunity to come back to where it all started.
“We never pictured ourselves being here, but the road we took to get here makes it that much better,” Smith said. “We’ve seen high-level basketball and participated in high-level basketball and we brought that back with us to Austin Peay.”