It's been anything but a pleasant preseason for Kohn Smith, first-year Utah State head basketball coach. First, his talented, experience-laden team hasn't lived up to initial expectations. Then he spent a good share of the recent Christmas weekend in bed recovering from surgery. And now this - having to return to Indiana, otherwise known as Hoop Heart-land.
In taking his Aggies to this week's Hoosier Classic at Indianapolis' Market Square Arena, Smith returns to the state where he served six seasons as assistant to University of Indiana Head Coach Bobby Knight.However, Smith returns not as a member of the IU perennial powerhouse, the nationally respected Hooiser recruiter, nor one of Knight's hand-picked proteges. Instead, he comes in as head coach of an opposing team.
And the stage may be set for a Utah State-Indiana championship game Thursday night, if the two teams can defeat their Wednesday night opponents - Detroit and St. Bonaventure, respectively.
Not only could Smith go up against his former mentor and pit a struggling Aggie team against a squad comprised primarily of players that he helped recruit to Indiana, he'll also be under the watchful eye of Hoosier faithful interested in how the former IU assistant handles his own program.
Smith admits the presence of challenges. "You'd like to have the team do well and to put on a good show - there'll be a lot of people watching to see how you do."
Steve Downing, an Indiana assistant athletic director, agrees. "Kohn was a part of the system here and the fans will pick up on that and be behind this (Utah State) team Wednesday night."
And what of their allegiance should there be a USU-IU final? "They're not that generous," Downing said. "They're going to want the Hoosiers to win."
Downing, a former Indiana hoopster who played in the early 1970s during the early Knight era, credited Smith with being "the backbone" of the Hoosier team via his scouting and recruiting efforts. "He's going to do a good job. He's a good coach. We hated to see him go."
But they love to see him back. The local Welcome Wagon entourage for Smith's first day back in Indiana included several IU coaches and administrators, a couple of boosters that stopped by, a TV reporter and cameraman - why, even Knight himself phoned his former assistant soon after the Aggies' arrived Tuesday afternoon.
Knight spoke of having watched the cable telecast of USU's heartbreaking loss to BYU last week. "He said he was sick and sorry about it . . . . He's genuinely concerned about us," said Smith, who after practice departed for a rendevous with his former boss.
Despite the close ties and six-year working relationship maintained by the pair, folks are already seeing some differences between Smith and Knight. Well aware that Knight conducts closed practices and abhors visitors and reporters as early as 24 hours from tip-off time, Downing said he had some reservations about stopping by unannounced at Tuesday's Aggie practice. "I didn't know if Kohn would have his game face on, like Coach Knight does . . . . But Kohn has always maintained his own identity."
AGGIE NOTES: Smith has shuffled his lineup a bit, giving Darrel White his first start at USU. The former South High/Dixie College player joins a frontline of Greg Houskeeper and Nathan Grant, the latter having missed several games of late with a sore back. Senior forward Danny Conway steps out of the starting lineup after a slow start this season. "We've tried a lot of things with Conway," said Smith. "We'll see now how he likes the bench."