VALPARAISO -- From Joe Otis back in the day to Bryce Drew, Roger Harden, Robbie Hummel, Scott Martin, Brandon Newman and Mason Jones (to name a few), Valparaiso's list of Division I boys basketball talent over the years takes a backseat to few in Northwest Indiana, if not the state.
"Bryce Drew, Roger Harden, Robbie Hummel, hearing what those guys did, seeing where they went, I know all of them, I respect all of them," Vikings junior Jack Smiley said. "I grew up watching Brandon. He was my idol. I always wanted to be like him when I was younger. Scott Martin is on our staff. I've learned a lot about him, I've learned from him. He's taught me a lot. I met Bryce in fourth grade at an airport when he was at Vanderbilt, but that doesn't really count. I met Robbie in the summer at a golf outing. I really like him a lot."
The 6-foot-2 guard added his name to those greats last week when he became the 16th Viking and first junior to ever reach 1,000 points, an amazing accomplishment considering what many of those players have gone on to do.
"It's a huge accomplishment for me," Smiley said. "I wouldn't really say I stand above them because I haven't really proven myself and went past where they have. They obviously had farther careers. I started when I was a freshman, I had really good seniors, people around me, coaches who believed in me and trusted me to make shots when I was open when other teams didn't respect me. My sophomore year, I started to get a little more respect, but I had Mason with me. He was the main target. He fed me when they would double team him. I was just able to knock down open shots. That got my numbers up. The main scouting report is around me this year."
A largely inexperienced Valpo team has overachieved in most eyes this year and while Smiley's emergence as its Alpha is the biggest reason, it's not the only one.
"I'm not surprised," he said. "I saw how hard we worked in the summer, how we bonded off the court and on the court, which made our chemistry a lot better. We all respect coach (Ben) Lieske a lot. We listen to him. He respects us, too. Everyone doubted us. They had us last in the Region. We just used that as motivation. We all play with a chip on our shoulder to come out and prove people wrong, put respect on other people's names, not just me."
Caden Crowell, a Notre Dame baseball commit, has developed into the Vikings No. 2 scorer. Julian Stokes, another junior, who is drawing Division I interest in football, had the game-winning basket/and-one last week against La Porte on a night when Smiley poured in 31 points. KJ Avery is a promising sophomore.
"A lot of guys were playing JV, outside of Jack returning, Caden," said Lieske, a long-time assistant and former player before taking over the program this season. "It's a testament to them, the effort they put in the in off-season. They completely bought in, they worked incredibly hard. It's the unity. (Smiley)'s that type of leader. The seniors are selfless type leaders. I will lock the other team's best player up, I will set screens."
For Smiley, it's all a matter of confidence. Early in the game, when La Porte threw a box and one at him, Alec Platipodis was free in the post, scoring eight first-quarter points. Smiley banged three 3s in the period anyway, foiling the defensive strategy.
"Teams will throw it at us. Most of the time, they get out of it pretty quick," Smiley said. "When they come out not respecting them, I keep feeding my teammates when they're open, and they can make shots. I trust them to make the right play. I've seen them shoot the ball in practice. Then they start to focus on them, and now it's just one on one instead of one on three. It opens me up a lot more."
Not that Smiley needs much space. He grew up emulating Golden State's Steph Curry and has developed a quick release of his own, hoisting thousands of shots outside of regular practice time. With that comes the ability to take defenders off the dribble and also score in the mid-range.
"Smiley is an amazing player," LP coach Jordan Heckard said. "Our big thing was to not let him have any uncontested shots. If he's going to make shots, he's got to make them over us. If he gets space, he's really good. We knew everything goes through Smiley. He made some incredible shots. He made some plays, you've got to tip your cap to. The supporting cast finished the deal for them."
Smiley spent the summer working on his body as well as his game, eating right and lifting five days a week to complement his long wingspan.
He holds offers from Valparaiso and Ohio, with a range of Division I mid-major interest.
"I went on a visit to Indiana State. They're doing well," he said. "Valpo's really interested. I love their staff. We talk all the time."
At his current pace, Smiley is a good bet to become the school's career scoring leader, a mark held by Harden at 1,590. Drew and Newman are second at 1,577.
Priority one for Smiley is winning, as Valparaiso stands 16-4 (3-1 Duneland).
"We just can't be satisfied," Smiley said. "If we stay on our grind, I truly believe good things will come. We can't let outside noise affect how we play. We get a couple wins,
people are telling us how good we are. We have to let that go in one ear and out the ear, focus on what we've been doing since the summer, the start of the year."
Building a strong varsity staff was a priority for Lieske when he took over, and he shares the credit for the team's success with Kris Dodson, Hayden Humes, Martin, John Knauff and Tom Megyesi
"We have a great staff," he said. "It's good to have other voices than mine. sometimes it works out better. . The first thing you do is recruit good people to be around you. Chris is a wizard on film and technology. We stole him from La Porte. Tom won a (girls) state championship (at Lake Central). Hayden and Scott are volunteers. They're here when they can be and their voice has weight to it. They're very good at telling our guys exactly how it is."
Lieske has coached in the program for 17 years, serving as JV coach from 2013 until this season. He jokes about still being in the 'honeymoon phase' of coaching, knowing that popularity is often directly proportional to success.
"I've been trained incredibly well by all sorts of mentors," he said. "Barak (Coolman) was a good guy to work for. He valued my opinion. I got very close (to leaving) Barak's first year. I love coaching, but I'm a teacher first. I've got all AP Psych kids. I'm a nerd. Part of me was debating, do I go somewhere else or do I get out of coaching and be a family man? My family is all here, my friends are all here. I love Valpo. This was always it. I'll be here as long as they'll have me and it's a good thing for me."