Illinios’ Jamar Smith focuses on his game, old role models

Jamar Smith, 31, passes the ball to Rich McBride, 33, during the second half of the game against Minnesota at Assembly Hall, Saturday. Illinois won 59-49. ME Online

By Erin Foley

Hampered by ankle injuries and a shooting slump that lasted longer than any other he has experienced, Jamar Smith’s sophomore season with the Illini has been a sharp contrast to last year when he was the Big Ten’s leading three-point shooter.

With a 13-point performance against Minnesota on Saturday, Smith was the one with the hot hand – even though he was suffering from the flu. With six games left before the Big Ten tournament begins March 8, Smith is ready to capitalize.

The Peoria, Ill., native, sat down with the Daily Illini prior to Monday’s practice to talk about the upcoming game against Northwestern, taking cues from former Illini Luther Head and thoughts on the season so far.

Daily Illini: What are your thoughts on the upcoming game against Northwestern? Coach Weber is calling it the “biggest game of the season.”

Jamar Smith: We have to be really focused to cut in because we are going to have to change all of our defensive principles because (of) the offense that they run. On offense, we are going to have to pretty much work on all zones from here on out in practices because they play 40 minutes of zone.

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DI: After the win against Minnesota, you mentioned former Illini Luther Head called you. Do you two talk on a regular basis?

JS: Me and Luther talk a lot during the season; he calls me his little brother and I have a lot of respect for him. When I got here, he wasn’t here, but he still kind of took me under his wing and every time he would come back, he would help me with my game. He really helped me out with the words he gave me, because the whole time that I was playing, I just told myself to keep shooting and just to stay positive, basically the things that he told me to do.

DI: Are you still studying a lot of his game tapes?

JS:v I have (graduate assistant Jeremy) Izzo and (Weber) give me as much film on Luther as they can, and I just do what he did, the way he moved and made cuts, the way he played. Last year I was more just focused on offense, but from watching a lot of Luther game film, I try to focus on the defensive end a lot more.

DI: Now that your shooting slump appears to be over, is it nice to know you can exhale and worry about something else?

JS: Definitely. Being a shooter and going through a slump is hard. It’s really frustrating because it seemed if your shot is not falling, and you’re known to be a shooter, it seemed like what use am I?

DI: What has been the most difficult part of the season in regards to your injuries, the slump and all the team’s injuries?

JS: I would just say everything, because if it’s not one thing it seemed like it’s the next for our team. Brian (Randle) got hurt, then I got hurt, Chester (Frazier) got hurt, Warren (Carter) got hurt, and the list goes on.

DI: Weber compared Randle’s season to a “disaster.” Is there a word or phrase to describe what this season has been like compared to last?

JS: So far it’s been a disaster, outside of the last game. I just think mentally all the injuries took a toll on me, and after the first couple games that I shot bad, it just all took a toll on me.

DI: How are your ankles feeling?

JS: My ankles feel a lot better, I would say they are probably about 95 percent now. I kind of got my lift back; I can get up and jump more.

DI: Was there a best piece of advice you were given during the shooting slump from a particular person?

JS: My dad told me I had to take it back to where it all started, and that’s what I did. When I was younger, I used to go to Landmark and shoot for hours and he told me to just imagine myself at Landmark when I was playing. I came out and did that against Minnesota and it helped me out a lot.

DI: The team is .500 in the Big Ten. Do you take some satisfaction in that, considering all you have gone through?

JS: I don’t think anybody on the team is satisfied. Just from all the past years, Illinois is not a .500 ball club. Now I just think everybody is focused on needing to get wins.

DI: What are your thoughts on the criticism that the Illini and Weber have received this season? Do you pay any attention to that?

JS: I don’t really pay too much attention to that because the people that criticize Coach Weber couldn’t stand in his shoes for a day, and it goes the same for us. The people that criticize us can’t get out and play for us, so we just stick together as a tight-knit family and continue to do what we do.