Mike Smith has averaged 16.2 points per game for Willamette University this season.

Smith ends sterling ­career at Willamette

Mike Smith is pretty sure the end of his competitive basketball career is at hand.

"I won't be declaring for the NBA draft," he laughs.

Then again, the former Phoenix High standout who evolved into one of the best small-college players in the Pacific Northwest doesn't have much of a track record when it comes to foretelling.

He thought he was done when he left high school. His plan was to enroll at Oregon State, study engineering and look forward to a life of intramurals and city leagues. He even had a roommate lined up.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the rest of his life. During a state all-star series, he caught the eye of Willamette University coach Gordie James, was enticed into attending the Salem school and, by this, his senior season, worked into one of the program's most valuable players.

Now at trail's end, he can't help but look over his shoulder.

"Academically, I really didn't know what to expect," says Smith, 21, of his decision to switch schools and play for the Bearcats. "Willamette's a pretty tough school academically, and I really had to turn my focus up. As an athlete, coming in and not being recruited, I didn't know what my role was. I just had to be patient and learn from the older guys.

"I definitely look back on it and feel fortunate, feel blessed. The relationships I've been able to form with these guys has been special. I know I'll be keeping in contact with them the rest of my life."

Willamette has at least one more game left. It qualified for the NWC playoffs despite a wild, 127-121 double-overtime loss to 23rd-ranked Puget Sound on Saturday.

Willamette finished tied for third in the conference with a 9-7 record. The Bearcats, 11-14 overall, visit Puget Sound again Thursday.

Smith, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound off-guard who scored 29 points Saturday, has certainly done his part, largely because of one of the sweetest shooting strokes in the conference and a willingness to play the lock-down defense that James demands.

The former Skyline Conference first-team all-star — he helped Phoenix to the 2004 league title, the school's first in a dozen years — is second in scoring for Willamette and ninth in the conference with an average of 16.2 points per game.

As for shooting percentages, he's 11th in the NWC at 51 percent from the field, but he's second from 3-point range at 47 percent and is averaging 2.3 makes per game from behind the arc. At the free-throw line, Smith's 83-percent marksmanship is the third best in the league.

When Smith graduated from high school, he was an inch shorter than now and didn't look like he weighed more than a pair of wet sneakers.

But during that Class 3A all-star series, he caught the eye of coach Chris Roche of Wilsonville, who had played for James at Willamette. Roche called James and gave a glowing account of Smith's skills. James went to watch Smith play, then landed him.

Smith had been recruited by a couple of small schools but wasn't interested in them.

That turned out to be fortunate for James.

"I loved the way he played," James says of his first look at Smith. "I thought with time and some strength, he could be a solid player for us. He could shoot the ball, he had a good feel for the game and he had the will to play defense, all the things that kind of fit our program. He has far exceeded our expectations."

Smith, who has added 35 pounds since his prep days, spent two years playing junior varsity ball and suiting up with the varsity.

He became a varsity starter as a junior and averaged 11.1 points per game.

Smith earned his stripes in practice going against the Bearcat first-teamers, notably all-conference guard John Olinger, who has since graduated.

"Mike not only handled the work ethic to get better," says James, "but he had the self-discipline and self-perseverance to hang in there and wait for his time."

On defense, Smith is looked to to defend the opponent's top perimeter threat.

On offense, he's simply looked to.

"No" is not in James' vocabulary when Smith has the ball and wants to shoot.

"He gets his shots in our system," says the coach. "He has a great feel for the offense. He gets baskets on back cuts, he comes off screens and nails 3s, he's added a pull-up to his game and he can get to the basket. He's turned into a very versatile player for us.

"There's no question, we're going to run something through him when we need a basket."

Smith's most memorable shot came earlier this month at Whitworth, the conference champion. With just under a minute left and Willamette leading by two, the Bearcats missed a field goal, but in the ensuing scramble for the ball, a teammate got it and passed it out to Smith. He went back up with a 3-pointer that was a dagger to the Pirates, who would lose, 82-74.

"That helped us kind of seal it at the end," says Smith of the shot from the left wing and right at the arc, "but it wasn't anything designed."

While his high-level hoop days are numbered, Smith harbors the idea of returning to the court as a coach. Rather than engineering, he switched his academic focus to psychology, with a minor in sociology, and he has designs on teaching high school.

"I definitely want to continue," says Smith. "I have a passion for the game and I like working with kids."

He's never been good at leaving the game anyway.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail

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