By Chris Rossetti, Portraits contributing writer
Moving from the University of Pittsburgh's campus at Bradford to the campus in Oakland isn't all that unusual.
Going from playing basketball at the KOA Arena to the Petersen Events Center, on the other hand, is a lot rarer.
But that is exactly what Zach Smith has done.
Smith, who spent two seasons playing for Pitt-Bradford under Britt Moore, was a walk-on for the big Panthers this past season -- he was forced by NCAA rules to sit out the season as a transfer, but practiced with Pitt and was on the bench during home games.
“It means a lot,” Smith said in the fall when asked about making the Pitt team as a walk-on. “I always dreamed of playing Division I basketball. It's a dream come true. It's awesome actually.”
Smith was a fantastic high-school player at Smethport, Pa., setting the school record with 1,628 points while leading the school to its first District 9 Class AA title in 2012 and a berth in the 2013 PIAA Class A quarterfinals.
He then moved on to Pitt-Bradford, where in two years he helped the Panthers to back-to-back 15-win seasons while scoring 496 points and grabbing 264 rebounds in his two seasons. In 2015, he averaged a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game and finished third on the team in scoring at 11.5 points per game.
But the 2014-15 season looked like it would be his last on the basketball court because, as a civil engineering major, he would need to transfer to Pitt's campus in Pittsburgh to finish his bachelor's degree.
And while Smith was a great high-school player and a very good NCAA Division III player, the thought of playing at the highest level of the sport collegiately in one of the best conferences in the country - the ACC - seemed to be an impossible dream.
But there was one person who thought Smith might be able to do it - Pitt-Bradford head men's basketball coach Britt Moore.
“After the end of the 2015 season, coach said something to me about doing it,” Smith said. “Like I said, it's always been a dream of mine, so I was like, why not? Coach started contacting people for me, and then I talked to some people over the summer, and they gave me a shot.”
According to Moore, he contacted one of Pitt's coaches via email.
“I told him I had guy who was interested in walking on,” Moore said. “They let us know they had one, maybe two, spots for walk-ons, and they asked for some film on him. I was able to send them one or two of our games. I give them credit. They did their due diligences as you would expect. They said Zach looked like he was a big part of what we did and asked me how I thought he would fit with them.
“I knew he could be an asset to them at some level. He can really shoot and handle the ball. The speed and the strength will be the biggest adjustment for him. But I think if they get
him into their weight program and their speed program, he can get better. So after that they wanted him to go down and meet with [former Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon] and the rest of the
staff. I think when he walked into their office and they saw his size 17 shoes and that he was a big kid (6-foot-4), that's when they committed to him right away. It happened pretty quickly.
“I'm very proud of him. I wouldn't have taken the time to reach out and done all the back work if it wasn't someone like Zach. I knew his academics would be fine, and I really thought he could help them basketball wise because of his size. If you can bring someone to them who can help in terms of scout and prep, they are going to like that. I feel his offensive skills can help. He is a bigger, stronger kid than most walk-ons.”
Dixon, who left Pitt following this past season to take a job at his alma mater, Texas Christian University, pointed to both Smith's academics and size as reasons he made the team.
“First off, he is a really good student,” Dixon said this past fall. “He was a 3.8 student at Pitt-Bradford, and we are excited to get somebody from our sister campus. He has good size. He has a 6-foot-8 wing span and size 17 shoes, so he has some physical attributes we haven't seen from a walk-in in some ways. He shoots it real well, and he is a really great kid. And he has toughness. He is a logger in the offseason, so has to have some toughness. He does some dirty work, and he is a hard worker. We look forward to having him as a part of our program.”
Having to sit out this season was a bit of a challenge for Smith, who was used to playing, but he still had a lot of fun.
“I thought it went pretty well,” Smith said. “It is definitely different than Pitt-Bradford, but I really enjoyed it and being around the team and the guys. It's definitely an experience I didn't think I would get to have.”
Smith said he spent the year on the scout team for the Panthers, who finished the season with an NCAA Tournament bid.
“We would usually run the plays of whoever we were playing, their offense and defense,” Smith said. “It was pretty hard. We were better running some stuff than others. Some of it we weren't good at running the first time. We definitely struggled trying to run some stuff, though.”
While Smith couldn't travel with the Panthers, he was on the bench during the home games.
“That was fun, being on the bench,” Smith said. “It's crazy being that close - to be in the huddle and on the bench. I had the best season tickets, I guess. I would have been at all the games anyhow.”
While all the games were fun, there were a couple that really stood out to Smith.
“The Duke and the Syracuse games were probably my two favorites this year,” Smith said. “The energy of the students and the fans was unbelievable. And to sit in the locker room after the wins - it was pretty fun to be part of.”
Smith has plenty of fond memories from his time at Pitt-Bradford both as a member of the basketball team and student.
“It's different (in Bradford) than it is here (in Oakland),” Smith said. “I liked the Bradford campus. It's small, but everyone knew everyone. The Bradford campus is its own little town. Down here, it's the city of Pittsburgh. The campus is spread throughout. I miss being close to everybody.”
Smith said some of his best memories of his time at Bradford were with the basketball team.
“We had a really tight group there at Bradford,” Smith said. “All those guys are my best friends. Those 5-hour bus rides weren't always fun, but they were better because of the friendship. I really liked being part of the team for two years. It was fun to be a part of it.”
Smith also pointed to his advisor at Pitt-Bradford, Dr. Ronald Mattis, the director of the engineering program and an associate professor of engineering. “Dr. Mattis definitely helped us a lot,” Smith said. “It's pretty tough down here, but Dr. Mattis definitely prepared us the most to be ready for all the classes and the class work here. Everything I learned in his classes, I use down here. He was definitely a huge help as a professor.”