Men’s Basketball: Northwestern walk-on Blake Smith provides unlikely defensive spark for March Madness squad

Sophomore Blake Smith wearing white defends a basketball player wearing black and yellow.
Sophomore guard Blake Smith guards an opposing ballhandler against Michigan. Smith burned his redshirt during Northwestern’s Big Ten slate after injury concerns struck the program.
Daily file photo by Anna Watson

NEW YORK  — Just beyond the Big Ten’s halfway point, Northwestern coach Chris Collins faced a daunting task. His team was churning through its Big Ten tests, but he soon found himself at a crossroads. 

The Wildcats had won seven of their first 12 conference games, and they were on track for a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. However, one of the team’s integral pieces — senior guard Ty Berry — went down with a season-ending knee injury, slicing a razor-thin rotation down even further.

A coach eager to rewrite program history, Collins turned to an unlikely source, pulling sophomore walk-on guard Blake Smith into his office. Smith decided to redshirt earlier in the season to preserve his eligibility, but dire circumstances called for swift action.

“He just (said) ‘I think you’d be a good fit to step in and help out defensively and help us bring energy on the court, and I’d like you to drop the redshirt,’” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I would love to help the team as best as possible,’ especially since we had such a great groove.”

Smith saw his first game action in a Feb. 11 victory against Penn State and logged minutes off the bench during NU’s next three games. He said he gained confidence and belief that he belonged at the high-major level each time he stepped on the floor.

When the ‘Cats entered College Park to take on Maryland, graduate student guard Ryan Langborg was unavailable due to an ankle injury. Less than 150 miles away from his old high school stomping grounds, a player who didn’t touch the hardwood during several practices his freshman year now stepped into the limelight.

“He was never in practices those first couple of weeks — he was never on the court,” assistant coach Chris Lowery said. “Coach (Collins) didn’t trust him, he was always messing up. Now, we’re like ‘What are you doing? You can’t be off the court. You have to be in all the time.’”

Guarding all-conference guard Jahmir Young, Smith embodied the essential “next man up” mantra, displaying a dogged defensive savvy and making pivotal crunch-time plays on both ends of the floor. 

Smith said he entered the Xfinity Center thinking he just needed to give the team everything he could, and the rest would take care of itself.

“I was just so focused on doing my job and doing what coach asked me to do that game to help us win that I sort of blanked out all the other stuff,” Smith said. “Okay, coach wants me to guard in full-court … it was just focusing on doing my role the best I can because I didn’t want to have a drop off with Ty and Ryan out.”

As NU gears up for its first round March Madness matchup with No. 8-seeded Florida Atlantic, Smith continues to carve out a marked rotational role off the bench, spelling key backcourt cogs and earning his keep on the defensive end. 


Germantown Academy coach Matthew Dolan said Smith was a late-bloomer for his high school squad, but Smith significantly elevated his game during his senior season. The guard received limited looks from Division I teams but drew interest from Division III squads RIT and Dickinson.

“He’s always had a really high level of basketball IQ,” Dolan said. “He’s very unselfish. It’s been very impressive from just his sophomore year to senior year of developing his game where he’s a mismatch guy … an all-league guy by the end of his senior year.”

Just like he stepped up in a hostile late February environment this season for NU, Smith saved his best performance for a battle with Germantown’s archrivals: Penn Charter. Looking to spoil his opponent’s senior night, Smith took over.

Dolan said Smith tended to overplay his teammates to get everyone involved in the action, but the Blue Bell, Pennsylvania native went no-holds-barred in one of his final high school games. For Smith, the contest could’ve very well been one of the last competitive games in his basketball career.

“I was committed to Northwestern academically, so it was one of the few organized basketball games (left) that I thought I might have ever played,” Smith said. “I was just like, ‘Let’s just go out here, ball and have fun.’”

Smith relentlessly attacked the rim and stretched the floor with his jumper, bludgeoning Penn Charter with a career-high 35-point downpour. 

The unselfish, unheralded player put forth a performance impossible to overlook, and Dolan said Smith made it difficult for him to take him off the floor.

“It was at that point when the quote unquote lightbulb went on where ‘I’m not just a good player, I could be a great player,’” Dolan said. “I think he’s carried that confidence into his career at Northwestern.”


Smith said he has wanted to attend NU since his sophomore year of high school, and he plans to ultimately pursue a career in sports journalism. 

“That’s one of the best jobs in the world,” Smith said. “You can just go on TV and talk about sports. What’s better than that?”

Despite several high-academic institutions showing interest during the recruiting process, Smith bet on himself and applied early decision to his dream school, receiving an acceptance letter in December 2021.

Collins and assistant coach Brian James received word that Smith was set to enroll at the school prior to the 2022 summer through a mutual friend — Collins’ brother-in-law Paul Romanczuk. Collins and James put the 6-foot-6 guard through a tryout period that consisted of workouts and several physical tests.

Once he made the team, Smith followed in his father’s footsteps, walking on to a high-major Division I program. His father Larry earned a roster spot at North Carolina, where he played alongside current Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis and six McDonald’s high school All-Americans during the 1991-92 campaign.

“My dad’s always been my hero and been the guy that’s giving me confidence,” Smith said. “He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Especially with the mental side of the game, that’s where he helps me the most.”

Before Smith embarked on an eventual whirlwind collegiate journey through just his first seasons, he made sure to consult his father who’d trodden a similar arduous path more than three decades ago.

Smith said his dad taught him to stay the course, regardless of what trials may be thrown his way.

“It’s going to be hard at times, especially as a walk-on,” Smith said. “But he said ‘The journey is fun and to just enjoy being a college basketball player.’ What percentage of human beings get to (play) college basketball, especially at a Big Ten program where the perks are the greatest?”

After biding his time as a freshman and watching his teammates take the program to unprecedented heights, Smith approached the offseason with an emphasis on building strength. He put in countless hours with trainers and in the gym when nobody was watching.

But, once he arrived back in Evanston, Collins certainly took notice.

“We were redshirting him because of what we see in him,” Collins said. “We want to invest in Blake, in his future… He’s gotten noticeably stronger with his work in the weight room… Every day in practice he’s playing against Boo Buie, Ty Berry, Ryan Langborg and Brooks Barnhizer.”


For Lowery, the team’s defensive guru, Smith possesses an innate awareness of the game and the ‘Cats’ scheme that shines through on and off the court. 

Lowery said Smith’s length, composure and commitment have made him a key defensive piece down the stretch.

“He constantly asks questions,” Lowery said. “He’s committed to getting better, and on that side of the ball, he has things other people don’t have — timing — he can close out really fast on people and just getting him to continue gaining confidence helps our team.”

A former Southern Illinois point guard who spearheaded two NCAA Tournament appearances during his playing career, Lowery said stories like Smith’s are what March Madness is all about.

“You don’t think you’re gonna come in and impact a program — really a good program — on a March Madness team as a walk-on,” Lowery said. “He showed that you can, and I think that’s every kid’s dream — if you can’t get a scholarship playing basketball to be a part of a team that goes to March and actually get in the game.”

Smith said there haven’t been any discussions about potentially putting him on scholarship, but he’s grateful for every opportunity he gets in the program. He always dreamt about playing college basketball, and Smith said he gets an incomparable feeling whenever he’s around the game.

Beginning the 2023-24 season buried at the end of the bench, Smith said he would’ve thought someone telling him his current fate was crazy.

“You just always have to be ready for when your number is called,” Smith said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do, and hopefully I’ve been making an impact.”

Once he inevitably takes the floor against the Owls on Friday, Smith will elevate his extraordinary journey to college basketball’s grandest stage, but he said he’s making sure to approach March Madness as if it’s any other game. 

He’ll also have plenty of family and friends in town to cheer him on as he lives out the postseason chapters of a dream year.

“It’s just been awesome to just do the process and see the growth in me as a person as a player,” Smith said. “It’s just everything I’ve dreamed of as a kid. Even in high school when it wasn’t working out, even when I had rough days where I was like ‘Dang, I’m not getting recruited or am I not good enough,’ it’s been nice to see everything come to fruition.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n 

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