If you’re talking hoops – not heaven – there was no more important Second Coming around here lately than the return of Malachi Smith to the Dayton Flyers lineup.
The 6-foot starting point guard – who had one of the best freshman seasons in UD basketball history last season – had been sidelined since mid-October with an injury to his right ankle. He said it happened in practice when a teammate stepped on his foot.
It was especially concerning because he’s had ankle problems in the past and he missed the final two games of last season because of one.
When this year’s highly-anticipated season began, he wasn’t even practicing. He did show up on the bench for the SMU game Nov. 11 at UD Arena and four days later in Las Vegas wearing a walking boot. He finally practiced first the first time on Thursday.
Through it all, the origin of his injury and the status of his recovery was treated with hush-hush secrecy by UD brass.
But Saturday Smith made sure all the stealth and furtiveness were cast aside in pretty dramatic fashion.
In a sign of our times, he first announced his return in a crafted, one-minute NIL video clip with Premier Health – narrated by his older brother and former Flyers great Scoochie Smith – that was posted on Facebook two hours before the game with Robert Morris.
The clip opened with Smith dribbling a basketball in a dimly-lit UD Arena and Scoochie talking about him coming back better than ever – better than he was last season (when he was the co-MVP of the team) and better than (Scoochie) was himself.
It ended with Scoochie saying: “Go get ‘em, Little Bro.”
And that’s what Malachi did when he stated against Robert Morris in place of freshman Mike Sharavjamts, who was getting over a bout of food poisoning.
Smith scored five points while adding three steals, three assists and three rebounds in the 60-51 Flyers victory at UD Arena.
He especially credited UD trainer Mike Mulcahey for the care and attentiveness that got him back to the lineup faster than anyone had expected just a couple of week ago.
The timing of his return was especially fortuitous because the Flyers team had several players who were not 100 percent healthy.
Toumani Camara (knee) and DaRon Holmes II (ankle) were coming off minor injuries suffered in the 60-52 loss to UNLV.
Koby Brea was ailing with a flu-like bug that got him a trip to the hospital Friday, said Anthony Grant. Though back with the team, he was not in uniform Saturday.
And Sharavjamts, who came in averaging 11.3 points per game - was not his usual dynamic self in the game and ended with more turnovers (4) than points (3).
Smith though was just what the doctor ordered.
“It was good to have him back,” said 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Mustapha Amzil, who was one of three Flyers in double figures. He had 12 points, Holmes had 18 and Camara added 11 points and 14 rebounds.
“(Malachi) brings such energy,” Amzil said. “He’s a great teammate. It’s much more fun to play with him.”
Grant was just as happy about Smith’s return:
He talked about the “impact” Smith has on the team:
“You see it in his personality and the lift it gives us. And he’s another leader, another voice in the floor for us.
“He breeds confidence in our guys and he also allows our guys to assume their natural roles in terms of where they do their best.”
With Smith back at point guard, Kobe Elvis was able to move back to shooting guard, though on this day his shot ( 3 of 15) wouldn’t fall.
Smith said he felt some nervousness beforehand, but running out the tunnel, hearing the sold-out crowd of 13,407 and then hearing his name announced as a starter reminded him of the good times last season and readied him for what was to come.
Grant noted that after five weeks of inactivity, Smith has to work on his rhythm and timing. And Smith admitted there was some rust.
But he did show spurts of his old self.
Midway through the first half – as the shot clock was winding down – he drove the lane and snaked an almost impossible shot around the Colonials’ 6-foot-3 Enoch Cheeks for a score.
Seconds later Smith forced a turnover that Elvis turned into a three pointer and gave the Flyers a double digit lead.
Known for his aggressiveness on offense and his peskiness on defensive, Smith showed he can still get under an opponent’s skin when, late in the game, he had Colonials guard Michael Green III – who is also from the Bronx – jawing at him after a play.
But there were other times that you could see – be it an errant pass, a flat shot – that he needed more time on the court to get his timing and legs back.
As Smith goes, so goes this Flyers team. He makes everyone better.
The prospect of that had even the usually prudent Grant showing some excitement after Saturday’s game:
“I’ll say this. This is a team where we’re gonna find our rhythm. We’re gonna make our shots. And when we do, I think that this team will be really, really explosive.”
And it was that possibility that prompted that same question – over and over and over - the past five weeks.