Anyone walking near the Cronin Center on the University of Dayton campus on April 18 might have noticed one Dayton Flyers basketball player wearing a protective boot on his ankle while pushing another UD player around in a wheelchair.
Brea couldn’t walk for four to five weeks following his surgery — thus the wheelchair. He and Smith realized any UD fan wondering about the state of the two returning starters would take a second glance at the scene of Smith pushing Brea around.
“It was crazy,” Brea said. “We talk about that day all the time, but it wasn’t just that day. It was a long period of time. But that just shows how he works because when I was a little bit better and he had to do a surgery again, I would help him.”
The two Bronx Flyers, Brea and Smith, sat down in the Skuns Room at the Cronin Center on Friday to talk to the Dayton Daily News about their injuries, the surgeries and where they are now in the rehabilitation process. It’s hard to talk openly about all those things during the season. The offseason gives them an opportunity to update fans. Here’s what they had to say.
Credit: David Jablonski
The 6-foot-6 guard enters his fourth season at UD with 523 career points. He saw his scoring average drop from 8.1 points per game in the 2021-22 season, when he was the Atlantic 10 Conference Sixth Man of the Year, to 6.8 last season — and for good reason.
Brea learned last summer he had stress fractures in both tibias.
“I probably had it before then because I’ve always had complications with my calves,” Brea said, “but I just never really paid it no mind. I thought it was a muscle-type thing. Then it just started to get really, really bad.”
Trainer Mike Mulcahey suggested Brea undergo an X-ray and MRI. The diagnosis of Grade 3 stress fractures surprised Brea. He said the fractures were almost to the point where the bones could have snapped. He would miss four months of workouts and practices.
“We tried to go the non-surgical route and see how everything went,” Brea said. “Then I got an MRI again at the three-month mark, and the fractures went down to a Grade 1. It was healing. Then it was, ‘Let’s just see how everything goes, see how I feel.’ We gave it another month. I started to feel better. Then when I started practicing again, it started to come back a little by little. As the season went on, it just got worse and worse. We got to January and February and were kind of at the point where I knew already we’re probably going to have to do the surgery.”
Brea missed the first two games of the season, played against UNLV and then missed four more games, including all three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, because of an illness. He played in every game the rest of the way and felt fortunate to do so, even if it he wasn’t the same player he had been a year earlier.
There were some highlights. Brea made 4 of 4 3-pointers in a homecoming game at Fordham on Jan. 10. He scored a season-high 18 points in a rout of Richmond later that month at UD Arena.
“I remember at first they didn’t really want me to play because it just a risk,” Brea said. “I definitely started to see how it impacted my game during the year. I started to fear having that big injury. it was in the back of my mind.”
Adrenaline helped Brea get through the games. He felt the most pain after the games.
After the season, Brea had another MRI, which showed the stress fractures were as bad as they were the previous summer. They decided to operate on both legs at the same time because the process would take longer if they did one at a time.
Brea’s parents and younger brother stayed with him for the first two weeks after the surgery to help him when he couldn’t get into bed by himself. At that point, it took him 15 minutes just to get to the bathroom. He couldn’t bathe for a week.
“It gives you a different point of view on life,” Brea said. “It just made me grateful for everything and made me value everything so much more because the little things you don’t think of all of a sudden they become obstacles.”
Brea progressed from a wheelchair to crutches and then a walker.
“I had to learn how to walk again slowly,” he said. “After that, everything’s been pretty good.”
More than three months into the recovery process, Brea is now lifting weights with his lower body, building strength in his legs. He has started running and jumping. He recently started shooting again. He hopes to return to playing with his teammates sometime in the next month.
There’s no official timeline. It will all depend on how Brea progresses and how he feels. He’s hopeful to be active when official preseason practices start in late September or early October.
When Brea does return, he hopes to elevate his game.
“I feel like I’ll be even better now because I won’t be playing with fear or anything like that,” Brea said. “I feel like this is only going to make me be the best version of myself. So I’m extremely excited.”
A 6-0 guard entering his junior season, Smith’s feelings on his status for the upcoming season mirror Brea’s. He’s hopeful he’ll be 100%. It’s just too hard to predict anything with certainty.
Smith had surgery on his right ankle first and then his left. His right ankle feels normal now. The left one is making progress.
“It feels strong; it feels stable,” Smith said. “It’s just sometimes a little tender. You don’t want to rush it. I don’t have any problems with it. I just want to make sure I’m good and then start ramping it up and start going full speed. I’m moving in the right direction.”
Smith has battled ankle injuries throughout his two seasons. He injured his left ankle in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament as a freshman in 2022. He hurt the right ankle in practice last October. After missing the first four games of the season, he played in four games but sprained his left ankle in the final moments of the second half on Nov. 25 during a 79-75 overtime loss to Brigham Young in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Smith missed 11 games but returned to play in 15 of the final 16 games. He injured the left ankle once more in a game against St. Bonaventure but missed only one game. Although he made it through the season, he was in pain the whole way.
“Every game, (trainer) Mike (Mulcahey) would asked how my ankles felt,” Smith said, ‘and I would say, ‘Mike, you know. It’s just sharp pain. I need to get iced. I just need to sit down.’ I just knew I couldn’t be able to play like that, not even this year but for the rest of my career. I’m not going to lie. It was hard.”
Smith averaged 9.3 points and 5.3 assists as a freshman and 7.7 points and 5.6 assists as a sophomore.
“I tried my best to do as much as I could on the court,” Smith said.
Smith’s ankle issues limited his mobility.
“I knew I had to pick my spots where I could go fast,” he said. “I think it was showing. It was obvious people could see that. I don’t think I was trying to hide it. I just tried my best to move when I could and be smart for myself. I know my body.”
Kobe Elvis was sidelined at that point with a knee issue. Mike Sharavjamts played sparingly in the A-10 tournament after banging his knee in the final game of the regular season at Saint Louis. Smith and Brea were playing but with pain. Both also knew they would be undergoing surgeries after the season.
Smith said coach Anthony Grant talked to the players about the NIT decision, and Smith told everyone, “If you guys want to do it, then I’ll do it. But, for me personally, my ankles are hurting.”
UD decided to enter the offseason, and the players scheduled their surgeries. Smith’s thinking was, “Let me get it over with. The pain was too much for too long.” He said Brea was on the same page as him.
Smith’s mom took care of him for a week after the first surgery. His dad did the same after the second surgery. Smith wore a cast on each ankle for four to five weeks after each surgery and then progressed to a boot. He’s now boot-free and watching his teammates practice without him while imagining the team UD will have when he and Brea are healthy and playing with seven new scholarship players.
“I think we’ve got a lot of good pieces that can help us,” Smith said. “They all complement the way we play. I think we will be more well rounded than last year.”
Brea said, “It sucks not being able to practice with them every day but we’re around them and learning everybody and helping them out because it’s a new system for them. They’re doing a great job. They’re picking things up really fast. I feel like this team is going to be really scary.”