The Indiana Hoosiers are in the midst of a journey, that's captivated a nation of fans. And South Bend's Raphael Smith has been along for the ride. Every step of the way.
"It's a great feeling", Smith said before Indiana's NCAA Tournament opener in Dayton, Ohio last week. "This is what you grow up with. And like, 'Wow! I'm actually in it now!'"
Smith has been a part of the Hoosier basketball program for two years. A former stand-out at South Bend Riley high school, Smith turned down several offers to play small college basketball.
"I was convinced I could play at the division one level", Smith says.
Without any offers, he chose to put his long term future ahead of his short term desire to keep playing, opting instead for the benefits of an Indiana University education. In the fall of 2010 as a freshman, Smith attended walk-on tryouts. Months went by. Smith assumed his shot had passed. Until one day the phone rang.
"They asked me to come to practice", Smith recalls. He's been going back ever since.
"It's definitely a blessing. Growing up, it's one of those things everyone works for. Being able to play....being given the opportunity is great."
Smith's role with the Big Ten Champs is not glamorous. He puts in just as much work as the stars, but without any of the fanfare or attention of guys like Cody Zeller & Victor Oladipo. All the running. All the lifting. All the film. But on game days, he rarely sees the court. He's appeared in 13 of Indiana's 35 games this season, and scored four points.
Indiana will face Syracuse on Thursday night in the Sweet 16, a nationally televised game that can be seen locally on WSBT-TV. Smith's game days, however, take place behind closed doors. In practice.
"My role is to make the guys better", Smith admits. "Whatever I need to do to help the team win, that's where I fit in."
If results mean anything, he's fitting in quite well.
"My connection with the guys is great. It's something I'll have for the rest of my life. These guys are like my brothers."
As Indiana attempts to chase down a spot in the final four this weekend, and perhaps, a 6th national championship, Smith will continue to grind behind the scenes, knowing all the while he's played a role in Indiana's return to prominence.