Northern Oklahoma College basketball coach Greg Shamburg owns two mutts, Radar and Lucky.
It is hard to find players Shamburg trusts with their care when he travels. His best dog-sitter now plays for Wichita State. Junior Ben Smith, a transfer from the Enid school, was the rare student Shamburg counted on to keep Radar and Lucky fed.
"If you tell Ben to do it, he'll do it," Shamburg said. "Other kids, they forget to do it. He's just a kid you're not afraid to give responsibility."
Smith, a 6-foot-4 forward from Oklahoma City, is just as reliable at WSU this season. He earned Missouri Valley Conference Sixth Man of the Year honors for his scoring. He averages seven points, making a team-best 40.5 percent of his three-point shots. Conference play cooled off almost every Shocker shooter except Smith. He made 24 of his 48 threes in 18 MVC games and averaged 8.3 points.
His efficiency makes him such a valuable player off the bench. It's rare to see Smith take a bad shot or force the action. He is the rare transfer who knows his strengths and weaknesses and fits in smoothly.
"When I first came here, I knew we had a lot of seniors on the team," Smith said. "I tried to learn my whole team's personnel, and then play off that."
That attitude made Smith a favorite of his previous coaches. He is an elementary education major who was liked and respected around his high school and junior college. Working with youngsters is his passion.
"He has a smile that brightens up a room," Oklahoma City Southeast coach Walt Brewer said. "You wish you had 15 of him."
Shamburg doesn't remember Smith missing a class in two years at the junior college.
"I'd give him the keys to my house," he said. "Ben is the best kid I've probably coached in 20 years."
Smith shared time with senior Graham Hatch at small forward. He scored 16 points against Evansville in the MVC opener, his first game with more than one three-pointer. By February, Smith was the player fans wanted to see with the ball when WSU needed a three. He scored in double figures in six of WSU's final nine regular-season games, including a high of 17 at Evansville.
"Playing hard, playing defense, shooting the three — that's my role," he said.
Fans who watched those shooting performances might not believe his high school coach couldn't get him to shoot. Smith played in the lane at Oklahoma City Southeast. Brewer called him a Dennis Rodman player — lots of rebounds and energy with no jump shots.
"He told me he wasn't a shooter," Brewer said. "I told him he had to shoot. One summer, he worked at it."
Shamburg watched Smith play three times for Southeast and remembers him taking one three-pointer.
"He works on his weaknesses," Shamburg said. "We moved him out to the perimeter and he was in the gym almost every day shooting threes. Now it looks like a lay-up every time."
It's not easy all the time for Smith. He is one of several Shockers who would like to use the National Invitation Tournament as fresh start.
Smith is 3 for 17 from three-point range in WSU's past six games. Defenses rarely leave him open, and he is not yet adept at faking or dribbling to create jump shots on the move.
"Lately, he has not played as well," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "I don't know whether that's because people are concentrating on him because of the numbers he was putting up. I know he's got to play better than he has in the last several games for us to be successful."