Nick Smith never minded the stigma.

After playing for Nova Southeastern men’s basketball coach Jim Crutchfield, the 2017 North Hills graduate couldn’t help but bring home the Sharks’ signature fast-paced offensive and defensive approaches to the game he became ingratiated with as part of the NCAA Division II program in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“He kind of re-explained the game of basketball to me in a way that I can’t play a different way,” Smith said. “He ingrains a brand of basketball in you that when I would go home in the summers and play at the park, play at North Park, I’m up there pressing 45-year-old guys in the summer.

“I’m getting side-eyed at the North Park courts because I’m pressing old men,” he added. “It’s the way he gets you to play, and it’s a blast.”

Few programs across all of college sports have been having as much fun as Nova Southeastern lately — and Smith has had a front-row seat for all of it.

Now in his second season as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Smith will be looking to help lead No. 1 seed Nova Southeastern (31-2) to a victory in Saturday’s NCAA Division II national championship game against second-seeded Minnesota State, Mankato (34-2) at 3 p.m. at Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. The game will be televised nationally on CBS.

 The Sharks will be looking to defend their title, after earning the first national championship in school history a season ago with a win against West Liberty.

Smith was hired as an assistant coach under Crutchfield last season after wrapping up a strong career at Nova Southeastern a year earlier.

“It’s crazy,” Smith said. “The last three years we have been on a little bit of a tear since COVID. We are 99-3 in our last three seasons. One of those seasons I was playing and two of them as a coach. It’s just I think a testament to coach Crutch.”

Smith, who scored 1,763 career points in high school, got his first taste of success leading North Hills to its first WPIAL championship game appearance in school history in 2016 before helping the Indians return to the district semifinals a year later.

Once in college, Smith found early success starting 20 games as a freshman and averaging 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while also shooting a team-best 44.9% from 3-point range. He cemented his place in the Nova Southeastern starting lineup as a sophomore averaging 7.8 points per game before becoming the 17th player in Sharks history to eclipse the 1,000-point threshold as a junior.

“I was recruited heavily by West Liberty, where coach was before, and by his head assistant Ben Howlett,” said Smith of Crutchfield, whose record of 359-61, and .855 winning percentage with the Hilltoppers, is the highest among coaches at any NCAA level who spent at least 10 seasons at their institution. “Coach ended up making that same transition before I signed my national letter of intent. He offered me down in Fort Lauderdale, and I had no clue about it.

“Going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale is a whole different world. It was an easy ‘yes’ to move down south.”

Smith said getting to learn from Crutchfield has been incredibly valuable. The fast-paced style of play he popularized in Division II basketball circles has made Nova Southeastern a force nationally.

The Sharks average an NCAA Division II-best 100.7 points per game, while their full-court press defense adds to the frenetic pace of playing against the defending national champions.

“The first few years of college basketball, I think I had a pretty good idea, coach Crutchfield said, ‘You’re going to be a coach someday,’” Smith said.

In addition to his tutelage under Crutchfield, Smith said he also has benefited from playing for and coaching with former Nova Southeastern assistant coach Jordan Fee.

After the Sharks’ national-title run, Fee, a Grove City native, was named head coach of the Gannon men’s basketball team and quickly instituted an impressive turnaround for the once downtrodden program.

Fee inherited a three-win program and led Gannon to a 32-3 record in his first season leading the Knights, which included a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

“I talk to Jordan once every week, I’d say,” Smith said. “It was unbelievable what he did. The fact that he would turn a three-win program into a 32-3 team is nuts. I know he was upset about how it ended the other night, but it’s one of the craziest, best turnarounds in college basketball history.”

While he learned Nova Southeastern’s style of play in part from Fee, Smith said the lessons he learned watching him interface with Crutchfield and the Sharks players alike will be very valuable as he moves forward in his career.

“Obviously the end goal in coaching is to have your own team, to be a head coach,” Smith said. “One day I think I will be. It could happen next year, it could happen five years down the road. I’m going to be patient with that and enjoy it right now.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at