Homegrown star Smith leads Blue Demons

When it comes to basketball talent, the Second City is first rate.

Some of the all-time greats, including Olympians such as Yolanda Griffith and Tamika Catchings, spent time in Chicago in their younger days. Current Chicago products gracing collegiate courts include Tennessee's Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter of Rutgers.

DePaul senior forward Khara Smith is also part of the rich Chicago hoops heritage. But she holds a special place. Smith not only grew up in the area but also has stayed close to home, suiting up for the Blue Demons. Unlike the others who followed pursuits elsewhere, Smith knew there was only one place to be.

"I wanted to stay close to home," said Smith (whose first name is pronounced Ky-ruh). "I've spent all my life in Chicago. I have wonderful support from my family. I played here at DePaul with my cousin, Charlene, and she was a special person for me. The whole program provides a family atmosphere."

Family has always been important for Smith, who, as the oldest of eight kids, is very familiar with the team dynamic.

"Leading comes naturally to me because I am so used to having younger kids look up to me," she said. "I understand how to read people and figure out how they respond in different ways."

Smith has learned the ropes from watching her mom, Gloria, raise a large family in suburban Chicago. Smith also has been tutored under former Blue Demons like her cousin, Charlene, former point guard Jenni Dant and current assistant coach Sarah Kustok.

"[Coach] Doug [Bruno] has called me the mother hen of the group, and it's really come into play with a young team this year," said Smith, who has helped DePaul reach No. 11 in the AP poll, the program's highest ranking ever. "Sometimes I have to be stern and sometimes I have to be caring and calm. I think the girls can come to me to talk about anything, and I just try to answer any questions they have."

With seven underclassmen on the roster, and as DePaul transitions into the Big East, Smith's leadership is especially vital. The Blue Demons, who won their first seven games of the season, hit their first road bump Wednesday, losing their conference opener 79-77 in overtime at South Florida.

Back home, Smith also gets plenty of Chicago family influence from her father, Ken Norman. He starred for the University of Illinois in the late 1980s and played for more than a decade in the NBA.

"My dad was always traveling with the NBA when I was younger so we didn't play basketball much when I was growing up," Smith said. "Now he's a good listener. He lets the coaches do their thing, helps me stay grounded and stay levelheaded. He never forces anything on me, he just answers my questions and makes suggestions."

Smith has developed into a Wade Trophy candidate who averages a double-double, and she credits the patriarch of the DePaul family for much of her progress. Like Smith, Bruno has been around Chicago basketball his whole life.

"He's the type of coach any player would like to have," Smith said. "He has tremendous knowledge of the game and of life. I've tried to be open to learning and willing to listen to what he has to say. I really appreciate him as a teacher of the game."

The move to the Big East should greatly benefit Smith's exposure and the attention given to the DePaul program.

"We're all excited to join the Big East," said Bruno, whose team is predicted to finish fourth in the conference. "Just look at what it has done for Notre Dame since they joined the conference. They've grown from a top-50 team to win a national championship.

"We talk about the Big East with recruits and they understand. Our sophomore class is the first group of kids that we recruited against the major conferences to get, and we won."

Smith calls her new conference a "different caliber" of basketball.

"I had some good experiences in [Conference USA], competing against centers like [Sandora] Irvin at TCU, [Jazz] Covington at Louisville and [Sancho] Little at Houston," she said. "Some of them are in the WNBA, and they helped elevate my game. Now it's time to move on and face new challenges."

Big East opponents -- including perennial powers such as Rutgers, Connecticut and Notre Dame -- are about to face a big new challenge as well. Smith enters the league as the best low-post player in the conference. Bruno is most impressed by Smith's athleticism, which he defines with his own Chicago definition.

"She has what I call 'eye-brain-body quickness,'" he said. "People generally equate being athletic with running fast and jumping high. But how fast information goes from your eyes to your brain and out to your body, that is true athleticism. And on that scale, Khara is as good as it gets. She assimilates so quickly. Khara is one of the most intelligent and hardest-working players we've ever had here."

Smith will undoubtedly go down as one of DePaul's best ever. She is on pace to become the school's first three-time All-American and will probably close out her career with more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Under Smith's leadership, the Blue Demons are enjoying the most successful era in school history, having won 78 percent of their games over the past four years.

Much of that success comes from homegrown talent. Smith is joined in the starting lineup by three other locals, and the DePaul roster includes 10 Chicagoland players.

Senior Claudette Towers is the new point guard, sophomore Allie Quigley was the C-USA Freshman of the Year last season and junior Jenna Rubino is shooting around 50 percent from 3-point range. Michigan import Erin Carney rounds out the starting five and is another member of that groundbreaking sophomore class.

But all of this civic pride does not translate into Windy City hospitality when opponents come to town. The new sisters of the Big East should note that DePaul doesn't take kindly to strangers looking for an easy win.

The Blue Demons enjoy one of the best home-court advantages in college basketball -- they've won 42 of their last 43 games in Chicago. (Tennessee needed overtime a couple years ago to escape with the only visitor's win in that time.) Nationally ranked Purdue was the latest to fall last week. Notre Dame and UConn both come calling later this season, and Chicago is also hosting an NCAA subregional next March.

To beat DePaul, you have to able to score with the Blue Demons. They led the nation in scoring last year and are pouring in more than 80 points per game this season.

"Our offense is designed to put people in a position to make plays," Bruno said. "It was never our intention to lead the country in scoring. I'm more proud of the fact that we were also No. 1 in assists last year, in a system where everyone can get three or four assists per game."

Smith will certainly need the assistance of her teammates in the Big East. She is likely to see double-teams and plenty of junk defenses designed to stop her. She will also be facing her toughest opponent to date: plantar fasciitis in her heels. Smith is getting back in playing shape after resting her feet for most of the offseason and is still under doctor's orders to take every other day off from practice to limit wear and tear.

If she stays healthy, it should be a special season in Chicago, with a chance for DePaul to win a Big East title and achieve NCAA Tournament glory. And though her time at DePaul is winding down, Smith might not be leaving home anytime soon. The WNBA's latest expansion team, the Chicago Sky, starts play next summer and could offer her a chance to stay close to her most important fans.

"I'm close to my family, but I still miss seeing them every day like I used to," Smith said. "I talk to them all the time and write each of my brothers and sisters letters to stay close."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.