Mike Smith never got to play in front of a Crisler Center crowd, but he made about as big of an impact as a one-year player could in high-major college basketball — helping the Maize and Blue to a Big Ten title, No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and an Elite Eight appearance — and now he’s off to pursue the NBA.
From Darius Morris to Trey Burke to Derrick Walton Jr. to Zavier Simpson, Michigan has had stellar point guard play over the last decade, and Smith kept that going this past year.
The Columbia graduate transfer came in last offseason and immediately took to the culture head coach Juwan Howard had in place, which was step one.
He then was able to morph his game into what Howard and the club needed it to be. Known as a scorer at Columbia, averaging an Ivy League-leading 22.8 points per game and attempting over 19 shots per contest, Smith became a facilitator for the Wolverines.
At 5-foot-11, Smith led the Big Ten in assists per outing with 5.3 and managed the country’s 11th-most efficient offense (according to Kenpom) more than anything. He wasn’t known for defense at Columbia, either, but he improved drastically from the time he got to Ann Arbor to the time he left.
It’s not that Smith didn’t score at Michigan — he did plenty of that as well — but he had options around him to spread the ball around to, and then picked his own spots to be aggressive and get a bucket. He averaged nine points per game and shot 41.8 percent from beyond the arc, often getting open spot-up jump shots created by the likes of sophomore Franz Wagner, senior Isaiah Livers and freshman Hunter Dickinson, among others.
“It’s hard when you have a guy who comes in and you’ve averaged 20-plus points per game for years when you’ve been a primary scorer for your team and then you’re asked to a different role,” Howard said of Smith in March. “Your role’s going to change when you’re going to be more of a facilitator, but at the same time, reading game-like situations like when to be aggressive as a point guard, that’s not an easy adjustment to make.
“It says a lot about Mike’s character and about how he wants to accept winning and put winning first and the team first before his individual stats.”
He was willing to buy into the culture and his new role for one simple reason: He wanted to win. That’s something he didn’t do much of at Columbia. In four years at his previous school, his squad posted a 35-77 record and never competed in a postseason game.
At Michigan, his team won its first 11 games and was considered a top-five team for much of the season. But that wasn’t the expectation coming into the year, with the Wolverines being tabbed as the No. 25 team in the country in the preseason. There were question marks, with one of them being how smooth the transition would end up being at point guard, with Smith replacing Simpson. ‘Transferring up’ doesn’t always work out, a fact that makes what Smith did this past season all the more impressive.
Mike Smith’s Top Five Games At Michigan
1. Versus Maryland In The Big Ten Tournament — Playing in the first postseason game of his career, Smith was downright dominant against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. He notched 18 points on 6-of-14 from the field and 2-of-2 from long range, hitting big shot after big shot in what was a tight game most of the way.
The story was the way he commanded the offense and controlled the game, dishing out a Big Ten Tournament-record 15 assists, with zero turnovers. Six of Smith’s assists came in the final 7:06 of the first half, which coincided with the Wolverines’ big run (16-2 over the final 4:43) just before halftime to take a two-point lead despite being down as many as 12 points. It was his day, with Michigan winning 79-66.
2. Versus Texas Southern In The NCAA Tournament’s First Round — Michigan, a No. 1 seed, was never going to lose to No. 16 seed Texas Southern. Despite the Tigers cutting the Wolverines’ lead to 12 in the second half, the game was never truly in doubt, and one of the reasons why was Smith’s performance.
The Maize and Blue were playing their second game without Livers (foot injury), and were still working out some of the kinks — the offense was a bit sloppy. But Smith helped them get the job done, scoring 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting and adding five assists.
3. At Indiana (Feb. 27) — Michigan’s offense was stagnant and, despite the final score (a 73-57 win), it looked ugly at times. The Wolverines got a great performance from Wagner, who finished with 21 points, but needed some buckets to come from elsewhere, and that’s where Smith came in.
On the afternoon, he finished with 14 points — 10 coming in the first half — on an efficient 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the three-point arc. He only dished out three assists, and he actually turned the ball over five times, but this was an example of the ‘Columbia Mike Smith’ being aggressive when Michigan needed him to, shooting when the Hoosiers went under screens on him, and it helped them survive a clunky game in Bloomington.
“I don’t want him to feel like he has to take a backseat,” Howard said of Smith after the win. “You know, read the game, read those opportunities on when you have open shots and when we need you to be aggressive. Make plays for yourself and others.”
4. Versus Bowling Green (Nov. 25) — This wasn’t a game Michigan fans are going to remember, since it was the season-opener against a MAC team that the Wolverines won by 14 points (96-82). But it was the first time Smith suited up in the Maize and Blue, and he proved right away that he belonged on the team.
He hit four of his six shot attempts and scored 16 points, while also dishing out eight assists. He was efficient and picked his spots, and looked the part of a high-major point guard. The game went a long way in convincing fans that he would be a force and could raise Michigan’s ceiling going forward.
5. Versus Wisconsin (Jan. 12) — This was the first ‘big game’ of Smith’s career at Michigan. Sure, the Wolverines had just played ranked teams in Northwestern and Minnesota, but they didn’t turn out to be good teams once things got going in the Big Ten.
The Maize and Blue dominated the Badgers, winning 77-54 and holding a 40-point lead at one point in the second half. Smith contributed with 16 points and six assists. He shot 6-of-9 from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, making his mark on a signature win.
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