| Detroit Free Press
Why Michigan basketball’s Mike Smith is grateful for Wolverines
Michigan basketball guard Mike Smith talks Dec. 31, 2020, after his team’s win over Maryland about the luxuries of being on an 8-0 team.
Detroit Free Press
In his first four seasons at Columbia, Mike Smith played 92 games.
The Lions won 35 games during that stretch. Their longest win streak — achieved twice — was three, all in Ivy League play.
On Thursday night, Smith and Michigan basketball won their eighth consecutive game, a 84-73 road win at Maryland that kept the Wolverines’ record unblemished as they head into the New Year. The grad transfer had 16 points, six rebounds and six assists in what might’ve been his best performance of the young season.
“It’s been great. To start 8-0, I never thought it was possible — but it is,” Smith said. “And I’m happy to be a part of this team and to continue to work to be more than just 8-0. To be hopefully 32-0 or whatever it is to get to the national championship and never lose a game.”
Smith has never experienced team success to this extent, not when he was lighting up the Ivy League, scoring 22.8 points per game last season.
All of this is new to Smith — but, he said, not entirely unexpected.
“I’m not surprised,” Smith said. “I looked at rosters. When I wanted to pick a school, I looked at rosters. The team that I wanted to play for, I wanted to play for guys who are gonna be pros and make a lot of money, because it’s gonna make my job easier and I’m gonna make their job easier.
“We all can work in unison to come to the one goal that we want — and that’s a championship. So I’m not surprised by any of this at all.”
The transition has required some sacrifice. Smith averaged 19.3 field-goal attempts per game last season at Columbia. He dominated the ball out of necessity and was given the latitude to continually hunt shots for himself. He was one of the top scoring guards in the country.
Now, as coach Juwan Howard said after Thursday’s win, Smith is “reinventing himself.”
“He’s been a guy who has been a premier scorer in his college days at Columbia,” Howard said. “But he understood before he walked onto campus, our conversations that we had, Mike is going to have to be one of our leaders on the floor and how can he help others get better. He, of course, accepted that challenge.
“Tonight was an example of a guy that was looking to make plays for himself and others. We’re going to need him throughout the year making plays like the plays he made tonight.”
When relayed Howard’s words, Smith chose to define his growth in slightly different terms.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily reinventing myself,” Smith said. “I think it’s just applying new techniques to my game and adjusting to the team.”
Whatever he has done, it has worked.
“Juwan and everybody else look for him to really steady the ship for us, especially offensively,” said freshman center Hunter Dickinson. “You can tell when he’s not in the game, the offense doesn’t run as smoothly out there. Having him out there with his experience and knowledge for the game helps everybody with confidence, everybody knowing where they’re supposed to be.”
Smith is not Zavier Simpson, who shepherded Michigan last season’s and was one of the most productive passing point guards in the country. But he has proven he can capably lead a high-powered offense in his own way. With Smith at the helm, the Wolverines currently rank No. 8 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
Of course, he has had help from Dickinson (26 points on 9 of 11 shooting at Maryland), Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers and the rest of U-M’s rotation. But Smith has made a rather significant impact without having to do nearly as much as he used to do: He is averaging 6.1 field-goal attempts per game; the most shots he has attempted all season is eight against Ball State on Dec. 2. Compare that to last season, when Smith averaged 6.1 3-point attempts per game.
“Everybody thinks of Mike as a scorer because he had I think 22 points a game at Columbia, something like that,” Dickinson said. “We’ve had talks about it in the car — me and him, we often go to get something to eat, and he’s always talking about how he wants to be known as a playmaker as well. He’s always happy when he has high-assist games because he wants to show everyone he’s more than just a scorer, he’s also a playmaker.”
Smith is no longer the volume scorer he needed to be at Columbia. But he is finding and picking spots to make an impact. On Thursday, he hit a crucial step-back jumper in the second half as Michigan went on a 10-0 run to take a decisive lead after Maryland had opened up a four-point lead. In total, Smith made 5 of 7 shots. He hit both 3s he attempted and went 4 of 5 at the free-throw line. He also handed out a team-high six assists.
This season, Smith has an offensive rating of 119.7, which would shatter his previous career-high of 106.8. His effective field-goal percentage (57.1%), true shooting percentage (62.9%), 2-point shooting percentage (55.2%) and 3-point shooting percentage (40%) are all currently career-highs, too.
Smith is using roughly half as many possessions as he did last season. He is taking 14.4% of the team’s shots when he is on the court — compared to 34.5% last season, 19th-most in the nation. His new role required plenty of adjustment. But Smith and U-M are finding that it suits him just fine.
“I think I’ve been trying to figure it out — and I think I’m figuring it out,” Smith said. “Coach is instilling the confidence in me that I need and I’m just out there playing the game that I love the way that I know to play the game. And it’s been working. So if it’s not broke, then why would you fix it? I’m gonna continue to go with what coach wants me to do, and it’s been working.”