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'He's also a playmaker': Mike Smith gives Michigan a boost with more than points

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Mike Smith wanted to win. Michigan needed a veteran point guard to help it do the same. That’s what led Smith — after four losing seasons at Columbia — to change course and head to Ann Arbor as a grad transfer.

So far, the combination has been a win-win as the No. 16 Wolverines and Smith have done nothing but win. But it’s also proven to be a pairing that’s prospering with each passing game.

“Coach (Juwan Howard) still is trying to figure me out, I'm trying to figure him out, I'm trying to figure out everybody's tendencies in-game,” Smith said after Michigan's 84-73 win at Maryland. “For sure, I think I definitely felt more comfortable (Thursday) and the last two games.

“I think as the days go on and I start to get to know everybody and coach starts to get to know how I play and the tendencies that I have, I think I'm feeling more comfortable.”

It has shown in Smith’s steady and heady play. Over the past two contests, Michigan’s offense has operated at a high level with Smith at the controls, shooting 50.8% in the win at Nebraska and a season-high 58.8% in the victory at Maryland.

Against Nebraska, Smith was stellar as he pushed the ball in transition, weaved his way through traffic and set up his teammates time and again to the tune of six assists. It was more of the same against Maryland as Smith penetrated the paint and made the extra pass to create open looks with another six-assist effort.

Michigan guard Mike Smith (12) stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, six assists and six rebounds in Thursday's win at Maryland.

"Everybody thinks of Mike as a scorer because he had 22 points per game at Columbia,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said. “We've had talks about it in the car. 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 gets to show everybody that he's more than just a scorer. He's also a playmaker.”

Even when times have been tough and Michigan has found itself in a tight spot, Smith has been able to come through and make plays for others. When Penn State took a two-point lead late in the Big Ten opener, it was Smith who fed Dickinson for the tying and winning baskets in the final two minutes.

Then when Nebraska tried to climb out of a double-digit hole and made a second-half push, Smith helped turn the Cornhuskers away with a pair of key assists to thwart the threat.

"Mike's the old head on the team. Juwan and everybody else look for him to steady the ship for us, especially offensively,” Dickinson said. “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 his knowledge for the game definitely helps everybody with confidence and everybody knowing where they're supposed to be.”

Smith has also shown he can still call his own number and deliver when needed. When Nebraska whittled Michigan’s 13-point advantage down to four, Smith made two timely baskets to prevent things from unraveling.

When Maryland erased a 10-point deficit and took its first lead early in the second half, Smith responded on the next possession by getting his own shot in the lane late in the shot clock and hitting a step-back jumper over Eric Ayala. After Maryland regained the lead again, it was Smith who knocked down another step-back jumper — this time off a pick-and-roll — to put Michigan back on top for good.

“I'm capable of doing that every trip down. If you go back and look at Columbia's stats, I for sure can do it,” Smith said. “But that's just not what we need here. It's about sharing the ball and playing together. If we need that, I will do it. It's about time and score, and if nobody gets a shot open and the ball gets back to me, just make a shot for the team and take a good shot.

“I think those two shots that I shot (Thursday), I was really comfortable because I'm used to doing that. Coach has confidence in me and the team has confidence in me, so why not do it when we need it?”

Through eight games, Smith averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game while playing fewer minutes and taking fewer shots than he ever did during his time at Columbia. As a result, he’s averaging a career-low 9.1 points per game, but he’s shooting 49% from the field and 40% from 3-point range, both career-best marks.

As Smith has gone from scoring in the Ivy League to facilitating in the Big Ten, coach Juwan Howard said Smith has been “reinventing himself” to provide what Michigan needs — a floor general who can create shots and make his teammates better.  

However, Smith wouldn’t necessarily describe the balance he has struck between facilitating and finding his own shot in his new role as a reinvention.

“I think it's applying new techniques to my game and adjusting to the team,” Smith said. “I think I've been trying to figure it out and I think I've figured it out. 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 how to play the game, and it's been working. If it's not broke, then why would you fix it? I'm going to continue to go with what coach wants me to do.”

When talking about Smith before the Maryland game, assistant coach Phil Martelli said point guards are measured by how many games their team wins, not by how many points they score. Martelli noted Smith did plenty of the latter and not enough of the former for four years at Columbia, where he never won more than three games in a row.

That’s why all the sacrifices and successes have been gratifying and satisfying — and leaving Smith wanting more.

“To start 8-0, I never thought it was possible,” Smith said. “But it is.

“When I wanted to pick a school, I looked at their rosters. The team that I wanted to play for, I wanted to play with some guys that are pros, that are going to be pros and make a lot of money because it's going to make my job easier and I'm going to make their job easier. We all can work in unison to come to one goal that we want and that's a championship. I'm not surprised by any of this at all.”

No. 19 Northwestern at No. 16 Michigan

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/950 AM

Records: Northwestern 6-2, 3-1 Big Ten; Michigan 8-0, 3-0

Outlook: Michigan is one of four unbeaten teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25…The Wolverines have won three straight in the series and have won the past eight meetings in Ann Arbor…Northwestern ranks third in the Big Ten in both offensive (83.6 points) and defensive (65.4 points) scoring and seventh in the nation in 3-point shooting (42.4%)…The Wildcats are led by junior forward Miller Kopp (14.6 points) and are coming off an 87-72 loss at Iowa.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins