'Heart over height': Mike Smith holding his own on defense for Wolverines

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Would Mike Smith be able to adapt and defend in the Big Ten?

It was an important question surrounding the 5-foot-11, 185-pound scoring machine and grad transfer point guard as he made the move from the Ivy League to arguably the toughest conference in the country.

One month and six games into the league schedule, Smith has shown he can hold his own on the defensive side of the ball.

Opponents have tried to post up Michigan guard Mike Smith (12) in recent games but he has held his own.

“He’s accepted the challenge. Some games thus far we’ve asked him to defend bigger guys and he’s really stepped up,” Michigan assistant coach Howard Eisley said ahead of Saturday’s rematch against No. 23 Minnesota.

“We have really bought into being a very good defensive team. We understand that if we want to continue to make jumps to the next level of where we’re trying to go, it’s going to start is with us being a good defensive team."

So far, Smith has stood his ground and pulled his weight for the No. 7 Wolverines despite being the smallest player on the floor on a nightly basis.

In the Big Ten opener against Penn State, Smith primarily guarded Jamari Wheeler (6-foot-1, 170 pounds), who entered the contest averaging 7.3 points. He was held scoreless and attempted just three shots.

On the road at Nebraska, Smith’s assignment was Trey McGowens (6-4, 191), who was averaging 10.6 points at the time. He scored 15 — all in the second half — and went 4-for-11 from the field, though six of his points came when Smith wasn’t in coverage.

Against Maryland, Smith started off on Eric Ayala (6-5, 200) and gave up a corner 3-pointer in the early going before switching and spending most of his time covering Hakim Hart (6-6, 205), who finished just below his season average with eight points on 3-for-6 shooting.

More: Red-hot Michigan basketball has plenty of energy in reserves

Against Northwestern, Smith was put on Chase Audige (6-4, 200), who had scored at least 12 points six times over the Wildcats’ first eight games. He finished with nine points on 11 shots.

In the first meeting against Minnesota, Smith’s defensive assignment was Gabe Kalscheur (6-4, 200), a 3-point threat who was averaging 10.1 points. Like Audige, Kalscheur posted nine points on 11 shots, with his lone made 3-pointer coming in garbage time when Michigan was up 37 points and Smith wasn’t in the game.

Then in Tuesday’s top-10 matchup against Wisconsin, Smith was tasked with guarding another double-digit scorer in Brad Davison (6-4, 202). He finished with a season-low two points on 1-for-8 shooting.

Of course, Smith’s size didn't stop players like McGowens, Audige and Kalscheur from simply shooting over him, and Michigan’s help defense factored into those final stat lines. Not to mention the fact that senior guard Eli Brooks — who Eisley called “one of the best on-ball defenders I’ve been around” — has drawn the tougher backcourt assignment each game, like Wisconsin's D'Mitrik Trice and Minnesota's Marcus Carr.

But Smith has been a capable defender and not a liability, even when opponents try to bully him and post him up on the block. Northwestern and Wisconsin tried to do so multiple times with Anthony Gaines (6-4, 210) and Davison, but Smith either fronted and denied the entry pass or walled up and forced a miss shot.

“I think it's heart over height any time of the day,” Smith said last week. “That's why coach believes in me and that's why coach puts me out there. I think I've done a really good job out there, but I could obviously do better. It takes time and coach is pushing me each and every day to be better on that end."

Eisley noted the players hold one another accountable and to a certain standard. And going up against guys like senior guard Chaundee Brown and Brooks — two players senior forward Isaiah Livers said can win the Big Ten defensive player of the year — in practice has forced Smith to raise his level of play.

Brown said when Smith first arrived in the summer, one area the coaches worked on with him was fighting through pick-and-rolls and not getting “attached” to a ball screen.

“The last couple games he has been doing a tremendous job fighting over the screen, getting back in front of his man and containing the ball,” Brown said. “He’s (drawn) a few charges this year, too, which is really key for him.”

In addition to that, Eisley said Smith has done a better job at applying pressure and answering the coaching staff’s call to be a more aggressive on-ball defender.

“We’re really making a concerted effort to pick guys up in the backcourt more than what we did last year,” Eisley said. “We really want to wear on guys and try to make them as uncomfortable as possible.”

As a result, Smith has played his part on a defensive unit that is holding opponents to 36.9% shooting and 0.903 points per possession, marks that rank eighth and 10th in the nation, respectively.

And, more importantly, he has started to quell any doubts and concerns that his defense would fall short in the jump to the Big Ten.

“Mike Smith still has a chip on his shoulder,” Eisley said. “He’s aware of what people have said about him or what he couldn’t do at this level. I think he’s still out looking to prove people wrong.”

No. 7 Michigan at No. 23 Minnesota

Tip-off: 2 Saturday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis

TV/radio: ESPN2/950

Records: Michigan 11-0, 6-0 Big Ten; Minnesota 10-4, 3-4

Outlook: This is the second meeting between the teams in an 11-day span. Michigan beat Minnesota by 25 points in Ann Arbor last week. …The Gophers are 10-0 at home this season with ranked wins over Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins