Transfers Chaundee Brown, Mike Smith flourish in Michigan's winning environment

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Last offseason, transfers Chaundee Brown and Mike Smith had their share of suitors and possible landing spots. Their paths led them to Ann Arbor for one reason — to win.

Just two months into the schedule at Michigan, they’ve come across more success than they have at any time during their previous stops at Wake Forest and Columbia.

“I think they both were looking forward to the challenge and being a part of something special. We feel like we’re working to do something special,” assistant coach Howard Eisley said this month.

“I think both of the guys were very excited to come in and have an opportunity to contribute to something that they haven’t experienced before.”

Chaundee Brown (15) has already won as many games at Michigan (13) as he did during his best season at Wake Forest.

Brown, a senior guard, endured three losing seasons with the Demon Deacons. His teams never won more than 13 games in a season and never finished better than 13th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference standings. By the time he left Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest posted a .376 win percentage and a woeful 14-42 mark in league play over that three-year span.

Nearly halfway through the Big Ten slate, Brown has already helped the Wolverines reach 13 total wins, eight conference victories and a No. 4 national ranking.

“I definitely feel like this was the best move for myself,” Brown said. “It's awesome being with a team that's No. 1 in the Big Ten. …I like that competition and teams coming and giving their best shot at us because I feel like I respond well to that."

There’s a notion that players who come from winning programs are greater assets because they know what it takes to succeed. That could partly explain why Brown and Smith weren’t viewed among the most coveted commodities on the transfer market.

But on flip side, Brown grew to loathe losing, which fueled his desire to finish his college career elsewhere and do whatever it took to change that.

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“Losing is not a good feeling to anyone because you work so hard night in, night out,” Brown said. “How many workouts you do a day, how many shots you put up, how many hours you spend running through plays and working on your defense, all that goes down the drain.”

Smith, a grad transfer guard, can attest to that. During his four years at Columbia, he was a part of a program that lost (65) more than twice as many games as it won (27) when he played.

That was lowlighted by last season’s 6-24 record and 1-13 mark in Ivy League play, even though Smith was one of the top scorers in the nation. But no matter how many points he put up for his team to at least be competitive, it rarely made a difference.

“I don't think I've ever been over .500 over my college career,” Smith said. “I think that's a testimony being at Michigan and my teammates and the coaching staff and the plan (here). It's just fun.”

Assistant coach Phil Martelli pointed out that by Jan. 19 — when the Wolverines picked up their 12th victory — Smith had won more games in eight weeks at Michigan than he did in an entire season at Columbia.

Mike Smith

As the Wolverines have demolished one foe after another, Martelli noted there has been a noticeable difference in the way Brown and Smith carry themselves.

“If you put a light on those two guys, this winning — I see it in their bounce, in their step,” Martelli said. “There's real joy in what they're doing.

“It's a tremendous way to go through life playing college basketball, but there's a lot of sacrifices. And when you're not winning, man, those sacrifices become magnified.”

When Brown and Smith committed to Michigan, they both did so knowing they weren't going to be playing the same roles they did in the past. Brown went from being a starter to one of the top sixth men in the league thanks to his disruptive defense and outside shooting. Smith went from being a volume shooter and scorer to an orchestrator who leads the Big Ten with 5.6 assists per game.

The smooth acclimation started during the recruiting process when coach Juwan Howard assessed how their skill sets, personalities and goals meshed with the team and the program’s culture. After getting to know Brown and Smith, Howard recalled viewing their additions as a “no-brainer” and a “perfect fit.”

Once Brown and Smith were on board, Martelli said the players insisted the two be included on the team’s weekly offseason Zoom calls — which typically were held on Fridays at 4 p.m. — as soon as they were allowed.

“From the very first day they were on the call, it was not as if they were new to the team. It was as if they were part of this team,” Martelli said. “And they actually joined the calls sooner than the freshmen joined the calls.”

When the players arrived on campus and workouts began in the summer, Martelli said they didn’t slowly dip Brown’s and Smith’s toes in the water. They dove right in, immersed themselves and started practices as if they had already been a part of what the team was doing all along.

Ever since then, it's been a nearly seamless transition as Brown and Smith have been essential pieces to Michigan’s success, putting the Wolverines in the driver's seat in the Big Ten race and themselves in position to finally play meaningful games in March.

“I'm happy they're a part of our family and didn't go to any other school,” Howard said.

The feeling is mutual.

“Like I tell Mike after every game, we're winning now,” Brown said. “We were in the same boat and actually winning now, it just feels great. I can't ask for nothing better.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins