Jerret Smith Leads Michigan to Victory
Yes. I just wrote that. I can't believe it either.
Leader of Men, Stealer of Hearts*
Smith was just about everywhere on Saturday. In what was unquestionably his best game as a Wolverine, Smith notched 11 points, dished 7 assists, grabbed 4 boards and notched a steal. Uncharacteristically, Smith was in control of himself and the team the entire game. The silly turnovers weren't there, but the crisp bounce passes and perfectly arced lobs were. The Rim and floor bound bricks disappeared for a more aesthetic and accurate short jumper and drive to the lane. Though Smith did turn the ball over 4 times, but only two of those turnovers can be described as "things Jerret would do." More importantly, in taking control of Michigan's offense, Smith freed Dion Harris to roam the backcourt for open shots. Harris went nuts as a result, going for 21 on 6-10 shooting (5-7 from three), doling out 5 assists and making one unbelievable steal.
Smith and Harris were in complete control the entire game. Which was good, because despite the final score, Michigan was not.
After quickly jumping out to an early 7 point lead Michigan allowed Purdue to take a 5 point lead midway through the first half. Despite managing to keep Carl Landry on the bench for a majority of the first half; Michigan couldn't put Purdue away early. Inside play in the first half was nearly non-existent. Most of the first half was spent on the top of the key with Michigan looking for jump shots. Things went fine early, but when things started getting cold, so did the Michigan offense. It was an ugly first half.
Still. Michigan lead 25-23 at the half.
It was a strange first half. Michigan got hot and lead early. Then the shots didn't fall and Michigan got out of rhythm and allowed Purdue to stay in a game they really had no business even attending.
When the second half began Michigan grabbed control of the game with a big run with Smith leading the court. Michigan eventually jumped out to a 56-40 lead. What was most impressive was the manner in which Michigan did it. The Wolverines drove the lane. They made the kick out pass. They found the open man. They made the extra pass. It was really the best they've played all year. Open shots were created not found. It was fun to watch.
Still, the game wasn't put away until late. Purdue made a mini-run to pull within 11. That was as close as the Boilermakers would get. It wasn't enough. Following a Purdue three pointer to bring them within 11, Michigan responded with 11 points to Purdue's 8. Despite being pressured at every opportunity, Michigan maintained its composure and found ways to beat the pressure emerging with a 71-55 win.
In terms of game balls, there are plenty to go around. Dion Harris showed he's found and bronzed his shooting touch. Harris has been sizzling from the floor the last three games and has maintained control of the ball and himself in a manner that was absent early this year. Lester Abram seems completely back from injury. Abram is playing defense in a way he's never done before and he's hitting the boards with a vengeance (6 rebounds). Combine that with a quickly recovering jump shot and Abram has become the dangerous player we all knew he could be, again.
On the defensive end Brent Petway deserves a special nod. Whenever Purdue went into the paint Petway was hovering somewhere around the rafters waiting to block their shots. All four of his blocks were of the spectacular variety. So were almost all of his points.
Petway buried two sickening alley-oops, including one midway through the second half where he seemed to hang in the air long enough to write the next great American novel before catching a Harris lob with both hands and flushing it with an angry right hand. Petway's energy electrified the crowd on both ends of the court. When he wasn't slamming home a monsterous dunk or swatting a Purdue shot into orbit, he was playing stifling defense. Petway seems totally aware of his limitations but as a man wishing to be more than he currently is he works harder and tries harder to make up for those limitations by being better and better at the things he does well. He is supremely talented yet flawed. Yet he knows this, accepts it, and becomes more than he should be. He is the heart and soul of this team.
Then there is King Udoh. Emperor of the paint. The Brigadier Block. Michigan's true defensive hope in the post. Even as a freshman on an All Big-Ten senior, Udoh held his own against Carl Landry. He played physical yet intelligently, altering shots by his body position and condor-like arms. He soaks up crucial minutes when Sims is on the bench and does so competently. Bring him meats and cheeses. He is your new King.
Despite the efforts of the above mentioned players, Michigan was uneasy with a lead. Perhaps this is because Michigan is unaccustomed to leading by big margins. Perhaps it's because despite the experience on this team they are all rookies to winning with expectations. As Bob Becker of the Grand Rapids Press writes, this is not an easy team to watch. He's right. But it is an entertaining one. And it is a team that is growing in positive ways.
The most obvious example of this is Jerret Smith. The much maligned Michigan sophomore played the best game of his career on Saturday. I admit to still having my doubts about Smith. I admit to calling for Reed Baker to take over the secondary ball handling duties. But on Saturday, I was wrong. Smith showed a maturity he's either been hiding or just acquired in guiding the Wolverines offense. His passes were well placed and crisp. He made good decisions. He was strong on the boards. He played well.
Michigan will need a lot more from him if they are to keep their Tournament hopes alive.
Next up: 1/24 @ Wisconsin
* photo courtesy: UM Photo Services, Martin Vloet