The Michigan Wolverines added some much-needed punch at the point guard position over the offseason when securing the commitment of graduate transfer Mike Smith from Columbia. Smith was one of the best scorers in the Ivy League and was the lead dog on a team that could not find its way into the win column as much as it would have liked.
Now, he enters a program where he is far from the only good player on a team that has big expectations for itself in 2020-21.
Smith, who averaged 22.8 points, 4.5 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game last season, spoke to reporters on Tuesday afternoon less than a week after Michigan’s practices began to prepare for a season tentatively set to start around Nov. 25.
“Practice is going well. They’ve got me playing on the ball mostly but off the ball if somebody gets the rebound, they’re allowed to bring it up besides the center,” Smith said. “It’s on and off the ball. My role is just to be a leader out there for everybody. It’s not set in stone yet but, right now, coach has me as one of the leaders. Everybody is a leader but one of the leaders being a fifth year. I think that’s what my role is right now.”
Players seeking a fifth year of eligibility in the Ivy League are forced to move on from their respective programs, as their spots are only given for four years. Smith was granted a fifth year by the NCAA after an injury during his junior year, which meant that his final season was going to have to be played in another uniform.
Because of this, Smith opted to put his name into the transfer portal ahead of his senior season at Columbia. With no shortage of suitors for his services, Smith eventually was sold on the idea of playing for Michigan by head coach Juwan Howard.
“A lot of people were saying, ‘He’s not going to be focused on this season,’ and this and that,” Smith said. “I know what’s best for me and I did the best that I could my senior year. After that, during my senior season, some schools reached out and then didn’t. Ultimately, I think Michigan fit me perfectly because Coach Howard reached out to me personally. All of the other schools, it was like the assistant. It’s like I’m in high school again. I know the game now, there’s no need to trick me anymore. I know how the game works being in college for four years and understanding recruiting.
“Coach Howard reached out and said, ‘hey, it’s between you and Bryce Aiken, that’s the only two people I am recruiting.’ He was straightforward and treated me like a man from day one and say, ‘hey, we need somebody to come in right away and help us.’ It just clicked like that and I felt like I built a relationship right off the rip with him. He cared for me, who I am and not just about basketball. I think that’s a big thing, especially in the world now. How you’re doing as a person and not just on the court. I felt like it was the best fit for me. If you were to go through all of my old posts on Instagram and things like that, you could see so many people saying, ‘Go Blue.’ I just knew that the fans were all in and wanted me to be there. There’s nothing like being wanted somewhere.”
Smith projects to start at guard next to Eli Brooks, who had a breakout season playing the two at Michigan last year. The two backcourt-mates are already working to bring the best out of each other in practices.
“Eli’s a great guy. He plays extremely hard, we guard each other almost every day. He makes me a better player and a better person,” Smith said. “For sure a better player. He’s guarded everybody in the Big Ten and he’s on the list of people that said he’s the hardest person to score on. For me to have that in practice every day, it’s making me a better player. We’re trying to figure out how each one of us can play together and it’s going well so far. I think the chemistry is going well between me and Eli. He has confidence in me and I have confidence in him. I think that’s everything the team needs for sure playing at the 1-2 spot if that were to be the case when the lineups comes out. He’s really grown as a player. I’ve watched some of his games before when he was a youngster. He’s becoming better every day. Each year he’s improved. It’s real good chemistry right now.”
Smith’s stay in Ann Arbor will be a short one as he plays out his final year of eligibility, as will Brooks this season. Despite this, he already sees a bright future at guard with the early promise that true freshman Zeb Jackson has shown in practices.
“Zeb is really good,” he said. “6-3’ frame, maybe 6-4, really athletic, shifty—oh my gosh. So shifty. It’s crazy. You’d expect me to be as shifty as him because I’m so small but he’s really shifty, he can shoot the ball and can guard. He’s going to help for sure this season. This year, next year for sure, taking that role. He’s a leader, he’s a big leader. The sky is the limit for him if he continues to work and understand and buy in to everything coach is telling him. He’s for sure a really good player and a really good kid at that.”
Smith is not joining a roster just looking to get through a season with a few wins here and there. Michigan has lofty goals that it sets for itself with the players already in the building experiencing so much success in their careers. He feels that he fits in perfectly with the core group of players due to his competitive nature.”
“I don’t like to lose,” he said. “I try my hardest to put my effort, 100 percent into every game I play. Even in practice. That’s something that’s big in anything. When you play the game, and if you have somebody that’s competitive, you’re going to bring the best out of everybody. If somebody needs to get yelled at, you’re going to yell at them. If somebody needs to be babied and say, ‘hey, let’s go, pick it up.’ That’s what I’m going to do. I think I’m going to bring the level of competitiveness out of everybody each time we play in practice, even in games.”