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Chaundee Brown, Mike Smith, and the pursuit of winning basketball

It’s hard to find two better instant-impact transfers across the country.

Minnesota v Michigan Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Before they transferred to Michigan, Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown experienced no shortage of individual success.

At Columbia, Smith finished his senior season as the nation’s sixth-leading scorer. He established himself as one of the Ivy League’s top offensive players, but the Lions lost their last 13 games. On the other hand, Brown emerged as a star in his own right in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest, however, finished with a losing record in each of his three seasons.

But in Ann Arbor, Smith and Brown play crucial roles for the 10th-ranked Wolverines. Smith’s seamless transition to the Big Ten and Brown’s energy off the bench are two of the reasons why Michigan has set itself apart with a 6-0 conference record.

Over the first six weeks of the season, Smith and Brown have become case studies across the country for what it takes to be a successful transfer. The transfer portal is becoming an important dimension of college basketball roster management, but not every player fits as well as Smith and Brown at their destination. Really, it’s rare to see a plug-and-play transfer succeed as much as Smith or Brown — a testament to the eye of Michigan coach Juwan Howard and his staff, who identified and recruited both this past spring.

Smith, especially, has provided a smooth transition in the Wolverines’ backcourt during the first year of the post-Zavier Simpson era. He’s averaging 9.2 points on 52 percent shooting, including a 71 percent 3-point clip during Big Ten games. But perhaps most importantly, his 5.4 assists per game show that he’s successfully piloting a high-major offense.

“I don’t think people really expected Mike to be the playmaker that he has been,” assistant coach Howard Eisley told reporters during a Zoom call Thursday. “He wasn’t called upon to do that at Columbia, he was more of a scorer, but he’s definitely, as we’ve seen, very capable of making plays for others. Again, he has a chip on his shoulder. I think he’s aware of what people have said about him and what he couldn’t do at this level, so he’s still out to prove people wrong.”

Through 11 games, Brown’s impact has been felt most at the other end of the floor. His defensive contributions off the bench have given opposing guards fits, especially when he replaces senior guard Eli Brooks. It’s hard to find two better on-ball defenders in the conference, let alone on the same team.

On Thursday, Brown told reporters that one of his goals for the season is to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. His play through the first two months of the season has given him a real shot to this point.

But after three straight losing seasons at Wake Forest, Brown didn’t book his ticket to Ann Arbor for an individual award. He made the move in pursuit of winning basketball games.

“Losing, it’s not a good feeling to anyone cause 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, working on your defense. For all that to go down the drain, losing continuously is not a good feeling.”

Looking around the country, it’s difficult to find a program that brought in two better additions via the transfer portal. And so far, Smith and Brown are two of the biggest X-factors in the Wolverines’ unbeaten start.

“I think they both were looking forward to the challenge in being a part of something special,” Eisley said. “We feel like we’re working to do something special. They both have been a tremendous help to us. I think both guys were very excited to come in and have an opportunity to contribute to something they haven’t experienced before.”