Mike Smith was known as one of the Ivy League’s most dynamic scorers. He scored 1,653 career points in four seasons at Columbia, cementing himself as the school’s fourth all-time leader.
The same Mike Smith set a new Big Ten Tournament record with 15 assists on Friday afternoon. And he did it without committing a turnover, all while adding 18 points of his own.
The evolution of Smith is one of the primary reasons the Michigan Wolverines are a near-lock to earn a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. Smith has transformed his game throughout this season from that of a scorer to a creator. That was evident in the Wolverines’ 79-66 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win over Maryland.
“It’s hard when you have a guy who comes in and you’ve averaged 20-plus points per game for years when you’ve been a primary scorer for your team and then you’re asked to a different role,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Your role’s going to change when you’re going to be more of a facilitator, but at the same time, reading game-like situations like when to be aggressive as a point guard, that’s not an easy adjustment to make. It says a lot about Mike’s character and about how he wants to accept winning and put winning first and the team first before his individual stats, but today Mike displayed a mixture of both and it was a great performance.”
Following the offseason departures of Zavier Simpson and David DeJulius, Howard handed Smith — the nation’s sixth-leading scorer last season — the keys to Michigan’s offense. Many questioned whether the graduate transfer had the skill or size to pilot a Big Ten offense, but Smith squashed those doubts early this season.
Smith’s individual offense has taken a backseat role throughout much of this year. His scoring average is down nearly 14 points from his last season at Columbia, but he’s averaging a conference-best 5.5 assists in Big Ten play.
Part of what has made Smith so successful is the talent around him. He has been the catalyst on a team that features deadeye three-point shooters in Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner and a dominant big man in Hunter Dickinson. He has shown an ability to operate comfortably out of ball screens and beat his defender off the dribble, opening up the driving and passing lanes that make the Wolverines’ offense so efficient.
That much was clear on Friday.
“My teammates were just open,” Smith said. “I was trying to make the simple play. Wasn’t trying to force anything, they were making shots. When they’re doing that, we’re a dangerous team. Teams have to respect that we have shooters out there, they were making shots today, playing with confidence, that’s kinda what it is.”
Added Wagner: “I think it’s the positions that he’s in and that he puts himself in in the game, it makes the game a lot easier for himself and others to make those passes. He’s so quick, so fast, he keeps the ball so low that no one can really get to it. He does a great job of kinda seeing the whole floor as he’s dribbling up the court and has a high IQ. He’s so good offensively that you can’t just play him one-on-one, you’ve got to help a little bit and that’s when his ability to find other people comes into play and he did a great job of that today.”
The first time Smith reached 10 assists this season also marked the only scoreless effort of his career, which came during Michigan’s loss at Minnesota. He struck a perfect balance between both dimensions of his game in the win over Maryland. Michigan has the necessary ingredients to make a Final Four run and Smith’s ability to harmonize scoring and facilitating could be the difference in the NCAA Tournament.
Maryland guard Eric Ayala said the Wolverines he saw Friday reminded him of the 2019 Virginia team that won the national title. Teammate Darryl Morsell echoed that sentiment, claiming Michigan is among the “top-five teams I’ve ever played in college,” according to Daniel Oyefusi of the Baltimore Sun.
Right now, Smith is one of the main reasons why.