Playing under the looming shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic already provided a certain level of uncertainty, but entering this season, the Michigan men’s basketball team also had to contend with a number of question marks on its roster.
Chief among those concerns was replacing Zavier Simpson at point guard. The grizzled veteran owned that position for three consecutive seasons, finishing his career as Michigan’s all-time winningest player alongside classmate Jon Teske.
Simpson’s replacement would have big shoes to fill.
Into them stepped graduate transfer Mike Smith. The Chicago native and former Columbia point guard chose the Wolverines from a list of high-major suitors. How Smith would handle his new role and a step up in competition was an unknown. Whether he felt the burden of replacing Simpson though, was not.
“We don’t even talk about that,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington told The Daily on Sept. 30. “(Smith) just has to be the best version of himself within what we do. He’s done a tremendous job so far just coming in and embracing his role and learning, but also kinda being he who is as a player and as a person. That’s what we really need. You don’t replace a guy like (Simpson) … you just keep trying to build on those types of things.”
Fourteen games into Smith’s Michigan career, those remaining question marks have also largely been put to bed. Smith has been a stable, veteran presence for the 13-1 Wolverines. As the team’s primary ball handler, Smith is averaging 8.4 points, a conference-best 5.6 assists and just 2.4 turnovers per game — marks that have held steady through nine Big Ten games.
While Smith’s current statline is a far cry from the 22.8 points per game he put up as a senior at Columbia, his role with the Wolverines has been completely different than that of his first act. He’s taking just over six shot attempts per game compared to 19.3 a season ago.
He still starts most offensive possessions with the ball in his hands, but he’s evolved into someone who looks to set a teammate up for the final shot, whereas he was usually the one taking it at Columbia. On a talent-laden Michigan team, Smith’s shown a willingness to defer to his teammates.
“Mike is reinventing himself,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters after the Wolverines’ win over Maryland on Dec. 31 — arguably Smith’s best performance of the season, registering 16 points and six assists.
“He’s been a guy who has been a premier scorer … he understood before he walked onto campus, our conversations that we had, he is going to have to be one of our leaders on the floor and how can he help others get better. He, of course, accepted that challenge.”
Added Washington: “He’s done a tremendous job of humbling himself and learning our system and our way of doing things.”
Freshman center Hunter Dickinson has been one of the main beneficiaries of Smith’s playmaking ability. Whether the two are combining on a pick-and-roll action or are getting food off the court, Smith’s experience has been a welcomed addition for younger players like Dickinson.
“Mike’s the old head on the team,” Dickinson said. “Juwan and everybody else look for him to really steady the ship for us, especially offensively. You can tell when he’s not in the game, the offense doesn’t run as smoothly out there. Having him out there with his experience and knowledge for the game helps everybody with confidence and everybody knowing where they’re supposed to be.”
Through the first half of the season, Smith’s decision to come to Michigan is paying off — not just because he’s held his own against elite competition, but mainly because the Wolverines are winning.
Despite Smith leading the Ivy League in scoring last season, Columbia went 6-24 overall and 1-13 against conference opponents. In Smith’s four years with the Lions, their highest win total was 11 games.
“I say it a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but Mike Smith on January 18 has won more games this year than in any other team he’s been on,” Michigan assistant coach Phil Martelli told reporters on Jan. 19. “I think he passed it two weeks ago, if I’m not mistaken. That’s how I’ve presented it to him. You’ve won more here in six weeks than you have in three or four years. There is joy in winning.”
Smith didn’t want to put up empty statistics in losing efforts anymore. So far with the Wolverines, it’s been the exact opposite. He’s sacrificed his personal tally for those in the win column.
“The team that I wanted to play for, I wanted to play for guys who are gonna be pros and make a lot of money cause it’s gonna make my job easier and I’m gonna make their job easier,” Smith told reporters on Jan. 18. “We all can work in unison to come to the one goal that we want and that’s a championship.”
Entering the season, that goal may have seemed far-fetched, but not anymore. With Smith’s steady hand at point guard and a myriad of capable offensive players alongside him, Michigan has emerged as a national contender.
In his second act, Smith has settled in nicely.