INDIANAPOLIS — As a senior in high school, Mike Smith made an official visit to Dartmouth. The Dartmouth staff, led by coach Paul Cormier and assistant coach Jean Bain, relished Smith’s potential. They told him he had a good chance to be a high-level player in the Ivy League.
Smith cut them off.
“Mike said, ‘I think I can play in the NBA. That’s my goal,’ ” Bain told The Daily on Sunday night. “He said he knew he had a lot of work to do, but he understood what it took. That was his mindset.”
No one else matched Smith’s confidence. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Smith hardly fits the prototype of a basketball player. In eighth grade, he had one scholarship offer, from Loyola Chicago. The Ramblers only offered him because Rick Malnati, Smith’s high school coach at Fenwick, served as an assistant coach from 2012-2014.
“(In high school), a lot of people thought that this is as good as he’s gonna be,” Bain said. “Because of his lack of size, sometimes that hinders schools from taking a chance on guys.”
Smith’s career has been shrouded in doubt and second-guessing, simply because of his diminutive stature. Every step of the way — high school, Columbia, Michigan — he has been shoehorned into preconceived notions, written off before he could even prove himself.
It happened again this past week.
Against LSU on Monday, Smith played one of the worst games of his Michigan career, posting five points on 2-of-8 from the field, along with four turnovers and a team-worst minus-11.
The Tigers’ rotation all stands between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-10, making for a glaring mismatch with Smith. He struggled on defense, the likes of Cam Thomas and Javonte Smart shooting over the top of him with ease. On offense, the length prevented Smith from establishing rhythm; in one instance, Smart swatted a simple midrange jumper backwards.
On paper, Florida State posed an equally-challenging matchup. The Seminoles are known for their athleticism and length; per KenPom, they boast the tallest roster in the nation. Of their dominant ball-handlers, Anthony Polite is 6-foot-6 and M.J. Walker 6-foot-5.
In the pregame locker room, players and coaches discussed the slights.
“He’s been counted out his whole life, so this is nothing new for him,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “I think he showed that chip on his shoulder is always there. I’m very confident with him at point guard with every matchup that we have.”
By the end of a 40-minute clinic, Michigan having ground the Seminoles into submission, Smith certainly proved his latest batch of doubters wrong. Without a true point guard, Florida State committed 14 turnovers, including 10 in the first half that buried them in a hole too deep to climb out of. Smith’s defense was not so much a liability as it was a strength.
On offense, despite a pedestrian statline — eight points, four assists and two turnovers — Smith looked controlled, breaking Florida State’s press effortlessly. Twice, he provided jolts of offense at crucial junctures.
Early in the second half, the Seminoles drained consecutive 3-pointers to pull within five points, the thinnest margin since the opening minutes. Smith countered immediately, blowing by the defense for an and-one lay-in.
Five minutes later, with Michigan up 13, Smith helped put the game away for good. Orchestrating a one-man fast break, he beelined down the floor, leaving the defense in the dust for another and-one. After the lay-up, he strutted past the Wolverines’ bench, mean-mugging in the process.
“I think it’s his competitiveness and everybody throughout his life saying, ‘Hey, he’s only 5-foot-8, 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ ” Bain said. “He wanted to show everybody that he’s better than that.”
Again, Smith trumped the doubters.
“He’s confident,” Jerrel Oliver, Smith’s AAU coach on Team Rose, said. “Those same shots that he took the other day, he’s confident that he can make those shots this time around. Like anything, when you have confidence, it’ll take you over the hump.”
Confidence has allowed Smith to achieve in spite of his height, and the baggage that comes along with it, at every level.
As an eighth-grader, Smith led Burr Ridge Middle School to a state championship. As a senior at Fenwick High School, Smith finished as the runner-up in Illinois Mr. Basketball voting. Despite playing in Chicago, one of the basketball capitals of the world, Smith failed to garner significant high-major interest.
At Columbia, he needed to prove himself all over again, to both a new set of teammates, coaches and competition. When the Lions played power-5 schools in non-conference play, Smith usually shined. “Never backed down,” Bain said. “From then, I knew he had what it takes.”
Still, Bain remained in the minority. When Smith committed to Michigan last April as a graduate transfer, the challenges seemed to escalate. Could a 5-foot-11 point guard succeed in the Big Ten gauntlet and fill Zavier Simpson’s shoes?
With hindsight, the answer is obvious.
“I think Mike is so important out there every single game for us,” Wagner said. “He does so many good things offensively, just reading the game, putting every player in their best position out there. So he deserves more credit for that, even when his own stats maybe don’t show that.”
Smith’s lack of height has forced him to over-compensate in other areas of his game. He and Oliver would spend hours in the gym, honing on his jump shot and ball-screen game. At Columbia, Bain, a 5-foot-11 point guard himself for Northeastern from 1998-2002, discussed the optics of being an undersized point guard.
“You kinda knew, that’s the guy that could make it, because of his mindset, his confidence, his determination,” Bain said.
On the court, Smith has been written off his whole life. And now, in his final collegiate hurrah and on the game’s biggest stage, he has Michigan on the precipice of a spot in the Final Four.
“It’s instilled within him, size doesn’t matter,” Bain said. “He’s got a big heart. Any time he steps on the court I’ve never seen that guy back down from anybody.
“Sometimes, you just can’t measure heart.”