INDIANAPOLIS — For a moment, Mike Smith stood alone.
Dribbling out the waning seconds of Michigan’s resounding comeback victory, the graduate transfer guard gazed toward the stands, cheers washing over him. The final buzzer blared and he launched the ball high into the air in celebration, his masterful performance — 18 points, 15 assists and zero turnovers — complete.
Point guards have marshaled the Wolverines through March before. Think Trey Burke in 2013, Derrick Walton Jr. in 2017, Zavier Simpson in 2018.
If Friday is any indication, Smith may very well be next in line.
“Mike played great today, being a floor leader, the primary ball-handler, a guy who’s gonna get us organized,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He did a great job of reading game situations while making plays for himself and others. And to have a game with 15 assists, a plus-minus of 23, it just shows how impactful he was out there.”
Friday’s game marked Smith’s first taste of postseason play. Through his four years at Columbia, the Lions failed to qualify for the Ivy League Tournament, invitations only bestowed on the conference’s top four teams. The Lions, consistently cellar-dwellers, compiled a record of 35-77. The closest Smith came to meaningful games in March was a fifth-place finish his freshman season.
His story has been repeated ad nauseum, but the feat still bears mentioning. A 5-foot-11 up-transfer adjusting to the rigors of Big Ten play, all while reinventing himself from the Ivy League’s leading-scorer to a primary facilitator. Instead, the transition hardly amounted to a transition at all.
“I told coach from day one that I was willing to do whatever the team needs and today they needed me to score and to assist, and I think I’ve done that,” Smith said.
Added Howard: “Your role’s gonna change when you’re gonna be more of a facilitator, but at the same time, reading game-like situations like when to be aggressive, that’s not an easy adjustment to make. But it says a lot about Mike’s character and about how he wants to accept winning and put winning first and the team before his individual stats, but today Mike displayed a mixture of both and it was a great performance.”
In the first half, as Michigan teetered, Smith engineered the turnaround, flipping a 12 point deficit into a two point halftime lead. He accounted for 11 of the Wolverines’ 16 first-half baskets, notching nine assists alone.
In the half’s final possession, Smith exploded down the alley, cycled around the baseline and dropped in a pass for sophomore wing Franz Wagner, who finished to give Michigan its first lead since the game’s opening minute.
“He’s so good offensively that you can’t just play him one-on-one, you gotta help a little bit,” Wagner said. “And that’s when his ability to find other people comes into play and he did a great job of that today.”
In the second half, Smith’s task grew more arduous. Maryland switched Darryl Morsell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, onto Smith.
But nothing could stop Smith. He countered with five quick points, including a side-step 3-pointer, after which he mean-mugged his way back on defense, forcing Maryland to burn a timeout. That Smith looked reminiscent of the player who led the Ivy League in scoring.
In a game rampant with emotion, Smith proved no exception. At halftime, he led the Wolverines into the tunnel, hooting and hollering, throttling his fist into the air. He paired each basket with a subsequent celebration.
Yet as the game wound to a close, Smith distanced himself from the celebration, allowing himself to take in the scene unfolding around him. This walk into the tunnel encompassed a few high-fives and fist-bumps, but nothing excessively dramatic for a player who had just set the single-game Big Ten Tournament record for assists.
Because if Michigan, and Smith, are to accomplish their goals, Friday’s game against Maryland is only the start.
“The last couple of games that we were down, we never fought back and it kinda showed how much grit this team has and how we can actually do that,” Smith said. “We came back and we fought hard. All my emotion just came out.
“It’s win or go home now, go hard or go home. I need, from here on out, to show more emotion and lead more as we continue to go down this tournament.”