WEST LAFAYETTE —— For the first four years of his collegiate career, graduate guard Mike Smith was like many of us during the NCAA Tournament: watching from his couch.
This year, he was in the middle of the action.
In his four years as the starting point guard for Columbia, Smith never even had a chance to play in a conference tournament. Since transferring to play for the Michigan men’s basketball team, though, Smith has found himself on a winning team, at last reaching the NCAA Tournament that once seemed like a pipe dream. In his debut NCAA Tournament game, Smith scored 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting to go along with four rebounds, five assists and a steal in an 82-66 victory over 16-seeded Texas Southern.
“To finally be a part of this was surreal, during tipoff, but after that, I don’t think anybody else was nervous,” Smith said. “Me being the oldest on the team and I was the most nervous. It was a feeling I will never forget.”
Smith’s nerves showed early as he started the afternoon missing his first five shots. From there, though, Smith flipped a switch, scoring nine points and knocking down a 3-pointer to break open a 17-point edge for the Wolverines after the first half.
When asked about his decision to commit to Michigan in the offseason as a graduate transfer, Smith often talked about being able to have a chance to finally play on the big stage that had eluded him in his days in the Ivy League.
“I’m so proud of these kids and what they’ve dealt with this year,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Now to be able to play this season, look forward to March, be a part of March Madness, it’s a blessing.”
While Michigan led by as many as 24 points in the second half, it took its foot off the gas in the game’s late stages. The Wolverines appeared to be hurrying more in transition and the Tigers took advantage, cutting the lead to 12 with 2:40 minutes to go in the second half. While Michigan was never truly in danger of surrendering its advantage, the offensive rhythm is something Smith knows he must fine-tune ahead of a matchup against eighth-seeded LSU on Monday.
“What I didn’t like is we kinda let up,” Smith said. “That’s kinda on me to not let that happen, and I should’ve taken control of the game when they started pressing.”
While there are still adjustments to be made, the Wolverines got the only result that truly matters in the month of March: a win.
After leading the Big Ten regular-season title and leading the conference in assists per game, Smith has already proven that he’s built for the big stage. Now, on the brightest lights the college game has to offer, Smith will face another test with more eyeballs on him than ever before.
He passed the first one with flying colors, but he isn’t satisfied. He didn’t come to Ann Arbor for one win. He came for what’s ahead.
“Obviously, the job’s not done,” Smith said. “We have to lock in and get ready for the next game.”