What if Jennifer Smith played for Michigan State?

Julie Pannuto
Lansing native Jennifer Smith looks forward to her final matchup against rival Michigan State. (BRETT MOUNTAIN/Daily)

Almost four years ago, the Michigan women’s basketball
center had the option of playing for her hometown Spartans, but
chose to attend Michigan.

During Smith’s senior season at DeWitt High School in
Lansing, the Spartans were floundering in the Big Ten, while the
Wolverines had just reached the NCAA tournament.

Seemed like a good decision, right?

Coming into tonight’s game, the Spartans (8-3 Big Ten,
18-4 overall) are ranked No. 17 in the country in the latest top-25
poll, while the Wolverines’ (4-7, 11-13) chance at an NCAA
tournament birth seems as likely as a Michigan Big Ten
championship.

Smith came to Michigan under the persuasion of former Michigan
coach Sue Guevara. Also, the lure of Michigan’s academic
reputation was too much to turn down.

But it has been under first-year head coach Cheryl Burnett that
Smith has realized her full potential. Smith’s 21.3
points-per-game average is eight points higher than last season.
Smith is the cornerstone of the Michigan offense this season, in
contrast with her first three years when she shared the role with
former teammate LeeAnne Bies.

While her individual stock has risen, the team’s
performance has declined the past three seasons.

Sixty wins and fifty-four losses later, Smith gets one final
chance not only to show the Spartans what they’ve missed, but
to prove she made the right decision.

On Jan. 18, Michigan State embarrassed Michigan 67-33 in East
Lansing. Smith had a less than stellar homecoming in her final trip
to the Breslin Center. She scored just seven points on 2-of-6
shooting. Michigan State used a swarming double team to trap Smith
every time she touched the ball, cutting off her ability to shoot
or pass effectively.

“We never really thought we would stop her,”
Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie said following the game.
“Just simply try and keep her below her average.”

Forget what happened last month.

In preparing for tonight’s game against Michigan State,
Burnett said that she hasn’t changed her game plan.

The team’s top two priorities remain the same: Get Smith
the ball and create offense from defense.

“We do nothing differently just because it’s
Michigan State,” Burnett said. “We just want to make
sure that we are much more competitive and play much harder. We
definitely expect (the outcome) to be different.”

Don’t expect the same Michigan team tonight that showed up
at the Breslin Center.

The Wolverines are in high spirits after Sunday’s 75-55
win over Wisconsin.

“I can’t wait to play State again,” Smith
said. “I think we have been getting better and better each
game and it finally paid off last game. We have a lot of confidence
going into the State game.”

Confidence after getting outscored by 34 points in their first
match-up?

Why not?

The Wolverines have a nothing-to-lose type attitude, and the Big
Ten conference has been riddled with upsets lately.

“We need to just go out and have fun,” freshman
Kelly Helvey said. “Anything can happen. Northwestern took
(Michigan State) into overtime — we could probably do the
same thing. I feel that we could beat them.”

If not for Smith, playing Michigan State competitively
wouldn’t be such a sure thing.

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