The Wolverine

February 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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36 THE WOLVERINE FEBRUARY 2021 BY JOHN BORTON B asketball anonymity isn't tough to achieve in New York City, especially on a six-win Ivy League crew. Basketball anonymity in Ann Arbor, especially these days? Good luck. Graduate transfer Mike Smith found out the easy way, and the fun way, upon his arrival. It might have been momentarily confusing and jar- ring, but it left a smile on his face wider than the victories gap between Columbia and Michigan right now. The Ivy League, of course, isn't even playing basketball because of CO- VID-19. The Big Ten definitely is, and Michigan might be the hottest ticket in the league, were tickets being sold. "I love the fans here at Michigan," Smith said. "They're great. They al- ways ride with us, for sure." So how does he know, given that he's playing in a nearly empty Crisler Center? His dramatic, step-back three-pointer in a blowout win over Wisconsin occurred in front of an of- ficially announced attendance of 74. Where's the heat check on fan fer- vor in that circumstance? Simple — head to the nearest Meijer. That's precisely what the Burr Ridge, Ill., native did when he ar- rived in Ann Arbor. He needed to secure some household items and quickly drew attention. "I was not used to that at all," he said. "Somebody said, 'Hey, you're Mike Smith.' I said, 'That's me.' I was shocked. I had my headphones on. It was crazy." That wasn't the only instance in which the local Michigan faithful made their supportive point. "I was at a stop light, and some- body told me to roll my window down," Smith recalled. "I was think- ing something's wrong with my car. They said, 'You'll be great for us!' I'm thinking, this is so different for me. I've never encountered something like this. "I'm thinking my back light is out or something. It's been great. I've had a great experience so far." SUPERB START NOT A SURPRISE TO SMITH Smith's squads at Columbia over the past four seasons won a com- bined 35 games. He might have felt transplanted to the Autobahn, driv- ing Juwan Howard's machine to a 13-1 beginning and a No. 4 national ranking as of Jan. 26. Smith quickly waves off any talk of surprise, though, at the scintillat- ing start. "That's the reason I came," he as- sured. "Michigan is known for win- ning in the past, and Coach Howard did a phenomenal job last year. He told me what it was going to be like this year. I knew I could come in and help the team. "The first time we practiced, I knew this team was special. It's sur- real right now, but the job's not done. "We worked tremendously hard, right from the beginning. The rank- ings and the numbers don't really matter to us, because we know how much time and effort and work we put in, every day over the summer — I'm not surprised." Nor is it a shocker that he's not near the top of Michigan's points production list. Through U-M's first 14 games, Smith stood sixth on the Wolverines in scoring, averaging 8.4 points per game, although he'd rung up an impressive 78 assists for a 5.6 average. At Columbia, he accumulated 1,653 points, fourth on the Lions' all-time scoring list. He scored 684 points last year, finishing second for the school's single-season record for points. He rewrote the Columbia re- cord book, as far as top-10 rankings in a host of categories. That's not his job at Michigan, and he knew it coming in. He can score — underscoring the fact with 16 against Wisconsin Jan. 12 and at Maryland Dec. 31 — but it's not his primary function for Howard & Co. "Obviously, I can score the ball," he offered. "That's not a question. You don't become a top-10 scorer in the country, last year, if you can't score the ball. But I'm just here to win. "If the team needs me to score, I will score. But if I see an open person, I'm going to give them the ball. I'm going to trust them to make the shot." The big step up in coming to Mich- igan and the Big Ten has little to do with the offensive end of the court, Smith stressed. It's all about defense. The Wolverines' defensive num- bers surged among the best in the conference in the early going. U-M was first in the league — and fifth nationally — in field goal defense (37.4 percent), and second in points allowed per game (65.4). Smith learned early on what a ma- jor component that aspect would rep- resent. "It was just the culture," Smith said. "It was different. We're here to win, and we're here to play defense. As you can tell, our team is really defense oriented. That's not normal for a college team. "Defense is the most important part. That's how you win champion- ships, and that's how you win each game — playing defense." That's been a major adjustment for the 5-11, 185-pound Smith, who didn't make defending a big focus at Colum- bia — and wasn't asked to do so. SIZE DOESN'T MATTER Graduate Transfer Point Guard Mike Smith Is Showing He Is Big Enough To Play Major College Basketball Smith, who is fourth on Columbia's all-time scoring list with 1,653 points, embraced being one of U-M's on-court leaders while focusing on making those around him better. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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