The Wolverine

February 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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FEBRUARY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 39 up 6-6. I've just got to deal with what I have. I think I have the ability to play at the next level. "As long as I know that, and know I'm going to work hard for it, I'm going to prove some people wrong." Smith encountered Howard long before Columbia, and before any of the recruiting snubs. The two Chi- cago natives met at a basketball camp Howard hosted and Smith attended. They shared a moment in front of the camera then, neither knowing they'd share many more later. "I just remember taking a picture with him," Smith said. "My dad is friends with one of his best friends. "I didn't know that until I commit- ted here. My dad told me. He's from Chicago, I'm from Chicago, and he knows a lot of people that know me. It's like a family. When you're in Chi- cago, everybody knows each other. They look out for each other." That wasn't the only connection. Smith is good friends with Miami Heat standout forward Jimmy Butler, a nine-year NBA veteran who knows Howard well from his time there. While Smith said he didn't ask But- ler directly for advice in choosing a school for a grad year, he didn't have to guess regarding Butler 's feelings about Howard and the way the Heat operate. "He raves about how good the Heat culture is," Smith said. "They don't put up with anything. It's all about defense and all about that ex- tra effort and wanting to win. "I knew Coach Howard would bring that type of intensity and cul- ture tenacity from the Heat to Michi- gan. It was something I wanted to be a part of." He's fully a part of Michigan's hot start, noted freshman center Hunter Dickinson. The beneficiary of Smith's frequent assists, Dickinson insists Smith keeps Howard's offense run- ning in high gear. "Juwan and everybody else looks for him to really steady the ship for us, especially offensively," Dickinson said. "You can tell when he's not in the game, the offense doesn't run as smoothly out there. Having him out there with his experience and knowl- edge for the game helps everybody with confidence, everybody knowing where they're supposed to be. "We've had talks about it in the car — we often go to get something to eat — and he's always talking about how he wants to be known as a playmaker. He's always happy when he has high- assist games because he wants to show everyone he's more than just a scorer, he's also a playmaker." He wants to show everyone more than that. He wants to fully shed the too-small tag, at this level and the next. He wants to obliterate the pre- dictions for Michigan's season that he never paid much mind anyway. Most of all, he wants to win, and win big. "It's not going to change any- thing," he stressed, regarding the words of others. "If we lock in and do our job, do it at a high level, we're capable of winning a national cham- pionship. If we believe that, that's all that matters." The same goes for himself, he as- sured. "I'm blessed with the ability to play, at my height," he said. "I think I've proven I can play in the Big Ten. And as I continue to get comfort- able and grow, my game will expand more." And recognition or not, the chip remains. "Always," he said. "It's just what motivates me, and it motivates a lot of people. We're going to continue to work hard and do what we have to do." ❏ Winning Puts A Bounce In Smith's Step Mike Smith's crew at Columbia won 11 games in his freshman season, the high- water mark in his tenure there. At Michi- gan, win No. 11 arrived on Jan. 12. Assistant coach Phil Martelli knows the impact of victories during the long grind of any season. He sees in Michigan's new- comer guards — graduate transfer Smith and senior Chaundee Brown — the new life that team success injects. "I see it in their bounce, in their step," Martelli said. "There is real joy in what they're doing. Obviously, it's a tremen- dous way to go through school. It's a tre- mendous way to go through life, playing college basketball, coaching college bas- ketball. "But there are a lot of sacrifices. And when you're not winning, those sacrifices become magnified." Martelli is quick to remind Smith he's won as many as he ever has thus far. "That's the narrative I present to him: 'You've won more here in six weeks than you did in three or four years.' There is joy in winning," Martelli said. Smith doesn't deny it. "I don't think I've ever been over .500 over my college career," he acknowledged. "That's a testimony to being here at Michigan, playing with my teammates and the coaching staff, the managers. It's been fun. "Obviously, it's not done, and hopefully we get down there to the tournament and make a run for it. Hopefully we get there and win it all. I can come back here and say anything is possible." — John Borton Smith "I was recruited by some Big Ten schools in high school, and then they told me I was too little. I was too small to play in the Big Ten, wouldn't fit. I've just always been the underdog like that." Smith helped the Wolverines to their 12th win of the season versus Maryland Jan. 19, already topping the high-water mark of 11 during his time at Columbia. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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