How Michigan basketball transfer Mike Smith is making transition from Ivy League

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read

Mike Smith likes to think of himself as a "really social guy."

Perhaps that's why it didn't take long for Michigan basketball's grad transfer point guard to get to know his new teammates — during a pandemic, nonetheless.

Smith, who transferred from Columbia during the spring, has seemingly had no trouble adjusting. When he arrived in Ann Arbor this summer, he roomed with German forward Franz Wagner. The two became close and often watched NBA games together.

Then Smith got to know his other teammates, too, and made even more friends. He often works out with fellow guard Eli Brooks and said the two sometimes play cornhole outside. He will appear in the TikTok videos of wing Adrien Nunez, a budding social media star. He plays video games with freshman center Hunter Dickinson. He listens to music with freshman guard Zeb Jackson. And he has even attended a fish fry hosted by fifth-year senior center Austin Davis.

[ Now Michigan's most experienced center, Austin Davis steps into the spotlight ]

"When it comes to my teammates, I like to hang out with them," Smith said during a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon.

Columbia Lions guard Mike Smith drives to the basket past Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark.
Columbia Lions guard Mike Smith drives to the basket past Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark.

It makes sense that Smith has taken the time to befriend every one of his teammates. On the court, he will likely be responsible for distributing the ball to all of them. Smith was a high-scoring point guard in the Ivy League, averaging 22.8 points on 19.3 field-goal attempts last season, and the Wolverines will still rely on him to score.

But Smith's scoring isn't the only reason coach Juwan Howard reached out to Smith in the spring and said, "We need somebody to come in right away and help us." U-M needed an experienced guard who could play on the ball, run the offense and facilitate to others.

And they may have found their man in Smith.

“Mike’s done a great job of stepping in and really taking the bull by the horns right from day one," Davis said. "He’s a great leader, a great teammate. He’s definitely showing his experience, being able to coach and lead everyone on the team, especially the younger guys.

"I think he’s transitioned really well. Obviously, there’s a learning curve playing with this team, but I think he’s done a tremendous job with it.”

Moving from the Ivy League, a mid-major conference at best, to the Big Ten has certainly required some adjustment. Smith was awed by the height of Davis, who is listed at 6-foot-10 — and was just the third-tallest player on last season's roster.

At Columbia, Smith rarely came off the court, playing 94.3% of the available minutes — eight-most in the nation. He rarely was without the ball, either, using 33.9% of the team's possessions (No. 13 nationally) and taking 34.5% of the shots (No. 19).

Those numbers will undoubtedly change this season, but Smith doesn't mind.

"I think that would be a really good thing for me here to be able to get the ball to Isaiah or Eli or Franz or Zeb or Chaundee and let them create for me," he said. "I don't always have to create for somebody."

As he became more accustomed to his new role, Smith sought the advice of graduate assistant Jaaron Simmons, who made a similar transition from Ohio to Michigan as a high-scoring grad transfer during the 2017-18 season.

"His advice to me is funny," Smith said. "It’s to shoot the ball because I’m a really good shooter. In practice, we do all these drills and shooting and I shoot the ball really well in the drills. And when we start playing, he tells me, 'Shoot it, don’t be tentative. If you’re open, shoot the ball.'

Columbia guard Mike Smith goes up for a shot against Wake Forest guard Jahcobi Neath (4) during the second half at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 10, 2019.
Columbia guard Mike Smith goes up for a shot against Wake Forest guard Jahcobi Neath (4) during the second half at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 10, 2019.

"It's like, 'I was here in your shoes, you have a really good chance of being really good here, so we're gonna need you to shoot the ball because it's gonna open up everything else for everybody else.'"

Then, of course, there is the cultural difference between the Ivy League and the Big Ten. Columbia provided a veil of anonymity despite Smith's dominance on the court. In Ann Arbor, Smith can go to the store and be recognized — and he hasn't even played a game yet.

"It’s different — totally different," he said. "I can’t explain how the fans and people here are just all in for the maize and blue. Columbia, it’s not known for its athletics. You’re there for the Ivy League, you’re there for school... .

"It's just so different in the Big Ten. The fans here are tremendous. It's amazing, and I'm blessed to have this opportunity."

Smith was treated the same way by his teammates, who he says have welcomed him "with open arms."

"I think that’s a Michigan culture thing here," Smith said. "Once you're in, you're all in. Everybody treats you the same. Nobody's treated better than somebody else and the coaches always preach that. We live by it and all the players, you can see that everybody cares for you, for who you are and what you bring to the table. And off the court, as well."

And his hope is that the friendships cultivated over the last few months will benefit the Wolverines when they finally begin their season in late November.

"It’s all about the little things," Smith said, "and I think building a bond outside of basketball is what builds trust when you start playing basketball."

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan basketball's Mike Smith is transitioning from Ivy League