Michigan began its Big Ten tournament run much the same way it finished its regular season - not well. Maryland came out of the gate strong and kept the Wolverines off balance. Kept them from getting comfortable offensively. Michigan couldn’t get freshman center Hunter Dickinson on track inside and couldn’t find the net from outside. When Dickinson went to the bench with two fouls, the Terps surged, and with under five minutes to play in the first half, an Eric Ayala jumper gave the Terps a 12-point lead.
The game was beginning to resemble Maryland’s opening game victory over Michigan State, a game in which the Terps wrested control in the first half and coasted to a convincing double-digit victory. While Maryland was scorching the nets on one end, Michigan couldn’t get anything going on the other. As the first half drew to a close, Maryland was on the verge of breaking the game open and handing the Wolverines their third loss in four games.
Fortunately for Michigan, Mike Smith had other ideas.
Michigan has played as well as it has this year through the contributions of many players. It’s not a cliché to say that with this Michigan, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. But one of the primary reasons for Michigan’s success this season has been the play of the graduate transfer point guard Smith. Smith has been a stabilizing force for Michigan all season, but Friday he took his game to the next level. With Michigan trailing 36-24 late in the first half, Smith took over, leading the Wolverines on a 16-2 run to finish the first half and a 11-4 run to begin the second half.
Maryland didn’t go away, and led by strong performances from Ayala and Darryl Morsell, who finished with 19 and 16 points respectively, the Terps made runs of their own in the second half. It wouldn’t be enough, though, as Smith continued his strong play throughout the second half.
Always in control, Smith seemed make the right pass or hit the big shot whenever necessary. Smith finished the game with an absurd stat line: 18 points, 15 assists, five rebounds, two steals and no turnovers. Put another way: In addition to leading the Wolverines in scoring, Smith set the Big Ten tournament record for most assists in a game and tied the record for fewest turnovers in a game - in the same game.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon was effusive in his praise for Smith. “He’s a great player. He’s terrific,” Turgeon said. “Understand,” Turgeon continued, “he’s an elite scorer. He scored more today, (but he’s) given up his game for the team. That’s what great players do for great teams.”
Turgeon is not wrong. Smith was a high-volume scorer before transferring to Michigan, averaging nearly 23 points per game his final season at Columbia. But he’s embraced his role with Michigan as a facilitator, averaging just over seven shots a game while dishing out five assists per contest. When necessary, however, he can still fill it up, something he showed Saturday against Maryland.
While Smith led the Michigan charge, he didn’t do it alone. Michigan also received strong performances from Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks and reserves Chaundee Brown, Austin Davis and Brandon Johns. Brooks’ impact was especially encouraging for the Wolverines. Coming back from injury, the senior shook off some early rust and played his usual strong all-around game.
Smith scored 16 points shooting 46% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc in his return to action. He also had corralled four rebounds, two steals and seemed to be involved in most of the afternoon’s momentum-changing plays. It’s no coincidence that Michigan is 20-1 with Smith in the line-up and 0-2 without him.
With the victory, Michigan advances to the semi-finals where the Wolverines meet Ohio State. The last meeting between the two teams was a classic. With a spot in the Big Ten championship game hanging in the balance, there’s no reason to expect the rematch to be any less so.