As the Wolverines come down the home stretch in conference play, some of the mistakes that have become a recurring theme this season must begin to curtail if they plan to keep alive their hopes of going to the Big Dance. That collective prognosis can be applied on an individual basis to almost every player on the team, but none may have more pressure to show that kind of improvement than Jerret Smith. The oft maligned point guard has received his fair share of crticism over the years, some of which has been duly warranted. However, since he was inserted into the starting lineup three games ago, the positive effect he has on the team when he is playing with confidence has been obvious.
Smith's presence in the starting five allows Michigan's best player, senior guard Dion Harris, to flow off of the ball and concentrate more on the other aspects of his game. Smith's 35 minutes versus Minnesota were instrumental in Harris' ability to play stellar defense on the Gophers leading scorer, Lawrence McKenzie (who was held scoreless). The former Romulus (MI) floor general finished the game with eight points, nine rebounds, five assists, and only two turnovers. The performance drew great praise from Michigan headman Tommy Amaker.
"He is the only guy that I singled out when I was speaking to the team after the game," Amaker said regarding Smith. "I was very impressed with his game management for us. How he was able to rebound the ball for us, which was very, very impressive. That is more rebounds than I ever had (in a single game) in a whole season as a player. But I will tell you what, for that kid to play the way he did, we needed that. We talked to him about how we needed him to be more of a quarterback for us. He did everything for us. He got people the ball, he orchestrated our offense, he scored when he had the opportunity to do so, and he really took care of the basketball."
Smith had scored more points in two prior games this season, but he had not done a better job of controlling his team. In Saturday's victory, he not only pushed the ball and successfully found players in transition, he also managed to show patience. He didn't attempt the over-zealous passes that have plagued his game all year. Outside of a mistake on a three-on-two in which he drove into the wing defender instead of threatening the middle to force the defender to commit, it was the kind of "play within himself," "strong decision making" game that Amaker has been clamoring for. Smith was even aggressive in looking for his own shot and in attacking the basket. His ability to both shoot and pass in the lane created a number of easy opportunities for the Wolverines. Penetration from anyone other than Harris has been a scarce resource this season, and Smith knows that has to change.
"That's something that I have to have confidence in.," he said. "Coach recruited me for that. It's not like he is just now telling me not to do it. He has always told me to play my game. It just seems like when I have my confidence, I'm a totally different player. It's not like it was ever super low, it's just now that I'm starting to play more, I'm learning, and I'm adjusting (to handling negative) things better. It feels a lot better for me. Hard work pays off, but at the same time, I know I've had some big turnovers that I really need to work on. I've got to get better."
The aforementioned turnovers continue to be a major issue for the entire team, but in his role as point guard Smith understands that his are magnified. He has averaged 9.7 points and 4.3 assists over the last three contests, but he also has averaged 4.3 turnovers… including six in the road loss to Illinois. Player and coach have often bumped heads over the youngster's frequent decisions to try to make the spectacular play as opposed to the simple one. That is something he is finally starting to get..
"I think sometimes I rush to the game," Smith admitted. "You can't rush to the game. You've got to let the game come to you. That's being smart in basketball, and being smart with life too. You've got to let it come to you. You can't try to rush everything. There were a few games where I tried to rush it, but when I've let it come to me it seems like it comes more easily. I personally know what I'm capable of. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it."
With home contests against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State coming up this week, and the Big Ten tournament the week following, consistency will be the name of the game for Smith. While it's nice that he had good games in two of his last three outings and that he has been an upgrade over the player he replaced in the starting lineup, more is needed and expected of him now. He will have to play like he did against Indiana and Minnesota for his team to have the chance to win, and he knows it.
"It's not like I'm pulling something out of the closet," said Smith. "Now is the time. You can't wait for tomorrow because tomorrow is not promised. You've got to just go out there and just play. Whatever you're blessed with, you've got to go out and show. I can't continue to say I can do this and I can do that. You've got to let your actions speak louder than words. I'm not a guy that talks a lot anyway. I stay humble and try to let my game speak for me. I've just got to go out there and make it say something good. There are a lot of things I've still got to get better at, so I'm going to keep working, but I'm going to play my game and try to have some fun while I'm doing it."