EAST LANSING, MICH. – Something fundamental has changed about a Malik Smith three-point attempt — at least in the eyes of the high-major college basketball world.
Two months ago, when the Florida International transfer was still trying to adjust to life at the next level and a new role off the bench, Gophers fans — and maybe a few teammates and coaches — would hold their breath when Smith planted his feet beyond the arc.
Now, having established himself as an offensive leader and emotional spark on a Gophers team that fell just short of upsetting No. 5 Michigan State on Saturday, it’s the opponents that are holding their breath, while his teammates are getting the fist pump ready.
Smith showed that again Saturday, sinking five of 10 three-point shots — including two in the final 2:31 of regulation that played a huge role in sending the Gophers to overtime.
“When he first came here, I wasn’t sure what this kid was all about,” center Elliott Eliason said of the 6-2 senior guard. “But man, he has just proven himself to be a great shooter, the best I’ve been around and you know, I’ve been around [former Gopher] Blake Hoffarber. He makes great shots. Every time he shoots it, I think it’s going in. That’s the kind of confidence I have in him. I think other guys think the same thing.”
Smith, who found his footing in the nonconference schedule, has excelled in an area that is hard to quantify and even harder to consistently find success: clutch performances. Against Purdue, Smith hit four free throws in the final 25 seconds — although he uncharacteristically missed his last two — to help seal the victory. Through 17 games, Smith has been the best free-throw shooter on the team, making 87.2 percent. But his biggest impact has come from long range. Smith is making 40 percent (36 of 90) of shots from three-point range, the best on the team among players with more than 20 attempts. He’s shown both the fire for getting the ball in close, late-game situations and the execution with the game on the line.
It was no coincidence that the Gophers offense noticeably stalled midway through the second half, when Smith wasn’t getting as many touches.
“He loves the big stage,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “This is a kid last year who was playing in arenas where there were 500 people. And then he comes to an arena where there is 15,000 screaming people and he didn’t miss a beat. That’s what’s great about Malik, that’s why I thought he could play at this level, and I think he showed that.”
• Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Adreian Payne, who sat out because of a sore right foot, does not have a fracture, but simply didn’t feel that he could compete Saturday.