Looking at the big picture, there is plenty to criticize about the Gophers’ three games at the Maui Invitational. Minnesota went 1-3 with its only win being a Division II team and looked lifeless in stretches.
But peeling back that initial disappointment for the team, there were some bright spots, perhaps the biggest being Malik Smith, who hit a new level of production while on the island.
After averaging just 6.6 points through the Gophers first five games, Smith contributed 15.6 per game in the Aloha State. With 47 points in three days, the senior guard showed why he gets a longer leash than anyone else on the team.
“Malik brings great energy, that senior leadership off the bench,” Andre Hollins said. “He played great in this tournament. He’s great to come in if I was having a bad night, Austin is having a bad night, we always have that extra weapon.”
His output was all that much more important, then, with Hollins looking somewhat “off” for the trio of games (coach Richard Pitino has said, of course, that he’s not worried).
Sure, Smith has the tendency to throw up some bad shots. But he also is capable of a big spark, something he showed in all three games. Smith also looked more involved on both sides of the ball than he has for most of the year, scoring off of drives as well as from the perimeter and getting to the line, while better defending his man.
The FIU transfer’s two first-half three-pointers helped the Gophers make it a game – the second of those pulling them within three –and then when Minnesota started to fall off again in the second, Smith hit a pair of consecutive threes to keep the team close. Against Arkansas, Smith kept the magic alive, with 13 first-half points to put the Gophers up by five at the break before they eventually lost, 87-73.
“He’s a guy you’ve got to put on the floor,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said of his team’s struggles defending Smith in the first half. “What he did, he almost torched us, but we did a much better job in the second half of making him handle it and not necessarily just spotting up.”
Smith did cool off in that second half, scoring just two more points, but again was a big part of the Gophers returning from their first-half slumber against Chaminade. Smith, whose absence was felt in the first as he scored just two points, helped to get Minnesota rolling with 14 points down the stretch.
After taking some time to adjust to a new role off the bench – after being the primary scorer at FIU – it seems Smith has found a comfort zone.
“We just try to compete night-in and night-out like coach says,” Smith said. “Try to work hard every day and just transfer that over to the games.”
The guard has the tendency to hit baskets in bunches – it’s pretty clear that Smith loves to shoot and when he’s feeling it, he’ll really seek out opportunities. The downside of that is that Smith will sometimes continue to aggressively shoot even after it has stopped falling.
That, however, is what you get with Malik Smith. A little bit of mind-numbing frustration; a little bit of game-changing jubilation.
So far, it seems to be working.