In the first full game the Gophers were without Andre Hollins, Malik Smith looked more than ready for the challenge.
At Nebraska, he essentially took on the Huskers on his own, scoring 29 points in an 8-for-12 performance from three-point range. He was locked in.
But since then, the guard has struggled a little more.
Against Northwestern, Smith could get his shot to fall, but not for a lack of trying, going 1-for-9 from three-point range, 3-for-11 overall, and finishing with seven points. Then at Purdue on Wednesday -- coming off the bench against with Andre Hollins starting again -- the senior had an even tougher time getting into a groove. In 16 minutes, he put together a very un-Malik-like stat line. He tied his fewest attempts from the field (all from behind the arc) of the year with just three, making none. He didn't have a single rebound for just the second time this year.
I thought it was strange that coach Richard Pitino didn't play him more than he did down the stretch, but perhaps it was because he saw that Smith was off.
The Boston native is probably, above all, the player that people should least worry about going through a slump. One of the biggest factors in any slump, after all, is a player's mentality. You have a couple bad games and then get in your head. Smith doesn't have that same switch in his head -- perhaps that's one of the most valuable aspects about him as a player. His confidence isn't shaken by a few bad shots or a few bad games -- Pitino saw that much a year ago.
But there is no doubt that the Gophers, who are in the midst of a three-game losing steak, need Smith -- one of the biggest offensive sparks all season -- to return to form. Smith will be guarded differently now that he had a breakout game against Nebraska. He could pretty much get open whenever he wanted in that game. Now, with his name getting more play on scouting reports, Smith is going to take more challenged shots, and learn to find new ways to create for himself.
It will be interesting to see how he readjusts to life on the bench now that Hollins is presumably back for good. Finding better minutes for Smith shouldn't be a problem, but it will be important. Smith hasn't scored more than six points in any game (there are five now) where he's played 16 minutes or fewer.