Mathieu, Smith not shy about taking big shots for Gophers basketball

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 28, 2013 - 8:28 AM

DeAndre Mathieu and Malik Smith have shown they don’t back down in important situations.

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Malik Smith was the second-leading scorer at Florida International last season (14.1 ppg).

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Malik Smith and DeAndre Mathieu. Roommates. Masters of confidence. “Madden 25” experts extraordinaire. Two basketball players who were told they couldn’t play major college ball out of high school.

And two of the most exciting players the Gophers have to offer.

In the last two months, the guards have gone from virtual unknowns to major contributors, helping boost the Gophers to a 10-2 start heading into Saturday’s nonconference finale against Texas A&M Corpus Christi. The two made the difference in the Gophers’ previous game, a 92-79 victory over Nebraska Omaha last Saturday, combining for 27 of their team’s final 31 points. Both finished with the highest scoring totals of their careers here, with Mathieu scoring 27 points and Smith 19.

While the scoring totals were unusual, the method was not. All season long, the two have ignited teammates and fans with their lionhearted approach to the game. Coach Richard Pitino badly wanted Smith to follow him from Florida International, in large part because of the senior’s confidence and ability to perform under pressure at a high level. The 5-foot-9 Mathieu, meanwhile, has showed an impressive aptitude for driving “through the trees” to the basket, as he has said, and finishing at the rim.

“Those two guys on this team, they’re fearless when they go out there,” Pitino said. “Those are the two guys — if you said who had off-the-charts confidence, that they believe they’re unbelievable players, it’s those two guys.”

It’s the same trait that keeps the two battling night after night at whatever video game they have latched onto at the moment, the same trait that allows Smith to demand the ball and shoot an NBA-length three-pointer in huge situations, honestly believing — as Pitino has said — that he is the best player on the court. The same trait that has Mathieu slashing through towering defenders that make him look like a high schooler among professionals.

And it’s the same trait that brought them to Minnesota, when neither of them were ever supposed to be here.

Winding road

Mathieu started out as a walk-on at Morehead State in Kentucky, and when he didn’t get a scholarship the first year, he left for Central Arizona College, from where Pitino plucked the tiny but lightning-fast guard. Now, the junior point guard, who had been told many times that he wouldn’t play at the Division I level, repeatedly gushes to the media about just how happy he is to be with the Gophers.

Smith also had no D-I scholarships to speak of out of high school. “He may claim there was, but he was really delivered to us by a guy I know in Boston,” Pitino joked. “Now he’s playing in the Big Ten, he’s been a really good player for us.”

With the Gophers, the pair has found a special connection. Although Mathieu has started all season while Smith has come off the bench, they have found themselves in similar positions — as secondary offensive options to starters Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, and responsible, more than ever, for defense, for rebounding, and for all the other little things that keep them on the court.

Different role on new team

Smith admits it has been a change of pace. Going from being the second-leading scorer for Florida International last season to a senior off the bench with the Gophers, he has gone through ups and downs; he has scored in single digits more times (six) than double digits (five).

“I’m still adjusting,” he said. “I thought I had figured it out after Maui, but as you saw, I came back and didn’t have the type of games I wanted. I’m still adjusting, I’m just going to keep working every day to get better.”

But while Smith has the propensity to toss up some ugly shots, there is no denying he is capable of coming through in important situations.

“That’s what he is,” Pitino said. “He takes big shots. That’s why I felt that he could come from FIU to this level, because he had unbelievable confidence. You’ve got to live with some craziness. People thought, probably the first couple games, ‘What is with this kid?’ ‘But once he settles down, gets comfortable, he’s extremely confident. He just shows that when you play that confident, you can do really good things.”

The same goes for Mathieu, who sometimes has television announcers chuckling with his hard-to-believe finishes. He attacks the lane as though he has an extra 5 inches of height and 50 pounds of weight on him.

None of it is an accident. Both players came into the Twin Cities with the same mindset as secondary offensive options.

“We talk to each other about being impact and trying to make the biggest difference,” Mathieu said. “Guys are going to key in on Dre and Austin [Hollins] a lot, so us two guards have to make a difference.”

Pitino said one of the major reasons they’ve been able to do so is the brimming confidence each shows.

“If we can get everybody else to that level … just working hard, believing in themselves, we’ll be a good team,” he said.

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