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Do-everything Dru Smith leads Mizzou back to NCAA Tourney

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After Dru Smith ducked under the rim and snuck his layup past the hands of three Florida defenders, fellow point guard Xavier Pinson jumped into the air and pumped his fist in celebration. Mark Smith sprinted across half court and started clapping his hands vertically, mocking Florida’s Gator chomp celebration. Even head coach Cuonzo Martin jumped and extended both fists in the air in triumph.

The man who made the shot, his first career game-winner, didn’t flinch. After watching the ball bounce on the rim and then drop, breaking a 70-70 tie with less than a second remaining, Dru Smith immediately found someone to guard, in case Florida tried a quick inbounds pass. Once the Gators called timeout, he walked calmly back to the Missouri bench.

That’s typical of Missouri’s all-SEC first-teamer. Smith has always been stoic, steady, old-school. He’s not one to celebrate a good play or react demonstrably to a bad one, and those who know him best say he could care less about individual stats or accolades.

That personality has played a major role in helping him overcome his relative lack of athleticism to become Missouri’s leading scorer and best defender. But during this season, almost certainly his final one at Missouri, the coaching staff has asked Smith to combat his selfless nature a bit. The Tigers needed Smith to take on the mantle as the team’s go-to scorer, especially in late-game situations.

His game-winner against Florida proved that he can fill that role, too. Now, Missouri will likely go as far in his first NCAA Tournament as Smith can carry it.

“They were just kind of talking to me about just playing more aggressive on the offensive end,” Smith said of his conversations with the coaching staff. “Just looking for my shot, making sure that I wasn’t passing up open shots, and just telling me, really, that if we wanted to win, which is obviously what we want to do, then they needed me to be more aggressive on offense.”

Dru Smith became the fourth Missouri player ever to earn all-SEC first-team honors this season.
Dru Smith became the fourth Missouri player ever to earn all-SEC first-team honors this season. (Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics)

Like most basketball players, playing in the NCAA Tournament has always been a dream for Smith. He’s finally getting to experience it in his fifth year of college, in part, because his former school wouldn’t allow him to play right away at Missouri.

Smith started his college career in his hometown, at Evansville University. Smith, who’s never wowed onlookers with his speed or vertical, wasn’t a highly-touted recruit — he didn’t even have a Rivals profile — but former Purple Aces head coach Marty Simmons was excited to keep him home. It didn’t take long for Smith to show why. He played in 28 games as a freshman, starting eight, then started all 22 games for which he was healthy as a sophomore. His scoring average jumped from 5.3 points per game to 13.7 and he shot 57.8 percent from the field while averaging 4.6 assists per game. That’s to say nothing of his defensive intensity and work ethic, which drew rave reviews from Simmons.

But after Smith’s sophomore season, Evansville fired Simmons, and he decided to use the coaching change to prove himself on a bigger stage. He quickly connected with Missouri assistant coach Chris Hollender, who played under Simmons at Evansville, and then found a fit with Martin.

The Tiger coaching staff wanted to get Smith on the court right away to bolster a roster that had lost its two leading scorers from its NCAA Tournament run the year prior, so he filed a waiver with the NCAA seeking immediate eligibility. Evansville’s athletics department, however, contested the waiver, disputing Smith’s alleged claim that he had been “run off” the Evansville team, and the NCAA therefore denied the request, forcing Smith to sit out the entire 2018-19 season. While watching from the sidelines wasn’t easy, Smith admitted Wednesday that he now views having to sit out as a blessing. Not only did he get a year to adapt to Missouri’s system during practices, that Tiger team struggled after losing Jontay Porter to a preseason knee injury, and the ruling allowed him to be eligible this year as Missouri returned to the NCAA Tournament..

“Obviously you want to play, you never want to have to sit out, but after those first couple weeks when the decision was made and I knew I wasn’t going to play, I was thankful for it,” Smith said. “I think it just gave me a better chance to adjust and just get used to this play style and everything like that.”

Smith’s game is a major reason why Missouri is back in the Big Dance, and not just his improved offense. Martin is fond of saying that he doesn’t need to see how many points individual players or his team as a whole scored to know how well they played. No one personifies that more than Smith.

Asked about what Smith brings to a team, his two college coaches will reel off a litany of attributes before discussing his scoring. As he showed when he used the rim to shield his last-second shot from two Florida defenders, Smith is smart. Martin believes part of his basketball IQ comes from being willing to listen and learn from coaches, but another part is simply innate. Smith is also tough, and his motor is always on high. He’s been playing much of this year with a hand injury that Martin said will likely require surgery after the season. (In typical Smith fashion, he’s downplayed the injury every time he’s been asked about it.) At Evansville, Simmons remembered, Smith once knocked a tooth out of his mouth when he landed face-first on the hardwood after diving for a loose ball. He tossed the tooth aside and finished practice before getting it addressed.

Both Simmons and Martin also said Smith’s even-keeled personality rubs off on the rest of the locker room. Smith’s fiancee, Marley Miller, said that there are a few sides of Smith that fans and media don’t see — he likes to sing and dance, and his wit might catch someone on the receiving end of one of his dry comebacks off guard — but for the most part, the stony-faced, pass-first player you see on TV is the real Smith. Those are good qualities to have in a point guard, Simmons said.

“When you know that guy’s got confidence and doesn’t get rattled versus pressure and tight situations, then I think that carries over to the other guys,” said Simmons, now a special assistant to Brad Brownell at Clemson. “I mean, that’s what leadership is. It’s your ability to get guys to either raise their level of play or what we’re talking about, remain confident in close games, late-game situations, and I think that’s something Dru does.”

And then there’s the real strength of Smith’s game: his defense. The unique modern player who, if given the choice, would rather shut down the opposing team’s leading scorer than lead his own team in points, Smith led the SEC in steals for the second season in a row. As a result, he was named to the SEC all-defense team this season. In Missouri’s most recent game, he held Arkansas leading scorer and projected NBA lottery pick Moses Moody to five points. It marked the only time in Moody’s past 11 games he hasn’t scored at least 13 points, and he averaged 20.0 across the other 10 contests.

Simmons attributes Smith’s defensive prowess to his smarts and his competitiveness. While Smith’s facial expressions might not show it, he takes it personally when the player he’s guarding scores.

“He takes such pride in his defense,” Miller said. “He tells me, like, I don’t want anyone to score on me. So in that sense, he’s going to do whatever it takes to sacrifice his body, lay it all out on the line just to get a stop.”

While Simmons called Smith’s passion for defense rare, it’s not like he’s neglected the offensive end of the floor. By nature, he’d just rather see his teammates score than himself. Even when urged to shoot the ball more, Smith viewed looking for his own shot almost like a last resort.

“I honestly tell him, like, you have one of the best shots, you’ve gotta shoot it if you’re open,” MIller said. “And Dru is the most selfless player I think I’ve ever watched. Literally, Dru is always going to make the right play. He’s not going to force up a shot. But the coaches have said that, and I think it’s just a little bit harder for Dru because he genuinely enjoys watching his teammates succeed. He likes to make a pass and get that assist.”

While that can be a positive quality, when Missouri’s first struggles of the season coincided with a rough stretch for Smith, Martin had to intervene. During a four-game stretch that saw the Tigers eke out an ugly win over Bradley, lose big to Tennessee and blow a 14-point second-half lead against Mississippi State, Smith averaged just 7.3 points per game. He turned the ball over 13 total times, compared to six assists. Part of the reason, Martin felt, was other teams weren’t respecting Smith’s scoring ability. Missouri got an 11-day break following the Mississippi State game due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program. During that time off, the coaching staff challenged Smith to look for his own shot more often.

“I think up until that, ... I don’t think he was very aggressive offensively,” Martin said. “I just think he was playing basketball, doing the things asked of him, but he wasn’t very aggressive, so we certainly had a talk with him. … It was not necessarily coming into the gym, doing more of this or that, it was just being assertive.”

Since that point, Smith has averaged 15.6 points on 11.9 field goal attempts per game, compared to 11.3 points on 8.6 shots during Missouri’s first nine games of the year. He’s scored fewer than 10 points just twice during the team’s last 16 games.

It’s not like the scoring increase has come at the expense of his defense or decision-making, either. The complete game Smith has showcased over the last two months is why Martin believes he can make it in the NBA — and why he believes Smith should have been right there with Alabama’s Herb Jones in the SEC Player of the Year conversation.

“I think he can play at the highest level,” Martin said on March 5. “I do feel like he can play in the NBA, no question about it. Now, whether he’ll get drafted, I’m not sure that even matters anymore. But you’re talking about a guy, if I’m voting as MVP, it’s between him and Herb Jones. So you take your pick. If you’re a student of this and you really do this and you take pride in doing this, then that’s one and two, take your pick.”

The likely last act of Smith’s college career will come on his biggest stage. One of his criteria in selecting a landing spot after transferring, he said, was finding a place that would give him a chance to participate in college basketball’s postseason. Not only did Missouri make the NCAA Tournament this season, the whole event will be played in the state where Smith grew up.

True to his personality, Smith hasn’t really acknowledged the magnitude of the moment, at least when speaking with the media. Miller, however, revealed how much it means for Smith to be here. Given the outsized importance of guard play in March, if the Tigers win their first NCAA Tournament game in 11 years by beating Oklahoma on Saturday, he will almost certainly be an important reason why.

“I think it means absolutely everything,” Miller said. “Before this year even started, his one goal for him and the team was he wanted to make it to the NCAA Tournament. I think any athlete growing up, and then once you make it to that college level, the Division I level, that’s your goal. That’s what everyone wants to experience.

“He’s just really excited to be there, and hopefully they can make a run and leave their mark.”


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