Jan. 7, 2014
Shooting For Continuity
Basketball "journeyman" Malik Smith finds a home with Richard Pitino at the University of Minnesota
Article published in January Ski-U-Mah Magazine
Blue and gold. Purple and gold. Blue, orange, and white. Maroon and gold.
Whatever color combination you prefer, chances are good it matches a basketball uniform that Malik Smith has worn his collegiate career.
Smith, the senior three-point-shooting specialist for the Gophers, has played at four different colleges in four years, from West Texas to West Miami and finally the Great White North. Throw in two high schools in three years and he's had... well, a lot of locker combinations to memorize.
Now, Smith finds himself with an odd sense of continuity in the midst of more change. He's the one Golden Gopher player who is in his second year with new head coach Richard Pitino, the man he jumped at a chance to play for--twice.
He loves Pitino's up-tempo, full court-pressing system and because of his experience with it last year at Florida International University, he became the guy that Gopher players went to this summer with questions about the system.
Another new school, and finally a system that's old hat.
A transfer student with a capital `T'
Smith is soft-spoken and entirely matter-of-fact about his odyssey that began in high school in the Boston area. After attending a public school for two years, he transferred 50 miles west to Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg for his junior and senior years. "It felt like I needed to get a better education coming out of high school because it was hard to focus in my public school with a lot going on over there," he said.
He didn't qualify academically for a Division I university ("credit" those first two years for slowing his progress) so he ventured off to South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas--a place that, to Smith, was "in the middle of nowhere."
He only averaged about five points a game and says the system wasn't a good fit for him, so he left for Jacksonville College near Dallas. In a new up-tempo system there, he averaged about 15 points per game, which opened the eyes of Richard Pitino.
"He had just got the job at Florida International (FIU), and once he called me I already knew that's where I wanted to go," says Smith. "I just trusted the name, being that his father is a big-time coach. I'm like, `This is exactly where I want to be.'"
He actually knew a bit more about Coach Pitino than just the legendary name.
"I knew, of course, that he worked for his father (Louisville head coach Rick Pitino) and then he worked for (Florida head coach) Billy Donovan," Smith said. "He played a similar style to Rick Pitino--the up-tempo, pressing style--and that intrigued me, and I knew that working under those guys he had a recipe for winning, what with his father being a national champion and Billy Donovan having two national championships."
He signed during his trip to FIU without making any other visits, and helped spark a surprise season for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference. Instead, the Panthers came a basket away from advancing to the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 14.1 points per game and set the record at FIU for three-pointers made in a single season with 96. His 3.0 threes per game ranked No. 1 in the conference and No. 16 in the nation.
Where Coach goes...
When Richard Pitino left FIU to take the Minnesota job, Smith knew he wanted to transfer, again. He had calls from a number of schools, including Maryland, Texas, Alabama, and St. Mary's. "But as soon as I learned that Coach Pitino wanted me to join him (at Minnesota), all those other schools were shut down, and I just signed here immediately. I'm just happy to be here right now."
Pitino felt the same way about having Smith on his roster at Minnesota and having a familar face in the locker room. "When I got the job, it was necesssary to bring Malik here," Pitino said. "He understands me. He understands what our program is all about and he was a very important piece to our successful season last year. He understands our system. He understands the day-to-day environment and he provides great leadership and knowledge of how we want to do things."
His latest transition has gone very well, according to Smith, and he's "really comfortable" playing with his new teammates, who turned to him in the summer to try to get the lowdown on their new head coach.
"Pretty much everybody on the team came up to me and asked me what it was going to be like," Smith said with a smile, and those questions continued into the start of the season. "I just tell them, come in to work hard every day. We're going to press. Every day is going to be fast-paced." And, he added, "he (Pitino) is not going to hold anybody back from taking shots, so that'll be fun."
Words to a shooter's ears.
But one of the biggest adjustments for Smith, outside of the frigid weather, is adapting to considerably less playing time. He started 31 of 32 games for FIU last year. This year, with Minnesota having Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, his role is to come off the bench.
"The hardest part was really adjusting to coming off the bench--being a 35-minute-a-game player last year and this year playing around 20 minutes a game. That was really the biggest adjustment, finding when to shoot and when to be relaxed and let other guys take over."
There will also be a difference in playing style from the Sun Belt Conference to the Big Ten.
"I know it's a more physical league, obviously, than what I was at last year--probably one of the more physical leagues in the country," he said. "[But] not a lot of teams in this conference play our style or are used to our style. That's why I think it could mess some people up."
That style is geared around getting people out of their comfort zones, both in the backcourt and the frontcourt.
"We're just trying to speed people up and make them do things they're not used to doing, putting guys in positions that they're not used to," he said. "Like pressuring the guards, trying to get the ball out of their hands and getting it into a big man's hands where he has to make a decision that a guard would have to make, and that causes mistakes.
"We're not going to change for anybody," he added. "People say we can't play this way in the Big Ten. Coach just preaches to stay with the system, stay in the process and we're going to keep doing that."
The Barn and Ski-U-Mah
Speaking of the Big Ten, Smith is relishing the games at Williams Arena. He watched on TV as the Gophers upset No. 1 Indiana last year, 77-73, and knows how loud `The Barn' can get. Especially compared to the crowds he played in front of last year.
"There's no place like it in college basketball," he said of his new home arena. "Our first scrimmage had about 8,000 people and that was a shock. Our biggest crowd at FIU was probably about 2,000. The arena was pretty big, but our fan base, they really didn't care about basketball that much. Coming here, the fan support is a major change for me and I'm liking it a lot."
After a recent game, Smith joined his teammates in singing The Rouser in front of the student section. Asked whether or not he had conquered that song, he was perplexed... until he was told what The Rouser was.
"Oh yeah, yeah. I did not know the name of it, but I'm just now getting used to it word for word," he says. "I picked it up, though."
Easier 40 words than a whole new system.
"Minnesota, hats off to thee!
To thy colors true we shall ever be..."
For Smith, those colors are Maroon and Gold, and a second straight season with a coach he's inspired to play for. Rick Moore is a writer and editor in University Relations and a long-time follower of Gopher Athletics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.