During a timeout in the crucible of the final seconds of a tie game at Florida on March 3, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin turned to senior guard Dru Smith and essentially put the outcome on him.
Beyond the sheer X’s and O’s of the play that would begin in earnest with Smith taking a pass on the right wing, Martin added a psychological nudge: Considering that the selfless Smith had passed up a fine opportunity to shoot on the previous possession, Martin challenged him by saying, “Hey, man, come on, now, be the player you’re supposed to be.”
The scene made for telling testimony about Smith … and not just because he then burst toward the hoop and navigated a reverse layup through three lunging Florida defenders with 0.7 seconds left in the 72-70 Mizzou victory.
The moment obviously reflected Martin’s pure trust in Smith, the All-Southeastern Conference performer so crucial to West Region No. 9 seed MU’s hopes of winning its first NCAA Tournament game since 2010 when it meets eighth-seeded Oklahoma on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
But it also illuminated plenty more, including, yes, that Smith at times still needs to be reminded to assert himself on offense against his more generous nature.
More substantially, though, it illustrated his poise and the increasingly rare attribute of coachability found in this player whose journey has come full circle back to the state where it all began for this long-awaited marquee time in his career.
Noting his ability to accept criticism, Martin said, “If all you want to hear is all good things about you, you have a long way to go in life. Not just in sports but in life.”
Instead, Smith figures to go a long way with his life.
Whether it’s because he’s open to criticism, doesn’t need much or somewhere in between, he’s everything anyone could want in a student-athlete.
He’s not only one of MU’s most pivotal players but an accomplished student, thriving in graduate school this semester with an eye toward a future in financial advising and wealth management.
If that doesn’t speak to his maturity, consider that he’ll be getting married in June to Marley Miller, a teacher at Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri, whom he started dating when each was playing basketball for Evansville University.
“His life is a little more old-soulish than some other college basketball players and college kids in general,” Miller said last fall.
The game, incidentally, has remained an element of their relationship: When Smith resolved to improve as a 3-point shooter last summer, Miller joked that she “probably did a little more coaching than what he would have liked.”
Nevertheless, reiterating his coachability, his 3-point shooting improved from 29.7% last season to 38.3% this season.
But enough about the gaudy stuff. While he is tied with guard Xavier Pinson for the team scoring lead with an average of 14.1 points, his game is more about fundamentals and nuance, really.
He led the SEC in steals with 2.0 a game, which doesn’t do justice to his smothering defense. He was fifth in assists with an average of 3.9. And he was sixth in free-throw percentage (83.0, just behind Pinson’s 83.7).
For good measure, the 6-foot-3 Smith pulls in 3.5 rebounds a game (fourth on the team).
Most of all, though, he’s the rudder and connective tissue of this team because of his equilibrium, sense of where he is and proficiency in the game itself. He understands that being a steady presence and all that implies is one of his most vital roles.
To Martin, such cognizance and fundamental soundness is easy to attribute to Smith’s upbringing in a basketball-crazed state deeply impacted by the likes of his coach and mentor at Purdue, Gene Keady, and former Indiana coach Bobby Knight.
Their influence, he reckoned, trickled down to other college programs, such as Butler and Ball State, and into high school play.
So Smith was indoctrinated at an early age to motion offense, cutting, jump stops and such. While his athleticism wasn’t overwhelming, he had other compensatory gifts that either he was born with or were infused in him by family.
One in particular stands out when it comes to basketball: his grace under pressure. Or, in at least one instance, grace under a cheap shot.
As Mike Adams, his coach at Evansville Reitz High said, a Terre Haute South player once shoved Smith’s face into the floor amid a scramble for a loose ball.
Smith retaliated … by shrugging it off. He simply walked away and calmly sank the free throws, Adams said, and “went on to make six plays in a row.”
“It was just the best way to show young kids this is how you act, this is how you carry yourself,” Adams said.
Smith wasn’t widely recruited, but he was happy to initially attend Evansville. And he likely wouldn’t have transferred if the school hadn’t fired coach Marty Simmons after Smith’s sophomore season in 2018.
By then, he had plenty of appeal for Mizzou, which needed just the sort of glue he might be able to provide.
Evansville denied his request for a waiver to be immediately eligible, a point of frustration to all at the time but a development that the ever-unflappable Smith came to embrace.
“When the decision was made and I knew I wasn’t going to play, I was thankful for it,” he said Wednesday. “I think it just gave me a better chance to adjust and get used to this playing style.”
As it happens, it was all in good time. Because he had to sit out that season, now he’s getting to make his NCAA Tournament debut in his home state – in ample part because of his own efforts.
“I think,” Martin said in what amounts to lofty praise, “he plays the game like it’s supposed to be played.”
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