COLUMBIA, Mo. — Nearly three years ago, Dru Smith came to Missouri hoping to make an immediate impact in coach Cuonzo Martin’s backcourt. One of the best transfers on the market, the Evansville guard was just what Martin’s roster needed: a proven playmaker who could score, distribute and defend.
The Tigers just needed Evansville to sign off. The Purple Aces didn’t play ball.
Instead, the Missouri Valley Conference program denied Smith’s waiver request for immediate eligibility, unlike Illinois, which cleared transfer Mark Smith to play right away at Mizzou that season.
But then a global pandemic came along. Now, Smith’s raw deal has turned into a blessing in disguise. Had Evansville cleared Smith to play immediately for the Tigers, last year would have been his final season of eligibility — and ended abruptly when the coronavirus cut the season short. Instead, Smith has become the best player on an NCAA Tournament team and for the first time in his five-year college career will play in March Madness — in his home state, no less.
“Obviously you want to play and you never want to have to sit out,” Smith said Wednesday from Indianapolis, where the No. 9 seed Tigers (16-9) play No. 8 seed Oklahoma (15-10) on Saturday in the NCAA’s first round. “But after those first couple of weeks, when the decision was made and I knew I wasn’t going to play, I was thankful for it. I think it just gave me a better chance to adjust and get used to this playing style.”
The 6-foot-3 fifth-year guard won’t be mistaken for Mizzou’s most gifted athlete or most impactful physical presence — those descriptions fit junior point guard Xavier Pinson and senior center Jeremiah Tilmon, respectively — but he’s proved to be Martin’s most valuable player and among the nation’s most complete guards.
Smith earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors by the league coaches after leading the league in steals for the second straight year (2.1). He heads into Saturday’s 6:25 p.m. tip-off at Lucas Oil Stadium tied with Pinson as MU’s top scorer (14.1 points per game) and leads the team in assists (3.9). And in a season defined by its fits and starts and the team’s uneven play, he’s been Martin’s most consistent leader. His pulse and his play rarely fluctuate.
“You have some situations where young men hang their hat on, ‘I’ve got to make this shot. I’ve got to make it to be a pro. I’ve got to make it to provide for my family,’” Martin said. “Those pressures can put a lot of weight on a young man. I think he plays the game like it’s supposed to be played: Open shot, shoot it. Shot fake, drive it, pass to the open guy. Read the defense. It’s just basketball. When you can play basketball freely you have a chance to be very successful.”
Smith, 23, has become Mizzou’s leader with a below-the-rim floor game born and developed on the courts of the Hoosier State. When the Evansville native first came to Mizzou he drew comparisons to Tigers guard Jordan Geist, another son of Indiana with sharp fundamentals and an old-school arsenal of jump stops, pivots and shot fakes.
Martin buys that comparison, especially the shared Indiana DNA. Martin played and coached in the hoops-crazed state for nearly 20 years at Purdue.
“The state of Indiana, pound for pound, is as good as any I’ve been around as far as teaching the game of basketball,” Martin said. “I think it’s a by-product of (former Purdue coach) Gene Keady and (Indiana’s) Bobby Knight. Those guys did it for so long. So now all those disciples over the years, they’ve seen two of the best ever do it. You’re talking 30, 40 years of the basketball. So whether you played for those guys or not, I’m talking Butler, Ball State, all those schools, in some way shape or form, those two guys impacted those programs because of their styles. And here we are.”
At Evansville, Smith played for longtime Purple Aces coach Marty Simmons, a former Indiana star who was fired after Smith’s sophomore season, prompting Smith’s decision to transfer. Simmons, now an assistant at Clemson, had a direct connection to Mizzou’s staff: Tigers assistant Chris Hollender played at Evansville when Simmons was an assistant and later worked on his staff.
‘A great fit’
“Dru is probably one of the most unselfish players that you’ll ever find,” Simmons said in a phone interview from Indianapolis, where Clemson plays Rutgers in the first round Friday. “It’s almost like every coach he’s played for says, ‘Man, you may have to shoot a little bit more.’ But that’s special, to be honest with you, in today’s world. Everyone else is taught score, score, score. He just has a great vision, a great understanding of how to play.”
And play defense. As an aggressive on-ball defender, Smith dabbles in occasional foul trouble, but he’s also capable of shutting down an opponent’s best guard. In last week’s SEC tournament loss to Arkansas, he held Hogs All-SEC freshman Moses Moody to a season-low five points in 39 minutes.
“It’s his instincts and just his competitive nature,” Simmons said. “I’m telling you, he’s old school, man. He’s a competitor. He’s smart in his game plans. He studies individual characteristics. And he never quits on a play. If you get by him, sometimes that’s the worst thing because you’ll back tap to a teammate and he’ll get it and go the other way.”
At Evansville, Smith was among the nation’s best 3-point shooters, making 48% as a sophomore. He arrived at Mizzou with an unorthodox release — he nearly flicks the ball from his waist — but he’s made it work, shooting 38.3% this year, best among MU’s regulars.
“He’s got a low release, but he’s got great backspin, great rotation,” Simmons said. “He’s just so disciplined. He doesn’t take bad shots.”
The NCAA’s strict COVID protocols won’t allow Smith to gather with family or visit old haunts during his Indiana homecoming. But that’s OK. His five-year career has finally reached the sport’s promised land, better later than never.
“I love Dru. He’s an incredible young man, incredible person,” Simmons said. “I’m just thrilled but not surprised. . . . It’s been a lot of fun to watch him. I think it was a great fit.”