Subscribe for 99¢
MVC Evansville Illinois St Basketball

Illinois State's Tony Wills, left, and Evansville's Dru Smith chase a loose ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference men's tournament Friday, March 3, 2017, in St. Louis. Illinois State won 80-69. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri guard Dru Smith spent the last year the old fashioned way for a Division I transfer. Without the luxury of an instant eligibility waiver that the NCAA has started tossing out like candy at a parade, Smith sat out Mizzou’s games last season and did his work behind the scenes on the practice court.

Meanwhile, Smith’s teammates and coaches spent the last year raving about everything from his shooting and passing prowess, his elite defense and his unmatched leadership and poise. Some praise went public. Most seeped through in private conversations around the program.

At this point, if Smith could walk on the Missouri River, heal the Porters’ injuries and turn water into Gatorade, no one should be surprised.

Call it buzz. Call it hype. Whatever that’s building around the former Evansville Purple Ace, Smith insists it’s not pressure.

“It’s just exciting,” the 6-3 junior guard said Friday at Mizzou Arena. “I’m excited to get out there and do whatever I can. I’m not really putting any pressure on myself to make numbers or anything like that. I’m just trying to get out there and play hard and do whatever I can.”

If Smith can duplicate or exceed his sophomore season production at Evansville, Cuonzo Martin will have one of the Southeastern Conference’s best newcomers in his backcourt as the Tigers come off a 15-17 season that ended in the SEC tournament. While playing through a series of lower leg injuries, Smith averaged 13.7 points in 2017-18, plus 4.6 assists, second-most in the Missouri Valley Conference. He also led the league in in 3-point shooting (48.2 percent) and steals (2.0 per game). He was among the nation’s most efficient shooters from anywhere on the floor — 57.2 percent from the field and 86.2 percent at the foul line. Evansville, his hometown team, wasn’t particularly good — longtime coach Marty Simmons was fired after the season, prompting Smith’s departure — but Smith was both the team’s most efficient scorer and prime playmaker.

Martin has said Smith might be most valuable on the defensive end, where he can guard the one (point guard) through four position (power forward). In practices this summer, Smith has been one of the team’s primary ball-handlers and figures to be the leading candidate to replace Jordan Geist as Martin’s starting point guard.

“I love to play with Dru,” sophomore guard Javon Pickett said. “The energy that he brings, the leadership, it’s all great. He’s the type of person that if he sees you down he’s going to pick you up. He’s going to help this team win. He’ll take the charges. He’ll find the open man. We know he can score, of course. He’s got a great shot.”

The testimonies don’t stop there.

“One thing I really like about Dru is he gets to the free throw line,” sophomore guard Torrence Watson said. “He’ll definitely shoot the most free throws on the team this year.”

“Dru is an all-around point guard,” junior forward Mitchell Smith added. “If he needs to score the ball for us he can, but Dru’s really the general out there. He’s running the floor. He’s making sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.”

“His poise you can see on the court,” junior guard Mark Smith said. “His pace, he doesn’t let anything speed him up. It’s fun to play with because he just gives you that confidence of being calm and under control all the time.”

Compared to Geist, Smith gives the Tigers a more natural point guard, though replacing Geist’s production won’t come easy. With Jontay Porter out for the entire season and Mark Smith sidelined for a long stretch, Geist became the first player in team history to lead the Tigers in points, assists, steals, field goals, 3-pointers and free throws. Only three other players had led Mizzou in five of those six categories over a single season. Two were All-Americans: Anthony Peeler in 1991-92 and Melvin Booker in 1993-94.

“I respect Geist a lot,” Dru Smith said. “He worked harder than anyone I know. That dude was in the gym all the time. I just want to be able to step in and take over the same role he had.”

Unlike Mark Smith, who was cleared to play for the Tigers last season after transferring from Illinois, Dru Smith’s waiver request was denied when Evansville wouldn’t sign off last summer. Some tension lingered between the staffs, but for Smith, no harm, no foul.

“I don’t think it was tough at all,” he said. “I was really excited for (Mark). Of course I would have loved to been out there, too, but at the end of the day that’s what I signed up for in the beginning. Getting that year to work and get better wasn’t really a big issue.”

Together on the floor, the Smiths make up part of what Mizzou has dubbed Big Guard U, a nickname that reflects the Tigers’ unique blend of size and strength on the perimeter, where the Tigers also return sophomore Xavier Pinson and add freshmen Mario McKinney (Vashon) and Kobe Brown. Watson, Pickett and Mark Smith are all 6-5 and capable of playing (and defending) multiple spots on the floor. Mark Smith, fully healed from March foot surgery, set the standard in the weight room this summer with a 495-pound deadlift.

With more depth and balance up and down the roster, the Tigers shouldn’t need one player to handle all the heavy lifting — not even a miracle worker from Evansville.

Eye on the Tigers e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Dave Matter is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.