MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a few minutes into a mid-July basketball scrimmage on the University of Minnesota campus, and one Gophers voice rises above the rest.
It’s not junior point guard Andre Hollins, Minnesota’s leading scorer from a year ago. Nor is it senior Austin Hollins; he’s more of the lead-by-example type.
Instead, the boisterous guard is a newcomer, one who has yet to play a game in a Minnesota uniform.
Malik Smith has already proven to be a vocal leader for the Gophers despite still getting a feel for his new teammates. The biggest reason? He knows the new coach better than the other players. Smith played for new Minnesota coach Richard Pitino during Pitino’s one and only season at Florida International. When Pitino made the leap to the Big Ten, Smith followed not long after.
Now that they’re reunited, Smith is helping bridge the gap between Pitino and his new team.
“I think it helps them as players more than it helps me as a coach, because now they’re going to feel more comfortable,” Pitino said this week. “The first couple practices, they don’t want to talk. They don’t know how I’m going to react to certain things. So I constantly tell them, ‘Ask Malik. Malik can give you a feel for what type of coach I am, how to deal with me, what to do, what not to do.'”
Minnesota is the fourth stop for the 6-foot-2, 170-pound Smith during his winding college basketball career. The Boston native began as a freshman at South Plains College, a small junior college in Levelland, Texas. From there he spent a year at Jacksonville College, where he averaged 15 points per game as a sophomore.
That led to yet another program, as Smith was a member of Pitino’s inaugural squad at FIU. He played in 32 games and averaged 14.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in the Sun Belt Conference. But when Pitino left, Smith didn’t want to stay. He left to join Pitino in Minneapolis, and on Wednesday the NCAA granted Smith a waiver that makes him eligible to play during the 2013-14 season without having to sit out a year.
“As soon as I put in my release, I was contacted by a couple schools,” Smith said. “But once I learned that coach Pitino wanted me, I just dropped everything else and said, ‘That’s what I’m doing.'”
Smith gives the Gophers a 3-point shooter, something they desperately need. He led the Sun Belt Conference and was tied for 16th in the nation in 3-pointers made (3.0 per game). Of course, he put up a lot of shots to make that many and was a 36.2 percent shooter, 60th in all of Division I for players averaging more than 2.5 made 3-pointers per game.
Minnesota ranked in the middle of the Big Ten in 3-point shooting last year, so it certainly welcomes Smith’s ability to shoot from long range.
“Malik’s a great player, great shooter,” said Andre Hollins. “He knows coach Pitino’s system. He’s helping us out. When we have questions, he helps us out. He’s an unbelievably hard worker.”
The Gophers seem to be picking up Pitino’s fast-paced offense quickly, Smith said. They’re ahead of schedule from where FIU was last year; it took the Golden Panthers until September to gain the comfort level Minnesota already has with Pitino’s system.
Part of that is thanks to Smith, who is a field general on the court, barking out signals and instructions to his new teammates. He’s run these plays dozens of times and knows where everyone should be — and he’s not afraid to tell them.
“I’ve always been a leader at every level,” Smith said. “But that definitely comes along with knowing the system and telling guys what they should be doing, where they should be on the court in certain situations.”
Pitino has raved about Smith this offseason. On the coach’s new blog, he said that Smith was “playing arguably the best basketball on the team right now.” Of course, a big reason for that was Smith’s comfort level with Pitino and vice versa.
“He’s the only one who knows how to play for me. He had a year with me — a year and a half, really — when we kind of did the same thing,” Pitino said. “He knows the plays. He’s comfortable. He’ll take a shot that he knows that I may be a little frustrated with, but he can get away with it a little bit.
“He’s just comfortable. It’ll come for everybody else.”