Dru Smith is a gamechanger — when he plays.
Smith, voted second team All-Southeastern Conference by both media and coaches prior to the season, has seen a slight drop off in production from last year. He isn’t any less talented, and not too many teams have outright solved him.
His biggest obstacle? Foul trouble.
Smith is averaging 3.2 fouls per game through the Tigers’ first 10 games. It’s brought his averages in points and assists down a bit from a year ago. Beyond the stat sheet, it’s caused a big ripple in Missouri’s flow.
Missouri, which hosts South Carolina on Tuesday night, has wrestled away a few wins in which Smith committed untimely fouls. His four fouls against Bradley were a big reason why the Tigers were nearly upset at home following their first big layoff. Smith isn’t the most dynamic scorer, but his 11.7 points per game are second only to junior guard Xavier Pinson and his season-low four shots and six points certainly didn’t help versus the Braves. Smith played a season-low 23 minutes and Missouri struggled offensively, shooting 25% from the floor.
Though the Tigers haven’t lost many games this season, Smith was needed in the two games they did drop. In the treacherous loss to Tennessee that opened up conference play and solidified the difference between the Volunteers and the rest of the league, Smith was limited again.
Though many players underperformed that night against Tennessee’s dominant defense, Smith’s three fouls only allowed him to play 27 minutes — five fewer than his average and less than he should play in a game of that nature.
His five turnovers outweighed his three steals, and his lack of floor time at important moments only got him six points on six shots. Sure, Smith could’ve executed better, but those five turnovers are an anomaly, as was Missouri’s performance (or lack thereof) versus Tennessee in comparison to most other teams.
The underlying theme in these performances is Smith’s inability to stay on the floor in important moments. Remove a couple untimely fouls and replace them with a number of great defensive possessions, which he’s usually good for, and perhaps it entirely changes the frame of the game before it gets ugly.
The Tigers are 6-1 when Smith logs 30 minutes or more this season. In wins, Smith averages 11.7 points, 3.4 boards and three assists. In losses, Smith has posted 7.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. It doesn’t take a deep dive to see his impact, and his teammates may understand just as well as he does how important it is for him to play without fouling.
“It’s big for us,” graduate transfer Drew Buggs said when asked about Smith staying out of foul trouble. “Dru’s a guy that makes an impact in numerous ways on the court, and you could just feel his presence out there. So when he’s firing on all cylinders, doing what he’s usually doing, it’s big for this team and it makes us really hard to guard. It makes us even better on the defensive end as well.”
Smith’s impact couldn’t have come in a better form than his performance versus Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon. The senior guard stuffed the stat sheet, logging 15 points, six rebounds, six assists, four steals and a block while committing a single foul, his season low.
Smith played a better, more efficient stretch Saturday than he may have ever played, doing it all for the Tigers. His impact on both ends allowed Missouri to run away with the game despite starting slowly. Coach Cuonzo Martin should be able to play Smith 30-35 minutes a game without reluctance, and as long as Smith doesn’t foul, those minutes should translate to wins.
Every second that Smith plays the Tigers are better defensively, and those that have caught a glimpse of him during his two years in Columbia know that. But nobody understands the intangibles and the significance of foul trouble more than him.
“I think it definitely helped me out a lot to not be in foul trouble,” Smith said when asked about his lack of fouls against Texas A&M. “Something obviously I gotta work on, and something on that I gotta make sure I’m just conscious of throughout the game. Making sure I don’t have two (fouls) in the first half, and then anything early in the second. So, I think being able to get into the rhythm, kinda being there, getting into the flow, it definitely helped.”
Smith will need to try to emulate that game against South Carolina — its first home game since Dec. 30. The Gamecocks aren’t the biggest threat the Tigers have seen to date, but their leading scorers — A.J. Lawson and Jermaine Cousinard — are two dynamic guards. Smith will be needed down the stretch when attempting to defend South Carolina’s backcourt, especially Lawson, who averages 18.5 points per game.
Both Dru Smith and Mark Smith have underperformed in games this season, and the Tigers might be due for a stellar performance from at least one of them.
The Tigers have proven they can afford Mark Smith disappearing in games, having played without him fairly often through his years. But the Tigers will need Dru Smith if they want to solidify the idea of a tournament run that they’ve made possible thus far.