Dru Smith, Austin Reaves set to go toe-to-toe in First Round

Smith’s assignment will be stopping Reaves, who leads OU in points, rebounds and assists.

Missouri men’s basketball fans know who Dru Smith is by now. He’s a shut-down defender with a penchant for poking the ball away. A crafty scorer whose teammates will beg to shoot more until they look at the stat sheet and realize he has 15 points early in the second half.

He’s also a redshirt senior in his fifth — and likely final — season of college basketball, fourth as an eligible player and first in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about [the Tournament],” Smith said in an interview with The Maneater in February. “It’s tough … You can’t look forward, you can’t look past anything at this point.”

Smith is here in Indiana, his home state. And he’ll draw his most important assignment of the season in the first round on Saturday: slowing down Oklahoma redshirt senior guard Austin Reaves.

Reaves leads the Sooners in points, rebounds and assists with 17.7, 5.7 and 4.7 respectively.

“Definitely looking forward to it,” Smith said Wednesday. “He’s a great basketball player, and I think he just understands how to play the game. He plays at his own pace. He does a great job of getting fouled and he scores at all three levels. So I think it’ll definitely be a good matchup.”

“He does a great job of getting fouled” may be an understatement. Reaves is an expert at drawing just enough contact to elicit a whistle, partly because he’s so fearless on the drive. Missouri fans, especially those on Twitter, will not be thrilled about some of the calls he tends to get. Aside from LSU’s Cameron Thomas, he’s more skilled at drawing fouls than anyone the Tigers have faced so far.

Fans also will not be thrilled when they see him making most of the free throws he earns. Reaves sports a sterling 86.4 free throw percentage, good for first in the Big 12.

Reaves is so good in large part because like Smith said, he can score in every which way. Slashing, popping a jumper or driving to the basket off of a screen, catch-and-shoot jumpers, pull-up shots from midrange — it doesn’t matter. Reaves can and will score the rock. He’s a threat, though not as much as he used to be, from long-range, too.

“Austin Reaves is as good a guard [as there is] in the SEC,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said, comparing Reaves to the competition in Missouri’s conference. “It’s just constant pressure. You gotta keep him uncomfortable. You can’t allow him to get in a rhythm, where he’s dribbling the ball in his right hand and making plays. It could be a long night for you.”

Much of what makes Reaves so dangerous, though, is his drive-and-kick game. Oklahoma loves to spread the floor and put four capable shooters on the outside, which forces opponents to make a choice: either help on Reaves and stand helpless as he slings it to an open man who drills a three or don’t help on Reaves and give up two points.

Unless, of course, you have a first-team All-SEC and All-SEC defensive guard who can match Reaves step-for-step and force him to become a two-way player.

“I just think you gotta make him play on both sides of the ball,” Martin said. “You can’t allow him to go into the half with zero fouls, and we hadn’t put pressure on him in some way, shape or form.”

OU coach Lon Kruger spoke highly of Smith as well.

“He’s terrific,” Kruger said. “Dru Smith is a guy that can score in a lot of different ways, shoot the ball well, he gets to the paint, good defender. Looks like a terrific leader for them. A lot of similarities, I guess, as you compare Dru with Austin. Both really good players and both really big keys to the ballclub.”

Smith and Reaves are indeed similar in many ways. They both started at mid-major programs in 2016, albeit Reeves at a perennial Tournament team in Wichita State, and they both sat out the 2018-19 season after transferring to Power Six schools.

Reaves has respect for Smith’s game as well.

“He’s a really good player,” Reaves said. “The coaching staff has kept saying that over and over again, about how he affects the game in a lot of different aspects. He can score, he can rebound, he facilitates, he plays defense, so he’s really an all-around player. And then just a comparison — I feel like it’s really similar with us.”

The two guards squared off last season, and Reaves scored 19 points in a Sooners win.

Smith and Reaves also crossed paths at their respective mid-major schools. They played twice in 2017, with Smith scoring a then-career-high 19 points in the second game for Evansville. Reaves played sparingly off the bench on a Shocker team that ended its season at 31-5 with an NCAA Tournament win, and he unsurprisingly won both games.

Neither Smith nor Reaves remembers much about those games.

“He’s definitely grown a lot since then,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

So, of course, has Smith. And the 40-minute battle between him and Reaves could make all the difference Saturday night.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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