Hours before Maryland’s upset of Duke last Saturday, Evan Smotrycz stood on the Comcast Center court and scanned the emptiness. He saw thousands of newspapers, neatly folded for their traditional use during pregame introductions. He saw all the T-shirts draped over the student section’s plastic chairs. And for the first time since transferring to Maryland this offseason, Smotrycz grew a little sad.
Sitting out this season per NCAA rules, Smotrycz parked himself into an undersize chair on a recent afternoon and reflected on a season of growth, even though he hasn’t touched the floor during a game.
Instead, he spends games behind the Maryland bench, typically in some suave sweater or button-down, watching and wishing and thinking about when his time will finally come.
Keeping focused this season has been easy for Smotrycz, through all the weightlifting and scout-team meetings and game nights spent in street clothes. But something about the atmosphere against Duke tugged at Smotrycz’s heart. During his two seasons at Michigan, the 6-foot-9 forward twice lost to Duke by a combined nine points. So after working out with fellow transfer Varun Ram that afternoon, Smotrycz wandered into the balcony and snapped a picture as he overlooked the calm before the storm. If nothing else, the bittersweet moment reinforced Smotrycz’s decision to leave a burgeoning power and join Coach Mark Turgeon’s program. He has no regrets.
“No. Not at all,” Smotrycz said. “Everyone asks me that: ‘Aren’t you [upset] when Michigan was ranked first and stuff?’ I talk to the guys still, and I’m happy for them. At the same time, I wasn’t leaving because the team wasn’t good. I was leaving to do something for me, and to better myself. I’m happy for them. They could win a national title and I’d still be happy for them. I wouldn’t disappointed at all, because I know I made the right decision.”
During this transition year, Smotrycz is straddling the line between impartial observer and seasoned veteran as one of two Maryland players with NCAA tournament experience. He’s a force on the scout team, infuriating his practice opponents with buzzer-beating three-pointers and smiling whenever Turgeon yells at the regulars, because then Smotrycz knows he’s done his job. At the same time, he chooses his teaching moments carefully, knowledgeable enough to help yet aware that he still doesn’t suit up and play.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said guard Logan Aronhalt, another offseason transfer. “He gives us that presence on offense, on the scout team that we wouldn’t have when he’s here. They do a great job bringing the energy every day. When you have someone who can really score the ball and play like he does, it changes things. His basketball IQ is pretty high. He’s one of those players who’s not making huge plays, but you can tell, everything functions a little better when he’s on the court. Everything works smoother, goes well.”
Practicing with the scout team affords Smotrycz a unique opportunity. He can experiment with different moves, risks typically punishable by benching during games. Lately, he’s developed a dribble-drive move, and with forward John Auslander sidelined with a season-ending injury, has begun defending the post to create a well-rounded game.
“Now he’s guarding Alex [Len], he’s guarding Shaq [Cleare],” Turgeon said. “He can play inside-out for us. So we’ve gotten a lot accomplished with him. He’s just a smart player. Because he knows how to play, he’s going to make guys around him better. He’s remained pretty focused, which is hard to do. I know he’s ready.”
Maryland insists on a carpe diem-type philosophy, preferring to avoid futuristic talk while still clinging to faint hopes of an NCAA berth. But it’s enticing to imagine Smotrycz becoming a matchup nightmare with size and a deft shooting touch, much like Duke’s Ryan Kelly. He averaged seven points per game over two seasons with the Wolverines and shot 40.5 percent on three-pointers.
He misses friendships back in Ann Arbor and still talks to former teammates, the players who have kept Michigan in the top 10 all season. On the court, Smotrycz couldn’t be happier. He lives with Pe’Shon Howard, Nick Faust and James Padgett, down the hall from other Terps. He can taste next season.
“I’m always thinking about that like, watching these guys develop because they’re very young, thinking about who I’ll be playing with next year and what the team will look like,” Smotrycz said. “Everybody has gotten really better and I think when I come to play next year, I’ll add a new piece that will complement everybody’s skill set.”