For Maryland men’s basketball’s scout team, constant change has become the norm

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - Maryland men's basketball assistant coach Scott Spinelli, left, talks with the scout team after a recent practice.

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Before another practice of pretending to be other people, the eight members of the Maryland men’s basketball scout team were lounging around the Comcast Center bench when assistant coach Dustin Clark walked up and slapped hands with each. Two days were left until the trip to North Carolina State and there was much work to be done. “All right,” Clark said. “Let’s walk through.”

The building was otherwise empty. Scout team practices often unfold in this manner, away from the spotlight. The regulars wouldn’t arrive for another hour, but their preparation hinged on what happened next. If the scout team — they call themselves the “red team,” or “red” for short, after the colored pinnies worn during regular practice — creates a good look of the upcoming opponent, that helps the Terrapins actually tasked with playing in the game.

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On this Saturday in mid-January, Clark began by assigning roles. Junior Varun Ram would mimic Cat Barber, the speedy point guard. Freshman Damonte Dodd was Kyle Washington, a big man like him. Clark pointed at John Auslander, the only senior on the team, and turned him into the ACC’s leading scorer. “You’re going to be T.J. Warren,” Clark said.

Roughly 15 plays would be learned during this session, and five more were on the docket for Sunday. Some were derivations of N.C. State’s basic offensive principles and others were specific sets. Most would be called upon by Coach Mark Turgeon during practice. The scout-team players feel pride from giving good looks to their teammates, then watching it unfold during games, but it’s difficult imitating someone else’s game.

“It’s an identity crisis thing,” forward Spencer Barks said. “I can barely call myself Spencer anymore. I’m like 10 different people almost every other week. It sounds weird, pretending I’m not myself. But that’s fun.”

Turgeon has always liked filling out his roster with hard-working walk-ons, many of whom came to Maryland knowing their chances of appearing in games were slim. Clark called it a “weird recruiting pitch,” asking players who starred in high school to accept a secondary role and simply tag along for the ride.

“They’re so important, just when you get the right ones,” Turgeon said. “Their attitudes are good, everyone likes them and respects them. They bring energy. They care. They’re just so happy to be a part of it. This has been a really good group.”

Off the court, the scout-team players are even closer. When guard Jake Susskind recently arrived for an interview, he began by declaring he was cold. The reason? “My clothes were in the refrigerator,” he explained.

Pranks like this are common among the scout-team players. Towels are hidden behind the locker room trash can. During games, they tug on each other’s shorts while seated at the end of the bench. On the season-opening road trip to Brooklyn, Susskind dropped his cellphone into the team bus toilet and tried to dry it inside a bag of rice. So Barks took that bag of rice and dumped it into one of Susskind’s socks.

“When it comes to it, we’re good friends,” Susskind said. “We know what makes each other tick. It’s nice to have this kind of family.”

One road trip several seasons ago, Auslander started a tradition, emblematic of the brotherhood on the red team. Now a veteran leader, having transferred from Greensboro (N.C.) College before Turgeon’s first season, Auslander once wanted to squeeze in an extra workout at the hotel. Soon, the other walk-ons joined and they still do, the night before every away game. It often gets intense. They have ripped towels in fitness centers, scraped feet on pool floors and once, while swimming laps, bumped heads so hard that someone got a bloody nose.

Nothing, though, is worse than hearing the three words all scout-team players dread. Avoiding the phrase is their prime motivation, because if they provide a weak look or if their movements aren’t crisp, Turgeon has been known to offer an exasperated, “Come on, red.”

“It kills me,” said Auslander, the de facto scout-team captain. “If we mess up the scout, it can lead to us feeling as if we played a role in us losing.”

Sunday morning. One day to N.C. State. Clark was in his office, watching another batch of Wolfpack film and sketching out-of-bounds plays to teach. After 20 minutes of silence, Clark grabbed some papers and stood up. “Let’s see if they’re ready for all this,” he said.

Many were. Being a scout-team player means having a short memory. Plays are quickly forgotten after games, attention turned to the next batch. Younger Terps, like freshman A.J. Metz, might struggle at first. The information arrives so fast. But older players like Auslander, Barks and Susskind have been around long enough to remember the calls, so scouts for familiar teams like N.C. State are easy.

“They’ve had a lot on their shoulders,” Turgeon said. “They’ve handled it really well.”

Before long, after some light installation, the regulars trickle in. Their scrimmages with the scout team often get competitive. Barks boasts one of Maryland’s best vertical leaps and has dunked on several teammates. Most can shoot from outside. Auslander thinks that under the right circumstances, the red team could compete at the Division I level.

Mostly, though, it’s about one thing.

“Let’s not hear any ‘Come on red’ from Coach,” Clark said as the scout teamers huddled tight and stuck their hands together. “Family on three. One. Two. Three. Family.”

 
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