Improving Smotrycz Set to Face Familiar Foe
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Evan Smotrycz stood on the Comcast Center baseline surrounded by microphones and video cameras, but instead of looking right at the questioning reporters, the Terps' junior forward gauzed up at the seats. Rows and rows and rows of red seats.
Not too much different than the seats he and the rest of the Maryland men's hoops squad (5-2) will see tonight at the Jerome Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio, home of the fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0).
"It's obviously a really good team we're playing. All road games are tough, but coach [Scott] Spinelli was joking the red [at Ohio State] is not much different than what we're used to here," Smotrycz quipped. "Comcast gets loud, so I'm sure it will be really loud there, but we'll be ready to play."
Smotrycz may be more ready than most of his Terps teammates considering he spent his formative years in the maize and blue of the Michigan Wolverines, a program that isn't particularly fond of the red-clad school to the south. The 6-foot-9 3-point marksman, who played his freshman and sophomore seasons at UM before transferring to Maryland before his junior campaign, has faced the Buckeyes six times during his career, twice in Ann Arbor and four times in Columbus. In fact, Smotrycz has played more games against OSU during his two seasons at Michigan than Maryland has played all-time (five) against the Buckeyes.
"[Evan has] played in that building before. He knows Ohio State, so I'm sure he's been talking to the guys a lot," Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said. "The building kind of looks like this [Comcast Center], red seats and everything, so that should help… But [Smotryzc is] probably the most comfortable going on this trip."
Maybe so, but it's not like Smotrycz has had many memorable experiences against Maryland's next foe. Of the six times he's faced OSU, Smotrycz's former squad came away with one win, a 56-51 victory his sophomore season where he scored just two points (though he had five rebounds). And that game took place in Ann Arbor, which means…
"I haven't had a chance to get a win [in Columbus]," Smotrycz said. "I've definitely had some bad games, some good games…I'm not sure numbers-wise, but I've only beat them once, and that was at home. It would be nice to get one on the road."
It's understandable if Smotrycz doesn't remember his numbers. He probably wouldn't want to.
During those half-dozen bouts with the Buckeyes, Smotrycz averaged 5.8 points, shot just 32.4 percent from the floor, turned the ball over nine times and pulled down 21 total rebounds.
But that was a couple years ago, back when Smotrycz was a sometimes-starter and never really had a chance to find his groove. Now that the Massachusetts native is in College Park, Md., he's beginning to consistently deliver on the potential he flashed at Michigan.
"He's starting to play like the kid we thought we were getting when we recruited him," Turgeon said. "He's playing with confidence and helps us in a lot of ways, whether that's stretching the defense or staying under control. He plays inside-out."
After a stellar 19-point, 12-rebound, four-assist effort against Morgan State, Smotrycz is now second on the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game and tops in rebounding with 7.6 per game. He's also dropping about two dimes a night and is shooting a career-high 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
During five of Maryland's seven games this season he's connected on at least 50 percent of his treys, and knocked down a season-high 4-of-6 against Morgan. The 19-point, 12-board game marked Smotrycz's second double-double this year, a feat he accomplished just twice during his career at Michigan.
"[Smotrycz] watched for a full year, so to come back on the court like he has, and being that experienced player, that leader, somebody you can look at – he's been great," Terps big man Charles Mitchell said. "He controls the game, he's a great shooter, he makes smart decisions, he makes smart plays, and he's a great player to be around."
"Smart" seems to be the label Smotrycz has been pegged with. His teammates, knowingly or subconsciously, have dropped the term during interviews all year, and Turgeon has described Smotrycz as such since the preseason.
"Evan's a smart player," Turgeon said again Tuesday. "He's starting to play from the neck up. He's a lot smarter, and he's shooting the ball well, which helps Nick [Faust] and Dez [Wells] drive the ball."
Before the season began, Smotrycz joked that the only reason Turgeon kept playing up his intelligence was to avoid critiquing his (lack of) athleticism. But thus far the stretch-4 has proven to be much more than a one-trick pony, evidenced by his rebounding and assist numbers. He's had at least nine rebounds in three straight games and has handed out at least two helpers in all but two outings. Moreover, he's shown the ability to drive and finish inside, taking advantage of defenders who try to deny his 3-point stroke.
But if all of those qualities can be chalked up to "smarts," well, Smotrycz isn't complaining.
"Coach relies on me to be a cerebral player and calming influence on the court," he said. "I worry about doing my job and not worrying about what everyone else is doing, just guarding my man and boxing out. I think guys see that and it rubs off…
"I try to impact the game in any way I can, but more often than not it's [cerebral]."
It took Smotrycz a few games to find his flow, however. But that's understandable considering he'd sat out the previous year due to NCAA transfer rules. After a solid 13-point, nine rebound game against Connecticut, Smotrycz went on a three-game stretch where he never shot better than 38 percent and didn't pull down more than a half-dozen boards.
"I might have been pressing a little bit," Smotrycz admitted.
And while his recent back-to-back double-doubles, preceded by a 20-point outburst against Northern Iowa in the U.S. Virgin Islands, would suggest he's in a zone, he's not ready to admit that. In fact, Smotrycz isn't happy with the way he's been shooting, saying even though he's nailed a few big shots, his field-goal percentage isn't where it needs to be.
"To be honest, I really haven't been shooting it that well," he said. "I just have to keep getting reps in the gym and hopefully shots will start to fall even more. But I'm just trying to impact the game anyway I can whether my shots are falling are not."
That, of course, is what Turgeon has been preaching all season. Even when Maryland's offense was clicking early, the head coach lamented the shoddy defensive and rebounding efforts against the likes of Connecticut and Oregon State. The last four games, however, have told a different story with no opponent scoring more than 66 points against the Terps.
"I think we're really just locking in, focusing in practice and it's carried over to games," Smotrycz said. "Guys are really taking pride in defense and rebounding, and those are two really big things with Coach."
The Terps will take Smotrycz's paint presence, but, hey, they probably won't complain if he leads the way beyond the arc. Especially tonight against a rugged Ohio State squad he's seen plenty of.
"It's just another big road game that we need to get," Smotrycz said. "But it's definitely a place I'm familiar with. I haven't won there, so hopefully we can do some celebrating after this game."
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