In the hours leading up to Terrapins men’s basketball home games last season, before thousands of spectators and several television crews poured into Comcast Center, forward Evan Smotrycz had Gary Williams Court to himself.
Opposing teams hadn’t arrived at the facility yet, and the Terps were napping in the locker room or munching on pregame meals. But Smotrycz, serving an NCAA-mandated year on the bench after transferring from Michigan, had time on his hands.
Sometimes joined by fellow transfer guard Varun Ram or student managers and other times alone, Smotrycz would spend hours taking hundreds of shots at the rim and pounding the ball into the floor, causing an echo to fill the vacant, almost 18,000-seat arena.
Those moments helped dull the pain of an agonizing season without competitive basketball. And simultaneously, those silent workout sessions evoked promise for this season, one in which Smotrycz will start for the Terps and have the opportunity to reap the benefits he sought when he transferred from the Final Four-bound Wolverines in spring 2012.
“Evan is a kid who doesn’t look back at any decisions he makes,” said his father, Zee Smotrycz. “He makes a decision, cuts it and is always looking forward. He doesn’t have any regrets.”
Smotrycz insists he hasn’t had second thoughts about his decision to leave Michigan and that he’s thrilled to be in College Park. And though the lengthy process was draining for the big kid from Reading, Mass., those close to him say he’s landed in the right place.
On the court, it’s Smotrycz’s versatility that dictated his path to College Park. He’s a prototypical stretch-four, a 6-foot-9 forward with a knack for draining 3-pointers and an ability to defend opposing centers, traits that coach Mark Turgeon covets.
Meanwhile, his calm confidence and easygoing personality off the hardwood allowed Smotrycz to develop cherished connections with his Terps teammates after leaving Michigan.
Still, he likely won’t feel totally comfortable until the Terps open their season against No. 18 Connecticut in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday night. Then, the lanky 22-year-old with curly brown hair will be on the floor at game time, when Barclays Center is stuffed with spectators, rather than hours before when the seats are empty and the gym is silent.
“For a long time I’ve been putting it on Twitter and just kind of counting down,” Smotrycz said. “It’s coming quick.”
TOUGH TO GUARD
Zee Smotrycz sized up the players he was helping coach on a fifth-grade travel basketball team about 11 years ago and was concerned when he noticed his son was the tallest kid. Sure, size is valued in basketball, but the elder Smotrycz didn’t want his son to be relegated to the post, where he wouldn’t develop a shooting touch or ball handling skills.
As a 6-foot-10 former Division III hoops player at Middlebury College in Vermont, Zee Smotrycz knew quite well that many coaches would stick their biggest kid in the paint.
“That’s what happened to me,” Zee Smotrycz joked. “And I think Evan’s got a little bit more to offer than just that.”
So Smotrycz’s father had him play point guard, a move that built the foundation of a unique skill set.
After several games, Smotrycz became one of the best ball handlers and shooters in his travel league, yet he was often also the biggest player on the court. In hockey-crazed Massachusetts, Smotrycz quickly made a name for himself on the hardwood.
“We aren’t very good at basketball where I was from, so I kind of had to do it all,” Smotrycz said. “It’s just something I always kept with me, and coaches have always stressed ball handling and stuff like that.”
For the next several years, Smotrycz worked at the game. He spent hours on end in his basement dribbling during cold New England winters, and in the summer, he’d take to the driveway, firing shot after shot at the family’s hoop.
Eventually, Vin Pastore, Mass Rivals AAU team coach and fellow Reading native, spotted Smotrycz at a high school game in his sophomore year and gave the budding star a new place to develop his skills.
Smotrycz’s combination of size and skill intrigued Pastore despite Reading Memorial High School’s status as a weak basketball school. So Smotrycz joined the Mass Rivals and eventually began working out with Pastore several times each week, further enhancing his game.
As Smotrycz got better, he realized he needed to play against stiffer competition, and he transferred to New Hampton Prep, a private boarding school in New Hampshire. Still, Smotrycz’s greatest gains on the court came from his time spent with Pastore.
In 2009, Smotrycz would even play one-on-one for hours against Scott Hazelton, a former McDonald’s All-American who just one year earlier was playing professionally in Europe. The task was draining, but by forcing Smotrycz to find ways to score against a more talented opponent, Pastore helped Smotrycz morph into a well-rounded scorer.
“The goal offensively, in developing any kid, is to make him difficult to guard,” Pastore said. “Evan is a difficult cover because he can do so many things. He can shoot, he can put the ball on the floor, and he can pass the ball.”
It’s that versatility that drew Michigan coach John Beilein to New Hampton to watch Smotrycz play and eventually sent Smotrycz on his winding journey toward College Park.
FROM ANN ARBOR TO COLLEGE PARK
Smotrycz just couldn’t kick the feeling. He was glad he helped Michigan reach the 2012 NCAA tournament, averaging 7.7 points per game and starting 18 contests, but something wasn’t right.
He spent all those hours in the gym with Pastore working to develop a well-rounded game, but he wasn’t afforded the chance to showcase his wide range of talent with the Wolverines.
Instead of asking Smotrycz to drive and create plays, Beilein called on the big man to simply defend the post and space the floor. Beilein let his talented guards, including future New York Knick Tim Hardaway Jr. and future Naismith Award winner Trey Burke, handle the offensive playmaking duties.
Smotrycz, who had grown close to his Wolverines teammates, knew he needed to get out of Ann Arbor, Mich., if he wanted to reach his potential.
“I wanted to be a guy who could not only stand in the corner and let other guys get me shots,” Smotrycz said, “but create my own shot and get other guys shots also.”
So Smotrycz declared his intention to transfer from Michigan in spring 2012, a move that left his future clouded in uncertainty. He didn’t know if any big programs were interested or if he’d be able to find a better home.
“When you decommit, you don’t have laid-out plans,” Zee Smotrycz said. “You can’t — it’s not legal to do that. But he said, ‘I still need to do this.’”
Pastore wasn’t surprised by Smotrycz’s decision. He knew his former mentee was a bit stubborn, both on and off the court. Pastore said that whenever Smotrycz missed a shot, “he thought it was an accident, so he’d shoot the next one.”
That carried over to Smotrycz’s decision to transfer. He believed someone would want his services.
He was right. Turgeon, in the midst of rebuilding the Terps program after his first season in College Park, was hot on the recruiting trail and quickly took notice of Smotrycz.
Turgeon and assistant coaches Dalonte Hill and Bino Ranson flew to meet with Smotrycz’s family in Reading on Good Friday in April 2012, less than a month after the forward decided to leave the Wolverines. And it was clear that the Terps didn’t plan to let Smotrycz’s skills go to waste.
“One of the things that really impressed us is they came up and they had a plan for him,” Zee Smotrycz said. “He knew exactly what he was going to do, how he was going to do it.”
Charleen Smotrycz, Evan’s mother, added, “Evan had an immediate connection with Coach Turgeon. He knew this guy is who he says he is.”
So the Smotrycz family decided to visit College Park before going on other scheduled visits to Baylor, Kansas State or Xavier. After touring the campus and the athletic facilities, Hill drove the trio back to the airport, where Smotrycz would take a flight back to Ann Arbor and his parents would head home to Reading.
Before Smotrycz left toward his gate at the airport, he turned to his parents.
“Cancel all my other appointments,” Evan Smotrycz told his mom and dad. “I’m coming here.”
Charleen Smotrycz got a call from her son last fall shortly after he got settled in College Park. She was anxious to hear from Evan, too, considering he was in a brand-new place after growing close to his teammates at Michigan.
But when Charleen first heard his voice, she knew he was happy.
“I didn’t think I’d find what I had at Michigan, the same chemistry, anywhere else,” Smotrycz told his mom. “But it’s even better here. It’s like a family.”
Charleen Smotrycz was relieved that he quickly had grown close to his new teammates, but she wasn’t surprised. She said her son remains close even with friends he met in kindergarten, and his laid-back personality helps him fit in anywhere he goes.
His adaptability is why Smotrycz felt comfortable transferring to New Hampton during high school, and it’s helped make his transition from Michigan to this university so smooth, even while he wasn’t eligible to play.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or what, but I actually like practicing, and I like playing with these guys,” Smotrycz said.
Smotrycz grew so close with his new teammates that fellow Massachusetts native forward Jake Layman and Smotrycz’s roommate, guard Nick Faust, visited his home over the summer.
The trio went swimming, ate Charleen Smotrycz’s cooking and went into Boston to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“You’d think that they live so close, and they’re such tight supporters over the school year that they’d say, ‘Oh, I got to back away,’” Zee Smotrycz said. “But they didn’t. They are just so close.”
Despite the camaraderie, Smotrycz conceded that the past year and a half hasn’t been easy. Hanging out with teammates couldn’t replace competing with them.
“I love everything,” Smotrycz would tell his parents. “I love the place, I love the guys, I love the school, but it’s been long year.”
Smotrycz, Faust and their other two roommates — former Terps guard Pe’Shon Howard and forward James Padgett — had the biggest television out of anyone on the Terps last season. So in April, the entire team piled into their apartment to watch Michigan beat Syracuse in the Final Four. Then, they joined together again as Louisville topped the Wolverines two days later in the championship game.
In was a unique situation for Smotrycz, watching his old team reach the pinnacle of the sport while surrounded by his new team, which believes it has been making strides toward getting there.
Still, Smotrycz said he was happy for his former teammates, and watching them only increased his drive to help the Terps.
“I’m friends with a lot of those guys, so a lot of people thought I’d be bitter or something, but leaving was my choice,” Smotrycz said. “I’m here now. I can’t worry about that.”
And while he’s in College Park, Turgeon expects Smotrycz to be a big factor in an ascent toward reaching the type of national relevance Michigan gained last season.
Smotrycz is one of two Terps who has played in an NCAA Tournament game, and he worked tirelessly on his game during his year off. Plus, he hasn’t lost the skills he developed in the gym with Pastore during his high school years.
“He can really shoot it from deep, he’s got midrange game and he’s got post-up,” Turgeon said. “He’s a very important piece in our puzzle, and I just expect Evan to have a fantastic year.”
Smotrycz anticipates a successful season, too. He wouldn’t expect anything less after going through the transfer process and leaving behind friends on a championship-contending Michigan team.
And Friday, Smotrycz will finally get a chance to meet those standards against Connecticut, completing a long road to this university.
From the uncertainty of the recruiting process to sitting on the bench for a season to watching his former team play in the title game, it’s been a draining ordeal for Smotrycz leading up to his Terps debut.
So when his parents were in town for Maryland Madness on Oct. 18, Charleen Smotrycz asked her son if it was all worth it, knowing what he knows now.
Evan Smotrycz smiled, looked his mother in the eyes and gave her the answer she knew she’d get.