- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Evan Smotrycz had settled into a rhythm shooting 3-pointers from the left corner of the court when a canned rendition of the Maryland victory song began blaring from the loudspeakers.

Try as he might, Smotrycz couldn’t stifle his laughter. With his concentration broken, he unleashed a hearty, mocking guffaw as the song played on, forcing teammates to shout out and ask what the senior forward could possibly find so amusing.

“They’re playing the fight song?” Smotrycz asked, his voice thick with incredulity. “What the hell is this? This [stuff’s] making me laugh. I’ve never heard the words!”

The fanfare that accompanied the Terrapins’ return to the NCAA tournament became tangible on Thursday afternoon when, after four long years of spending late March at home, they settled in for their final day of preparations during a casual, 40-minute shootaround at Nationwide Arena.

Though the fourth-seeded Terrapins (27-6) only began preparations for their opponent, No. 13 seed Valparaiso, during a team meeting late Wednesday night, coach Mark Turgeon declined to tighten the screws at the mandatory practice period.

Instead, he let his players release their lingering anxiety however they see fit, putting them only through very rudimentary lay-up, post-up and perimeter shooting drills before roughly a hundred friends, family members and fans allowed to witness the event.

And, to illustrate his point, Turgeon had the players cap off the final 10 minutes with a trick-shot contest, having them take heaves from half court — both straight on, and then with a bounce — and snap the ball between their legs from the foul line.

“You never know as a coach if they’re ready or not, but this team’s been ready more times than not,” Turgeon said. “I don’t know how many games we’ve played, a lot, but let’s say we’ve played 33 times. I think 30 times, we’ve been ready to go. This team’s been great about staying focused on the task at hand.”

Turgeon, who was hired at Maryland prior to the 2011-12 season, will be guiding a team into the tournament for the sixth time. His players, though, are far less experienced, with only a handful of players — Smotrycz, senior guard Dez Wells and senior forward Jon Graham — having stepped on the sterile, black-and-aqua, NCAA-branded hardwood.

“I tell the guys that the window of opportunity shrinks tremendously for us to do something really special in this tournament,” Wells said. “The little things that we’ve been able to get by with, or being able to win while, like, not executing during the season, we can’t do that now. … We have to box out and limit turnovers and things like that, and [grab] loose balls, and all the little things matter a lot. We have to continue to execute.”

Smotrycz has shared perhaps the greatest cautionary tale, having been at Michigan in 2012 when the fourth-seeded Wolverines were knocked out of the tournament by upstart Ohio.

Valparaiso, too, knows a little about upsets. The Crusaders, who won the Horizon League and went 28-5 this past season, are coached by Bryce Drew — the gritty, wiry guard whose buzzer-beating heave in 1998 remains the stuff of NCAA tournament legend.

“I don’t think he has to preach on what kind of moment he had in that situation and how we can achieve the same thing,” said Valparaiso forward Alec Peters, his team’s leading scorer. “I think the biggest thing is that we have to go through thinking that we want to create our own moment. We want to have something like that that we can remember, just like he did with that shot.”

Turgeon never imagined that it would take four seasons for the Terrapins to make an NCAA tournament appearance, owing to his four opportunities in four years at Texas A&M, where he coached before he was hired by Maryland.

That certainly played a factor in the coach’s desire to enjoy the pre-tournament prep on Thursday afternoon. After the hijinks had ended, he gathered his players, assistant coaches and support staff at center court for a team photo, then the team streamed toward one corner of the court and out the adjacent tunnel toward the locker room, with freshman guard Melo Trimble letting go, and making, one last 3-pointer.

He curled his left hand into a loose fist, then shook it slightly. Any exaggerated emotion would be best released a day later.

“We put a lot into the mental approach to this game,” Turgeon said. “Don’t make it bigger than it is. Go out and have fun. It’s what we’ve worked for. Go out there and play the way we’re capable of playing.”

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