Evan Smotrycz isn’t the most imposing post player in the Big Ten.
After the Michigan men’s basketball team completed its season sweep of Michigan State on Saturday, even assistant coach Bacari Alexander had to heckle the freshman forward via Twitter about the goofy photograph posted on ESPN.com.
In the headline shot of Smotrycz celebrating, his jersey is untucked, his back is slouched and his undershirt sleeves conceal any muscle that may be hiding underneath.
And then there’s the hair.
It’s gelled to one side and curled up at the end, forming a seemingly Greaser-inspired wave of flowing locks. Smotrycz looks more like Fonzie than an up-and-coming Division-I athlete. And it certainly doesn’t help that the photographer caught him as he let out a celebratory yell — because instead of depicting an exuberant battle cry, he looks more a patron at an Italian restaurant dissatisfied with his penne alla vodka.
Members of the Fab Five would’ve cringed.
But style points aside, Smotrycz haunted the Spartans on both ends of the floor, finishing with 14 points, a block and three steals. And at times, he utilized an arsenal of post moves and pivots in the paint that many didn’t even know he was capable of.
Indeed, his play underneath is a very recent development.
“Evan did almost no post defense, no post moves in September, October,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game. “So starting in January we really started working with both post defense and post offense. The last couple weeks he’s sort of attached himself to that a little bit, knowing that people have taken away his three-game — how else can he help us?”
Beilein started playing the 6-foot-9 Smotrycz — a natural forward — intermittently at center about halfway through season. He formed a platoon with fellow freshman big man Jon Horford whenever starting center Jordan Morgan found himself benched with foul trouble — still a frequent occurrence, evidenced on Saturday when Morgan collected two quick fouls and played just six minutes in the first half.
But recently, Smotrycz’s minutes at forward have been limited. On Feb. 9, against a visiting Northwestern, junior co-captain Stu Douglass supplanted Smotrycz in the starting five for the first time all season, as Beilein looked to install a more guard-heavy offense. And the move worked — the Wolverines racked up its highest point total in over a month in the victory over the Wildcats (75).
In turn, Smotrycz has come off the bench ever since, his playing time seemingly dwindling with the team’s recent successes.
But on Saturday, Morgan’s foul trouble and Horford’s bruised knee provided Smotrycz with the opportunity to show what he could pull off against Michigan State in the paint.
And he didn’t disappoint.
Early in the first half, freshman wing Tim Hardaway Jr. fed the ball to Smotrycz on the low block. He faked the shot, maintained the pivot, took one dribble around his man into the paint and laid it in — all while drawing a foul from junior forward Delvon Roe and sneaking the ball over the outstretched arms of junior forward Draymond Green.
Michigan State’s two most heralded post players were left scratching their heads as Smotrycz completed the 3-point play from the free-throw line.
“I’m not trying to move all the way to the post, but it’s definitely good to have dimensions to my game because they can’t just switch on screens,” Smotrycz said. “I can switch and take a little guy to the post. But yeah, definitely this was the first time I was sparring a little bit in the post.”
Smotrycz’s dimensions certainly make him a rising star in the Big Ten. As he continues to develop his game in the paint, some defenders will forget that they can’t just crowd the lane to stop him. After all, Smotrycz was recruited primarily as a shooting forward, and after going 1-for-2 from deep and 5-for-5 from the line on Saturday, he showed why he fits so well into the shoot-happy Beilein offense.
And don’t forget one of Smotrycz’s best qualities on the court — how his goofy façade can lull opponents to sleep.