COLLEGE PARK -- Matt Kovarik misplaced his confidence a year ago at the University of Maryland, and quickly slipped into the Bermuda Triangle of basketball teams.
He disappeared -- to the end of a thin bench.
Exactly how or why his confidence deserted the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard is unclear, even now.
"I struggled early and I'm not sure why," Kovarik, now a junior, said yesterday. "It was all mental. Everyone struggles at some point. That was my time. I don't plan on going back to it."
This season, Kovarik is a shining symbol of Maryland's new, improved bench. Through early drills, he has worked as the backup point guard to Duane Simpkins, a position most thought would be held by freshman recruit Terrell Stokes.
But Stokes' continued back problems have opened a new door for Kovarik, and the native of Greensboro, N.C., appears to have walked through it.
"I don't think Matt came in real confident as a sophomore and it showed," said coach Gary Williams. "If you're hesitant at this level, you're in trouble.
"But he gradually worked his way out of it. By the end of the year, he was contributing big minutes. He came back this year really confident."
Kovarik's new state of mind became readily apparent to his teammates in practice.
"He definitely stepped his game up," Simpkins said. "He's a lot more confident. He's confident in everything he does -- running plays or shooting the ball."
Because of his early-season difficulties last year, Kovarik's playing time dropped from 253 minutes as a promising freshman (honorable mention all-ACC freshman team) to 192.
But whether Stokes returns soon or not, Kovarik figures to play an increased role this season. Williams said he will use Kovarik at three positions -- both guard spots and small forward. At 6-5, he has a height advantage on a lot of guards.
"He's really versatile," Williams said. "He's like having a great utility infielder who can play every position except first base."
Kovarik said he is most comfortable at the point, where he worked all last season.
"I think I'm a good point guard," he said. "I know who needs the ball where. We have great players, and I can get them the ball when and where they need it. If I'm open, I can hit the open shot.
"I also think I can play good defense. I've played against guys in the NBA. I can handle my own."
Kovarik, an all-state player in basketball and soccer in high school, was not heavily recruited. He had offers from Penn State, Northwestern and North Carolina-Charlotte, but jumped at the chance to play with Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Despite a rough sophomore season, he's glad he did.
"I don't think I have anything to prove to anybody, except myself," he said. "I know I can play at this level and play well."
NOTES: T. J. Caouette of Winthrop (Maine) High made it official yesterday when he announced he will sign with Villanova, passing on Maryland. . . . Tickets are available for the Terps' two exhibition games (Court Authority on Monday, and the Brisbane Bullets from Australia on Nov. 20), and for the Nov. 27 game against Towson State at the Baltimore Arena. Tickets are $15 for the exhibition games. Prices are $19, $12 and $8 for the Towson State game.