COLLEGE PARK — Joe Smith's jersey number hangs high above the court at Xfinity Center, a reminder of his rapid ascent from a virtual high school unknown to national player of the year and the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA draft after his sophomore season at Maryland.
Of the 64 times Smith took the court in his two years as a Terp, the one that is talked about the most two decades later is his first official game. It came against No. 15 Georgetown to open the 1993-'94 season. It was the day after Thanksgiving at USAir Arena, the Hoyas' homecourt.
"I was so nervous going into that game, I didn't know what to expect," Smith, now 40, recalled in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last week. "I knew that [Georgetown center] Othella Harrington had been the rookie of the year in the Big East. But once I got on the court for the opening tap and started to play, the nerves went away a little bit. It kind of worked out for us."
And for Smith, who scored 26 points, pulled down nine rebounds and made three steals in an 84-83 overtime win. Though Harrington finished with respectable numbers — 16 points and 15 rebounds — it launched Smith's remarkable, if short, Maryland career.
"Othella was good," said Duane Simpkins, then a sophomore and Maryland's starting point guard who scored the game-winning basket, a runner in the lane over another Georgetown big man, Don Reid, with 3.5 seconds left in overtime. "But Joe was better."
That game and Smith's performance in it will be the historic backdrop Tuesday when No. 3-ranked Maryland plays unranked Georgetown at Xfinity Center in the first regularly scheduled meeting between the two schools since that game in 1993.
Aside from the game-winner, one play in particular remains clear for former Maryland coach and now Hall of Famer Gary Williams.
"Joe's in front of the Georgetown bench and he's got the ball I'd say 25 feet from the basket, and they're out there playing pretty tough on the perimeter," Williams recalled. "Joe put the ball down with his left hand, took one dribble and a step and went up and dunked it. I remember [Georgetown coach] John Thompson, he kind of looked down at our bench with this look like, 'Who was that? What was that?'"
Tuesday will mark the first time Smith has been back on campus since the day his No. 32 jersey was raised to the rafters of Cole Field House during his second season as a pro. He'll be the honorary game captain.
When Smith heard last spring that the matchup between the Terps and Hoyas had been scheduled as part of the Gavitt Tip-Off Games, his reaction was, "Oh, the rivalry's back." Yet when he played in the game — the last time the two schools met until the 2001 NCAA tournament — "I didn't know how big that rivalry was," he said.
'Joe was the best'
If the win over Georgetown served notice that Maryland was legitimate, a preseason snub by ACC writers a few weeks earlier gave the young Terps the same kind of motivation as last year's 10th-place prediction gave Mark Turgeon's team. Along with Smith and fellow freshman Keith Booth from Baltimore's Dunbar High, the Terps started sophomores Simpkins, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp.
"When those guys [the sophomores] got back from ACC Media Day in Greensboro, and they told us we were going to be picked last or next to last, that kind of lit a fire under all of us," Smith said. "We had a young team, but we were confident and that showed on the floor. Gary had a great way of keeping us humble and grounded. We knew we were young and had a long way to go."
Williams had a feeling more than a month before the Georgetown game that Smith was one of the best young players in the country.
"I knew he was quick and agile from that position, but I didn't know he could run the court or shoot like that until the first day of practice," said Williams, whose two previous teams at Maryland were on the NCAA probation he inherited from Bob Wade. "There was pretty good talent out there [but] Joe was the best the day he walked on the practice floor."
Smith averaged 19.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks as a freshman to lead the Terps back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Williams had returned to his alma mater five years before. As a No. 10 seed, Maryland reached the Sweet 16 after beating St. Louis and then upsetting No. 2 seed Massachusetts, coached by John Calipari.
As a sophomore, Smith put up a career-high 40 points to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He wound up averaging 20.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, leading the 26-8 Terps to the Sweet 16, where they lost to Connecticut.
Asked if he regretted his decision to leave after his sophomore year given the way his 16-year NBA career turned out — after an impressive first two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, the player nicknamed "The Beast" never developed into more than a solid journeyman playing for a dozen teams — Smith said he missed out on two things.
"The only way I think about it is the fact that if I stayed, I think we had a chance to win the national championship," Smith said of a 1995-96 team that would have returned all five starters and added future NBA player Laron Profit. "I do regret not being able to enjoy college the way I wanted to like other college students."
Smith said that not coming back to Maryland for all these years was often a matter of geography and the vagabond nature of his NBA career. The closest Smith played was Philadelphia, where he was traded toward the end of his third season and, ironically, came in contact with a young up-and-coming coach who had been hired by former Kansas coach Larry Brown as the team's video coordinator.
Not that Smith remembered Mark Turgeon.
"I had no idea," Smith said with a laugh.
Advice for current Terps
Smith has advice for current Maryland players such as sophomore star point guard Melo Trimble and freshman center Diamond Stone, who will likely consider leaving for the NBA next spring.
"There's no rush," Smith said. "It's a man's world once you leave."
Smith has a son, Amir, a 6-6 freshman forward who plays basketball at Rice University in Houston and wears the same number as his father did at Maryland. As he drove Friday afternoon to Berkeley, Calif., for his son's debut, which turned out to be a four-point, four-rebound, 15-minute performance in a 97-65 loss to the No. 15 Bears, Smith said, "I think I'm more excited than he is."
Williams, who has stayed in touch with his former star over the years, said Smith doesn't realize how beloved he remains in the eyes of Maryland fans and how important he was to the rise of the program that reached the Final Four for the first time in 2001 and won a national championship in 2002.
"The impact he had on Maryland basketball as the years went by, whatever we did, without his two years, those things would have at least been more difficult to happen," Williams said. "I'm not saying they wouldn't happen. Joe made it OK for Maryland to be a national program and it took away the negativity that had built up since '86 on. I think that people were so happy about."
When Williams' sentiments were relayed, Smith said he never thought about it that way until he heard his former coach speaking to an alumni group in Los Angeles, where Smith now lives after finishing his NBA career with the Lakers in 2011. Smith, who has a music production company there, said he was touched — and a little surprised.
"I'm just a humble guy from Norfolk, Va., who wanted to go play the game of basketball at the University of Maryland," he said. "Things just worked out for me once I got there. I didn't have any idea what type of impact I had."
Starting with a game against Georgetown, one that will be recalled when the two teams meet again Tuesday.
This time Joe Smith will be watching inside the Xfinity Center, where everyone will know who he is.
"I just want to come back and see the game and think back to how the rivalry was," Smith said.
Five other big Maryland-Georgetown games
Dec. 11, 1973: Under second-year coach John Thompson Jr., the Hoyas were 3-1 and coming off an overtime win against St. John's when they got to Cole Field House to play the No. 4 Terps, who had lost their season opener at UCLA by a point. According to media reports from that game, a crowd of over 10,000 ignored a bomb threat and stuck around to watch Maryland win 115-83.
Dec. 5, 1979: After a narrow win the year before over the rapidly improving Hoyas at the Capital Centre in Landover, the series moved to the D.C. Armory. A first-half argument between Thompson and Maryland coach Lefty Driesell was prompted by Terps star Ernie Graham patting Thompson on the head trying to calm him down. It only served to fire up the Hoyas, who won 83-71.
March 14, 1980: In their first NCAA tournament matchup and the rematch of the heated game in Washington earlier in the season, the Hoyas couldn't slow down Albert King in the first half but came away with a 74-68 Sweet 16 win at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Despite Driesell apologizing to Thompson for his outburst during the regular season, the teams didn't play again for 13 years.
March 22, 2001: In their first meeting since the 1993 game in Landover, the teams played in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament West Regional in Anaheim, Calif. The Terps, coming off beating Driesell's Georgia State team in the opening round, crushed the Hoyas 89-70 behind 26 points and 14 rebounds from junior center Lonny Baxter en route to the school's first Final Four appearance.
Nov. 30, 2008: In the last meeting between the two schools, the No. 16 Hoyas held sophomore guard Greivis Vasquez to a single basket — 18 points under his scoring average — to hand the Terps an embarrassing 75-48 loss in the consolation game of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. Maryland wound up making the NCAA tournament that season, but the Hoyas did not.