Even if you're college basketball's most surprising newcomer, it's not easy to generate a lot of ESPN-grabbing, headline-making stuff when you have one of the plainest names on the planet. What, after all, can you do with Joe Smith? Nevertheless, Maryland fans are trying.
The campus newspaper, The Diamondback, is running a contest to find a nickname for Smith, a 6'10", 217-pound freshman center. Of the entries to date, Smith, who thinks the name-game stuff is hilarious, is partial to the Bazooka Kid, which refers to the bubble gum he chews during games.
And then last Saturday there was the Terrapin fan in Maryland's Cole Fieldhouse who greeted North Carolina coach Dean Smith and his defending national champion Tar Heels with this sign, which played on the name of Carolina's home court: WELCOME TO THE (JOE) SMITH CENTER.
That's what Cole has become, too. For the first time in years Maryland's 14,500-seat arena has sold out for the remainder of the season, mostly because of the Young King of Cole (we're trying to help, Terp fans). Smith ripped the Tar Heels' rotating triumvirate of big men—Eric Montross, Kevin Salvadori and Rasheed Wallace—for 25 points and 10 rebounds in a 75-70 loss that dropped the Terps to 8-3, not bad for a team that starts two freshmen and three sophomores. "I like Joe Smith," Montross, the 7-foot, 270-pound senior who is the nation's premier pivotman, said afterward. "He doesn't talk out there, and that's good. With his attitude, he'll go a long way."
Smith has already gone from a nobody to a somebody quicker than anybody, including him, expected. In his first varsity game, on Nov. 26, Smith was pitted against Othella Harrington, the 6'10" Georgetown sophomore who was last season's Rookie of the Year in the Big East. After the Terps fell behind early and appeared to be caving in, Smith got the ball in front of the Hoya bench, took three dribbles and dunked over the startled Harrington, igniting a comeback that resulted in an 84-83 Maryland win in overtime.
That 26-point, nine-rebound performance was the confidence builder Smith needed. In four games against ranked teams he has averaged 25.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, including a 28-point, 13-rebound game against 12th-ranked Georgia Tech early last week in Atlanta, which led to a 91-88 Terp victory. As of Sunday, Just Plain Joe ranked second in the ACC in scoring (22.3 points a game) and third in both field goal percentage (.616) and rebounds (9.7).
Maryland coach Gary Williams first noticed Smith while scouting a summer-league game following Smith's sophomore year at Maury High in Norfolk, Va. Williams admired Smith's poise and attitude. "I made a note, and we began writing him letters," Williams says. By the end of his senior year Smith was being wooed by most ACC schools, but he picked Maryland because his high school coach, Jack Baker, is close to Terp assistant Art Perry and because Smith knew that Maryland's need for a big man virtually guaranteed him an immediate spot in the starting lineup.
When asked about the problems Joe Smith's name might create for certain hyperbolic TV announcers (who shall remain anonymous), Len Elmore, the onetime TV analyst and former Maryland All-America center, laughs. "I love his name," Elmore says, "because Joe Smith is an average name for a highly unaverage player. It's the perfect misnomer."
The Magnificent Misnomer? Hmm. Let's see if the student-newspaper contest can top that.
The Terp freshman is proving that he's not just a regular Joe.