March 7, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- Former Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn used to hang out at EJ's Landing, a bar located in the lobby of the Best Western Hotel on Route 1.
Hahn was holding court at EJ's one fall afternoon in 2000, having stopped in following a preseason intrasquad scrimmage, after deciding to skip the home football game that day. With a few drinks under his belt, Hahn told a group of veteran Maryland fans how his contributions to Maryland basketball were under-valued.
In a profanity-laced diatribe, in which he repeatedly referred to Maryland coach Gary Williams as "my boss," Hahn basically said that fans would rue the day he departed the school, and that he wouldn't be fully appreciated -- by anyone, including the boss -- until after his departure.
Hahn went on to explain how he was the one out hustling to find talent, and how he had an eye for the type of player who fit Williams' system. Hahn also seemed annoyed that Williams got credit for developing big men when it was Hahn who actually worked most closely with the frontcourt players.
Hahn could be a blowhard at times, but on both topics he was on target. In his 12 seasons at Maryland under Williams, Hahn had become the primary talent evaluator and recruiter, along with a respected practice and bench coach.
Because the two coaches were similar in age and experience and close friends, Hahn also was the one Maryland assistant who could tell Williams he was wrong or needed to do something differently.
By now, every long-time Maryland basketball fan knows how Williams handles recruiting. The assistants do the early evaluation and relationship-building, then Williams comes in later in the process -- some would say too late -- to check out the prospect and provide a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If Williams gives the OK, the recruitment continues and the head coach becomes more involved.
Hahn had a proven knack for finding guys Williams liked. Since Hahn's departure, a litany of assistants has failed to identify the type of talent that fits Maryland's system.
Maryland's current state of affairs is the direct result of recruiting mistakes and misses. All of the 2005-06 players were recruited and subsequently signed after Maryland made its initial Final Four appearance, and after Hahn became the head coach at LaSalle in April 2001.
During the past two seasons, phrases such as "low basketball IQ" and "lack of mental toughness" have been used about the Maryland basketball team. It has been correctly pointed out how the Terps lack basic ball skills, whether shooting, rebounding or passing.
Hahn understood what type of player would succeed at Maryland. He sought prospects with good ball skills, since that's what is needed in the flex offense, and he looked for players who were tough and hard-nosed, because that was a necessity for dealing with Williams.
ALL-MAYBE LINEUP: UNFORGETTABLE
Considering the way things have developed, what would Maryland fans think of a 2005-06 starting lineup consisting of Marshall Strickland, Mike Nardi, Joakim Noah, Terrence Roberts and Josh Boone?
All five of those players had serious interest in Maryland, but they all were bypassed in favor of other recruits. They would comprise the all-overlooked team.
Making up the all-missed starting five might be Taquan Dean, Isaiah Swann, Rudy Gay, Roy Hibbert and Torin Francis. All showed early interest in the Terps before going elsewhere.
Maryland also recruited (to varying degrees) several players who are no longer at their respective schools, including Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse, NBA), Matt Walsh (Florida, NBA), Linas Kleiza (Missouri, NBA) and Cortez Davis (Rutgers, NBA draft).
Maryland was in the midst of its initial run to the Final Four when the current senior class was being put together. Jarrett Jack (Georgia Tech, NBA), Anthony and Walsh were among the early targets who steadily fell by the wayside.
Lifelong friends Chris McCray (Forestville) and Travis Garrison (DeMatha) were the first members of the 2001 class to commit, coming on board in June. Davis, a D.C. native who had played for Bridgton Academy in New England as a junior, joined them in July.
On the surface, Davis seemed like a nice pickup, an athletic 6-7 forward who could slash to the basket and explode for dunks. But events later led the coaches to rescind their scholarship offer to Davis, whose murky academic record and decision to drop out of Hargrave Military Academy basically guaranteed that he would not attend Maryland. Davis wound up signing with Rutgers, but he was booted from the team as a freshman. He then declared for the NBA draft but was not selected.
Maryland recovered nicely from the Davis debacle, picking up Maine forward Nik Caner-Medley in July. He had burst onto the scene with a strong performance at the ABCD Camp, drawing scholarship offers from high-profile schools that previously had not been involved. Terps assistant Jimmy Patsos secured the commitment based largely on his solid relationship with the Pump brothers, whose AAU team included Caner-Medley.
The addition of point guard John Gilchrist further elevated the Maryland recruiting class, which North Carolina analyst Bob Gibbons rated fifth nationally at one point. Junior college forward Jamar Smith was added in the spring.
In retrospect, it's hard to argue with the way Maryland's 2001 class came together. Anthony was the big miss, but he was a longshot to choose Maryland from the get-go and spent just one season in college anyway. Caner-Medley has proven a far better pickup than Davis and has enjoyed a solid if not spectacular career.
Garrison was Maryland's primary target at the power forward spot from the outset, and the staff would have been criticized for not pursuing the 6-8, 225-pound local. The fact that Garrison, a late addition to the McDonald's All-American team, has not developed and has proven to be a disappointment does not mean he should not have been recruited.
McCray was another long-time target, and the fact that he was such good friends with Garrison helped the Terps land the latter. Walsh was a more talented two guard, but he was a bit of a wild card and wound up leaving college prematurely, as evidenced by the fact that he's now playing in the NBDL. If McCray had not failed out of school midway through this season, he would have left a legacy as the most accomplished Terp in the 2001 class.
Gilchrist was considered one of the top point guards in the country as a high school senior and was pursued quite vigorously by Maryland. In the wake of early whiffs on Jack and DeRon Williams (Illinois), Gilchrist was the best option at the position, and fans were thrilled when he chose the Terps over his long-time favorite N.C. State.
Strickland, a South Carroll High product who eventually signed with Indiana, was the only other point guard Maryland was involved with at the time. At that stage, no one would have taken Strickland over Gilchrist. In retrospect, it could be argued that Strickland has proven a more solid, consistent player than Gilchrist, who left Maryland following a controversy-filled junior year and now is playing professionally in Israel.
BIGGEST MISTAKES CAME IN 2002
While Maryland's Class of 2001 has been a collective disappointment, it was the 2002 recruiting effort that left the most question marks.
Maryland signed two lightly regarded centers in Hassan Fofana and Will Bowers when other frontcourt prospects were available and interested. The Terps then added a pair of California recruits in forward Ekene Ibekwe and swingman D.J. Strawberry in what was believed at the time to be somewhat of a package deal.
Massachusetts standout Mike Jones, rated one of the nation's top shooting guards, was the first commitment of the class. Based on ranking and apparent ability, there was no reason for the Terps not to take the future McDonald's All-American.
The decisions to offer scholarships and take commitments from Fofana and Bowers were much more suspect. Neither was highly rated, and both were considered projects by most analysts.
A notable big man Maryland passed on that year was Will Sheridan of Delaware. He now starts for Villanova and has proven to be a far better collegian than either Fofana (transferred to Loyola) or Bowers (career reserve).
By far the biggest mistake/miss of that recruiting season was Boone, who played with Strickland at South Carroll, then attended prep school. The 6-10, 237-pound bruiser, a three-year starter for Connecticut, is averaging 10.7 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds this season. Maryland never actively pursued Boone, who easily would have been the team's best big man over the past three seasons. Grades may have been an issue, but he got through the NCAA Clearinghouse without a problem.
The Terps took a commitment from Strawberry, largely because of his close relationship with Ibekwe. That left one scholarship opening, and it came down to Ibekwe and power forward Terrence Roberts of St. Anthony's in New Jersey.
Williams basically said the first to commit would get the scholarship, and that proved to be Ibekwe. In hindsight, Roberts might have been a better fit for this team, since he is more of a low-post banger and back-to-the-basket scorer. The 6-9, 228-pound junior ultimately picked Syracuse, where he is averaging 10.4 points and 7.9 rebounds this season. However, it's hard to argue with Maryland's decision-making in that case, since Ibekwe was a solid prospect and Roberts was believed to have Syracuse as his leader anyway.
Instead of Jones or Strawberry, Maryland could have gotten combination guard Mike Nardi of St. Patrick's in New Jersey. Nardi wanted to play for the Terps, but the staff showed little interest, and he too landed at Villanova.
Now a starter for a team that's been ranked in the national top five all season, Nardi is averaging 11.5 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range. He is regarded as a player with solid skills, and he's extremely energetic and a tenacious defender. He's a better ball-handler than either Jones or Strawberry, a better shooter than Strawberry and a better defender than Jones.
There were more problems, mistakes and poor decisions the following year. Maryland's Class of 2003 was subpar, and the primary reason was the failure to land Rudy Gay. A Baltimore native who prepped at Archbishop Spalding, Gay was the program's primary target from the outset. Coach Jim Calhoun and Connecticut won that battle, but not before Maryland lost another potentially great player.
Noah, the son of former tennis great Yannick Noah, was very interested in playing for Maryland. He took his first official visit to College Park on the weekend of Oct. 3-5 and was close to committing. However, Maryland could not pull the trigger on Noah because it was saving its last scholarship for Gay. Noah wound up choosing Florida in mid-October, just weeks before Gay picked UConn.
Noah, a 6-10 sophomore, is averaging a team-high 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds (second) for the Gators this season. He exploded for a career-high 37 points against Georgia late in the season.
Maryland, which had taken an early commitment from Good Counsel power forward James Gist that year, also did not have a scholarship to accommodate Swann. The combination guard grew up in Germantown, Md., and was a lifelong fan of the Terps. He went to Magruder High before attending prep school in Virginia at Oak Hill Academy, then Hargrave Military Academy.
Swann committed to Florida State in October, after it became obvious that his favorite school was not going to firm up an offer. When the Terps wound up with another scholarship opening after Andre Collins transferred, they used it on junior college guard Sterling Ledbetter, a reserve on this year's team. Swann is a solid starter for the Seminoles.