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Bizarre Recruiting Cycle Raises Questions About Maryland Hoops Program

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Josh Barr
Washington Post

July 1, 2008

Gary Williams almost always is straight to the point.

Good or bad, you know where you stand with the Maryland basketball coach. At 63 years old and entering a 20th season at his alma mater, Williams doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.

So when it comes to the past year for the Terrapins, being blunt, it is nearly impossible to imagine things being more bizarre off the court.

CRAZINESS CREATES FAN UNREST

Just in the past 12 months, a Maryland assistant coach quit in the season's opening weeks. An alarming number of recruits committed, then opted – or were told – to go elsewhere. Speculation swirled on a regular basis about which current players would transfer or turn professional.

On the court, things weren't much better. A loss to Virginia Commonwealth before a partisan crowd at the Verizon Center in Washington was trumped by a Comcast Center loss to Ohio (University, not State), which was topped 10 days later by another home loss that never happened in years past, this one to American.

Six victories in seven games, including one at then-No. 1 North Carolina, seemed to rescue the season. But then again, in College Park these days, nothing is simple.

The Terrapins lost five of their last seven regular-season games, then blew a 15-point lead and lost to Boston College in the opening round of the ACC Tournament. When the conference tournament began in earnest with the following day's quarterfinals, Maryland's players were filtering through the Comcast Center, catching a glimpse of the state high school basketball tournament.

It has been quite a drop for a proud program and a proud coach, just six years removed from the top of the sport, coming off consecutive Final Four appearances and the 2002 national championship.

Following such success, the popular thought was that Maryland would continue to fight North Carolina and Duke for supremacy in the ACC. And that battle might become a bit easier, with on-court success leading to more talented recruits. Instead of turning relative no-names into outstanding players – a Williams staple, witness Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and company – perhaps the Terrapins could lure some top-notch prospects.

Now, after three NIT appearances in four years, things couldn't be more different, and many fans are clamoring for change.

"They've gone from sticking up for the guy like he's the pope to completely giving up," one former university employee said.

PROMISING CLASS FALLS APART

That said, until the past few weeks, it seemed that Maryland might have a chance to improve significantly next season.

Sure, highly regarded forward Terrence Jennings reneged on his commitment and wound up at Louisville. And, yes, junior college scorer Bobby Maze also ended up elsewhere, signing with Tennessee after it became evident that he would have had a difficult time becoming academically eligible to play at Maryland this fall.

But Maryland seemed willing to take a chance on another juco guard, Tyree Evans, a player whose basketball ability has never been questioned. And with much-hyped center Gus Gilchrist becoming eligible after the first semester, the Terrapins actually had the potential to field a very talented lineup.

However, accounts of Evans' off-court mishaps apparently derailed any possibility of him playing for the Terps. Things ended politely, with Maryland releasing a statement that Evans had asked for, and been granted, a release from his letter of intent.

A few weeks later, Gilchrist – whose last public appearance earned MVP honors in the 2007 Capital Classic all-star game at the Comcast Center – shockingly asked for a release from his scholarship and transferred to the basketball powerhouse that is South Florida. The Bulls last made the NCAA Tournament in 1992, have never won an NCAA Tournament game, and in three seasons in the Big East have yet to qualify for even their own conference tournament. They were 12-19 last season.

South Florida has petitioned the NCAA for a waiver that would allow Gilchrist to play immediately and not have to sit out a season, as transfers do typically. Such an appeal likely will be based on the grounds that Gilchrist (who originally signed with Virginia Tech and thus was regarded as a transfer) claims he never knew of the ACC's intraconference transfer rule, which mandates sitting out a season of competition and losing a year of eligibility. Maryland's appeals to the ACC to waive both parts of the transfer rule were denied.

"If we knew about that rule, he never would have gone to the University of Maryland," Augustus Gilchrist Sr. said in an interview this winter.

But if South Florida's appeal to the NCAA is unsuccessful – and you would think it's a longshot, at best – and Gilchrist sits out the 2008-09 season, he would have just 3.5 years to complete his four remaining seasons of eligibility. That's because, barring another waiver, athletes have only five years upon initial college enrollment to complete their eligibility. Gilchrist, who enrolled at Maryland for the spring 2008 semester, would have sat out his first 1.5 years of college.

Apparently, though, that option was preferred to the idea of staying in College Park, where Gilchrist already had been told he couldn't play this fall.

Backup forward Shane Walker also is transferring, to Loyola-Maryland. Fifth-year Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos spent 13 years under Williams as an assistant with the Terps. Patsos previously took as a transfer from College Park big man Hassan Fofana, who completed his college eligibility last season.

CONCERN OVER MISSED TARGETS

All of this doesn't even begin to list the other recruits who apparently had Maryland at or near the top of their lists but wound up elsewhere.

Sudanese center Ater Majok attended Midnight Madness in College Park but ended up at Connecticut. Point guard Andre Young was interested in Maryland but wound up at Clemson; he won the three-point shootout leading up to this spring's Capital Classic. Shooting guard Brian Walsh picked Xavier last June, then told the Cincinnati Enquirer that his decision was based on the difference in the way Musketeers head coach Sean Miller (the former N.C. State aide) and the Terrapins recruited him, with Maryland's assistant coaches doing much of the work.

"They just weren't as getting involved with me as Coach Miller was," Walsh said. "All the assistants, Coach (Chris) Mack and Coach Miller, they really recruited me hard."

Near the end of the 2007 summer, when he committed to Maryland, the much-traveled Jennings also said that most of his recruiting was handled by Maryland's assistant coaches. And therein might be part of the problem, according to one assistant coach who has followed Maryland's recruiting.

"I just think Gary is not as active as some of the other guys, and that's both active like being aggressive and active bending and breaking the rules," the assistant coach said. "If you're not going to be active bending and breaking the rules, you'd better be active aggressive, you know what I mean? And if you're neither, that's tough at (the ACC) level. There are so many good guys, and then you've got somebody who may be a future Hall of Famer in" Georgetown coach John Thompson III.

While it might be a bit early to pencil in JT3 for enshrinement, there is no question that his success at Georgetown has made things more difficult and increased the pressure on Maryland.

It was 15 years ago when freshman Duane Simpkins made a running shot down the lane, lifting Maryland to an overtime victory over Georgetown, a triumph that squarely put the Terrapins as the Washington area's top team at a time when John Thompson was winding down his career coaching the Hoyas. Now, Thompson's son has Georgetown as the team to beat in local recruiting circles.

Look at the talent the Washington area has produced in recent years. Some players were destined to go elsewhere: Rudy Gay (Connecticut), Kevin Durant (Texas), Michael Beasley (Kansas State), Austin Freeman (Georgetown). Then there were players who really came from nowhere, such as West Virginia's Joe Alexander. Others, Maryland had a chance to get: Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham (Villanova), Jeff Green, Chris Wright and Henry Sims (Georgetown), Uche Echefu and Julian Vaughn (FSU, though Vaughn transferred this summer to Georgetown), Sam Young (Pittsburgh), Deron Washington and Jeff Allen (Virginia Tech).

The list is lengthy.

While there were extenuating circumstances for some – word long has been that Maryland looked at Green's transcripts and then moved on, though how did he get into Georgetown? – it would be difficult to say that the Terrapins could not get any of those players. Nearly all of them are considered better than those who wound up in Maryland uniforms.

STAFF TURNOVER CRUCIAL FACTOR

Turnover among the coaching staff has not helped.

For years, the Terrapins had a solid trio in Billy Hahn, Dave Dickerson and Patsos. All three moved on to head coaching jobs, however, and some question whether their replacements – and the replacements' replacements – have been as effective, especially when Williams leaned on them in recruiting.

Noted recruiter Rob Moxley, a Washington-area native, stayed for just one season before returning to his job as an assistant at Charlotte. Michael Adams left the program in November, during the season, citing personal reasons.

Williams' staff now consists of three former Maryland players: Keith Booth (four years coaching under Williams), Chuck Driesell (two years) and Joe Harrington (one). Harrington, a former head coach at Hofstra, George Mason, Long Beach State and Colorado, was a teammate of Williams from 1965-67. Harrington had been out of coaching since an NBA stint from 1999-2001.

"Billy Hahn and those guys did a good job getting players, and maybe they got lucky, too," one source said, wondering whether previous recruiting classes were that much more talented than recent ones, noting that Baxter, Dixon, Steve Blake and others weren't five-star recruits but wound up better than most of their peers, all going to the NBA. "The assistants got the job done. You've got to get kids early. Otherwise, other things get involved. Billy and Jimmy and those guys did a great job.

"One of the things I respect about Gary and Maryland is he's not going to cheat or anything like that (to get top players). But they had it rolling pretty good five years ago."

Missing so many talented prospects finally took its toll. The assistant coach scrolled down Maryland's 2007-08 roster and found few ACC-caliber players. Low on talent, the Terps found themselves grasping for answers during this past recruiting season.

KEY PROSPECTS CARRY BAGGAGE

Had he been on a normal high school schedule, Jennings would have graduated in 2006. He went to Charis Prep and Mount Zion Christian Academy (both located in North Carolina) as a postgrad, then spent this past season at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass.

Maze also should have been done with high school in 2004, as a senior at Suitland High in Maryland. On a four-year college track, he would have graduated this spring. But after Suitland, Maze went to much-maligned Lutheran Christian Academy in Philadelphia, and then Patterson School in North Carolina. He spent one season at Oklahoma before he and coach Jeff Capel reached what was described as a "mutual" decision to split company, then Maze went to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas this past season.

Maze committed to Maryland over the winter but wound up signing with Tennessee. If he manages to qualify for the Volunteers, those in College Park who saw his transcripts will be scratching their heads in amazement.

With Maze out of the picture, Maryland turned to Evans, and his recruitment also baffled many.

Even Evans' former coach at Winchendon School, Mike Byrnes, was surprised that Maryland was interested, given Evans' lengthy rap sheet. It included drug, assault and weapons charges, most of which were pleaded down to lesser crimes.

Maryland had been in touch with Byrnes the previous summer and fall, as it recruited shooting guard Chris Turner. Turner had wanted to go to Maryland but never got things in order academically to receive a formal scholarship offer, Byrnes said. Byrnes added that he, too, had heard the story about Turner calling Maryland wanting to verbally commit, which in turn prompted the Terrapins to apply pressure and get a commitment from top-50 Baltimore guard Sean Mosley.

"I assume they were recruiting Chris at the same position," Byrnes said. "It was a numbers thing."

Turner began this past school year at Patterson School, then went to a private school in Houston. He originally committed to Oregon State, changed his mind when that school fired its coach, and now is bound for East Carolina.

When Turner left Winchendon, Byrnes assumed he was done hearing from Maryland for a while. That was the case until this spring, when his phone rang as the Terrapins started to do their homework on Evans.

"I told them some of the things he was involved with here and what I knew with the kid," Byrnes said, adding that he knew little about Evans' legal transgressions until reading media reports this spring. "I was a little surprised, obviously, with some of his tarnished background (that Maryland would take him). Every kid deserves another chance. Obviously, he's had a lot of extra chances. If he was not a special player, would he have had all these chances?"

That said, when Evans signed with Maryland, Byrnes phoned his former player to congratulate him.

"And I advised him that a lot of publicity was going to come at him," Byrnes said. "I advised him that he couldn't run away from the past, and to say he has made mistakes but that he wants to promise the Maryland family he will make them proud as a player and as a person."

But before Memorial Day, yet to gain admittance to the university, Evans was given a release from his letter of intent. Skeptics believed it was the simple way of parting ways with a recruit who was not going to get into school, although Maryland officials insisted that Evans made his decision before theirs had been finalized.

"(Evans) chose to withdraw from the admissions process," a Maryland source said, "before the process had been completed."

WILLIAMS FOCUSED ON FUTURE

For his part, Williams does not want to talk about the past. He insists he is still recruiting for the upcoming season, though barring some addition of an unknown prospect from across the Atlantic, it is difficult to fathom the Terrapins adding an impact player at such a late juncture.

In addition to Mosley, it is possible that South Kent Prep forward Jin Soo Kim, who would have been a high school senior this fall, could enroll for the 2008-09 school year. However, Byrnes, having coached against South Kent, said Kim needs to make significant strength gains to have an impact in the ACC.

"The recruiting is not done yet," Williams said. "We're still going to get a couple kids. Different schools operate under different agendas, there's things you can't control. I'll coach my team and we'll see how we are. We won 19 games last year and beat the No. 1 team in the country. That's not so bad. I have nothing else to say. We can go on to next year. I can't control certain things."

As for the future, at least one prominent high school coach thinks things look bright for Maryland.

DeMatha coach Mike Jones said the Terrapins are recruiting rising senior point guard Josh Selby and have been very active with rising sophomores Quinn Cook and Mikael Hopkins. Maryland offered rising senior Naji Hibbert a scholarship, but he chose Texas A&M, thinking that Maryland already had a guard-heavy roster.

"I'm at the (NBA Players Association Top 100) camp right now, and I just came back from St. Louis and the Nike Hoop Jamboree," Jones said. "And there are a bunch of elite-level players Maryland is mentioned with and is interested in. Their name is being mentioned with a lot of great young players. I don't know why, but for some reason they are mentioned with a ton of elite guys."

In the aftermath of June 15, the first day college coaches were permitted to call rising juniors under NCAA rules, many of the top prospects in the Class of 2010 said Williams had called them personally on that first permissible day. Most of those players won't be making their college decisions for weeks, or even months, but perhaps that's a positive sign for the Terps.

Of course, as it often is said, not every recruit is meant to play for the fiery Williams.

"You get guys who come in, who are way under the radar, that Gary helps turn into pros," Jones said. "And you have some guys that come in that don't want to put the work in and they want their reputation to do the work for them. And those aren't Gary Williams-type players."

Meanwhile, Maryland fans can only hope that the program's 2007-08 recruiting cycle doesn't become known as a Gary Williams-type effort.

Josh Barr, a sportswriter for the Washington Post, is the author of "Good Enough To Be Great: The Inside Story of Maryland Basketball's National Championship Season," published in 2003 by Regnery Publishing, Inc.