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Sophomores Facing Career Crossroads

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

  December 13, 2004 COLLEGE PARK — There could be a mass exodus coming for the Maryland basketball program.

Sophomore center Hassan Fofana announced on Dec. 11 that he will transfer, citing his lack of playing time. Classmates Mike Jones and Will Bowers could follow.

Fofana's departure didn't come as a surprise and was not greeted with much consternation by fans. It had become obvious that he was not progressing as hoped and likely would never become more than a bench player.

Coach Gary Williams is known for developing big men, but Fofana actually regressed from his freshman year. The 6-10, 280-pound native of Guinea saw double-digit minutes in eight games last season and was a valuable contributor on several occasions. While raw offensively, he knew how to throw his weight around defensively and on the boards. Willliams cited Fofana's inside presence as a key to a road victory over Clemson last January.

Williams initially envisioned Fofana as another Obinna Ekezie, whose background was remarkably similar. Like Fofana, Ekezie was an Africa native who had minimal basketball experience before moving to the United States and attending a Massachusetts prep school.

However, there was one major difference between the two big men. Ekezie had tremendous hands and feet, which hastened his development into a quality center. Fofana possesses lead feet and hands of stone. Even more frustrating to Williams was the fact that Fofana could not grasp the basic elements of the game, such as how to properly set a pick or box out for a rebound. Williams privately bemoaned Fofana's poor basketball instincts and the fact that he could not pick up Maryland's offensive system.

During exhibition games this season, it became obvious that Fofana was buried deep in Williams' doghouse. He was one of the last players off the bench and did not perform with any confidence. Fofana then averaged 7.3 minutes per game early in the regular season and was not nearly as active or productive as he was as a freshman. He did not manage a single rebound while playing a total of 15 minutes against patsies Jackson State and Mercer.

Williams never has been afraid to part company with players he deemed not capable of playing in the ACC. The coach has been consistent during his tenure at Maryland, almost always waiting until a player's sophomore season to determine his potential. It is not uncommon for Williams to suggest that a player transfer upon completion of his sophomore season. He never has advocated a mid-year transfer, which would lead one to assume this was entirely Fofana's idea.

"Sometimes, it's a positive thing for a player to get a fresh start," Williams said. "It could hurt our depth, but we still have plenty of inside players."

Actually, Maryland has only one productive inside player, 6-8 freshman James Gist. Bowers, a
6-11 center who was every bit as much of a project as Fofana, still cannot be trusted at crucial times of important games.

Bowers wanted to transfer after last season, but he was talked out of it by Williams and former assistant Jimmy Patsos. Bowers was extremely close with Patsos and thought about following him to Loyola. Those close to Bowers maintain that scenario still could become a reality after this season, if Bowers continues to see sparse playing time. There is no indication that Bowers is any more of an ACC-caliber center than Fofana. He projects to be somewhat of a second coming of Mike Mardesish, as many predicted from the outset.

Few fans would complain if Bowers followed Fofana's footsteps out the door of the Comcast Center. However, there would be a major uproar if Jones also decided to transfer.

There has been no hotter topic among diehard Maryland basketball supporters this season than the future of the former McDonald's All-American. Jones, an athletically gifted 6-5 wing, has played sparingly in all of Maryland's big games so far this season. That angers many observers, who had expected to see Jones in an expanded role. It's hard to figure why a player so clearly oozing with talent cannot get meaningful minutes.

Jones is an explosive leaper and possesses the smoothest shooting stroke on the team. He is one of the fastest Terps in terms of running the floor. However, Jones still has not adequately improved some major deficiencies in his game. He does not move well laterally and has terrible defensive fundamentals. He is a poor ball-handler for a perimeter player and thus cannot create his own shot consistently.

Williams has said many times that playing time is earned in practice. Clearly, Jones has not done the job in that venue and thus is not going to be rewarded with substantial playing time in games, especially when it would come at the expense of more productive players such as D.J. Strawberry and Chris McCray.

When word leaked out that a Maryland basketball player was transferring, most fans assumed it was Jones. Not many McDonald's All-Americans can handle sitting on the bench, so it has been presumed that Jones is disgruntled.

Remarkably, though, that is not the case. Jones is an unassuming sort who recognizes his weaknesses and wants to learn. Many close to the program believe that the product of Thayer Academy in Dorchester, Mass., will stick it out in College Park and ultimately develop into an outstanding player.

At this point, however, Maryland's five-member 2003 recruiting class is not looking nearly as good as originally advertised. Californians Ekene Ibekwe and Strawberry, both of whom were recruited by Patsos, are the only ones contributing.

Gilchrist Wrestling With Leadership

Williams still is waiting for point guard John Gilchrist to consistently play the way he did during last year's ACC Tournament.

It was assumed that Gilchrist would be a more mature player as a junior, yet there are signs that is not the case. The emotional youngster dramatically collapsed to the floor and buried his head following a tough road loss to Wisconsin. He did far too much verbal sparring with George Washington players during that upset defeat.

Of even more concern is the fact that Gilchrist has been out of control during games at times this season. During stretches that Maryland is struggling offensively, Gilchrist too often tries to do it all by himself and winds up making bad decisions.

The television cameras often have caught Williams going nuts on the sidelines, usually after Gilchrist has jacked up an ill-advised three-pointer early in the shot clock or driven headlong into the lane without attempting to run the offense first.

Three years into their relationship, it appears that Williams and Gilchrist still are engaged in somewhat of a battle of wills. Williams wants to give Gilchrist the freedom to run the show, but the head-strong point guard continues to confound the coach with bad decisions and crazy behavior.

Stay tuned.