- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

CUMBERLAND, Md. Welcome to the Green Room of big-time college basketball.
Trojan Square Garden is an impressive name for the ordinary 1,500-seat gym that sits on the edge of Allegany College. The building looks like any of the other 11 small buildings on the campus of this remote junior college in the mountains of Western Maryland.
But the sleepy town and its commuter school are much more in the landscape of college basketball than a forgettable exit off Interstate 68. Allegany is a routine stop for major college programs in search of talent.
Steve Francis went to Allegany before his brief, dazzling career at Maryland and NBA stardom with the Houston Rockets. Eric Mobley left there in 1990 for Pittsburgh and was drafted in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks. John Turner departed in 1987 for Georgetown and became a first-round pick of the Rockets. Allegany has sent players to top-flight programs like Kansas, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Louisville.
In total, Allegany has produced 92 Division I players. That number includes Ryan Randle and Jamar Smith of No.8 Maryland and Terrell Ross of No.3 Texas, three of 10 former Trojans currently on Division I rosters.
"I always said I wanted to have a Division I program at a junior college level," said coach Bob Kirk, in his 32nd season at Allegany. "That's pretty much what we have."
Good enough that Duke and North Carolina battled for a recruit at Allegany (Rudy Archer, who eventually went to Maryland). It was, Kirk noted with satisfaction, the only time Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski ever recruited at a junior college.
Not so for the Heels. They also pursued Smith, and he, like Archer, ended up playing for the Terrapins.
"It was like the middle of nowhere, but the fans show you a lot of support," said Smith, a New Jersey native who went to Allegany on the advice of the Maryland coaches. "It makes you appreciate when you do go somewhere good. You know you worked hard and you went through a lot. … I feel more like a man since I came through there."
Kirk is the second-winningest coach in junior college history with an 889-172 record that ranks behind only that of coach Gene Bess of Three Rivers (Mo.). Allegany has won 21 conference championships, 15 regional titles and reached two national championship games (both losses) under Kirk.
The Trojans' success began when Kirk, a local high school coach, took over a team that had finished 13-14 the previous season and went 19-4 in his first campaign in 1971-72.
"I just wanted us to have a real basketball program and be a community thing," said Kirk, whose team has been a JUCO force for a quarter-century. "Lefty [Driesell] said to me many times, 'Bob, you would win our league.' That was when he was at James Madison."
This year's Allegany team is no different.
The 12th-ranked Trojans (20-2) have won at least 20 games for a 25th consecutive season and again have a talent-rich roster that will feed Division I programs. Freshman point guard Sterling Ledbetter was recommended by Maryland coaches and could be the next Terp from Allegany. Sophomores like guard Shawn Wiggins and 6-foot-9 forward Kevin Mickens could be household names on major college teams next season.
The isolation of Cumberland and the college, which specializes in nursing and dental hygiene, provide a proper setting for talented players to work on their academics and adapt to college basketball in a low-key setting. Most are at Allegany because grades or low test scores kept them out of Division I programs.
Players keep to themselves in their off-campus apartments and see going to the mall or catching a movie as a big night.
"I never went out. Cumberland is a nice place, but there is not a lot to do for college people," said Randle, who came from Duncanville, Texas, on the recommendation of Texas coach Rick Barnes. "It just seems like it's a place for people who seem like they're retired or something. It was quiet."
That's the way Kirk likes it.
Allegany allows the players to concentrate on studies and basketball with minimal distractions. The results have been good on and off the court. All 10 players now on Division I rosters have earned an associate's (two-year) degree, and Kirk said all his players since 1997 who have stayed two years have graduated.
Most wind up in Cumberland the way Wiggins, a former D.C. high school star, did. The sharpshooting, left-handed point guard led Spingarn to the city's public school title in 2001, signed with Division I Dayton but failed to qualify academically. The sophomore now is being recruited by programs bigger than the Atlantic 10's Dayton, with either the Big East or Big 12 possibly Oklahoma a likely destination for next season.
"It was sad, but I had to put Dayton behind me and get into school," said Wiggins, the team's leading scorer at 16.2 points a game. "You can get into a lot of trouble in D.C. I wanted to get out of trouble spots. It's way easier out here. I just focus on academics and basketball. I don't want to leave here. This is the best situation in my life."
Mickens, a Baltimore native, signed with St. Bonaventure in high school before dropping to Allegany. The physical forward now is being recruited by bigger programs. Winston Robinson, a 6-7 freshman from Tennessee, signed with Virginia Tech before academics sidetracked him to Cumberland.
"I was lazy in high school," said Robinson, whose father, Larry, was the first black player at Tennessee. "I wondered if I was going to any college. [Assistant coach Marc Cline at Virginia Tech] told me about Allegany and wanted me to come here. I needed a place like this, where there is not much to do except study and play basketball."
Players are closely monitored by Kirk and his two part-time assistants. They have strict rules: Players are not allowed to wear earrings, color their hair or walk around campus wearing headsets. Trojans are expected to be clean-cut and polite. They are not allowed to talk trash or show emotion on the court.
Kirk enforces his rules; he estimates he sends about one player home a season. One Canadian went home early this season as a "mutual agreement." The coach sent another player packing last season because "his mother lied to me."
"They're disciplined," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "They don't run around up there. They play basketball, and they have to do things. They are required to get it done. That really helps us.
"When a guy only has two years [in Division I], he better be that way. You don't want to go through a whole junior year trying to get a guy to be like the [freshmen] guys, and then all of a sudden, he only has one year to play. Both Ryan and Jamar picked things up pretty quickly in their first year."
And that's what draws top college coaches back to the Green Room.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide