- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2011


No one expects much this season from the Maryland men’s basketball team, which features two returning starters and six walk-on players in what figures to be a long season for new coach Mark Turgeon.

“I’ve heard that a lot,” Turgeon said Wednesday during media day. “And then you pick up the magazines and they seem to agree with everyone.”

But Turgeon won’t be judged by the crew he trots out Friday night for “Maryland Madness” at Comcast Center. Those players aren’t the ones who ultimately will determine his success as Gary Williams‘ successor.

Turgeon’s fate is in the hands of players currently preparing for their high school seasons, the top seniors and juniors (not to mention sophomores, freshmen and middle-schoolers) who will have a host of colleges vying for their services. He wants Maryland near the top of their list.

“I want elite players,” he said. “I’m not afraid of one-and-dones. I’ll take a Carmelo Anthony for one year. I just don’t want six of them. But I’d like to mix in a few and recruit at the highest level.”

It’s no coincidence that the best programs year-in and year-out land the best players year-in and year-out — truly elite players who can put college behind them nine months after enrollment, if they so choose.

That’s the reason some coaches shy away from the most brilliant ballers. Other coaches consider the competition, look at the bluebloods like Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky, and conclude that pursuit is pointless.

Williams fell in the former category, though outsiders contend that Maryland’s backers overestimate the school’s national status. But whether Williams tried and failed, or failed to try, his recent teams had a dearth of top-notch, NBA lottery-level talent — particularly the homegrown variety.

The Terps had enough to reach the Final Four in 2001 and win the championship the following season, but the landscape has changed since 2002, the last time Maryland produced a first-round draft pick (Chris Wilcox, eighth overall, and Juan Dixon, 17th).

“Give Gary credit for this,” first-year assistant Dalonte Hill said. “Some coaches don’t want to coach top guys because some come with a lot of baggage and entourages. Gary did it his way and won a national championship.”

But it’s harder that way, especially since 2005, the last NBA draft in which high school players were eligible.

North Carolina won the NCAA tournament that year, and freshman Marvin Williams was the No. 2 pick overall. Florida won the next two titles because its core stars didn’t leave as sophomores, not because they weren’t good enough. Memphis was the national runner-up in 2008, led by freshman guard Derrick Rose, the No. 1 pick a couple of months later.

Maryland was ousted from the 2009 tournament by Memphis and another freshman guard, Tyreke Evans, who became the No. 4 pick shortly thereafter. Even little Butler, pride of the mid-majors, has drawn on prime players. Sophomore Gordon Haywood departed and was selected ninth after the Bulldogs’ runner-up finish in 2010. That draft featured four freshmen taken in the first round from Kentucky’s Sweet 16 team (including No. 1 pick John Wall).

Turgeon said he has no desire to emulate Kentucky coach John Calipari, who rolls out one-and-dones like he rolls out basketballs at practice. But in Hill, a native Washingtonian who played and later coached for AAU powerhouse D.C. Assault, Turgeon has the right man to break Maryland’s drought of NBA lottery players. Which, by the way, is a good thing.

There’s a sick sense that supremely talented basketball players are exhibiting character flaws if they want to leave early. As if you can’t be an honor-roll student with high morals and integrity, yet still decide that turning pro after a year or two is a sound business decision.

If it can happen at Duke, where the smart and well-adjusted Kyrie Irving left for the NBA after an injury-shortened freshman season, it should be able to happen at Maryland, too. Especially when you consider the abundance of talent produced in the “DMV” area (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia).

And don’t forget Baltimore’s fertile hotbed, where second-year Terps assistant Bino Robinson has strong ties and “thinks he could recruit God,” according to Turgeon.

With Hill, Robinson and longtime Turgeon lieutenant Steve Spinelli on board, the Terps are poised to land some top-rated players who eventually go high in the draft, which will help lure the next batch and raise some banners at Comcast Center.

Turgeon enjoys the chase as much as the catch. “I like to recruit,” he said. “I still remember what it was like to be an assistant and I’m in it, in it deep. I think that’s my job.”

When he gets that part down, the rest will be easy.

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