While no one doubts the power of great recruiting and the young talent that rules the landscape of college basketball, the parity in the sport is greatly attributed to the programs that have been able to keep players around that are able to develop. This year is no different, as there are several good examples of programs on the mend that were once much more reputable. Two such programs include former ACC rivals Virginia and Maryland.
Both teams have taken separate paths to a season that now features both teams in the top 10 in the country (ESPN/USA Today Poll, Maryland is 11 in the AP Poll). Virginia has been coming on strong in the past few years since Joe Harris became a force. Now with the Cavaliers of the NBA (Cleveland), the ACC Player of the Year from last, Malcolm Brogdon, has taken a back seat to other talented guys that have been able to develop in the last two years. Justin Anderson (formerly a Maryland commit prior to the retirement of Gary Williams) is the big-time recruit of the bunch and has transformed from a swingman with incredible athleticism into one with added range and the kind defensive intensity that is a trademark for a Tony Bennett team.
But it’s not even the heralded recruits that are really getting it done for this program. Mike Tobey is a very important cog for the Cavs and Evan Nolte is a decent perimeter defender with above-average athleticism, but it’s guys like Marial Shayok and Darion Atkins off the bench, or perhaps more importantly guys like Anthony Gill and London Perrantes that provide a little bit of everything. Yes, this team is not a bunch of seniors. But it’s a bunch of guys that bought into a system realizing that going to the NBA isn’t something that playing this style of ball is supposed to do.
And yet, here they are. Top 3 in the country and they haven’t really been in danger of losing. They were tested for a little over a half by Davidson, but all that really did was show us that these guys could score too if they want. In a league that got even more difficult to win (though as we will find a moment, Maryland has gotten stronger), Virginia has positioned themselves for a finish towards the top and a very high seeding coming March.
Another team that fits the mold has done so in a different fashion. After a staggering amount of transfers this past offseason there were rumblings for Mark Turgeon’s job. Two seasons of barely over .500 and another still not good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. Maryland is now in a conference where they hold the distinction as the school most recent to win a National Championship (and it’s been a pretty long time). But after losing their leading scorer from last year (Seth Allen), their top recruit and added PG depth (Roddy Peters), senior guard and arguably the top defender (Nick Faust), a rebounding dynamo with not much else to offer (Charles Mitchell), and a big guy with promise (Shaq Cleare), the Terps are off to their best start in well over a decade and there’s even a chance they may make some serious noise in the B1G by the end of the season.
Ok, we get it. Maryland’s conference this season is having a down year so far. But that’s mainly just up top. The B1G is still very deep and has the talent, it just has some programs either having down years or still getting their legs with young coaches. But so far, Maryland has made some strides some out of conference wins (neutral site against Iowa State that was basically a road game), at Oklahoma State (who might make the tourney and is in a tough conference), and a few other solid mid-major squads that you might snicker at but are sneaky good.
With a big, tough OT win over Michigan State in the Big Ten opener and a surprisingly comfortable win over Minnesota, Maryland has their first two wins in the conference and a decent schedule to lean on. But for Maryland, winning the Big Ten isn’t the end game. Much like it’s football program, the Terps want to make more money in their new conference and continue to improve so they can keep the top recruits home. Football and basketball have been hotbeds for a good bit of time now in the Delmarva area. It’s time the Terps start picking up more commitments from guys close by.
Let’s take a closer look at why Maryland has been so successful thus far. Well, transfers don’t just go one way. And the Terps have had their fair share of quality guys come through in recent years. This year they are lead by frosh PG Melo Trimble and senior Dez Wells (transfer from Xavier a few years back). Other transfers include a grad student Richard Pack (from NC A & T), a solid if unspectacular stretch 4 Evan Smotrycz (from Michigan), a smaller power forward with Maryland bloodlines Jonathan Graham (son of Ernie Graham and non-scholarship player formerly of Penn State), and a guy sitting out but a guy with star potential, Robert Carter (who was oddly basically just a trade with Georgia Tech for Charles Mitchell, despite the wait MD won out big on that one).
Additionally, help comes from freshmen Dion Wiley, Michael Cekovsky, and Jared Nickens. All three players have show glimpses of being solid collegiate players, though none will be big-time contributors till next year. Wiley has athleticism and decent three-point range with the body to be a very good defender with some work. Cevoksky is a 7-footer with athleticism and a soft enough touch to present tons of matchup problems for bigs in the rugged B1G. And Nickens has already proven to be a capable, but streaky, shooter with “scoring machine” written all over him down the road. Throw in a starting combo forward with decent handles and a pretty shooting stroke from Jake Layman (though confidence can be an issue) and a center with untapped potential on defense and a limited but promising arsenal on offense in Damonte Dodd, and you’ve got a team with a real chance this year and further on.
Other upstart programs will be featured in the coming days.