COLLEGE PARK -- This is how badly John Walsh wanted to play basketball at the University of Maryland: During his senior year of high school, Walsh rejected several scholarship offers and then waited until the Terrapins called long after the season ended. It nearly never happened.
The call didn't come until mid-April, after the Maryland admissions office had rejected blue-chippers Lawrence Moten and Donyell Marshall. Walsh, at the time, had just finished at St. Thomas More Academy, a prep school in Oakdale, Conn.
"We were down to nothing," Walsh's father, Greg, recalled yesterday. "I was going nuts."
It has all worked out for Walsh, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward from West Islip, N.Y. Though he has not had the impact that either Moten has had at Syracuse, or Marshall has had at Connecticut, Walsh has slowly worked his way into both Gary Williams' rotation and confidence.
"I think he's done well," the Maryland coach said before yesterday's practice for tonight's home game against North Carolina-Greensboro. "He probably wasn't going to play much until Garfield Smith got hurt, but this is going to help him in the future."
To see Walsh's potential, you have to look past his bare-bone statistical averages (1.7 points, 0.9 rebounds, 32 percent shooting from the field) to those moments this winter when he showed he belonged in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Start with the 10-point, six-rebound performance in 29 minutes of a 93-85 upset of then 24th-ranked Florida State in Tallahassee. Follow it up with his last three games, when he has made five of six shots in 27 minutes against Clemson, Duke and North Carolina State.
"I set high standards for myself, and I want to reach them," said Walsh, who has been Maryland's first frontcourt sub since Smith broke his leg Jan. 18 and junior Chris Kerwin moved into the starting lineup. "It's not that I'm trying to prove something. I don't want to disappoint myself."
Not that Walsh has looked totally comfortable. He has repeatedly gotten his shots blocked trying to confront taller and stronger players. He has been pushed around inside, as happened against fellow freshman Cherokee Parks of Duke. He has, on occasion, forgotten which play Maryland was running.
"Like a lot of freshmen, his concentration isn't what it's supposed to be," Williams said. "It's just a matter of experience."
It is helpful that Walsh is getting that experience. Greg Walsh, who coached 20 years on the high school level and sent a number of players to Division I colleges, including former St. John's standout Matt Brust, is even a little surprised to see his son playing so soon.
Not that the elder Walsh didn't think it would happen eventually.
"On almost every level, there were questions about what he could do," said Greg Walsh, who quit coaching when John started playing high school basketball. "He always out-proved everybody."
nTC Williams wasn't sure what kind of player he was getting when he offered Walsh a scholarship. But he knew that Walsh would satisfy another need: a player whose board scores (1020) were more impressive than his board work.
"I give John a lot of credit for hanging in there and coming to Maryland when he could have gone somewhere else," Williams said. "There was no guarantee that he was even going to play. We had gotten stung on a couple of situations. The timing was right for both of us."
Perhaps the most encouraging sign from Walsh has come not during games, or even in practice. It has been the time he has spent in the gym, working on his individual skills, or in the weight room, looking to put a little meat on his bones.
"He's probably puts more time in the gym outside of practice than any other player on the team," Williams said.
That, too, is nothing new. As an eighth-grader, Walsh used to get up at 5 a.m. to spend time working on drills with a local coach. In high school, he used to drive or take the train into New York City to play against better competition.
And this year, even when he didn't get a chance to play, Walsh would stay at Cole Field House into the wee hours, working on his shot. In this regard, Walsh's role model is another former Long Island player who was not expected to be much more than a bench-warmer in the ACC.
Tom Gugliotta, now a senior star at N.C. State, averaged 2.7 points and 1.7 rebounds as a 6-7, 205-pound freshman. Later this year, the now 6-10, 240-pound Gugliotta is expected to be a first-round NBA draft choice, possibly even a lottery pick.
"I talked to him after the last N.C. State game about working out this summer," said Walsh, who has already grown an inch and put on 15 pounds since coming to Maryland. "He's a good example of hard work. He was able to expand his skills every year."
Walsh has his own expansion plans. He didn't wait out Maryland just to sit on the bench.