College basketball, don't you love it? Here's Maryland coach Gary Williams, defending two recruits who could have been Ivy Leaguers. That means they're smart. And, in the view of some disgruntled Terps fans, it means Williams is dumb.
His latest recruiting class is not as good as it could have been, and probably not as good as it should have been. But not long ago, Maryland was a symbol of all that was wrong with college sports. You want to blast Williams for recruiting good kids, then be our hypocritical guest.
Yes, this is the ACC. No, it's not a good sign that 7-foot center Mike Mardesich chose Maryland over Harvard, Penn State and several others (though Arizona had interest) or that 6-4 guard Kelly Hite chose Maryland over Yale and Army (though Miami also was on his list).
Heck, it's not even a good sign that 6-7 power forward LaRon Cephas is only considered a modest talent, knowing he might sit out a year as a partial academic qualifier. The ACC allows one such borderline case a year, and by golly, he'd better be All-World.
So, did Williams blow his chance to retool the program? Well, for the second straight year, he failed to land the best blue-chip prospect in Maryland -- first Louis Bullock, now Nate James. And yes, it's certainly odd that the Joe Smith Era, however brief, didn't generate more recruiting momentum.
You hear it all the time -- Williams can't recruit, or worse, that he won't do the dirty work required. Never mind that Maryland is one of only three ACC schools to make the NCAA tournament the past three years. Having never been to a Final Four, Williams is an easy target.
"I work as hard as any coach in the country at recruiting," he said yesterday. "I recruited Jimmy Jackson [at Ohio State], Joe Smith, Johnny Rhodes, Keith Booth. You tell me I don't work hard at recruiting? That's B.S. I do everything I'm allowed to do to the maximum. I make every legal call."
Williams added that if the perception of him as a poor recruiter is accurate, then, "We must not have any players at all. They must really stink. I must out-coach everybody just to get to the NCAAs. But that's not true. We have very good players here. And we work very hard to get those players."
So, what are we talking about here? Maryland fans screamed for a center, and Mardesich should make an immediate impact. Maryland fans screamed that last year's class wasn't good enough, and it proved to be one of the best in the conference.
Terrell Stokes might be the top point guard in the league next season, LaRon Profit could eventually be an all-ACC player, Obinna Ekezie should develop into a serviceable big man. Mardesich, meanwhile, will help Maryland's interior defense right away, and evolve into an offensive force later.
How do we know that? We don't, actually -- few of us ever see these high school legends play. The consensus is that Maryland would have had a great class if it had landed James. Without him, recruiting expert Bob Gibbons rates this group the worst in the conference.
Thus, it could become even more imperative that Williams recruits a strong class next season, and he's already off to a good start, having received a verbal commitment from Terence Morris, a 6-8 forward at Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick.
The notion that Williams shuns recruiting is preposterous -- the guy sweats through suits working the sidelines, but doesn't care about the players he gets? The fact is, he's so competitive, it's possible that he alienated some of his seniors last season, to the point where they bad-mouthed him to James and other top prospects.
If that's true, then Williams must bear some of the responsibility -- some. Exree Hipp went south physically, then mentally. Mario Lucas refused to do anything but shoot threes. Duane Simpkins' ability only took him so far. Johnny Rhodes was the only one of the four seniors to improve each year.
Perhaps Williams' mistake was recruiting the others in the first place, but each had their moments, and each contributed to the program's turnaround. Besides, a local player like James didn't need Hipp or anyone else to inform him of the Terps' problems. They were in full view all season.
Hipp played in high school for Stu Vetter, James' coach at St. John's Prospect Hall in Frederick, but Williams said he doesn't know if any of his former players undermined him. What he does know is this: "Bring Joe Smith back this year and see if anybody would have been unhappy."
Booth chose Maryland over Duke, James chose Duke over Maryland -- it happens. Bullock was the scorer the Terps desperately needed, but he went to Michigan when Williams wouldn't promise he'd start over Simpkins and Rhodes. No such excuse was available this time, but let's not turn James into the next Grant Hill just yet.