Wells was one of the best freshmen in the Atlantic 10, starting and averaging better than 10 points for a team that won 23 games and reached the Sweet 16. But there was also the matter of the four-game suspension Wells served for his role in the ugly Xavier-Cincinnati brawl.
Mostly, the biggest cause for concern was the reason for Wells’ availability. The 6-foot-5 guard from Raleigh, N.C., had been expelled from Xavier after being accused of sexual assault. But the prosecutor dropped the charges, going as far as to say that the school’s decision was “an injustice.”
So why has the NCAA refused so far to allow Maryland’s waiver to make Wells eligible this season rather than wait the typical year that athletes have to sit out when they transfer between Division I programs?
You would almost think that the folks in Indianapolis have something against second-year coach Mark Turgeon, considering the announcement on Wells follows a decision by the NCAA clearinghouse this summer that denied the eligibility of freshman guard Sam Cassell based on his prep school transcript.
I have another thought: the Maryland program has been out of the spotlight of being among the nation’s elite teams long enough that few outside College Park are paying close attention to either of the decisions, so it’s easy to turn the Terps down.
It reminds me of the old Jerry Tarkanian line. Tarkanian, who battled the NCAA long and hard during his career at UNLV and before that at Long Beach State, once joked that the “NCAA is so mad at Kentucky that they they put Cleveland State on probation.”
The Terps are not Cleveland State, but in this situation they might be close.
Both Cassell and Wells should be getting ready to play Kentucky in a couple of weeks to open the season in Brooklyn, as Nerlens Noel is preparing for the Wildcats. The 6-10 freshman considered to be the successor to Anthony Davis was recently cleared after the NCAA investigated for months who paid for trips from his New England prep school on his unofficial visits last year to Lexington and Louisville.
As Cassell starts his college career at a junior college in Florida and Wells waits, perhaps until next season, to restart his in College Park, the NCAA is allowing UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad to be eligible as it continues to investigate whether he received any illegal benefits during his recruitment. The only thing keeping Muhammad off the court for now is a sore shoulder.
The decisions involving Wells and Cassell come a season after Alex Len was hit with a 10-game suspension for playing on a professional team in his native Ukraine that reportedly paid for his travel and meals. At the time, Turgeon was diplomatic, calling the NCAA’s penalty “more than fair.” It was one of the few instances last season that the typically blunt Turgeon had to hold his tongue.
He is doing the same thing this time – for now – by saying through an athletic department spokesman Friday that he would wait until the appeal process is finished before commenting.
As unfair as the situation with Cassell seemed to be -- given that several players from the same New England prep school had their transcripts accepted by the NCAA clearinghouse a year ago and were allowed to play for Division I schools -- the matter with Wells smacks of some sort of vigilante justice.
I could see if the case was pending, just as Muhammad ’s investigation is ongoing. But Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters dropped the case and told my colleague Jeff Barker that Wells “was the unfortunate recipient of a bad process [at Xavier]. This would never go anywhere criminally.”
Deters also added that Wells had no criminal record and “I think Maryland’s getting a good kid.”
While Turgeon said that Wells’ case in the eyes of the NCAA is unique, there is one precedent that local college basketball fans might remember. It involved Gary Neal, who left LaSalle after being charged with rape and wound up at Towson. He, too, had to sit out even after being acquitted.
Neal, who like Wells was Atlantic 10 freshman of the year, went on to have a good enough career at Towson that he found his way to the pros, first in Europe and now with the San Antonio Spurs. Wells, who has a similar game to Neal, can use him as a role model.
The NCAA understands that the recruiting of the nation’s top high school basketball players is hard to monitor, and it does the best it can when it comes to murky world in which the Shabazz Muhammads and Nerlens Noels of the world live. (Note to Kentucky, you’re back on the clock with the Harrison twins.)
But this is much different case with Wells.
This is a player who was unfairly expelled from one school and trying to revive his career at another.
I would love to hear what Jerry Tarkanian thinks.