Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Don Markus and editor Matt Bracken weigh in on the three biggest topics of the past week in Maryland sports.
Is Dez Wells Maryland's next great player?
Don Markus: A generation of Maryland basketball has produced only a handful of truly great college players. Len Bias and Juan Dixon remain at the top of the list, with Joe Smith, Walt Williams, Lonny Baxter and Greivis Vasquez rounding out a very select group. Johnny Rhodes, Keith Booth and Steve Blake are certainly in the discussion.
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What puts a player in this group is not based solely on talent and statistics, but also on what they meant to the program.
Bias was arguably the most talented offensive player in this generation, and as a junior led Maryland to its first ACC tournament title in 26 years. In his two seasons, Smith went from being a relative unknown to national player of the year and led Maryland to a pair of Sweet 16s. Dixon became the school’s all-time scorer, and along with Baxter and Blake, brought the Terps to the promised land – Maryland’s first national championhip.
Maryland would not have won a national title had Williams not stayed when the program went on probation. What he did as a senior – scoring a school-record 26.8 points a game – grabbed the attention of Smith, who loved The Wizard’s high socks and sweet jumper. Vasquez did more with less around him than nearly any in this bunch, and nearly carried the Terps to the Sweet 16 singlehandedly.
Which brings this conversation to Wells.
It is a little premature to even consider putting Wells with some of these great Maryland players, given that he has only been a part of Mark Turgeon’s program since transferring from Xavier in late summer. But I have seen enough of the 6-5 sophomore to recognize that he has some of the same qualities as many whom I have mentioned.
The first thing you notice about Wells is his athleticism. When was the last time you saw a player since Bias block a shot over the rim at one end and dunk at the other – in one breathtaking sequence – as Wells did earlier this season? Wells is on an athletic par with Bias and Steve Francis, whose omission from this group is based on the fact that he played only one year in College Park and the Terps got blown out in the NCAA tournament.
Wells is the best player off the dribble who I have seen at Maryland since Francis, and his pull-up mid-range jump shots the other night in the second half against Florida State were the most electrifying I have seen by a Terp since Bias. But Wells might also have a chance to be one of the best wing defenders Maryland has had since Rhodes, who could be the most underappreciated Terp in the program’s modern history.
If he stays at Maryland long enough, Wells could be to Mark Turgeon’s program what Walt Williams and eventually Smith was to Gary Williams – a player who helps put the Terps back on the national stage. I’m not saying that Wells will put up the kind of numbers next season that Williams did as a senior -- he won’t have to -- or become national player of the year and the No. 1 pick in the draft as Smith did.
But the numbers he has put up this season – 12.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3 assists – are among the best ever by a Maryland player in his first year.
Consider where this year’s team would be without him? I’m sure Turgeon shudders at that thought, given how Alex Len has disappeared of late.
The only Terps in this generation with better stats in his first year were Jerrod Mustaf (18.5 points, 7.7 rebounds in Bob Wade’s last year), Matt Roe (who transferred from Syracuse as a senior and averaged 17.8 points and 5.5 rebounds on Williams’ second team), Rhodes (14 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists on a 12-16 team), Smith (19.9 points, 19.7 rebounds) and Francis (17 points, 4.5 rebound, 4.5 assists).
Wells might just be a more athletic version of Rhodes: a good all-around player who makes his teammates better but never gets the recognition he deserves. And this all could be moot if Wells leaves after next season, which seems likely given the way the system works these days.
But Wells talks about watching old clips of Michael Jordan as much as he does Kobe Bryant, and seems to have more of an appreciation for the way the game used to be played as much as the way he and others play it now.
What he has done in recent weeks makes me think Wells could be the next great Terp -- if he stays long enough.
With football signing day Wednesday, which Maryland unit stands the best chance for improvement?
Jeff Barker: It’s not a stretch to say that the offense will be upgraded considerably. Injury-wracked Maryland finished with fewer yards (a 284.8-per-game average) than any team in the ACC.
After losing four quarterbacks, Maryland will benefit merely by having an actual healthy quarterback. Last year, the Terps were scouring the roster for anybody who had played the position effectively in high school.
Incumbent C.J. Brown will enter with the best chance at being the starter. My memory of Brown last season is of a guy standing on the sideline wearing shorts, a heavy knee brace and a red T-shirt with an ironic message in white lettering on the back: "All in. All Games. All season." Terps fans are hoping he can make a successful comeback.
New receiver Deon Long (Iowa Western Community College) could help Brown this season. You’ll hear about Long on Signing Day. The Terps need another receiver to draw attention away from Stefon Diggs in the slot.
In his freshman season, Diggs was second in the conference in all-purpose yards (172.4 yards). He was aided by the emergence of receiver Marcus Leak, a deep threat who wears Torrey Smith's old Maryland number (82). But Leak’s season ended early with a broken toe.
Maryland has enough talented skill-position players – Diggs, Leak and running back Wes Brown among them – to be optimistic about upgrading its offense.
What it needs now is more offensive-line talent and depth – and also a bit of luck to steer it clear of the sorts of injuries that wrecked last season.
Who is the biggest sleeper in Maryland's football recruiting class?
Matt Bracken: We'll get into Most Underrated, Most Likely to Overachieve and other Maryland football recruiting superlatives next week. But today, we'll take a look at my pick for the Biggest Sleeper of the Terps' 2013 class -- two-star defensive end Chandler Burkett.
A 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior out of Bozeman High in Panama City, Fla., Burkett's first offer came from Maryland last spring, but he eventually chose Florida International over the Terps, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee State, South Florida and Troy. When FIU dismissed coach Mario Cristobal in December, Burkett decided to reopen his recruitment.
"[FIU] said they’d have a new coach in over a month. [They said they'd] hopefully have a head coach by January 7. A month away," said Bozeman coach William Tillman. "[I asked Chandler], 'You want us to send anything else out?' He’s like, 'Please do.' We contacted [assistant coach Lyndon] Johnson at Maryland, who recruited him, to see if he was still interested. Coach Johnson met with [Randy Edsall] and they said, ‘Let’s see if he’s serious about us.’ They brought him in for a visit [and] everything kind of worked out."
Tillman's not sure why Burkett landed just two offers from BCS-conference schools, but he praised Maryland for its early evaluation of the first player in Bozeman High history to sign with a Division I program. Florida is obviously a talent-rich state, but it's certainly possible that Bozeman -- a relatively new high school -- isn't yet on the radar of college recruiters. Burkett showed Tillman "right away" that he would be a DI prospect.
"We played him up in some varsity games as a ninth-grader," Tillman recalled. "The first game, [we] put him in there to try and motivate a senior. Next thing you know, he has seven tackles, three for loss, a blocked kick. [We said], 'OK, we’re not getting that production from a senior. The freshman has to play.' He’s been playing ever since."
Burkett saw time as a senior at middle linebacker, which Tillman said allowed him to play off the line of scrimmage, drop back in coverage and showcase his versatility. Burkett, with his 4.6 speed, did just that, recording 122 tackles (88 solo), including 15 for loss.
Burkett is clearly a developmental prospect that will be an interesting case study in the Maryland staff's evaluation skills. In Tillman's opinion, though, the Terps got a "hell of a defensive end" -- no matter what the recruiting services may say.
"He's got a hell of a drop step. If not, he’ll chase you down the back side. I see him doing more of that," Tillman said. "He’s got a big lower body, but can put on a lot of weight. I expect he’s going to play [somewhere between] 260 or 275. He’s still real skinny. He gets up there and gets on regular meals and all that stuff, he’s going to put on even more body weight and hopefully keep that speed. He's a very legitimate football player, a great character academically [and] athletically. He’s got the whole shebang."