At 5-11, 165 pounds, Jon Dillard looks like a regular, inconspicuous college student. For three years at Maryland, that’s exactly what he was.
But everything about Dillard’s college experience changed last fall when Terps coach Mark Turgeon held open tryouts for the varsity basketball team. Dillard, who starred for Maryland’s club team during his first three years of college, was one of two players – along with Jonathan Thomas – to earn the invite to join Turgeon’s squad.
Dillard, a kinesiology major, appeared in seven games for the Terps last season, scoring two points in 11 minutes. The walk-on from Yorktown, Va., discussed his Maryland career with The Sun earlier this week.
How did you end up at Maryland in the first place?
I was just interested in their academics. I realized it was a big research institution. I liked that. I didn’t really have any other interest from DI schools for basketball. I was focused on education.
Were you recruited by any schools for basketball?
A couple DIII schools. Christopher Newport University was one I was looking at. But other than that, nothing real big.
How was your experience on the club basketball team?
It was really good. I had a lot of fun. A lot of good people definitely helped me improve my basketball skills. As far as by the time I walked on to the basketball team senior year, from my senior year of high school, I came a pretty far way.
What was a typical week like playing for the club team?
It wasn’t too structured. Only two practices a week. However, we did have student coaches who set up tournaments that were really good. We’d play kids from other schools – Princeton, James Madison, U.Va. You get a lot of good tournaments where you’d play five or six games against these schools.
Were you one of the top club players right away?
Yeah, my freshman year I was the sixth man. Sophomore and junior year I was probably one of the top few players on the team.
How did you find out about the tryouts for the varsity team? Did you immediately decide that you were going to try out?
I actually heard about them from a friend on Maryland’s cross country team. We were chatting on Facebook and he said, ‘There’s a rumor that the new coach wants to add guys to the roster.’ So I just started working out over the summer with a friend of mine. He started training me, just to get in shape. We’d get in the gym a lot. I got to College Park when school started, and I just continued working out.
What do you remember about those tryouts?
Tryouts, the only thing I remember about tryouts was how hard it was physically just because we weren’t really in shape yet. Doing the defensive drills and going so hard to try and impress the coaches, really giving 110 percent. I remember being winded really easily.
Were you pretty confident that you were going to make the team?
I had a good feeling about it after the tryouts. I got the call back. I got the next tryout and they made cuts again. Then they were going to bring it down to just four kids. Originally, they told us that there would be cuts and a phone call a day later. I waited three days, no phone call, no voicemail. I had almost given up. I contemplated calling my mom [and telling her], ‘The gig is up. It’s the end of the road.’ As I started to call my mom, I got a voicemail that said I got in the top four. That’s when I knew – I had come this far. I wouldn’t let it pass me by.
How did you eventually find out that you made it?
It was crazy. [I found out from] the video coordinator, Matt Braeuer. Actually, nobody really told us directly. Coach Turgeon didn’t come up to me or anything. They kept bringing us back, [asked us to] keep coming to team workouts, come to lifting sessions. Matt eventually told me and Jon Thomas, ‘You guys need to fix your schedules so you can be at practice at three in the afternoon.’ When he said that, I dropped a class in the afternoon. I was just really, really excited.
Did your friends and family know you were trying out? What was their reaction to you making the team?
Yeah, actually only my parents and a few of my really close friends knew I was trying out. Mostly guys on the club basketball team. I didn’t tell anybody else. I didn’t tell my girlfriend at the time. Everyone was really happy for me.
When did it really sink in that you were on the Maryland basketball team?
I guess it really started to hit me that it was a really big deal when Maryland Madness came around. That’s when it really became real. You see your name up on the screen, you have a jersey now. Before that time, I didn’t have any gear or a jersey. Then it really sunk in that I was part of the Maryland program.
What was your first game action like?
I think it was against Samford. I just remember being really nervous. I was only in for about one minute. I touched the ball one time. I remember being so nervous. I didn’t want to dribble the ball off my foot and feel stupid. … As it progressed, I started to calm down a little more and actually play basketball.
What was your top individual highlight?
It would probably be my only basket. That would have to be the pinnacle.
When did that occur?
It was at U.Va. I got in for like three or four minutes. I just got luck and had the opportunity to take a shot. I drove baseline and took a short jumper that went in.
How was the reaction to your bucket? Were your teammates pretty excited?
Yeah, at least my fellow walk-ons were really happy for me. They were hanging their heads – we lost by 20 or 30-some points. We got on the bus to go back and people gave me some dap. They were supportive.
Were you a big Terps fan before you joined the team?
Growing up as a kid, I wasn’t really a Maryland fan. I grew up in Virginia, [as the son of an] Air Force [man]. When I got [to Maryland] freshman year, I immediately became a diehard Terps fans. I used to be a UNC fan, but I immediately became a Terps fan and threw away all my North Carolina gear. I watched [Sean] Mosley my freshman year and Greivis [Vasquez]. Playing alongside Mosley for the first time, and being on a first-name basis with Greivis, was really an honor.
Have you graduated?
I couldn’t finish up right away because my class schedule got [changed because of basketball], so I have one more semester. I’ll graduate in December. After that, I’m applying for medical school. That’s the next step.
What’s your plan for the summer? When do you take the MCAT?
I take them this August. I’m still hitting the books. I’ll play some pickup and go back to Comcast and roll with the guys a little bit. But mostly I’ll just be hitting the books.
Looking back on the past year, what was the best part about your Maryland basketball career?
The best part about it – it’s a hard question because there are so many things. Wow. I think the coolest part about being on the team was being able to wear Maryland across my chest, and being able to say I’m part of the Maryland basketball program. Whether or not I got on the court, it was such an honor. And another thing I’ll take away from this is that I got so much basketball knowledge, so just soaking it all up. I never had the type of coaching before at the DI level with what Coach Turgeon was teaching us. That was really a pleasure, learning the game of basketball and acquiring so much more knowledge about it.