Maryland's search for a defensive-minded big man last spring led the Terps staff to Progressive Christian Academy in Camp Springs, where senior forward Latay Darden was averaging 15 points, 13 rebounds, 11 blocks and four steals per game.
The UM staff was reportedly intrigued with the 6-foot-7, 195-pounder, but never offered a scholarship. Marquette and Indiana also expressed interest, according to PCA coach Russell Branch. But Darden was never approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse, making him ineligible for Division I play.
That's when Paris (Texas) Junior College coach Ross Hodge entered the picture.
"His prep school coach at Progressive, Russell Branch, I've known him for four or five years now," Hodge said. "With most guys at [Darden's] level, you kind of just monitor [the academic situation] and hang around. We ended up getting him around June or July when it was evident that he was not going to get qualified."
Darden moved to Paris last summer. Located just south of the Oklahoma border, about two hours northeast of Dallas, Paris Junior College is a traditional basketball power. The Dragons won the NJCAA national championship in 2005.
This season, Darden helped Paris to a 23-5 regular-season record. Paris' season ended Monday with a loss in the Region XIV championship. Hodge said he was pleased with Darden's contributions.
"Offensively, he can really finish and he's a good passer," Hodge said last week. "But his biggest strength [is that] he really, really impacts the game on the defensive end of the floor with his length and athleticism. Right now, on the year, he's averaging 7 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. ... We have four people averaging double figures, eight people averaging 6 points or more. We kind of spread it around. ... [On defense is where] he impacts the game. He has an unbelievable feel for blocking shots. He really gets his hands on a lot of balls. He's a really good rebounder."
Hodge regularly brings in players that were heavily recruited by Div. I schools, and Darden was no different. Still, there was a small adjustment period going from prep school to junior college.
"I think that's the biggest shock to these guys," Hodge said. "They think, 'hey, I'll go to junior college so I'm going to come in and dominate. It's not going to be that hard. I'm going to be better than everybody.' We played in Region 14, one of, if not the best, junior college regions in the country. So everybody in the league has guys like Latay Darden. Bambale Osby, who played for Maryland, he played at Paris Junior College. There are just really good players in the league, so I think that was a big shock at first."
Hodge was an assistant at Paris during Osby's lone junior-college season. The 6-foot-8, 250-pounder averaged just 6 points and 5 rebounds for the Dragons. Two years later, Osby was an integral member of the Terps, finishing his senior season third on the team in scoring (11.5), second in rebounding (6.5) and second in blocked shots (2.1) per game.
At 6-7, 195 pounds, Darden's body couldn't be more different than Osby's. But Hodge thinks there are some similarities in their games.
"Without any question, physically they're completely different," Hodge said. "But Latay on the defensive end of the floor, tip-ins and finishing, all those things he does at a high level. The biggest thing for him at the ACC or Big East or Big 12 level is that he needs to improve his strength. If he would've went to a Maryland right out of Progressive, they would've had him in the weight room and put 10, 15 pounds on him like it was nothing because of the resources they have."
According to Hodge, the staffs at Maryland, Marquette and West Virginia call periodically to get updates on Darden's progress. Hodge expects Darden's recruitment to pick up during the coming months.
"To play at the ACC level, he has to improve on his strength and his overall skill level," Hodge said. "But the things he can do, you can't teach those things."
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