There were more than a few college hoops observers that openly wondered whether Cleveland Melvin was good enough to play in the Big East.
Questions about the 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward's ability were widespread in the days after his commitment to Connecticut in the fall of 2009. And while many of those scouts, writers and fans abandoned their critiques after Melvin and the Huskies parted ways a few months later, the sting of skepticism in his ability stuck with the Lake Clifton grad.
Melvin's freshman season at DePaul last year subsequently became a chance for him to "prove the doubters wrong."
"A lot of people never thought I could play in the Big East, that I wouldn't get as much minutes and playing time at UConn," Melvin said. "So I definitely proved them wrong. I stayed focused and just worked hard to get where I'm at now."
Where Melvin is at now is a place where hardly anyone – even his biggest supporters – could have predicted. The Blue Demons big man is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in conference play, earning Big East Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts.Blue Demons coach Oliver Purnell -- who counts Melvin as his first commitment at DePaul -- called it "a mild surprise" that the 2009 Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro player was so successful as a freshman.
"He's always been kind of a secondary guy on good teams – and maybe not even secondary. That might be generous," Purnell said. "Maybe the third guy on really good teams. … [But] in Cleveland's mind, he always thinks he's going to be a really good player and get better. I think he's been in situations where he's always gotten better."
Whether he was playing with Lake Clifton or for Cecil Kirk on the circuit, Melvin always produced. In his senior year, Melvin averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in helping the Lakers to a 29-0 season, which culminated with the Class 3A state championship.
After graduation, Melvin and Lakers teammate Antonio Barton left Baltimore for Fitchburg, Mass., where they starred for Notre Dame Prep. Purnell was impressed with what he saw out of Melvin, who had already visited the Chicago campus when he got the job. Landing the Baltimore native was a top priority for the former Clemson coach, who kept his recruiting pitch to Melvin simple.
"He just [said that he wanted] me just to play hard and play my style, run the court and use my quickness to get past bigger guys that guarded me," Melvin recalled. "He just told me to play hard every time I step on the court. That's what I've done so far."
Playing time was an important factor in Melvin's recruitment, and Purnell provided plenty of minutes for the former Lakers star. The early stages of Melvin's freshman year, however, had some rocky moments.
"He wasn't ready to play in the beginning, but I thought he could be really, really good," Purnell said. "[I said], 'I think he is the best-potential big guy, but he's not ready right now.' He didn't start in the beginning. There were a few games he didn't really play a lot. But he kept getting better and better. In the Big East, the light went off. The rest is history. He's tremendous."
The real breakout for Melvin came right after the New Year, when he averaged 26.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in games at Cincinnati and Georgetown. DePaul struggled through a 7-24 season (including a 1-17 mark in conference play), but Melvin was a consistently reliable scorer and rebounder for the Blue Demons.
"At first it was kind of hard playing for a struggling team, kind of rebuilding," Melvin said. "But as the season went on … I stayed focused because I didn't want to get down on myself, mess up the team chemistry. I helped my team stick together with it. It was hard, but I just kept playing."
Purnell said Melvin's freshman experience is "going to pay dividends for us starting this year, and the fact that he's been part of winning and he doesn't like to lose. … The thing that most benefited him is that he is a relentless competitor and learner. He likes being coached. He wants to be coached. There's never any resistance from him in coaching and wanting to learn."
Melvin spent the majority of his summer in Chicago, working out, taking classes, and bonding with his two Baltimore teammates Brandon Young and Montray Clemons. Purnell said he's been impressed so far by Melvin's strength, his outside shooting, and his leadership. If the Blue Demons are going to have success under Purnell, Melvin will be "critical" to that turnaround.
"He doesn't like to lose. He's not satisfied," Purnell said. "[Leadership from him is] far more powerful [than it is from the coaching staff]. … I think he can be very good. He was an All-Big East type of player, [and] you know what that means. If you're an All-Big East player, the sky's the limit."
The Sweet 16 is an occasional series profiling the 16 best Division I college basketball players from the Baltimore area. Players were selected based on prior accomplishments and projections for the upcoming season.
Previous Sweet 16 selections:
U.S. Presswire photo of Cleveland Melvin by Dennis Wierzbicki / Feb. 19, 2011