EMMITSBURG -- Riley Inge flows up and down the basketball court. There is an ease to his presence and his game, reminiscent of a Lionel Richie ballad or a mellow wine.
One particularly vocal Mount St. Mary's fan likes to address Inge as "Silk Man," and coach Jim Phelan says, "Everything in his game seems to be done at a glide."
But the appearance is deceiving. Inge's smooth style is propelling the Mount on its roll to the Northeast Conference title.
The 6-foot-3 point guard has developed into the best all-around player in the 10-team league and a clear-cut pro prospect.
He ranks among the league leaders in every statistical category except blocks, is the strongest defensive guard in the NEC and has played every position on the court, often filtering into the low post by design or because of others' foul trouble.
Backcourt mate Chris McGuthrie, a friend since they were 13, says that Inge's game has surpassed that of Maryland's Duane Simpkins, the more renowned of the two premier point guards in the Washington area when all three were in high school.
"Riley got a chance to progress, and now there is no comparison," said McGuthrie. "Duane had a little more to his game in high school, but Coach [Phelan] set Riley free to basically run the team his way and that is the difference in him."
Moreover, the Beltsville resident seems eager to learn more -- in sharp contrast with the lazy high school student whose lack of interest in studies prevented him from playing in a big-time environment.
At the Paint Branch High School gymnasium, Inge was "the man." In the classroom, he was a dud.
He said it is the biggest regret of his young life that he didn't apply himself academically, that a push-through graduation led him on a frustrating tour of the country to find a place to play collegiately.
"I just wasn't serious enough," said Inge. "I felt like I was talented enough on the court that someone would take a chance regardless of what my grades were."
"He could have played anywhere, a 6-3 point guard with speed and intelligence and learned shooting skills," said Phelan. "But in high school, he had been identified as an athlete, and they let him slide by. He recognizes that he really goofed off."
"He didn't even know how to study," said assistant coach Don Anderson. "Nobody pushed him, and he just floated by."
As a result, Inge became a Proposition 48 case and, in Anderson's words, "just started drifting." San Jacinto Junior College. Tallahassee, Fla. California. Going nowhere.
Finally, he tired of the frustrations and came home. Anderson and another Mount assistant, Cliff Warren, had been in contact during the frenzied recruiting process, but the school thought it had no opportunity.
"At the very end, Riley said, 'Why didn't you recruit me?' to us," said Phelan. "We were recruiting all around him, but we thought he'd go a lot higher. He was a top 100 player."
The wheels began turning. Inge's mother called Mount St. Mary's. The basketball office asked the then-school president, Dr. Robert Wickenheiser, to take a chance on him. He agreed.
"I remember when we got approval," said Anderson. "We were going to St. Francis, N.Y., and I made the call from a phone booth there. Now, every time we go up there, I go by to thank that phone booth."
"I go there, too," said Inge. "We kneel before that booth. We carved our names in it."
A slow struggle
The adjustment had not ended. Inge had to pay his way through Mount St. Mary's his first year while he slowly struggled to upgrade his academics.
When he became eligible in late December of his sophomore year, he and McGuthrie, who had been the point guard as a freshman, had to adapt to each other's roles.
But by the second half of last season, when the Mount won its first NEC crown and made the NCAA field, everyone was settled.
Inge came up big, although the Mount was routed by Kentucky in the first round, 113-67.
"It meant a lot to be somewhere that I could help make a school known," said Inge. "And it was very important to show my face in the tournament, get noticed. People told me that if I played like I was capable of, the right people would find me."
The adaptation from suburban Washington to the relative isolation of Emmitsburg also required some time, and Inge considered transferring to "somewhere bigger than Mount St. Mary's" after one season.
"I was making excuses again," said Inge. "Schoolwork was too hard. The professors weren't helpful. The staff wasn't committed to winning. It was the same old alibis."
Anderson was always there for Inge, even when the player was going elsewhere. That was a big factor -- loyalty.
"I thought about why I came here a lot, up until we got to the NCAAs. I was finally satisfied," he said. "It wasn't easy at first. Socially, I had to make some real adjustments.
"I brought my city mentality with me, and I tried to be slier than I had to be. I really didn't want to give people here a chance. I didn't trust.
"I'm still not very visible on campus, but I'm comfortable."
Inge carries a 2.5 grade-point average in sociology. He was never slow academically, just uninterested.
What does the future hold?
If there is one shortcoming to Inge for the NBA, it is his slender body, which would have to withstand the rigors of a schedule three times as heavy.
But former Maryland All-American and current Philadelphia 76ers coach John Lucas, a point guard of some renown, has said he likes Inge's game.
"John told him not to worry about his body," said Anderson. "He said he's getting stronger and he doesn't have to bulk up a lot.
"You certainly don't want Riley to lose that deceiving quickness. He's like a lion, he pounces so fast."
"I was fortunate enough to speak to John," said Inge. "Obviously, I wouldn't be playing power basketball in the NBA, but I feel I need to get a little stronger. He reassured me that my biggest asset was quickness for my size."
Agents are lining up, calling coaches, trying to represent Inge. Although he is at a relatively unknown school, he has not escaped the net.
"Put Riley with some great talent, and he can be a star in his own right," said McGuthrie. "I know one thing: There's no player around this league I'd rather not go against than Riley."
Inge in NEC
Scoring: 16.6, 7th
FG percentage: .472, 6th
3-pt FG percentage: .397, 6th
FT percentage: .786, 6th
Rebounds: 6.1, tie 11th
Assists: 5.8, 2nd
Steals: 2.7, 1st (14th nationally)