Sam Cassell Jr. is 900 miles from where everyone thought he'd be as a college freshman. But the West Baltimore native and former Maryland signee has spent the past year making the most out of a less-than-ideal situation.
Shortly after the NCAA ruled him ineligible for Division I competition following an investigation of coursework he completed at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., Cassell left Maryland for Marianna, Fla., enrolling at JUCO basketball powerhouse Chipola College.
"I was upset about it," said Cassell, who took the same classes as eight NDP teammates who were a year ahead of him and allowed to play DI basketball. "But I just know that God has a plan for me. He didn't want me [at Maryland] right now."
The beneficiary of the NCAA's decision was Chipola coach Patrick Blake, who faced "a lot of competition" from other junior colleges in Cassell's recruitment.
"We felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to have him join our program," Blake said. "I was really impressed the first time I met him, how humble he was, considering what he had gone through with the Maryland situation. He had a very positive, upbeat attitude."
Cassell was ruled ineligible by the NCAA last September. Maryland challenged the ruling, but the appeal was denied later that month. By the time the 6-foot-3 ½, 185-pound combo guard enrolled at Chipola, junior college rules stated that he would have had to sit out the first semester. So instead of suiting up as a freshman, Cassell focused on his academics, practiced, worked out and took a redshirt year.
"It was very tough" sitting out, Cassell said. "I wanted to get out there and play."
Though he missed not playing in games, Cassell took solace in the fact that he competed against other big-time players in practice every day. Chipola this season featured three other high-major-caliber guards in Chris Thomas (a former Xavier commitment now headed to Manhattan), Torian Graham (a four-star prospect and former Terps target) and Carlos Morris (Rivals.com's No. 147 player nationally in the 2012 class).
"I told him even though he wasn't playing, he was still part of the team," Blake said. "He was like a coach for us, helping guys out and then making our guards better having to go up against Sam every day. He had a huge role for us. He really helped in our success, just by the energy and leadership he brought every day in practice."
When Cassell wasn't at a Chipola game or busy with school – he made the dean's list last semester – the former St. Frances guard was following Maryland closely from afar. In addition to watching the team whenever he could, Cassell said he kept in touch with Nick Faust, Seth Allen and several other Terps.
"I think I watched every [game] that came on TV. Every one that came on TV, unless we had a game, I watched it," Cassell said. "I think about [playing for Maryland] every time I watched them play. I think about how I could help the team, especially games they lost."
Cassell, who plans to earn his associate's degree next spring and have three years of Division I eligibility, hasn't re-started the recruiting process in earnest. But when the craziness does begin again, he expects to hear from the Terps.
"I haven't heard from them, but I know that they'll make a push for me," said Cassell, who will take his college visits next year. "I just know when I was there, it was like a family."
Blake, who guided Chipola to a 26-5 record during the 2012-13 season, is looking forward to having Cassell in his rotation next fall. The versatile guard could do a little bit of everything for the Indians next season.
"The great thing is he could play on the ball or off the ball," Blake said. "He scores it so well and has a great feel and can get other people shots. He'll primarily be our point. He'll also play off the ball some as well. I imagine him handling the ball.
"If you need to find someone that young that kind of has that older man's game, [Cassell is your guy]. He's a very heady, high-basketball IQ [player], with that kind of poise and knowledge for the game. I knew he had that. I just didn't know he had such a high level."
Cassell said he likes living in Florida but misses Baltimore. Staying in touch with friends back home – and in College Park – helps keep him focused on his college future.
"It just makes me motivated to get in the gym and just get better," Cassell said. "When I do pick a school, I just know I can give a team help as best as I can."