Dez Wells' role has changed, but leadership hasn't

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COLLEGE PARK — Mark Turgeon has used the expression countless times since Dez Wells arrived at Maryland three years ago and immediately became the leader of a team devoid of one.

Whether it was an unexpected 3-pointer in the waning seconds to beat Miami last season, or an unbelievable mid-air bank follow to cap a still-hard-to-fathom comeback from a 14-point deficit to beat Northwestern Sunday, Turgeon would typically describe such a play with the same words.


"It was Dez being Dez," Turgeon said after his team's most recent win.

That Dez — the player who will lead No. 16 Maryland (18-3, 6-2 Big Ten) onto the court at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio, to face Ohio State (16-5, 5-3) Thursday — is much different than the one who started the season with the outside shooting touch and even-keeled tempo he rarely displayed his first two years a Terp.


There's some debate as to which Dez will show up, and when. Wells was a nearly a first-half no-show last year when Maryland was embarrassed in Columbus by the Buckeyes in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Ohio State, ranked fifth in the country at the time, led by as many as 25 points before winning, 76-60.

Wells missed his first six shots and scored his first basket with 1:52 left in the opening half before finishing with 19 mostly-moot points. That doesn't mean he's looking for revenge, though.

"Revenge is a strong word. Very spiteful, too," Wells said Wednesday. "No, this is just basketball. We look forward to playing against those guys. Value City Arena will be a great test for our team."

If the Terps' roster has changed dramatically since last season — only five players remain, including former walk-on guard Varun Ram, who played 17 minutes against Ohio State backing up Wells at point guard — so has the 6-foot-5, 205-pound senior from Raleigh, N.C.

An offseason conditioning program cut nearly 20 pounds and more than 10 percent body fat off what had been a chiseled frame that made Wells look more like an NFL safety than an NBA shooting guard. His scoring is down from 14.7 points a game to a little over 13.6, in part because he has mostly shot poorly since returning from the wrist injury.

"I could have come out taking 20 shots a game, that might have sacrificed some of our [wins], that's not something I want to do," said Wells, who averages about 11 shots a game. "At this point in my career, people know I can score, they know what I can do with the ball in my hands, what can I do without the ball in my hands? How well can I get my guys involved?"

Said Turgeon: "I think we're really critical of Dez, I think Dez is having an unbelievable year considering what he's been through with his wrist injury, thought he was carrying us when Evan [Smotrycz] was out earlier in the year. I think we put too much on Dez."

On a team that started three freshmen against Northwestern — point guard Melo Trimble, small forward Jared Nickens and center Michal Cekovsky — Wells and reserve senior forward Jon Graham (Calvert Hall) are the emotional leaders.


As Wells gains strength in his wrist, and more confidence going to the basket as a result, the leadership remains a constant.

"That's something you can control," Wells said. "You can't control on any given night how many shots you're going to make or how you're going to defend, but you can control what you have within you, and that's my mind and my heart. It's always in the right place."

Ohio State associate head coach Dave Dickerson, a former Maryland player and assistant coach, said Wells has "a good feel of what's neded for his team to be good."

"He hasn't taken a back seat," Dickerson said. "His leadership and his toughness has been one of those things that [have] led Melo and [Jake] Layman and those guys to be as good as they are."

During the last media timeout Sunday, with 3:28 remaining and the Terps trailing 63-52, Wells recalled asking his teammates: "'What are we going to do?' I kind of challenged my guys to elevate their games and they did, they responded."

The Terps completed their comeback in part because Wells made shots in transition, got the ball to Layman for an open 3-pointer for one of his game-high five assists, and scored half of Maryland's last 16 points. He finished with 17 points — equaling his most since returning from injury on Dec. 27.


"Following a loss, I'm always going to be the guy to try to be the catalyst, be aggressive to be in the right frame of mind if they're not going into the game," Wells said. "[Thursday] I'm going to let the game come to me and do what my team needs me to do to get this win."

Said Trimble: "When Dez plays aggressive, we all can relax because we know Dez can make great plays. When he's rushing things, of course he's going to make some silly mistakes but as long as he's being aggresssive, he always takes pressure off us."

That Trimble scored a team-high 27 against Northwestern and took an open 3-pointer to win the game shows how the role of No. 1 scoring option has shifted away from Wells, who led the Terps in scoring as a sophomore and junior.

Dickerson said Wells "has done a good job accepting his place and his role in the program, which makes them more dangerous. He's made as smart a jump from freshman to sophomore to junior as much as anybody in the country."

What stands out most to Dickerson is difficult to quantify.

"I think the the kid has done a good job of realizing that they have a good team," Dickerson said. "They have a special freshman and they have players back that didn't leave last year that's gotten better. I think he's done a great job of evaluating the maturation of the program and then doing his part to make sure they will be good."