Raised Expectations, Lowered Standards?

By Steve Yanda and Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 14, 2009

BROOKLYN, N.Y. Lance Stephenson suctioned the ball in his left hand as he glared down at his noticeably shorter and infinitely thinner defender. Expansive and strong, Stephenson's hands foretell the power the rest of his body possesses.

A quick swing of his arm bounced the ball into his right hand. A cut, a step, and Stephenson was at the rim, laying the ball softly into the net. His defender could only turn and watch from the wing as Stephenson tallied two of the 46 points he scored Thursday night in leading Lincoln High into the final of the Brooklyn Borough Championships.

"He scores as naturally as we breathe," Tom Konchalski, a Queens-based recruiting analyst and editor of the High School Basketball Insider newsletter for 35 years, said of the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Stephenson.

Those skills -- Stephenson also had 15 rebounds in the 91-67 victory over Transit Tech -- brought Maryland Coach Gary Williams here Tuesday as he continues to aggressively recruit the most recent New York City basketball phenom.

As tensions mount around a Maryland program that's in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years, Stephenson appears capable of bringing a swift end to the postseason drought. And the signing of such a high-profile talent might be enough to end speculation about Williams's future, which prompted Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow to give Williams an emphatic vote of confidence Feb. 2 even as athletic department sources said their relationship remains contentious.

But Stephenson also is the latest in a handful of prospects Maryland has pursued who seem to fall outside of Williams's standard recruiting pattern. When he returned to his alma mater in 1989, taking over a program that was about to be placed on NCAA probation and one still scarred by the cocaine-induced death of star player Len Bias in 1986, Williams took pride in returning Maryland to national prominence while maintaining his ethical standards. Unlike many of his competitors, Williams steadfastly refuses to pursue any recruit, even the best players in the nation, who requires that his travel team coach be accommodated with jobs or other benefits. He has not had a sniff of NCAA violations, and has avoided players who carried significant excess baggage.

Stephenson, however, was suspended last year for fighting with a teammate and was arrested in October for allegedly groping a female high school student. He was charged with a Class B misdemeanor. He has a court date March 11.

In recent years, Maryland has pursued a player who reportedly struck an assistant on his AAU team, one who did not meet NCAA academic requirements and one with an extensive criminal record. Questions about two of those players last month exposed a long-simmering feud between Williams and Maryland athletic department administrators.

To his critics, Williams's moves reflect desperation. Struggling to find the players needed to maintain the standards set by his back-to-back Final Four teams, Williams has pursued potential quick-fix solutions.

Many college coaches look past the academic, behavioral and criminal deficiencies of talented recruits, and Williams does not see a contradiction in his stated beliefs and in pursuing these players.

"I will try to recruit anybody," Williams said. "And then if you find out a thing about a guy, or you see which way the recruiting is going, then you drop off."

The Right Fits?

Herb Pope, a 6-8, 235-pound forward from Aliquippa, Pa., grew up under the care of relatives, friends and foster parents after his birth parents abandoned him at a young age. He was shot four times at a party during his senior year of high school. During an off-the-court incident at a tournament in Florida in the summer of 2006, Pope punched an assistant coach on his AAU team.

The altercation led several college programs to back off their recruitment of Pope -- widely considered a star recruit at the time -- but Maryland persisted.

One head coach with Final Four experience was surprised Williams targeted Pope, who committed to New Mexico State in November 2006 but transferred after one season to Seton Hall.

Pope "wouldn't last one last one semester in Gary's program," said the coach, who did not want to be identified because of his relationship with Williams.

Williams said Maryland stopped recruiting Pope long before he committed to New Mexico State, but Marvin Emerson, Pope's coach at Aliquippa High, said the Terrapins recruited Pope until he committed to New Mexico State.

"I thought they had him," Emerson said. "I would have bet my house that he was going to Maryland."

Emerson said Maryland recruited Pope hard to the end, adding: "They were here quite often. They were at my house. They had dinner with me, Herb and my family. Coach Williams and [assistant coach Chuck] Driesell. They were at practices. They were at games. They were there more than anyone else. . . . There was no difference than when they started."

Terrence Jennings, a 6-10, 225-pound forward from Sacramento, attended six high schools in five states in five years. He committed to Maryland in August 2007 but did not qualify academically. One AAU source said Williams does not have the support system in place at Maryland to court a player in such dire need of academic assistance as Jennings, a five-star recruit who ended up at Louisville.

"So what?" Williams said when it was pointed out that his program had not recruited such players in the past. "I haven't done anything wrong. I recruited him. . . . What did we do wrong with Terrence Jennings? Did we give him money? I am allowed to recruit any kid in the country until I find out something that is going on."

In some cases, Williams did not discover the extent of a recruit's transgressions until far along in the process. Maryland gained a commitment last spring from Richmond native Tyree Evans, a skilled long-range shooter with a criminal record that includes misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession and assault and battery. However, Maryland's compliance office discovered an additional criminal charge that Evans had not revealed to the coaching staff.

Five weeks after Evans signed with Maryland, he requested and was granted a release from his letter-of-intent. Evans now plays at Kent State.

"It always comes down to, 'This kid had a past,' " said Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive who helped turn the youth basketball scene into a multimillion-dollar industry. "And everybody knows he had a past. Just like everybody knows [some coaches] have pasts. The scrutiny is one-sided. You either recruit them and they play for you, or you don't and they play against you tomorrow."

'I've Never Felt Threatened'

During a routine news conference last month, Williams was asked about the high turnover rate of his assistant coaches since the Terrapins' national title in 2002, and whether he felt that affected the program's ability to recruit. He began his answer with the savvy of a man who has been a head coach for 31 seasons, speaking about how part of his role as the leader of a program is to prepare his assistants to become suitable head coaches themselves.

And then he deviated, concluding his response by talking about recruits who got away at the last minute, including Gus Gilchrist, a 6-10 forward-center who left Maryland after one semester because the school wouldn't hire his trainer and mentor. Referring to Evans and Gilchrist, Williams said: "It wasn't my fault that they're not here. You know, that was somebody else's call."

That prompted a response from Kathy Worthington, Maryland's senior associate athletic director, who called Williams's remarks "inaccurate" and produced documents to demonstrate that Williams had signed off on severing ties with both Evans and Gilchrist. Williams, who later denied he had been referring to Maryland officials in his original statement, exacerbated the feud following a Jan. 27 home loss to Boston College when he said: "Kathy Worthington doesn't speak for me. She has never won a national championship. She has never done anything. She is an associate AD."

At the time, Yow was in North Carolina mourning the death of her sister, Kay, and could not address the situation publicly.

The following week, moments before his regular news conference the day before the Feb. 3 game against North Carolina, Williams learned that Yow would be addressing the assembled reporters as well. Speaking first, Yow pledged her full support to Williams, who was seated to her right and stared away from Yow and the surrounding television cameras throughout most of Yow's talk.

"I really want to lay to rest any of these crazy rumors that are floating around related to the job security of Coach Williams," Yow said. "He has my personal full support, as he does from the department and from the university."

Yow referenced the 3 1/2 years remaining on Williams's 10-year contract that pays him around $2 million annually, in addition to the one-year rollover option should the Terrapins earn an NCAA tournament berth this season.

After Yow left the room, Williams said, "I've never felt threatened by anything."

Yet despite his contract and public support from his athletic director, Williams's recent defensiveness has gone beyond his customary irascibility, with him giving defiant recitations of his career accomplishments.

"You get criticized when you coach for a lot of things," Williams said last week during an hour-long interview. "Some of it is justified; some of it is not. You can criticize me for not getting a specific player, but in terms of getting players, I think I have, in 20 years, the third-most pros in the NBA behind North Carolina and Duke. So if you want to judge it on that, judge it on that."

New York's Finest

Last October, Maryland's coaches came to New York to watch 6-8 Lincoln forward James Padgett, who committed to the Terrapins a month later. During the visit, they exchanged telephone numbers with Stephenson's family.

The pursuit had begun, and the Terrapins have "made their presence felt" over the past four months, according to Stephenson's father, Lance Sr.

Stephenson made a highly publicized official visit to College Park and attended Maryland's Jan. 31 game against Miami at Comcast Center, further fueling the chatter that the Terrapins had edged their way onto Stephenson's short list of college choices.

Stephenson and his father maintain they will visit other schools -- Kansas, Southern California, UCLA and possibly Wake Forest, according to Lance Sr. -- before making a final decision.

"Coming from New York, the fans just want to see a show every night; there's no real support," Lance Sr. said. "He wants to go to a place where the fans are behind him."

When Stephenson visited Maryland two weeks ago, one student held up a sign that read, "We want NY's finest," and the student section chanted his name on several occasions.

Landing Stephenson would be "a major coup" for Maryland, according to Clark Francis, who runs the Hoop Scoop Online, a Web site devoted to compiling college basketball recruiting information, and it would further solidify a Terrapins recruiting class that already includes Padgett and 6-10 forward Jordan Williams of Torrington High in Connecticut. Padgett has met all academic requirements for NCAA eligibility, while Williams and Stephenson still need to attain qualifying entrance exam scores.

If Stephenson was to choose Maryland, "it would be huge," said former Terrapins forward Byron Mouton, a starter on the 2002 national championship squad. "It would be like the second coming of a Steve Francis."

Whether a player such as Stephenson is a match for Williams's no-nonsense approach is another matter entirely. Jerry Meyer, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said Stephenson struggles to control his emotions on the court at times and that questions have arisen as to Stephenson's willingness to accept instruction.

"Lance is not in a position to pick his school," Meyer said. "There are schools that didn't want to mess with him. That's the irony of Gary Williams recruiting him. It sounds like a match made in hell to me.

"Gary Williams, as we all know, is being maligned for his lack of recruiting. Maybe he sees this as a chance to get the monkey off his back. He has a chance to land a consensus top 10 prospect. It's like he's going for broke."

Williams, who is prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting on Stephenson or any unsigned recruit, believes the Maryland basketball program is on a strong course.

"I think I am a realistic person," Williams said. "Next year, if everybody stays here, nobody goes in the pros, whatever, plus with the two guys coming in, I think we can be a top 25 team. I really do."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company