Missed Shots: Part 3 of 3

Raised Expectations, Lowered Standards?

The Washington Post's Eric Prisbell talks about his latest series in The Post examining University of Maryland Men's Basketball coach Gary Williams' recruiting problems over the past years and what it means to the future of the team. Video by Comcast SportsNet
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.

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