Jermaine Thomas received his first recruiting letter from Maryland three years ago during his sophomore year at Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick. The following season, he saw Terrapins assistant coach Billy Hahn at one of his games and immediately envisioned himself playing in College Park.
Late in Thomas's junior year, Hahn, who had been the one Maryland coach heavily recruiting him, accepted the head coaching job at La Salle. With his only link to Maryland severed, just after the Terrapins advanced to their first Final Four, Thomas was crushed.
"That's what it was all about. It was about going to Maryland," said Thomas, the 2002 All-Met Player of the Year. "I'm not going to lie. At first, I was a little skeptical about coming to La Salle. But the more I looked into it, I saw the position he was putting us into."
Thomas says he took a chance on La Salle, which has had nine consecutive losing seasons, because he trusted Hahn so much. He is part of a six-member freshman class Hahn projects will lift La Salle out of its doldrums. The Explorers will host George Washington today in the second Atlantic 10 game for both teams.
Hahn already has established freshmen as the core of his team. Four of them are starters, three of whom -- shooting guard Gary Neal, point guard Thomas, and power forward Steven Smith -- are the Explorers' top scorers.
Neal, who played three years at Aberdeen (Md.) High before transferring to Baltimore's Calvert Hall last season, also had Hahn's attention while he was still at Maryland. And like Thomas, Neal was let down by Hahn's decision to go to La Salle.
"It was disappointing the first week," said Neal, who is the nation's fourth-leading freshman scorer at 19.6 points per game. "All I was thinking about was that I probably wasn't going to get to play at Maryland. Then, I said to myself, 'Well, wherever he goes, I'll go.' Other coaches were telling me that they had to see me at this camp or that camp [during that summer]. Coach Hahn had already seen me and he knew what I could do."
Thomas, meanwhile, has started every game for the Explorers, averaging 13.7 points and 4.8 assists per game while leading them in minutes. Smith has averaged nearly 18 points and 13 rebounds over his past three games.
It still is not enough. While La Salle is a modest 6-5 after losing its conference opener, 76-72, at Dayton last Wednesday, the young team is getting bullied by more physically mature opponents.
"The problem is that they're 18, and we need them to be 21 in order to be as strong as we need them to be," Hahn said. "I think that all six freshmen we have are getting there. These are the building blocks of this program. I'm not going with transfers or junior college kids. We're starting with freshmen and we're building this. I just wish I could fast forward a couple of years and these guys can be juniors and seniors because we need that strength. It's happened in every game we've lost this year -- Cincinnati, Dayton, Villanova. Physically, they're getting second shots by pushing us out and boxing us out."
La Salle has a long way to go before it tops the remaining members of Philadelphia's Big Five (Temple, Villanova, St. Joseph's and Penn) and even more work until it ascends the Atlantic 10. The Explorers average just over 2,000 fans per home game, which fills about half of its small, on-campus Tom Gola Arena.
Last year's 15-17 record was La Salle's winningest since its last trip to the postseason -- a first-round loss in the 1992 NCAA tournament. The Explorers advanced to the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time last season since joining the conference in 1995-96.
"We have a great chance to take over the Atlantic 10," Thomas said. "Within two years, we'll be heard around the country."