From the moment Dez Wells set foot on Maryland’s campus, the sophomore swingman radiated leadership, providing a vocal complement to captains Nick Faust and James Padgett. And now that he has been declared eligible by the NCAA after transferring from Xavier this offseason, Wells’s NCAA tournament experience became a tremendous asset for the Terrapins.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound dunking machine barked out orders to his new-found teammates, leading them through Navy SEAL drills and practices just days after he arrived in College Park. But all along he was, by NCAA standards, ineligible, at least until the decision came from Indianapolis on Wednesday morning.
Family members, athletics staff and compliance officers fought for months to finally win the eligibility appeal, just days before Maryland opens the season on national television against defending national champion Kentucky in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“He’s in great shape,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’ll be out there. How much? I don’t know. Depends on if he stays out of foul trouble, how we’re playing, how he’s playing. He’s a major part of the game plan moving forward.”
Turgeon said he had Wells practice as if he was going to play this season until the Terps “heard no” from the NCAA, but was hesitant to branch out, limiting lineups and sets in favor of a more fundamental focus. Now, with Wells figuring to slot into the starting lineup in the back court, Maryland can go big or small with Wells as the anchor.
“He’ll be a different animal now, knowing that he’s playing, seeing how he reacts to that,” Turgeon said. “Now we have more depth. We can do more things. … In the next few weeks we’ll change the way we’re going to play.”
The former Atlantic 10 rookie of the year, Wells averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game for Xavier last season, starting 32 games for the Musketeers, including three NCAA tournament games.
“He’s a good player. Dez is a good player,” Turgeon said. “He gives us toughness, number one. He gives us experience, number two, started 32 games last year on a top 25 team most of the year. He’s played three games in the NCAA tournament. He understands what it takes. Gives us depth, gives us versatility. I think it helps us defensively. It helps us in a lot of ways. I think it gives every player more confidence, because it helps every player around him. I think it gives our staff more confidence that we can be a good team.
“I think our guys have looked up to him since he’s been here. He practices so hard. He competes in every drill that we have, like it’s the last competition he’s ever going to be in, so that rubs off on people. They respect what he did. They know he’s going to be a good player. They’re happy for him and excited for what he brings to the table.”
Pe’Shon Howard and James Padgett were among the Terps who received a mass text from Wells this morning, informing the team that he had been declared eligible. What followed was a bombardment of enthusiastic messages of “Yeah!” and “Let’s go!”
“He makes us a much better team together,” Howard said. “Everybody was excited to have him back. He’ll bring great contributions and different elements to our team.
“Just a new experience at Maryland, he’s handled it so well. He’s been supportive of us, even if he wasn’t sure that he was going to play. He’s always brought it every day in practice, just made sure we’re getting better every day in practice.”
Adding Wells gives the Terps a likely back-court rotation of Howard, Faust, Wells, true freshman Seth Allen, wing player Jake Layman and three-point specialist Logan Aronhalt. Wells flashed enough ballhandling skills during Maryland’s open scrimmage on Oct. 20, running the break with ease, to inspire confidence that he could direct a big lineup to feature post players Padgett, Alex Len, Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare.
“He can do a lot of things,” Padgett said. “He can create, rebound. Just the depth we have, he adds a lot to our team. He’s a great leader.
Never had Turgeon, now in his second year with the Terps, envisioned so much depth, especially after a 17-15 rookie season. But Maryland signed Mitchell just after the season ended and added Aronhalt as a transfer.
Wells was the final piece, an August pickup whose eligibility immediately slots the Terps into the NCAA tournament conversation, and has many predicting them to challenge for a top four spot in the ACC.
“We’ve been so lucky, so fortunate, blessed, however you want to say it, to add the pieces since the season ended,” Turgeon said. “There’s no way I thought it could happen. Then to bring in all the right guys, get our chemistry? It gives us a chance.
“You have experience, you have depth. We were excited about the year anyway. We thought we were going to be pretty good. We’ll see. We want to be good. We expect to be good. We expected to be in some type of postseason.”
With Wells on board, the expectations has risen even higher.