Nate Britt was in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and getting ready for bed when his cellphone rang just after midnight on June 15. He looked at the caller ID, but did not know the number.
On the other end, just minutes after NCAA rules permitted college basketball coaches to contact high school prospects finishing their sophomore year, was the unfamiliar voice of new Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon.
“When I answered, I was surprised it was Coach Turgeon,” said Britt, an All-Met point guard at Gonzaga High who is considered one of the country’s top prospects in the high school class of 2013. “He hadn’t even seen me [play] yet. For that first call to be from him, that was pretty surprising.”
Over the next few weeks, Britt became quite familiar with the sight of Turgeon and his assistant coaches. In recent years, Maryland often has struggled to recruit the Washington area’s top players, but its pursuit of Britt, who is also being recruited by Georgetown and Virginia, appears to signal the Terps as a relatively new and major presence for the area’s elite talent.
Two decades have passed since Maryland landed The Post’s All-Met Player of the Year (Dunbar’s Johnny Rhodes in 1991). But high school and travel-team coaches agree the competition to land players has been taken up a few notches since the hiring of Turgeon.
That will make competition over the area’s deep talent pool even fiercer, as Britt and DeMatha rising junior center BeeJay Anya can attest.
“I definitely think that other schools are going to have to work harder,” said Damon Handon, director of operations for D.C. Assault. “They’re trying to put a fence up around the area.”
NCAA rules permit college teams to have three coaches recruiting off-campus at any time and when the Adidas Invitational kicked off the start of the “live” recruiting period, Turgeon and assistant coach Bino Ranson were in Indianapolis to watch Britt, whose list of prospective schools also includes Duke, North Carolina, Arizona, Villanova and Texas, among others.
Another Maryland assistant coach, Dalonte Hill, who has known Britt for six years, arrived in Indianapolis later that day. The three then watched Britt take the court three more times over the next 36 hours.
They had plenty of company.
When Britt first walked into the side gymnasium at North Central High School, he initially glimpsed North Carolina Coach Roy Williams sitting in a row of chairs behind the far baseline, not far from where Georgetown Coach John Thompson III was sitting. In the corner stood Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski with assistant Steve Wojciechowski. Also among the crowd was Villanova’s Jay Wright.
Britt tried not to gawk at the A-list coaches waiting for his game to start. He had spoken with many of them on the phone or when visiting their campuses in previous weeks, but it was different seeing their faces in the stands
“You see all those coaches – all those head coaches – getting ready to watch you play and I had butterflies,” Britt said after the game in a hallway that doubled as a locker room and autograph area, where a younger fan handed him a Sharpie to sign a piece of parquet flooring. “Looking over there and trying to identify everybody would have made me even more nervous. I think I can talk to them, that part is real easy to me. It’s a little bit harder playing in front of them.”
The Terps had a coach present wherever Britt played in the weeks that followed. Britt also said that he saw Arizona Coach Sean Miller watching him play “three or four times.” Whereas at the start of the recruiting period Britt said that Georgetown, Virginia and Villanova were the schools recruiting him the hardest, he said the Terrapins and Arizona would now be added to that list.
“No question, there is no doubt about it, Maryland has done an outstanding job in terms of the recruiting period across the board,” said Nate Britt Sr., a D.C. police investigator who also coaches his son’s D.C. Assault team. “But I think they’ve stepped it up with everyone. They’re trying to make some things happen.”
Said an assistant coach for one of the area’s top high school programs: “It’s going to get cutthroat around here.”
Georgetown and Maryland staffs can agree with Nate Britt Sr. and his wife, Melody, in this regard: All would prefer Nate Jr., stay close to home. Distance, though, will not be a deciding factor.
“As much as I’d like him to be 15 or 30 minutes away, it’s about putting him in a situation to realize the goals he has,” said Nate Britt Sr. “Now, what it comes down to, they’ve evaluated him and now we have to do our job evaluating them. It comes down to playing style, who they’re recruiting, guys who could be around him — all that stuff comes into play.”
Although Britt said he has yet to narrow his choices, he hopes to make unofficial campus visits to Arizona, Texas and North Carolina this fall even though Arizona is the only one of the three to already have offered him a scholarship.
The Terrapins’ recruiting pitch has been simple: Plenty of playing time is available to suit up for the hometown team. Maryland has only eight scholarship players this season.
Still, even among the local schools Maryland faces quite a challenge. Britt first caught the eye of the Terps’ former coaching staff before high school and has been to a handful of games in College Park. But Georgetown started recruiting him during his freshman year at Gonzaga and he can’t count how many times he has been to that campus and to watch games at Verizon Center.
“Georgetown is a home team, so I’ve always rooted for Georgetown,” said Britt, adding that does not mean he prefers the Hoyas over any other suitor even though he deals most often with Coach John Thompson III among the Georgetown coaching staff. “Coach Thompson went to Gonzaga and him being from the area and went to my school, that’s kind of a natural thing.”
Similarly, Britt’s relationship with Hill won’t sway him toward Maryland. Hill, a former D.C. Assault coach, first saw Britt six years ago, when he had some free time during a travel-team tournament and watched Assault’s youngest players vie for an 11-and-under tournament championship.
“Wherever I feel like I’m the best fit, that’s where I’m going to go,” Britt said. “It’s good that I’ve known him for so long, but I wouldn’t say that gives him an edge.”