Signing the Harrison Twins Could Have Lasting Effects on Maryland’s Re-EmergencePosted by Chris Johnson on October 4th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Even in this high-profile one-and-done era, where most top-tier prospects make their ultimate decisions not in the pursuit of the best four-year student athlete experience possible but to maximize NBA draft stock, the increasing preparedness of elite recruits to make immediate impacts has raised the stakes as coaches search for talents to elevate their teams and change their programs’ trajectories. There was no better example of this phenomenon than in 2011-12, when John Calipari took an insanely-talented 2011 recruiting class – led by otherworldly front court maestro Anthony Davis, hyper-intense perimeter dynamo Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and quick-learning point guard Marquis Teague – molded its star power around a host of savvy role players (and first-round pick Terrence Jones), crafted a coherent and disciplined unit, and surged to a 38-2 record and his first national championship. These weren’t your average freshmen; Calipari’s coup may go down as the most talented recruiting class since Michigan’s Fab Five outfit. But across the nation, each class’s blue chip prospects are increasingly entering the college game with a greater potential for immediate contribution, often in major and lasting ways. Kentucky’s title season – which officially debunked the age-old myth that one-and-done players didn’t have the intangibles to withstand pressure-packed NCAA Tournament games – paired three top-10 players with a coach well-versed in the sort of ego-grooming and steadfast discipline required to overcome any freshmen transitional issues. The match of immense talent and coaching acumen was practically seamless. Not every elite recruiting haul reaches that level of success that quickly. Freshmen talent, however large or promising the selection, does not equal championships, at least not right away.
That’s the motivation fueling the enormous hype surrounding the recruitment of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, two top-five players in the class of 2013 who have been open about their intentions to attend the same program and thus form, in recruiting parlance, perhaps the best “package deal” in college hoops recruiting history. Left in the running for the twins, who plan to announce their decision tonight at 5 PM ET, are Kentucky and Maryland, with SMU coming in at a distant (I repeat: distant) third. For the reasons I mentioned above, and a host of other enticing qualities, Calipari’s involvement is hardly shocking. Maryland’s courtship hinges on a spate of various connections: namely, Aaron Harrison, Sr.’s, Baltimore childhood and relationships with program staffers along with the twins’ longstanding association with Under Armour and the corporate bridge it constructs between their UA-backed AAU team and the Terrapins. Though Calipari has rarely missed out on a recruit(s) he set his sights on, the Harrisons and their sheltering father have shielded their preferences internally. Neither program would be a surprise. Whoever the victor, the on-court benefits are fairly straightforward: two transcendent backcourt pieces brimming with potential and promise. For Kentucky, wrapping up Harrison-squared would be business as usual, par for the course in Calipari’s recruiting history. But for Maryland, the potential long-term implications of landing two NBA-bound basketball destroyers-of-worlds, at least from a reputation standpoint, are positively transformative.
The last time Maryland advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, head coach Gary Williams led Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and Chris Wilcox through a gauntlet of established programs (Sweet Sixteen: Kentucky, Elite Eight: UConn, Final Four: Kansas and Indiana) on the way to a National Championship. That was 2002. Since cutting down the nets that night at the Georgia Dome, Maryland has zero ACC regular season championships and just one conference tournament championship. It has produced just one more All-American, Greivis Vasquez (2010), watched its legendary coach call it quits, and slowly receded into the ACC periphery as Duke and North Carolina cemented their status once again as the league’s kingpins. These days, things are looking up for the Terrapins under new coach Mark Turgeon, who in just his third season has Maryland on track for an NCAA Tournament bid and, best-case scenario, a top-four ACC finish. More impressive is his toe-to-toe standoff with recruiting mogul Calipari for the Harrisons. If Turgeon can net 2013’s recruiting crown jewel, Maryland’s resurgence will have hit full stride. Turgeon has already somewhat revived the program from its decade-long mediocrity, but if he can persuade two of the nation’s best high school players to further his progress, to buy into his steady rebuilding effort, the Terrapins will immediately reclaim their former perch among the ACC elite.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen one talented recruit mean so much for one program. There have been a multitude of pre-eminent recruiting deals that lifted coaches and/or programs to new levels of competitive and reputational stature. There was Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, Jamal Mashburn at Kentucky, Tommy Amaker at Duke, Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, to name a few. Gordon Hayward (along with class mates Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored) is a recent example. Hayward and the two players who arrived at Hinkle Fieldhouse by his side in 2008 have morphed Butler from a Horizon Conference entity with sporadic bouts of NCAA Tournament success to one of the nation’s most recognizable and revered mid-major programs. Two national championship games runs was all it took to send the Bulldogs off to the bigger cities and brighter lights of the Atlantic 10 and to make Brad Stevens the nation’s most sought-after young head coach.
Chances are, the Harrison twins won’t produce a similarly drastic upward boost. After all, Maryland was once a thriving program with ACC and national championship aspirations. Nabbing the Harrisons would be huge, but it won’t dramatically alter the program’s path in the same way Hayward and company did. What it will do is expedite Turgeon’s momentous climb back up the ACC ladder. Turgeon has already amplified Maryland’s recruiting cachet – four-star center Shaquille Clear, a former AAU teammate of the Harrison twins, is a particularly impressive pickup – to the point where College Park is no longer seen as a ho-hum backup plan for top recruits. Now good players are proactively seeking out basketball careers at Maryland. It’s a decided shift in perception, one elite high schoolers have rejected for much of the past decade. But landing the Harrisons would bring the Terrapins a new layer of recruiting credibility, a brand-name upgrade in the year-long (and in the Harrisons’ case, six-year long) battles for the nation’s top prospects. The Maryland job has long been regarded with high esteem. With the nation’s capitol nearby, a rabid fan base and basketball-first culture on campus, a strong tradition of grooming NBA draft picks – Maryland has produced nine first-round picks, which ranks eighth nationally over the past 50 seasons – and most importantly, a fertile recruiting base, the Terrapins are an ACC power on the brink. The potential for success is enormous. If Turgeon receives a favorable verdict at tonight’s presentation, he can unlock that potential and restore Maryland’s decade-lost regional and national luster.