If head coach Kevin Willard wants to turn Maryland men’s basketball back into the national powerhouse many think it should be, it starts with recruiting the “DMV” (Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia) area. Not only does Willard understand that, but he is wholeheartedly bringing that mentality to life.
On Wednesday, class of 2023 four-star guard DeShawn Harris-Smith committed to the Terps, elevating Willard’s recruiting class to No. 8 in the nation, per 247Sports. While the news won’t magically bring glory back to the program, it serves as gasoline to a fire that fans are desperate to see rise again.
Harris-Smith is a St. Paul VI Catholic High School product and is seen by many as the best player in the state of Virginia. He joins fellow four-star small forward Jamie Kaiser (Burke, Virginia) and three-star shooting guard Jahnathan Lamothe (Baltimore) as local studs that chose to don the black and gold instead of moving to greener pastures.
This did not always happen in years past.
Just now in the class of 2022, top state of Maryland recruit Cam Whitmore spurned his hometown team for Villanova. Current Michigan star big and nearby DeMatha Catholic product Hunter Dickinson is another example. He has made plenty to do about Maryland’s recruitment — or lack thereof —of him, whether that is truly factual or not.
However, this cannot be argued. Both Kaiser and Harris-Smith have played in the esteemed Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, a league that Maryland has struggled to recruit up until this year. The top players from the area, from the WCAC or not, have gotten away from Maryland.
Look at Villanova’s 2016 national championship team, for example. Four of the Wildcats’ six best players were from the state of Maryland, and Terps fans were left wondering why their team could not have looked like that.
Former head coach Mark Turgeon had his success stories from the DMV — see Melo Trimble, Anthony Cowan and Jalen Smith among others — but for much of the fanbase, that was not enough. Turgeon and the Terps fans had floated to opposite ends of the spectrum by the end of his tenure, and his perceived lack of success in getting the best local recruits to stay home every season is a big reason why.
The start of the Willard era feels quite different.
There’s a sense of urgency. From day one, Willard made it clear that recruiting the DMV and keeping the top talent at home to try and win championships at Maryland is a top priority.
Following his commitment, Harris-Smith told 247Sports’ Travis Branham that he feels like “Willard is trying to bring Maryland basketball back and take care of the DMV guys.” Willard’s first full recruiting class can be transcendent, and it does not seem like anyone is shying away from that.
Lamothe was the first of the three to commit to Willard on June 5 and has been recruiting the next group of local guys, including Kaiser and Harris-Smith, to join him. Lamothe has not stopped, though, and is already onto a next target in five-star center, Baltimore native and former high school teammate Derik Queen. Queen is currently in the class of 2024, but reclassifying to join a landmark hometown class could be in the cards.
It would be remiss to note that in addition to offering these prospects a chance to win in their comfortable home confines, Willard is giving them a chance to play right away.
There is a realistic chance that Maryland loses its entire 2022-23 starting five — whether to graduation or professional basketball — following the season. Jahmir Young and Don Carey are graduate students. Hakim Hart and Donta Scott are seniors. Sophomore big Julian Reese could be off to the NBA if he puts forth an improved sophomore season.
It was now or never for Willard to set the tone with local talent, and he seems to realize that opportunity.
Maryland is a storied program, but the separation between now and its past is only getting larger. The Terps haven’t been to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament since they won the whole thing in 2002. Maryland has also only made one Sweet 16 since 2003, which happened in 2016 after beating back-to-back double-digit seeds in South Dakota State and Hawaii, respectively.
College basketball is a tough business. A coach’s success is largely measured on his success in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of how successful he is otherwise. Turgeon did well at Maryland, but his lack of postseason success coupled with his recruiting results in the DMV made the gap between him and the fanbase too large to repair.
Willard understands the situation he is walking into. Maryland fans can be ruthless, but winning — on and off the court — cures everything. Willard has aced the early recruiting part of his tenure, but only time and wins will tell if he is the right man for the job.
The fact that Willard has had three top-flight prospects stay home before he has coached a game at the Xfinity Center speaks volumes. Willard hired assistant coaches Tony Skinn and David Cox, both of whom are embedded to the DMV and undoubtedly helped him secure the talent thus far.
“Who’s next?” Willard tweeted Wednesday evening. That remains to be seen, but he is doing all the right things as the head man.