Demanding Excellence: Dez Wells' UMD Legacy

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Maryland senior Dez Wells can establish his legacy as an all-time Terps great during this upcoming NCAA tournament.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- In a rare reflective moment for the typically “task at hand” Dezmine Wells, the Maryland senior glanced up at the Xfinity Center rafters, scanning rows and rows of hanging jerseys.

Lucas. Bias. King. Williams. Dixon. And on and on and on.

Does Wells, a reporter wanted to know just before the Terps departed for their NCAA tournament match against Valparaiso March 20, ever think about those names? Does he ever wonder how he’ll be remembered at the University of Maryland?

“I think about it a lot,” said Wells, who will be partaking in his first Dance since the 2011-12 season, when he was as a freshman at Xavier. “It would be an amazing opportunity and an amazing accomplishment to be in the same talk with the best players to play at Maryland. As you look up at the banners, it’s a lot of people…”

Wells has already given the program the whole of himself during his three years in College Park, but the final chapter has yet to be written. And, quite frankly, without those last few pages -- the most important ones of his Maryland career, mind you -- we really can’t define the often enigmatic, sometimes mercurial, lightning rod from Raleigh, N.C.

Whatever Wells accomplishes on college basketball’s grandest stage -- that’s what will resonate.

Joe Smith stayed just two years at Maryland, but he’s extoled for leading the Terps to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances after a five-year NCAA tourney drought. Likewise, Greivis Vasquez is remembered more for willing his team to the NCAA tournament’s second round in 2009-10 than his previous three campaigns spent sparring with former coach Gary Williams.

As for current Terps assistant Juan Dixon? Well, many choose to conveniently forget UMD’s agonizing Final Four defeat in 2000-01 in favor of the Dixon-led Terps’ national-title run the very next year.

So on and so forth down the line in Maryland basketball history….

“My legacy is going to be what it is. It’s not based off anything those guys have done; it’s not how I think -- trying to be somebody else,” Wells said. “I want to imprint my own legacy on this program. I want to some day bring my kids back here and be proud of something I helped build at this program.”

He’ll have his chance starting March 20 at 4:40 p.m. in Nationwide Arena. The Terps (27-6, 14-4 Big Ten), a No. 4 seed heading into the NCAA tournament, are in the Dance after a long four-year absence. The expectations are enough that a Sweet 16 run is expected, although Wells and Co. have a tough road to navigate in the Midwest bracket.

At the top of said bracket, the undefeated and championship favorite Kentucky Wildcats reside, a potential UMD-UK matchup looming in the fourth round. First, though, the Terps will have to take care of the upset-minded Crusaders (28-5, 13-3 Horizon), winners of the Horizon League title and tournament.

It’s called March Madness for a reason, and just one hiccup could end Wells’ Terps career well before he and Maryland intend.

“[This season] has been a lot of fun and we’ve had a lot of fun throughout the year, a lot of fun throughout the success. You have to enjoy each and every moment you have with these guys,” Wells said. “My time is winding down at this university and this program… I kind of preach to my guys to savor all these moments, because it goes by really fast. Guys have to understand we have something special here and we have to keep that going.”

Yes, the college years do tend to move quickly, and, as Wells suggested, they can end justlikethat. But while the senior’s time at Maryland has gone by in a flash, the wing admitted it’s seemed like light-years since his Xavier days.

Wells, recall, took the Atlantic 10 by storm back in 2011-12, averaging almost 10 points and five rebounds per game, helping the Musketeers to the Sweet 16 as a freshman. He was well on his way to a stellar career in Cincinnati, Ohio, until the much-debated rape accusations led to his dismissal.

Then, after a lengthy judicial process, resulting in Wells’ exoneration, the Xavier castoff once again had to navigate the murky recruiting waters. Following a stressful period spent in deep thought and with plenty of lengthy discussions, he eventually found a new home in College Park.

“Yeah, it’s been awhile [since the Xavier fallout],” Wells said. “Through the tough years [my career] kind of dragged … But there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than at the University of Maryland and [playing] for Coach [Mark] Turgeon. I’m happy with how things have played out. Sometimes life happens and it puts you in a better situation.”

Earlier this year, Turgeon called Wells “one loyal dude.” He’s reiterated those comments in subsequent interviews, though in much more eloquent terms.

"I stood by [Wells] when everything happened and he transferred here, and he's been equally supportive of me,” Turgeon said. “When things hit rock bottom on the outside world looking in, Dez was there to defend me and defend the program."

By “rock bottom,” Turgeon, of course, was referring to the mass exodus of five Maryland players from his program prior to this season: Seth Allen, Shaq Cleare, Nick Faust, Charles Mitchell and Roddy Peters. Not to mention the perennial NCAA tournament-contending Terps hadn’t qualified in three years under Turgeon and were coming off a lowly 17-15 final campaign in the ACC.

Through the whole ordeal, in which Turgeon was vilified -- in print, on radio and on TV, plus at bars, restaurants, churches, synagogues and establishments throughout the 410, 443, 301, 202 and 240 -- Wells staunchly supported the headman.

“I felt the need to show [Turgeon] how loyal I am to him, because he was loyal to me. When I was going though…getting my second opportunity to play and reach my dream, just being behind him,” Wells said. “It’s who I am as a person. When I came out of high school I committed to the first university that recruited me. [Turgeon] reached out to me when I was transferring and seemed really genuine and humble. I felt I could build something with him, and I could be part of something special.”

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Wells since his arrival at UMD. Like his coach, Wells received his fair share of scrutiny during his first two-plus years on campus, taking plenty of heat for the team’s woeful finish last season.

Although Wells led the team in scoring each of the past two campaigns, he also turned the ball over at a dizzying rate, sometimes attempting the ‘ol bull-in-the-China-shop routine (also known as one-on-five through the heart of the defense).

With a squad lacking consistent playmakers, Wells undoubtedly felt the need to generate, spark and anchor the offense himself. The result? The rest of the squad stood around like soulless corpses while Wells grabbed the wheel. As a byproduct, the latter’s defense suffered as well, Wells exhausting all his energy trying to put up points.

At times, the North Carolina native reverted to form in 2014-15, opting for one-on-one play instead of facilitating. It didn’t help matters when he broke his hand in late November and missed a month, the injury lingering well into the New Year.

But down the stretch, during the heart of the Big Ten schedule, Wells has been playing arguably his best basketball since enrolling at Maryland.

“[Best] ever?,” Wells questioned. “That’s a stretch, but I think I’ve played really good over these last few weeks with these guys.

“I demand a certain level of excellence out of myself each and every time I step on the basketball court. So regardless of the aches and pains and things you have to play through, it’s about giving your all and never resting on your talent. Just coming out, playing and giving your all to this game. … Putting everything you have into it – it’s a relationship. You have to put everything in, because you only get out what you put in. And never giving up – always fighting.”

Always.

Wells has scored in double-figures in each of the last 13 games, averaging 17.5 point per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and pulling down a team-high 5.9 rebounds a night. He has recorded 20-plus points in four of the last eight bouts, vaulting him to 10th in the conference in scoring and eighth in free-throw percentage (80.5 percent).

Wells’ inspired performances have earned him praise from teammates and opponents alike (RutgersEddie Jordan called Wells the “king of the court”), as he’s arguably been the league’s No. 1 player the last three weeks.

“Dez is the leader on our team,” said freshman point guard Melo Trimble, whose arrival this year took massive pressure off Wells’ shoulders. “He doesn’t try to do too much, [but] he does great things. That’s what we get from him every night – great things.”

Wells did plenty of great things in crunch time throughout his senior season, earning the “Mr. Clutch” label on more than one occasion.

His feats have been well-documented:

Wells’ game-winning putback against Northwestern with 1.4 seconds left lifted Maryland to a 68-67 victory; his game-tying 3-pointer at Michigan State forced overtime, a bout UMD eventually won in double-OT; and his heavily-pressured, last-second 18-footer at Nebraska sealed a gritty win on the Huskers’ Senior Night.

“Dez steps up in big moments, that’s the biggest thing,” senior guard Richaud Pack said. “He’s a high flyer, everyone loves that. But in big moments, he always can hit the big shot. He’s hit a big 3 this season, a pull-up jumper, a rebound tip-in -- Dez steps up in big moments, and I think that’s why everyone loves him.”

Said Turgeon: "He's been a great player for Maryland for three years. That's what you expect out of a guy that kind of grows with the program. You just expect him to do what he does.

"It's a good feeling when you look out there and you see your senior leader go 'Alright Coach, I got this, there's no way we're not going to win this game.' "

Now it’s up to Wells to inspire that same sort of confidence in the NCAA tournament. He, along with senior Evan Smotrycz, are the only two Terps who have ever Danced before, so it’s their jobs to impart wisdom on their younger teammates.

“There’s really nothing you can say to prepare somebody for [the NCAA tournament],” Wells said. “It’s like the first college basketball game -- you can go through all the conditioning, but those first four minutes, you’re not going to have any air…

“Throughout the season they’ve been battle tested with me not being on the floor… Just let them know each possession matters and is an opportunity to do something special. And these next games, the mistakes, the turnovers, you have to cut down on that because [they’re magnified]. But just live in the moment, enjoy the moment and make plays.”

Wells went on to say every single Terp, to the last man on the bench, has something to prove this March. And not just to themselves, but to each other.

Wells said the major difference between last year’s mashup of malcontents, and this year’s brotherhood of breadwinners, is their unwavering commitment to one another.

A commitment, according to those in the program, inspired by Wells himself.

A commitment, according to the headman himself, that could have ramifications well beyond 2015.

“How will Dez be remembered?,” Turgeon mused March 18. “I think he’ll be remembered as getting the standard back to where we [Maryland] wanted it to be with leadership, winning and playing at a high level in college basketball. I think no matter what happens the next few weeks, I think that will be his legacy here.”

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