Two days before opening the season against defending national champion Kentucky, the Maryland basketball team scored its first significant victory Wednesday when transfer Dez Wells was declared eligible by the NCAA.
Wells, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard from Raleigh, N.C., was initially ruled he had to sit out a year after he transferred to Maryland from Xavier, where he had been expelled this summer for a "serious violation" of the student conduct code.
But local prosecutors declined to go forward with the case and dropped a charge of sexual assault against Wells. Hamilton County prosecuting attorney Joe Deters said that Wells was not given his due process.
Though the NCAA initially refused to grant Wells' request for a waiver to the transfer rule — which states that an athlete must sit out a season when going from one Division I school to another — Maryland appealed the ruling and was granted a hearing with the NCAA legislative relief subcommittee.
According to sources familiar with the process, that hearing took place Tuesday via conference call with Wells and Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson. A decision was reached early Wednesday, and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he then contacted Wells.
"Obviously we're thrilled, thrilled for Dez," Turgeon told reporters at Comcast Center Wednesday afternoon. "I'm really proud of my administration ... Kevin Anderson and his staff, Dustin Clark my director of basketball operations — they were phenomenal through the whole process.
"I really didn't have a lot to do with it, but I don't like the word 'No' and I don't like to lose. Those guys deserve all the credit. I thought Dez was great through the whole process. I thought he handled it very well, never got too high, never got too low."
Anderson said Wednesday night that Wells regained his eligibility because of the way he handled himself during his interview with the subcommittee, a four-person panel which had one member recuse herself because she works in the Xavier athletic department.
"I firmly believed if that they heard him — this young man was speaking from his heart and he was unbelievable — that they would really have to look at this," Anderson said. "I think what Dezmine shared with them and how he presented himself, that was the key in them ruling in favor of him being able to play. I can't take any of the credit."
Asked about Wells' reaction to the news, Turgeon said, "When I first told him, he just smiled and I brought everyone who was part of the process into the room and he gave everyone a hug and thanked them. Then we started making phone calls — his mom, his sister — that was when it got really emotional."
Wells — who averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 26.1 minutes per game last year with Xavier — was not made available to the media Wednesday because Turgeon said, "A lot of things that kid went through ... we want to protect him today." But Turgeon made it clear how much Wells' eligibility will help his team.
"He's a major part of the gameplan moving forward," Turgeon said.
Despite the NCAA ruling against Maryland on the eligibility of freshman guard Sam Cassell Jr. over the summer and giving Alex Len a 10-game suspension last season because of questions about his amateur status in his native Ukraine, Turgeon said he was not surprised by the NCAA's decision Wednesday.
"I was in on the beginning of this, and I believed in Dez, I believed in my administration and I believed in the NCAA once they had all the facts," Turgeon said. "I would have been surprised if it went the other way just knowing what I knew. I'm proud of them for coming to that conclusion."
Len Elmore, a former Maryland star who was a prosecutor in New York after his professional basketball career said it was "very rare" for the NCAA to overturn one of its own decisions so quickly.
"It may be part and parcel with Mark Emmert [the NCAA president] streamlining the processes," said Elmore, now a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
Wells' Cincinnati-based attorney said he was not expecting to hear that the NCAA subcommittee had reversed the initial ruling.
"What a great day," Merlyn Shiverdecker said in a telephone interview. "I didn't think there was a ghost of a chance it was going to happen when I see some of the idiotic things the NCAA does My opinion of the NCAA has now changed."
Mostly, Shiverdecker was pleased that Wells' ordeal was over.
"It's been awful what's he gone through, to come here as a kid and know you've been falsely accused and then to be thrown out of school ... and be labeled a rapist," Shiverdecker said. "To have the only school you wanted to go to throw you under the bus like that and then to have the inner strength to get through this, my hat's off to him."
One of the top freshmen in the Atlantic 10 last season, Wells started most of the year for a Xavier team that reached the Sweet 16. (He was suspended four games after being in the infamous brawl with crosstown rival Cincinnati.) Wells is expected to play a big role for the Terps at shooting guard.
"I think our guys looked up to him since he's been here," Turgeon said. "He practices so hard, he competes in every drill we have like it's the last drill he's ever going to be in and that rubs off on people. And our guys respect what he did, they know he's a good player."
Said junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard: "His versatility is good because he can guard a lot of different people in a lot of different matchups. Offensively, he can do a lot of things. He can create, rebound. Just the depth that we had, he adds so much to our team. He's a great leader. "
Howard said Wells texted him the news Wednesday morning.
"I almost walked out of class," Howard joked. "Everyone was just excited. He's been through a lot the last few months. Having the new experience at Maryland, he's handled it really well. He's been so supportive of us even if he didn't know if he was going to play."
Turgeon wouldn't say whether Wells will start Friday night against the third-ranked Wildcats at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., but that seems likely given the fact that he has been starting in most of the preseason scrimmages despite his uncertain status.
"Dez is a good player," Turgeon said. "He gives us toughness, he gives us experience. He started for a top 25 team most of the [last] year. He understands what it takes. He gives us depth. He gives us versatility. I think it helps us defensively. It should help us rebounding if I can get the kid to box out. I think he gives he gives every player more confidence, because he makes everyone around him better. I think it gives every coach on the staff more confidence that we could be a good team."