COLLEGE PARK ——They are an eclectic group, more typical of college students who find themselves living in the same dormitory than basketball players who wind up on the same Division I team. As they hung out together during Maryland's Media Day earlier this month at Comcast Center, the five walk-ons seemed to be as attached at the heart as they did at the hip.
Given the makeup of this year's team and their sheer number — the biggest group of non-scholarship players first-year coach Mark Turgeon has ever had in 15 seasons as a college coach — the walk-ons attracted more attention collectively than Terrell Stoglin, the team's only returning starter, and nearly as much individually as some of the other returning players.
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While doubtful that any of the walk-ons — or John Auslander, who was recently put on scholarship — will start for the Terps when they open their season Nov. 13 against the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, it seems reasonable to assume that some of them might play considering Maryland's lack of depth.
"They're getting better every day, individually and as a group," Turgeon said. "It's been fun to watch them improve. Their heads are spinning. There's been a lot thrown at them. All of a sudden you're at a college practice playing against guys who were highly recruited. They're doing great. … They've come a long, long way in 11 or 12 practices."
As a senior at St. Albans in Washington, Spencer Barks thought he was headed to play at the University of New Hampshire. But then he stopped hearing from the coaches there.
"In those three days that New Hampshire stopped talking to me, Turgeon called up with Gary Williams to see if I wanted to walk on," recalled Barks, a 6-9, 225-pound forward from Poolesville. "Obviously I couldn't turn down a chance to play at Maryland."
Barks understands that he is starting from the bottom — or at least near the bottom — "but that's not going to stop me from going out and trying to make a name for myself. Work as hard as I can every day and you never know what opportunity will present itself."
With only a few returning frontcourt players, none with any great body of work or even great body, Barks and Auslander probably have as good a chance of any of the walk-ons to become part of Turgeon's regular playing rotation.
"You never know what's going to happen," Barks said.
That became evident earlier this week, when sophomore Pe'Shon Howard, a potential starter at point guard, broke a foot in preseason workouts and will miss 10-to-12 weeks. Howard's injury could open some time for another of the walk-ons — junior Jonathan Thomas of Frederick.
During his first two years at Maryland, Thomas barely had time to go to any basketball games. He was usually in the library, studying. A mechanical engineering major, Thomas thought he had put his basketball career behind him after he graduated from Tuscarora High in Frederick.
Whenever he played pickup ball around campus or for the school's club team, friends and competitors told Thomas, who was selected player of the year as a senior in Frederick County, that he should try out for the Maryland team. He finally did when school began this fall, along with about 60 other students.
"It's a dream," he said of being invited onto the team.
Not that he's intimidated. Thomas played his first two years of high school at Towson Catholic, and was a sophomore on the team when former Virginia Tech star Malcolm Delaney and current Sacramento Kings forward Donte Greene were seniors.
"It's definitely an adjustment to how frequent you're playing, but the level of competition I'm comfortable with, it definitely has helped me here," Thomas said. "The intensity is really high, like it was [at Towson Catholic]."
Of all the walk-ons, Thomas has probably impressed Turgeon the most.
"In his role, he's been really good," Turgeon said. "Being a mechanical engineering major, he probably hasn't played a lot of basketball. Each day he gets in better shape. He doesn't back down to these guys, but knows his role. He has some skill, and he's obviously a smart kid, so he picks things up quickly. I can see as the season gets on and we get into scouting reports and different things, he's going to be a huge asset for us."
The group of current walk-ons — which also includes Jacob Susskind, who played on the same AAU team in high school in New Jersey as former Duke star Kyrie Irving — can look at Auslander for inspiration. After transferring to Maryland from Division III Greensboro College last year, Auslander was a walk-on last season.
Turgeon put him on scholarship when he returned to school this fall.
A longtime Maryland fan whose parents both graduated in 1986 — the year Len Bias tragically died in a cocaine overdose — Auslander followed the Terps growing up.
"I can remember back to Steve Francis, Obinna Ekezie, Laron Profit, even Joe Smith, I can remember my dad telling me about him," Auslander said. "Coming from that background and now being here means a lot, it's pretty special. I am thankful for where I am and I want to keep striving for more."
Asked if his goal is to play this season, Auslander said, "I just want us to win. If that means playing, I'll step in and do what I can. If it means bringing it every day in practice, that's the case too. But that's my ultimate goal is to win and see myself get better and see the team get better."
Said Turgeon, "I told them after the second or third practice, you know the old saying, you're only as good as your weakest link. The sooner you guys understand our system and become better basketball players, the better our team is going to be."
It doesn't rule out the possibility that one of the walk-ons might find himself in Maryland's regular rotation, as has happened at each of Turgeon's first three coaching stops, most recently Andrew Darko at Texas A&M, who went from being a walk-on his first three years to a scholarship player getting 10 minutes a game last season. .
"It depends on what happens with Alex [Len]," Turgeon said of the 7-1 Ukrainian freshman waiting to hear from the NCAA about his eligibility. "It we get him, that puts nine on scholarship. If we stay healthy, it will be tough. But if the guys continue to improve and give me the confidence that they can give us a minute or two, I'm not afraid to do that. "