Maryland already was going to be improved this season. Now that the Terrapins know they will have swingman Dez Wells on the floor for Friday's season opener against defending national champion Kentucky, they seem poised to return to the national rankings and the NCAA tournament.
Wells is the missing piece for the Terps. He was named to the Atlantic 10 all-rookie team a season ago when he averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds per game at Xavier, numbers that should grow measurably with Maryland.
"This definitely gives us a chance to be a better team," coach Mark Turgeon said. "We were excited about the year anyway."
The NCAA Division I Legislative Council Subcommittee for Legislative Relief granted Wells' appeal for a transfer waiver Wednesday after its own panel earlier upheld the mandatory one-year wait. That made him eligible to play immediately for the Terps.
It was the right move by the NCAA.
Xavier expelled Wells for code of student conduct violations stemming from allegations of sexual assault. But a grand jury declined to charge Wells, and a local prosecutor even criticized Xavier for the way it expelled Wells and implored the school to reverse its decision.
If Wells couldn't return to Xavier and wasn't convicted of a crime, he should be allowed to play immediately.
Turgeon admitted there were "a lot of anxious moments" during the appeal. Emotions overflowed after Wells was told. The staff, his parents, the coach and player -- it was a group sigh of relief for Wells and the program.
A preseason poll ranked the Terps sixth in the competitive ACC. Indeed, Tobacco Road boasts three highly ranked programs in Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State. Maryland needed a boost to compete, to finish in the top four and earn a tournament invite.
That boost would be Wells. The Terps are going to spread the ball more in Turgeon's second season and needed a swingman who can make big plays.
"He makes us a lot better," guard Pe'Shon Howard said.
Maryland has some talent in frontcourt returnees Alex Len and James Padgett, plus guards Nick Faust and Howard. The Russian-born Len now speaks English well enough to understand the plays, and Howard has recovered from a midseason injury.
But they probably won't be enough Friday. Maybe the highly anticipated rookie class will prove it deserves the hype, but it's unlikely to happen right away against Kentucky. It often takes six weeks -- until ACC play -- for freshmen to contribute meaningfully, so games against powers like Kentucky are often avoided by emerging teams.
Still, Turgeon eagerly accepted Kentucky coach John Calipari's invitation last season. Facing the Wildcats in Brooklyn, N.Y., will show the Terps how they measure up against a top program. They need someone to take the last shot with confidence. That's Wells in the corner for the 3. More importantly, like most top players, Wells inspires his teammates.
"He gives everybody more confidence," Turgeon said.
Wells' impact ripples further. Turgeon said the team will expand its offense now that Wells is eligible this season. That means Kentucky will face Maryland's basic offense, but Duke and North Carolina will see a different one come midseason.
Maybe Maryland isn't an ACC title contender, but the Terps are an NCAA tournament team. After a 17-14 debut, Turgeon now has the program headed to 20-plus wins.