Make 2017 a Banner Year for Adrian Branch

The University of Maryland athletic department announced this week that it will unveil a banner honoring former basketball coach Lefty Driesell before the Feb. 11 home game against Ohio State.

The move is long overdue. Driesell put Maryland on the college basketball map in the 1970s, raising the program to the point where it could compete against the best.

Adrian Branch

Now that the athletic department has addressed this oversight, I’ve got another suggestion. How about school officials also raise a banner for ex-player Adrian Branch?

In the early 1980s, Branch helped Driesell accumulate 82 victories from 1981-85, a healthy chunk of the 348 wins Driesell amassed during his 17 years in College Park.

It’s not like Branch isn’t deserving. He’s the only 2,000-point scorer in school history whose jersey number doesn’t hang from the ceiling.

Leaving him out just doesn’t make sense. Branch (2,107) scored more points than John Lucas (2,015), who has to be considered one of the cornerstones of the program — a three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-teamer. He scored more than Keith Booth (1,776), Walt Williams (1,704) or Earnest Graham (1,607), all of whom were four-year players who have their jersey numbers honored in Maryland’s basketball arena.

Only King, Lucas, Bias and Dixon made more field goals in their careers than Branch, who hit 48 percent from the field for his career. Only Booth and Bias made more free throws. No matter how you slice it, Branch was one of Maryland basketball’s best.

Oh, he might not have been as spectacular as Albert King, or as rugged as Buck Williams. He didn’t become the star that Len Bias did, either. He probably suffers in comparison with Bias, one of his contemporaries, who became a two-time ACC Player of the Year.

Branch may have suffered because he was more smooth than spectacular. “Stylish” was the word Morgan Wootten, his high school coach, used to describe him. It’s a description that fits. On the court, Branch never seemed like he was in a hurry, but always got where he needed to be.

He was absolutely essential in bridging the King-Williams-Graham-Greg Manning era and the Bias-Keith Gatlin-Ben Coleman group (which Branch was part of) that won 20 games for three years in a row and advanced to a pair of Sweet 16s.

During his freshman season, Branch was the only weapon Maryland had. King, Graham and Greg Manning had graduated following the 1980-81 season; Buck Williams left school early for the NBA in order to help out his family.

With those four players gone, Maryland didn’t have much firepower. So Branch had to supply what little they had. He told me once that he came out the first day of practice at Maryland trying to play the kind of team-oriented basketball that he’d learned at DeMatha.

Not long after that first practice got underway, Driesell called Branch aside and told him, “Son, we don’t need you passing the ball.”

So, he shot it. Driesell ran a slowdown offense that year (the shot clock was still a couple of years away) and the Terps averaged just 61.3 points per game – Maryland’s lowest scoring average since the 1952-53 season.

And Branch supplied most of it. His 15.2 scoring average might look modest, but it represented almost a fourth of Maryland’s points that season – and it came from a freshman. Branch’s scoring average is still the second-best freshman mark in Maryland school history – behind only Joe Smith’s 19.7 mark in 1993-94.

Adrian Branch v Virginia, 1982

Branch almost single-handedly engineered one of the biggest upsets in college basketball during that 1981-82 season. In the regular-season finale, the Terps (who finished 16-13) shocked mighty Virginia in overtime at a rocking Cole Field House, 47-46. Virginia won 30 games that year and finished No. 3 in the final rankings.

At the time of the game, Virginia was 27-1 and ranked No. 1 in the country. But the Cavaliers simply couldn’t stop Branch, who pumped in 29 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including a leaning foul-line jumper that ultimately won it in overtime.

He led the Terrapins in scoring again as a sophomore (18.7) before Bias eclipsed him as Maryland’s star. All in all, though, Branch had quite a career.

Even if honoring Branch with a banner wasn’t a slam dunk – which it is – doing so would make enormous sense from a public relations and recruiting standpoint. After all, Branch is a studio host on ESPNU. So, any ceremony that honored him at his alma mater would guarantee extensive coverage from any and all ESPN outlets. That would be great exposure for the program.

Then, too, Branch starred in high school just down the road at DeMatha. Honoring him might enable the program to score some points with coaches, players and at that school – perhaps making it more likely that the next Stags star winds up at Maryland.

No matter how you look at it, Branch deserves a banner at Maryland. And giving him one – for any number of reasons – makes a lot of sense.

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