With depth and size, Maryland’s front court is full steam ahead

October 9, 2012

Shaquille Cleare ambled over to a circular table behind a Comcast Center baseline, trotting in his black Terrapins warmups, a smile as wide as his 6-foot-9 frame, all 270 pounds shaking as he let out another laugh. Point guard Seth Allen, a fellow freshman, interrupted his interview to call over to the center, because he just needed to hear Cleare bellow another quote from Adam Sandler’s  version of “The Longest Yard.”

Reading a sign advertising football tryouts, a character named Big Tony becomes confused. “Foot … ball … tree …outs. What the [heck’s] a tree-out?” A self-described facilitator who loves to penetrate the paint and draw attention to himself before dishing to a teammate, Allen set Cleare up perfectly for the slam dunk.

Try-out,” Cleare said, imitating Brucie, his favorite character, “You half-a meatball.”

Cleare laughed again. Then he jogged away.

A boisterous personality is just one thing Maryland’s newest brick-of-a-man has imported to College Park from his native Bahamas. Alongside Alex Len, James Padgett and Charles Mitchell, Cleare has the Terrapins looking dangerous in the post, far more so than in years past.

Len, the Ukrainian product who put on size and mastered the English language this offseason, has the Eastern European deadpan to match his newfound strength in the post. Mitchell dropped 23 pounds and still misses the fried food from his Atlanta home but has maintained a personality to rival Cleare’s. And Padgett has forged his way into a leadership role, directing the Terps through grueling workouts with Navy SEALs and taking charge as Maryland sough to execute, among other things, one perfect jumping jack.

Add freshman Jake Layman, who Coach Mark Turgeon said may see time at the power forward position, to the mix, and that’s five skilled big men, all standing 6 feet 8 or taller, to give the Terps an added dimension on both sides of the court.

“We have tremendous depth inside, which we didn’t have last year,” Turgeon said.

Cleare was the recruiting prize, rated the 30th-best player in his class and the eighth-best center by ESPN. When Turgeon first watched him play years ago, “truth is, he was really kind of a fat kid.” But Turgeon, then at Texas A&M, saw something there. He saw confidence from a tireless gym rat who now rivals Len for the title of Maryland’s hardest worker.

Now Cleare moves better in the paint and has improved his low-post game. He and Mitchell, the two freshmen, have “infectious” personalities, according to Allen, often gleefully stomping into practice with thunderous claps that always spread throughout other players present.

Like Mitchell, Cleare has also lost weight. Not that it’s stopped them from banging inside during practice. They still chug through drills, and sometime each other, like runaway steam engine trains.

“Shaq likes to go through everything,” said Allen, who lived with Cleare over the summer. “I could never do that, because those guys are huge. Shaq is just crazy, watching them bang it out in the post, it’s crazy, knowing that we’re going to have strong big men this year and we’re not relying on one or two guys.”

Not that Mitchell, Len and Padgett are anything to scoff at. Len’s offseason work has been well documented. That he can understand his teammates is a huge boost. Padgett averaged 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, including a team-high 107 offensive boards, which ranked third in the ACC.

Mitchell, a high school friend of Maryland offensive lineman Nick Klemm, said he was recruited to play offensive or defensive lineman for FBS schools like Georgia, even though he never played football. The programs just loved his size.

But the players known as Shaq and Chuck hated facing each other on the AAU circuit. “Big body, he’d sit down on you and you can’t get around him,” Mitchell said. The feeling was mutual. But when Cleare committed, Mitchell wondered what it would be like to play on the same college team. “Nobody would expect that,” he said.

And now that it’s finally come together, with Padgett as the senior leader, Len as the 7-foot sophomore and the two bulldozing freshmen together at last.

“I feel like we have a great front-court rotation,” Mitchell said. “Everyone’s talented, everyone can score and everyone can play defense. I feel like we can punish the ACC down low. It’s going to be a great year for the front court. Us four, we can do anything in the post together.”

Especially quote “The Longest Yard.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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