Monday Terps Mailbag: Brian Stewart, Pe’Shon Howard and the most improved basketball player

December 10, 2012

(Bloomberg)

Welcome to the Monday Terps Mailbag, the second edition of a new weekly installment where you ask questions and I write down answers to those questions. A pretty simple formula, I’d say.

(Related note: Submit your questions via email to alex.prewitt@washpost.com or on Twitter. Thanks, friends.)

Do you know what the status of current defensive coordinator, Brian Stewart? I certainly hope they don’t lose him to another program. Maryland has not looked as organized and strong defensively since Gary Blackney’s stint here (Phil, via e-mail).

Good question. Stewart certainly has NFL talent as a coach, if not as a defensive coordinator then certainly as a top defensive assistant. Many of the players credit Stewart with this season’s defensive turnaround, which saw the Terps rank in the top 10 nationally in yards allowed per game for much of the year. However, at least for the time being, he’s not going anywhere. I can’t guarantee anything, nor can I predict if any irresistible offers come Stewart’s way.

However, his contract ends on Jan. 31, 2014, so it’ll be interesting to monitor that situation moving forward.

Do you see Maryland dropping a game before ACC play? If so, which matchup? (Slip Shady, @sleasman10)

I do not. Coach Mark Turgeon has touted the Stony Brook matchup on Dec. 21 — the Seawolves are 6-2, though one of those losses came against 2-6 Sacred Heart — as the remaining toughie before ACC play begins on Jan. 5 against Virginia Tech, but these Terps are simply playing too well and improving too much on a game-by-game basis to succumb to the pitfalls of a potential “trap” game like that. Now, a close single-digit victory isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but expect these Terps to march into conference games on a 12-game winning streak.

Alex, is there any hope for U-Md. baseball? Many of the other non-revenue sports seem to compete nationally very well (at least the ones that didn’t get cut). (Sancho, via e-mail)

Of course there’s hope. Actually, there’s probably more hope this season than there has been in a long time around that program. Last season, the Terps finished with 32 wins, the second most in program history, and were the highest-rated team in terms of RPI to not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Things are admittedly tough within the brutal ACC schedule, where Maryland finished just 10-20 last season. But the Terps return seven of nine positional starters, though they will have to replace two of their three weekend pitchers. The lone returner, Jimmy Reed, was a 21st-round draft pick to the Yankees but spent the first half of 2012 as a closer. He’ll likely be joined by Brady Kirkpatrick, who went 3-4 in nine starts as a sophomore last season, and Alex Robinson, a flame-throwing freshman with solid off-speed.

Offensively, right fielder Jordan Hagel returns after leading Maryland in batting average, OPS, hits, doubles and total bases last season, as does designated hitter Tim Kiene (team-leading six homers in 2012) and third baseman KJ Hockaday (second in RBIs, runs and hits).

All told, there’s plenty of buzz, at least from within the program, about doing big things under first-year coach John Szefc.

We need Pe’Shon Howard shooting and scoring more I think. Maybe it’s his confidence that’s shot? This team could be very dangerous of Pe’Shon could drop 8-10 a night, like Steve Blake and Eric Hayes in their primes. (Shyam Srinivasan, @Boogs79)

This question arrived even after Howard went 2 for 3 from beyond the arc against South Carolina State, making multiple field goals for the first time all season. I don’t think Howard’s confidence is necessarily shot, so much as he’s just so predominantly focused on being a pass-first point guard. He and Turgeon are still searching for that happy medium between the unnecessary shots he hoisted against Kentucky and the times when he ignores wide-open looks on the perimeter for a more difficult pass into the post.

Then again, there are only so many shots to go around on this deep roster, which has eight players averaging at least six points per night. Howard’s at 2.9 points per game right now, so I think asking 8-10 of him might be a little unrealistic, but if the Terrapins could get a solid shooting performance from Howard, who can pick and choose his spots at will, then they would be in a great place. Maryland doesn’t need Howard to be taking more than a few shots per game, unless opposing defenses sag off him, in which case he’ll need to step up along the perimeter. But he’s proved more valuable as a distributor and as a floor general, so that’s where he’ll remain until teams dare him to do otherwise.

Which player(s) has/have shown the most improvement so far this season? (Alain, via e-mail)

From last season to this year, the obvious choice is Alex Len. He’s made massive strides both physically and mentally, transforming into a dominant center receiving well-deserved NBA buzz. By all accounts he’s more comfortable on the floor speaking English with his teammates, is absolutely destroying opponents in one-on-one scenarios and creates havoc in the paint for opposing penetrators with his shot-blocking abilities. These talents were all there last season, but now they’ve emerged in full force.

As for intra-season improvements, how about freshman Shaquille Cleare. The highly touted recruit struggled out of the gate, logging less than 15 minutes in five of the season’s first seven games, but has since strung together consecutive solid efforts against Maryland-Eastern Shore and South Carolina State, combining for 20 points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes per game. He started against UMES and showed Turgeon enough to earn the starting nod in the second half Saturday vs. the Bulldogs. He’s defending the post better and has become a force inside with that little baby-hook that gave him four of the team’s first eight points versus UMES. Of course, there’s always the tempered expectation that freshmen can fluctuate with their performances, and the competition will certainly get tougher for Cleare once ACC play arrives, but by all accounts he’s trending upwards in Turgeon’s favor. Cleare is also the early-season favorite for Most Improved Facial Reactions.

Players like Seth Allen and Charles Mitchell have already defied preseason expectations with their spark and energy off the bench, but still need to discover consistency in order to please Turgeon. Logan Aronhalt is about the gunner that Turgeon expected him to be, while Jake Layman is still progressing and adapting to the college game. As for the returners, Nick Faust has shown tremendous strides on defense and as a distributor. Clearly, his shot still needs some work, but his selection has improved and he’s passing in transition better than ever. James Padgett has also drawn rave reviews from Turgeon for his consistency and leadership, while Pe’Shon Howard has rebounded nicely from an injury-plagued sophomore season.

Pretty difficult to pick just one player, given that improvements are noticeable across the board.

How many pushups do you think Pe’Shon Howard will do in practice this season? (Jack, via e-mail)

45

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