Terps striving to discover ‘tough’ identity when ACC play starts Saturday

January 4, 2013

Shaquille Cleare posed a paradox. Players on the Maryland men’s basketball team love each other. They joke and laugh constantly, spending every waking hour together on the court, together in their rooms or together somewhere in between. Their chemistry is lauded daily by Coach Mark Turgeon, an intangible example of Maryland’s closeness entering Saturday’s ACC opener against Virginia Tech.

At the same time, Cleare said, the Terrapins hate one another.

Now how does that work?

“I don’t know if it makes sense to you,” Cleare said. “We love one another off the court, but in practice it’s a whole different battleground. You have to be physical somewhere in order for it to carry over to the game.”

Fair enough. Maryland has already established itself as a pass-first group of unselfish players, complimented by stingy field goal defense and persistent rebounding. But the Terrapins are striving for a new identity, one they hope will carry them through the rigors of an 18-game ACC schedule.

They want to be tough. Push-you-around-until-you-stop-pushing-back tough. The type that takes charges or clears rebounding lanes by boxing opponents straight out of the paint or regularly buries teams with crucial and-ones. Most importantly, they want to be mentally tough.

“I think we need to be in tough games, whether we’re ready or not,” Logan Aronhalt said. “We need to go out there and see what happens. It’s time for us to get in some battles, fight, get in some overtime games, compete with teams at our level.

“For us, we just have to bring it every day. We haven’t had great starts the past few games. I don’t know if it’s because we’re taking our opponents lightly or we just weren’t ready to go. Then it’s just the little things. Rebounding, boxing out, taking charges, getting yourself ready to go. That’s all it’ll take for us.”

Turgeon likes to say that the Terps will embark on a marathon, not a sprint. The first mile arrives Saturday at noon. The Hokies enter having lost two of three, but are led by one of the nation’s top scorers in Erick Green. Green, Turgeon conceded, will score. He always does. But danger comes when Virginia Tech’s supporting cast, particularly its post players, capitalize off perimeter misses for second-chance buckets.

Cleare knows the Terps need to be physical. Shot goes up? Hit bodies. A forward, a guard, anyone.

“We don’t want to guard another possession,” Cleare said.

Practices still contain plenty of physical exercises, like bubble drills and one-on-one battles with few foul calls. After Alex Len turned in another sub-par performance on New Years’ Day against IUPUI, he and Nick Faust had a postgame shootaround at Comcast Center, taking turns smacking each other on the arm to practice absorbing contact during layups.

Len, who leads the Terps with 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game this season, regularly takes a beating from Cleare during practice, and has gotten tougher as a result. When asked why Len has seemed more aggressive and intense during games, manifested through the occasional battle cry he unleashes during dunks, Cleare simply tapped his chest, as if to signal, “Me.”

Plenty of Terps certainly lift more weights these days, but the mental toughness is still progressing. Much of that, Turgeon said, stems from inexperience, but he’s figured out ways to push buttons. During practice, when play turn sour, Turgeon calls them names like “front-runners,” trying to light a fire. But scrimmages are one thing. For this young group, the ACC presents an entirely different animal.

“We won’t know how tough we are until we’re challenged,” Turgeon said. “That’ll probably start tomorrow at noon. Then we’ll see how tough we are and how we react to it. We’re mentally tougher and physically tougher than we were about a month ago, because we started talking about it a month ago. The ACC will make us tougher.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt · January 4, 2013