No Maryland basketball player has drawn more widespread criticism from fans this season than Pe’Shon Howard. The junior point guard has endured all manner of emotional twists and turns, ranging from his solid start when he was leading the ACC in assists to, more recently, a slippery slope culminating in a one-game suspension for violating team rules, which rendered Howard helpless as his teammates upset Duke and celebrated at midcourt without him.
And so the ire rained down upon the charismatic point guard, who, for better or worse seems particularly tuned into what has been written and said. Before Saturday, he hadn’t started since Jan. 9, and his captaincy was stripped just days before the suspension. Even his Twitter feed contained several expletive-ridden mentions, none of which are appropriate for this family-friendly blog.
What a surprise, then, to find Howard idling in the bowels of Joel Coliseum, headphones around his neck, ready to speak with the media for the first time this calendar year.
“Yeah,” he said with a smile. “Been a long time.”
It had been weeks, in fact, since Howard played as efficient as he did against Wake Forest in Maryland’s 67-57 win. He scored an eight points in 30 minutes, more playing time than in his past three games combined (29). After Coach Mark Turgeon announced that the team’s starters would be decided exclusively on defensive performance in practice, Howard blanketed senior C.J. Harris along the perimeter, earning praise from Turgeon as Maryland’s most fundamentally sound defender.
“I was a little surprised how well he played for 30 minutes; yeah I was pleasantly surprised that his endurance was good,” Turgeon said on Monday’s ACC coaches teleconference. “He continued to guard. Didn’t seem to get tired. He got a little tired defensively, and we were able to rest him when we had the lead three or four minutes into the second half. That was good for us. Took care of the ball, made good decisions, got us into our offense, was talking and communicating out there. I was happy for him.
“I just kept telling Pe’Shon, ‘There’s a lot of basketball left in your career, son. Let’s not wait until next year. Let’s try to get it going now.’ And he did. Hopefully he’ll stay consistent. That’s been our biggest problem.”
Tracing the genesis of Howard’s rocky downturn is difficult. He shot 1 for 8 from the field in the season opener against Kentucky and attempted zero field goals the next game, an apparent response to Turgeon’s pleas that he shoot less frequently. But he averaged 5.8 assists per game during non-conference play, and never committed more than three turnovers. Then came North Carolina, when 14 minutes begat a career-high seven turnovers, the culmination of Maryland’s point guard problems boiled down into one easy target.
“It’s just been up and down,” Howard said of his season. “With coach, he’s done a great job communicating with me. He’s always had my back and told me to get it together, and once I get on the court, make sure I play better. He’s always had confidence in me; he’s always let me know that. That’s one thing I appreciate. A lot of coaches will shun you off when you’re not on the court. He did a great job keeping me positive, and making sure I stayed ready and putting confidence in myself.”
Howard has taken the past few weeks to heart, recognizing that he was “was kind of letting [teammates] down” by failing to serve as a positive role model. Turgeon said he has been “extremely patient” with Howard since the summer, and clearly thought enough of the junior to name him a captain alongside James Padgett. Then came the struggles, snowballing as Howard’s minutes decreased, culminating in single-digit outings against both Clemson and Georgia Tech, including a silly fake-behind-the-back-pass in transition that earned him a permanent benching in Atlanta.
Wake Forest offered a shot at redemption. No longer dancing his way through pregame introductions, Howard was businesslike in his execution. He dished four assists, most since the ACC opener, snatched three rebounds, picked two steals and committed just two turnovers.
The trick, as it has been all season with these Terps, becomes extending Saturday’s effort across multiple games. Maryland needs a prepared and mentally engaged Howard now more than ever. “We’ve won 20 games without you scoring,” Turgeon told Howard recently. “We just need you to defend and get us into our offense.”
“It’s been no fun for him,” Turgeon said. “He’s been up and down, in and out of the doghouse. And he responded, which was good to see. It was good to see him smile again. I kept telling him through the drought, ‘Pe’Shon, you’re so important to the team. You have no idea.’ And he just mentally wasn’t where he needed to be. Saturday, he got mentally back into it, and hopefully he’ll finish the year that way.”