There’s a blind test Coach Mark Turgeon likes to give to a certain Maryland basketball player, and it involves comparing the following two freshmen seasons:
Player A: 34 games, 8.6 mpg, 3.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 58.0 FG percentage.
Player B: 37 games, 12.0 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 58.0 FG percentage.
Obviously, this exercise does little to help forecast the future, but Turgeon uses the similarities for motivation anyhow. Player A is Chris Wilcox, the former Maryland power forward who played sparingly his freshman season in College Park before winning a national championship and being drafted eighth overall the following year.
Player B is Shaquille Cleare.
A top-30 recruit entering college, Cleare witnessed his minutes fluctuate erratically throughout the year, despite constant praise from Turgeon about his work ethic and practice attitude. One month, he was starting ACC games against North Carolina State, North Carolina, Duke and Florida State, bodying up the league’s elite post players with immovable force. Promise arrived in spurts, especially on the defensive end, but once postseason play rolled around, the 6-foot-9 center never played more than 11 minutes in any game.
James Padgett graduated and Alex Len bolted for the NBA since the season ended, paving the pathway towards playing time for Cleare and classmate Charles Mitchell, who averaged 5.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game, displaying a high motor around the rim that will serve him well moving forward. The Terps currently have nine scholarship players Turgeon figures to rotate next winter. Of their three post players, none will be older than sophomores.
Turgeon said Cleare has put in the necessary work this spring, no shock given that he was often counted among the team’s hardest workers. He’s already lost 10 pounds, and aims to shed more, knowing full well that an enhanced role lurks around the bend.
“It’s huge,” Turgeon said during Wednesday’s Coaches Caravan in Baltimore. “We all like Shaq so much because he works hard and brings it. It’s a big summer. It’s a big year for Shaq. Sometimes people forget Shaq was a top 30 player coming out of high school. We haven’t. He just had a lottery pick ahead of him. So Shaq had a good freshman year.
“Once he starts to play, he’s the guy, then he’ll get used to the speed of the game. I expect him to really flourish this year.”
The expectation is that Maryland will play more small ball this season, dipping into its barracks of athletic wings to create matchup issues along the perimeter. Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz are both 6-feet-8 with smooth shooting strokes. Dez Wells and Nick Faust both stand at 6-feet-6, capable of beating opponents off the dribble while themselves flashing an improved three-point percentage, shooting a combined 46.5 percent (20 for 43) from beyond the arc in five postseason games.
Toss in 6-foot-4 point guard Roddy Peters, and Turgeon has plenty of four-guard lineup options at his disposal. Still, there’s the matter of that under-the-radar fifth spot, which could set up both Cleare and Mitchell for breakout sophomore seasons.
“It depends what their summers are like,” Turgeon said. “We definitely need one of them to do good. Hopefully both of them. I think we can play them two ways. We can play them together, and be a big lineup, or we can go small, even with Charles at center at 6-7.
“You’re still going to be long and tall across the board, which is fun for me. I like our team. I really do. I’ll know more when we get back from the Bahamas. But piece wise, it can all come together.”