The players stood on the baseline and glanced at one another, trying to figure out what their coach meant. Early Tuesday morning, during another eye-rubbing preseason practice at Comcast Center, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon wanted his best five onto the floor wearing red jerseys, so he demanded, “First five red out.”
The problem was, Turgeon has never named a starting five. Last season, lineups became a fill-in-the-blank exercise for both Maryland’s coach at its fans. Thirteen combinations opened games for the Terrapins, including 11 during ACC play. They went small, big, old, young, balanced and everything in between. All season, Turgeon played the mad scientist, but no particular concoction quite seemed to stick.
So on his crisp October morning, one month until the season opener against Connecticut, Turgeon surveyed the options before him. He looked at Dez Wells, the unquestioned team leader, a junior with NBA-caliber athleticism who carried Maryland into the ACC tournament semifinals last March.
He scanned past Seth Allen, the new starting point guard after Pe’Shon Howard transferred to Southern California, and Shaquille Cleare, who was sparingly used as a freshman but became the new starting center when Alex Len departed for the NBA draft.
He saw Evan Smotrycz and Nick Faust, two other juniors expected to play substantial minutes, and sophomore Jake Layman, a swingman who some scouts consider to have the best professional prospects of anyone on this team.
Then Turgeon settled on his answer.
“You know what,” he said, “we don’t have a first five. Just give me five.”
The Terrapins’ inconsistency led to the lineup changes last season. Only Wells truly delivered on a regular basis, and even he suffered from the turnover issues that befell the team. So Turgeon changed things almost daily. Sometimes he tabbed Cleare, an oak tree of a human being, to defend stronger opposing centers. Sometimes the Terrapins went small, rolling with four guards to foster matchup issues. Other times Turgeon just threw a different combination at the wall, hoping it would stick.
Those problems are gone.
“The way I look at our team right now, I think we have seven and a half starters, if that makes sense,” Turgeon said. “Pretty soon it’ll be eight when the young guys are ready. We can go a lot of different ways. As long as we’re doing well, and it’s working for us, I can see us locking into one lineup, or four or the five guys being pretty consistent throughout the year.”
Guessing those four doesn’t take much intuition. Once Howard announced he would transfer back home to attend to his sick grandmother, Turgeon named Allen the starting point guard. Smotrycz, eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, brings diverse inside-out weaponry Maryland will use from the tip. Wells isn’t hitting the bench anytime soon and, if Maryland played Tuesday night, Turgeon said Cleare would be his starting center.
That leaves one spot, which figures to fluctuate on a game-by-game basis. Layman led the Terps in scoring during their foreign tour in the Bahamas, but Faust started 31 games last year and Turgeon has always been loyal to the last remaining holdover from the Gary Williams regime, whom he hopes can become Maryland’s lockdown perimeter defender, much like Howard was last year. Even still, Mitchell may start some games if Turgeon wants to roll big with the both gregarious Georgian and Cleare clogging up space inside.
So maybe the starting lineup isn’t so clear. But at least Turgeon feels comfortable about his options, a confidence his players projected, too.
“I don’t know what Turgeon will do with the starting lineups,” Allen said. “He switched it a lot last year. It was all matchups. This year I don’t think he’s going to switch it up that much. He pretty much knows. I don’t know who it is. But Coach Turgeon’s smart. He knows what he’s doing.”