Without Alex Len, Terps’ Shaquille Cleare hopes to blaze his own trail

October 10, 2013

(Associated Press)

Shaquille Cleare slinked over to the circular table where Seth Allen was holding court, among the last Maryland basketball players fielding questions on media day earlier this week. Finished with his obligations, the sophomore center spied an open chair and lowered himself into it, quietly sitting between two reporters half his size. Allen glanced over at Cleare, then finished answering another query. No one else seemed to notice.

The highest-rated member of Coach Mark Turgeon’s first recruiting class in College Park, Cleare had a relatively anonymous freshman season. He played just 12 minutes per game, fewest among the team’s 10 regulars, and his 3.7 points per game ranked ninth, behind only since-departed point guard Pe’Shon Howard. His time dwindled even further as the Terrapins entered the postseason: He didn’t play at all in Maryland’s regular season finale against Virginia, then logged single-digit minutes in the team’s final six games.

Cleare’s playing time was limited by the presence of center Alex Len, who chewed up minutes and left only scraps for the freshman. But with Len off to the NBA, Cleare is now Maryland’s starting center. Aside from the point guard position, replacing Len might be Maryland’s biggest question mark this season. Cleare has the high school pedigree, the work ethic and the team-first attitude to succeed for Maryland. Now he has to prove it.

“Alex was a great player here at Maryland,” Cleare said. “We’re going to miss him a lot. There’s a lot of questions of how I’m going to fill some big shoes. I’m going to play Shaq game. I’m not going to try to play Alex Len game. I’m going to be physical, run the floor, do all the dirty work for Coach Turge, and do all the dirty work to see the team win.”

Last season, Maryland ran its offense through Len. It stubbornly insisted on inside-out principles until guard-heavy lineups proved to work better. This season, Cleare might still rank among the rotation’s lowest scorers. But the Terps do not need a primary paint option. They need efficient scorers, hard-nosed defenders and a bulldog rebounders.

Cleare will happily oblige.

“That’s it right there,” he said. “That’s all I have to do. I don’t have to come in and score 1,000 points, block 1,000 shots, 1,000 rebounds. It’s about getting the rebounds when it matters, defending when it matters, getting points when it matters. I really have no pressure. I’m going to come out, play hard every night, give this team all I’ve got.”

Back spasms sidelined Cleare during Maryland’s foreign tour this August to his native Bahamas, but he still acted as the de facto tour guide, ushering his teammates around the island and pointing them toward the best water slides. Sitting out those three games, however, helped Cleare heal, so when school started and preseason practices began he leapt in without a hitch.

The Bahamas trip only happened because Cleare came to Maryland. When Turgeon recruited him from the Village School in Houston, the coach promised a homecoming before Cleare finished college. “He actually kept his promise,” Cleare said, none the least bit surprised. “That’s why me and Coach Turgeon are pretty close right now, because he keeps his promises as a coach.”

Turgeon didn’t make any promises to Cleare about playing time, but said if the season began Tuesday, he would start at center. His most productive stretches came in starting roles last season, including strong defensive performances against Duke’s Mason Plumlee and a career-high 10 points in 19 minutes against Clemson.

But with Len commanding the headlines and the majority of minutes, Cleare never quite entered a groove. Fans even began speculating whether Cleare would consider transferring, a notion he emphatically laughed off during the ACC tournament in Greensboro.

“Yeah, Alex stole the show a lot of times last year,” he said. “He’s a 7-footer who can actually play the game really well. I don’t think people have really seen what I can bring to the table. I’ve always been a dominant force. That’s what I’m going to do this year … just do all the dirty work, be physical and defend. The offense will come.”

And as for those questions everyone keeps asking?

“I just answer them,” he said. “No big deal. I’m not feeling the pressure or nothing. You just have to come out and play. Give the fans what they come here to see.”

MORE FROM MARYLAND BASKETBALL MEDIA DAY

Dez Wells shrugs off off-court issues.

Terps to hold open practice on Saturday.

Turgeon to go with smaller lineups this season.

Maryland expects more stability among starters.

Terps embracing expectations.

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