Shaquille Cleare read the press clippings, which he probably should have avoided. They talked about the slow start to his sophomore year, and how expectations hadn’t aligned with reality for the heavily recruited Bahamian center.
“I’ve been in a slump lately,” he said. “People have been saying a lot of stuff, but it’s motivating me.”
He declined to specify which people: “I don’t want to get into details about that,” he said. “That’s not the important thing.” Nevertheless, he took a step forward after scoring 10 points on Saturday afternoon in Maryland’s win over Florida Atlantic, earning his postgame interview appearance, a spot usually reserved for the stars of that particular night.
“I can play this game,” Cleare said. “I just have to continue to work hard and be more of a force down low. Like I’ve said, I’ve been in a hole lately, but I’m coming out. I know this team’s going to need me. I just have to show up and play every game.”
At this point, even minimal production is considered a step forward for Cleare, who chipped in five rebounds, all offensive, and two blocks. He hadn’t cracked double figures this season and grabbed five rebounds just once, against lowly Marist. The 20 minutes of playing time he received also came within three of his season high.
“Shaq knows how good he is,” classmate Jake Layman said. “Well, sometimes he does and he doesn’t really play with that mentality, but Shaq is great. We see it every day in practice, how hard he works, and he’s starting to play a lot better, which is what we expect of him.
“He’s definitely tuning what guys were saying out. He’s taking a lot of steps forward. From the first game until now, he’s playing a lot better.”
Interior scoring has been one of Maryland’s biggest weaknesses this season, and even if scorers like Layman, Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz are good enough to fill the box score on a nightly basis, it never hurts to have a fallback option down low. Getting 10 points apiece from Cleare and Charles Mitchell, even against the undersize Owls, pleased Coach Mark Turgeon.
“A lot of them were layups and things, but they finished, which is important for us. So to get 20 points out of those two is important. We haven’t had that this year. I thought Shaq’s defense was pretty good, Charles’s defense was better. It’s good.
“It’s good to see them two play well and play physical. Charles to bounce back, he wasn’t very good at Boston College. He bounced back and played better today.”
Despite the struggles, Turgeon has stuck with Cleare in his starting lineup, even if Mitchell often begins second halves on the floor. As roommates and best friends, the duo often discusses their highs and lows together, and lately for Cleare their discussions have trended more towards the latter.
“No one is harder on us than both of us,” he said. “He’s not getting it done, I’m going to get on him, cause that’s like my little brother, my best friend. If I’m messing up, he gets on me. We just want to push one another every day. We be talking trash, close to fights, but I’m going to win the fight anyway. We just want to see one another get better. He’s having a great season. I tell him Chuck you can’t worry about the stats. You’re having a great season. He’s telling me the same thing, he’s like you know how to play this game, just relax.”
And so Cleare will take confidence boosts, big or small. With three more nonconference games left before the new year, he will have plenty of opportunities to build off his performance against Florida Atlantic. But diving to the basket from the short corner, soaring up for dunks and contesting shots on the defensive end was a start.
“This is something I was supposed to be doing from earlier this season,” Cleare said. “It’s a little disappointing for me, even though I had the 10 points, because I know I’m capable of getting it every game. It’s just the drive and motivation. I have to continue to work hard and do the little things.”