Entering 2014, Terps still struggling to find front-court consistency


(Associated Press)

The game began like so many this season, with a concerted effort to pump the basketball into the post. After new starter Jonathan Graham won the opening tip, the Penn State transfer received touches on the first three possessions. On the second, he missed a right hook. On the third, he missed a layup. After the game, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon speculated that Graham might “be a little more comfortable coming off the bench,” hinting that his new lineup experiment might have ended following Tuesday’s 70-56 win over North Carolina Central.

“He earned it,” Turgeon said. “He didn’t handle it well.”

This recurring theme has followed the Terrapins all season, as Maryland’s front court has failed to produce consistently. Center Shaquille Cleare made 12 straight starts to open the season and could still wiggle back into the lineup, but has played just 13 total minutes over the past two games.

After beating Tulsa on Dec. 29, Turgeon went out of his way to praise Cleare’s bench attitude, a gesture of confidence that nonetheless juxtaposed unfavorably with his zero points and one rebound in five minutes. So at Monday’s practice, Cleare and forward Charles Mitchell (season-low eight minutes against Tulsa) came early and stayed late.

“It’s amazing what the bench does to you,” Turgeon said. “The two guys working hardest in the gym yesterday were Shaq and Charles. They stayed after and worked. There’s competition now instead of just giving minutes to certain guys.”

Even with four players scoring in double digits – Dez Wells (15.3), Jake Layman (14.2), Evan Smotrycz (12.1) and Nick Faust (10) – Maryland still needs something from its front court. Mitchell reached double figures in four straight games to start his sophomore season, but his offensive rebounding and scoring numbers have dipped in December. Freshman Damonte Dodd started against Tulsa but still appears a fringe rotational player at best right now, capable of altering shots for spot minutes at a time.

Graham, for his part, has injected a new energy into Maryland’s rotation this month, seeing double-figure minutes in every game since George Washington on Dec. 8. He’s also the team’s best low-post scoring option (1.13 points per possession, compared with 1.02 for Cleare and 1.09 for Mitchell, according to KenPom.com), but if Turgeon wants to keep him on the bench, who has earned the starting job? Having confidence in four post players, which Turgeon claims he has, is one thing. Finding a consistent starter is another.

“I’m not going to start four guys,” Turgeon said. “I’ve got to have somebody work as hard as Jon Graham does and be committed so they deserve to start.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | December 31, 2013