After the first offensive possession on Saturday afternoon, Coach Mark Turgeon turned to assistant Scott Spinelli with wide eyes and said in disbelief, “Wow, that’s big time.” Sophomore Shaquille Cleare had lofted a baby hook shot over Georgia Tech’s Daniel Miller and, much to the surprise of many Maryland basketball fans frustrated with the center’s inconsistent play, it dropped straight through the net.
“Coach told me to go in right away and make an impact and be aggressive from the get-go,” Cleare said after Maryland’s 77-61 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday. “It’s a new year. I’m starting to change.”
Turgeon has vowed similar turnarounds before from his once-prized recruit, and each moment felt painfully similar, like the season-high 10 points Cleare scored nearly one month ago against Florida Atlantic.
Since then, Cleare had regressed, scoring six points in three games. During that time, he was ushered to the bench, watching for far more minutes than he played as Jonathan Graham and Damonte Dodd took their turns in the starting lineup.
“It’s been a little rough,” Cleare said. “But last year’s behind me now. It’s ACC play. No more cupcake games. It’s the big-boy game now. So I can really match up with a lot of the guys and play physical. I’m just comfortable right now. I’m going to continue to play well and work hard.”
And so again Cleare finds himself at a crossroads, an eight-point, 19-minute effort against Georgia Tech under his plus-size belt, wondering whether his best offensive rating of the season (1.33 points per possession, according to KenPom.com) will mark a fresh start or simply more of the same inconsistencies. He was solid in defending Miller (seven points, four rebounds) and has improved on his ball-screen defense, only once allowing a guard to turn the corner toward the hoop.
“Big for him, big for us, too,” forward Evan Smotrycz said. “He really got us going. It’s good to be able to play inside-out. When our bigs are scoring, we’re tough to guard. It’s tougher for a lot of big guys when they’ve got smaller guys on them. I know Miller’s a really good player and highly regarded in the ACC sphere of things. Maybe that provided motivation, but Shaq’s capable of that.”
Through 52 games in College Park, Cleare’s best outings have come against similar-bodied opponents like Miller or Duke’s Mason Plumlee. Rather than chase around skinnier, quicker post players, he can remain down low and trade blows.
“I don’t like to chase around smaller guys,” Cleare said. “I like physicality. It’s part of my game.”
Said Turgeon: “Our game’s changed so much where it’s gone so small it’s hard for a guy like Shaq. He loves hitting people, being physical. He got his offense going, got all the way to the rim. Happy for him. It really helped us.”
With four players reaching double figures in six of the past seven games — almost all of them guards or perimeter forwards – the Terps don’t need fireworks from their front court, just the dirty work. Dodd didn’t appear vs. the Yellow Jackets, but Charles Mitchell grabbed 11 rebounds and Jonathan Graham again contributed 15 energetic minutes.
Granted, Georgia Tech was missing injured big man Robert Carter Jr., who was averaging close to a double-double this season, but Miller and Kammeon Holsey entered averaging a combined 19.5 points per game lifetime against Maryland. On Saturday, against a constant wave of fresh Maryland bodies, they had 13.
“Coach has been doing a lot of subbing with the bigs and he told us that going into the game, we want to keep our bigs fresh,” Cleare said. “It’s going to be a big part of what we do in the ACC, because the ACC has a lot of big bodies this year.”
>> Maryland’s six turnovers were its fewest since Turgeon arrived in 2011. Freshman Roddy Peters was the biggest standout, with five assists — all in the first half — against zero giveaways.
>> The Terps are now 9-0 when holding opponents under 40 percent shooting. Put another way, they are 1-5 when opponents shoot above 40 percent, with that lone victory coming at Boston College.
>> For those who missed it, here’s the big dunk early into the first half from Dez Wells over Miller.
And the stink face that ensued.