Maryland assistant coach Bino Ranson, himself a gregarious individual with no shortage of motivational phrases, recently began telling the Terrapins’ struggling center to “start going into your bag of tricks.”
This meant unleashing moves such as a soft baby hook, like the one Shaq Cleare displayed Wednesday night on the team’s second offensive possession against Notre Dame. Or the second-half fadeaway jumper that, combined with the ensuing free throw, put the Terrapins up 10 points and left a baffled Comcast Center crowd wondering if Cleare had switched bodies with some other dominant big man.
Eighteen games into his second season at Maryland, the best trick Cleare could summon would be consistency. Several times now he has seemed to turn a corner, offering hope to Coach Mark Turgeon that Cleare could finally become a solid – or at least passably reliable – center.
“How fun was that?” Turgeon said after Cleare scored seven points in the win over Notre Dame. “That was a tough shot he made, then he made the free throw. It kind of was Shaq’s night. The free throw wanted to roll out and it rolled back in. That was good.”
Cleare, who has started every game but two, only averages 3.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game, and his 15.6 minutes per game rank seventh on the team. Yet given Maryland’s surplus of wing threats, not to mention the team’s struggles at post-entry passing, the Terps don’t need Cleare to score. They need him to defend, rebound and just be decent enough offensively so defenses don’t leave him wide open.
“It felt really good,” guard Dez Wells said. “He’s been struggling a little bit but he’s getting his feet under him out there. He’s doing everything we need him to do as a player. He’s blocking shots, got rebounds. He was really in tune with the game today and that’s something we need from him every game.
“We really need him to step up like he did tonight.”
In 23 minutes versus the Fighting Irish, Cleare was solid on center Garrick Sherman, keeping him to four field goal attempts – all makes – and eight points in the second half. But Sherman also committed a career-worst six turnovers, in large part because Cleare is so strong that it took several seconds for Sherman to back him down. This allowed Maryland’s guards, led into the lane by Notre Dame’s cutters, to swipe at Sherman and poke the basketball away.
“With a guy like Sherman, one of the mistakes we made was when we showed hard on the ball screen, we went behind him instead of in front of him,” Cleare said. “After showing hard on a ball screen, you have to run back, it takes a lot out of you. Sitting behind a guy, you’re basically dead. We made a mistake of sitting behind him. But kudos to him, he’s a really good player. It was a learning experience for us. We know how to defend bigs now.”
As the Terps erased a nine-point halftime deficit, Charles Mitchell (10 points, seven rebounds) Cleare provided a level of steadiness the team hasn’t received from its big men this season. After all, the four-man front court had combined for 14 fouls and 11 points over the past two games.
“I was happy for Shaq,” Turgeon said. “He made some good finishes. He defended. He’s getting more confident. Our five position’s been a struggle for us. I think Shaq and Charles with their experience, I think our experience showed up tonight.”
Now comes the challenge of replication. Cleare is shooting 59.2 percent from the field this season and 65.5 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, so perhaps he would benefit more from additional post touches. But given that seven Maryland players use up more possessions than Cleare, per analyst Ken Pomeroy, how reasonable is that proposition?
“I’m just going to play,” Cleare said. “You’re going to see a lot of crazy things. All might not be successful, but I’m going to give it a try.”
North Carolina State on Monday night would be a start, and given how the unpredictable way his career has gone thus far, the craziest thing might just be basic consistency.