Before Maryland’s home opener Monday against Morehead State, Charles Mitchell had a talk with classmate and fellow freshman big man Shaquille Cleare. Cleare, arguably the biggest prize of Coach Mark Turgeon’s first recruiting class, was stuck in the doldrums after a subpar exhibition and season opener.
Against Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the exhibition, Cleare came soaring through the lane, primed for a thunderous slam, only to have his dunk soar off the back iron. It was after that moment, Turgeon later said, when he saw Cleare hang his head for the first time. Cleare played just seven minutes against Kentucky in in the season opener, atoning for his missed jam with a two-handed flush, but the confidence was still waning.
After each game, Mitchell tried to pick up his teammate and friend, telling him to focus on the future, to forget about the past. So before the Terps tipped off Monday, here’s how the conversation between Mitchell and Cleare went:
“Are you ready to play?” Mitchell asked.
“Yeah,” Cleare replied.
“Are you really ready to play?”
“Okay, I won’t talk to you no more until after the game.”
What followed was the type of performance Terps fans expected of Cleare after he committed to Maryland. He played 18 minutes, scored eight points, went 6 of 8 from the free throw line and sent three Morehead shots sailing into the stands with vicious blocks.
“I never really got a chance to get going,” Cleare said Thursday. “But as the year goes on, you’ll have those games. You have to keep your head up and move forward. Just going to practice the next day, continuing to work hard.
“It’s been tough. That was the first dunk I’ve missed in a long time. And I’m going to be hard on myself. I want to be great, and I care about a lot of things, but it’s not going to stop me from going to practice and working hard. I’ll never carry it over into another game or another practice. It was a great learning experience, just to keep my head up and keep moving forward.”
And so Cleare’s confidence, which had earlier went the way of those blocked shots, returned to his grasp.
“The encouraging part was the defensive end,” Turgeon said. “Not just the blocked shots, but post defense was good. Awareness, defensively was much better, then in the end the presence blocking shots. Gaining confidence. Getting to the foul line helped. Really worked hard on shooting free throws. Kids are young, one missed dunk in the exhibition led to a game and half of no confidence.”
Now Cleare could find himself forming a forceful tandem inside. As Alex Len’s on-court abilities continue to adapt and grow, developing a perimeter game and a deft passer’s tough, Turgeon can use him in different ways offensively, bringing Len away from the basket, utilizing his ever-evolving skills to supplement Maryland’s offense. Len’s high-post passing Monday against Morehead State was an example of this, as was the step-back 18-footer he swished against Kentucky in the season opener.
“That’s a great combination,” Mitchell said. “Alex is long, athletic, explosive, can guard the floor. Shaq’s the strongest kid in NCAA basketball to me. Both of them are offensive threats. It’s great to see them on the court at the same time. Both of them are strong, even though it’s a battle on the same team. We try to help each other out as we can.”
Coinciding with Len’s growth, Turgeon anticipates playing Cleare alongside his 7-foot-1 Ukrainian, slotting the shot-blocking duo into the same rotation. Len and Cleare played on the same team throughout Wednesday’s practice. Len, Turgeon said, has been forced to learn a different position, because he wouldn’t dare teaching Cleare a second.
“It’s so much easier, because you have more threats on the floor,” Cleare said. “It makes us even longer. With that lineup, I’ll still be playing the five and he’ll be at the four. It’ll be kind of scary, us on the floor at the same time. He can get his face-up game on, you double team him and I’ll be open and vice versa. It creates more one-on-one.”
With Len and Cleare combining for 10 blocked shots through two games, it also creates the obvious roadblock for opposing drivers: Come into the paint, and chances are your shot will wind up bound for the seats.
“Where it’s supposed to be,” Cleare said with a welcome smile.