(Associated Press) (Associated Press)

No Maryland men’s basketball player has drawn more criticism from the Terps’ fan base this season than Pe’Shon Howard. Once among the ACC’s leaders in assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio, Howard has endured a confounding and inconsistent stretch since conference play began, coming off the bench for his past seven games and playing less than 20 minutes in four of those.

Coach Mark Turgeon says Howard is one of his best perimeter defenders, but the junior’s field goal percentage (he’s shooting 15.6 percent in nine ACC games) has made it difficult to insert him for extended minutes, especially given Maryland’s need for shooters.

“He hasn’t scored too much, so it’s good to see him get a bucket,” Logan Aronhalt said. “In practice he’s been taking more shots. We need him to be more aggressive on offense. We can’t have him out there, not as a threat to score. It really opens the floor for us.”

For a three-possession stretch against Virginia Tech, however, Howard looked like his old self. First he scooped a nifty left-handed up-and-under layup in traffic, his first points since the Duke game on Jan. 26. Fifteen seconds later, running the break off a Jarell Eddie turnover, Howard took the unconventional route and dished to Aronhalt for an easy layup, even with Charles Mitchell running down the opposite lane. Then, after C.J. Barksdale missed 1 of 2 free throws on the other end, Howard split a high double team, drew attention in the paint and fired a no-look shuffle pass to Alex Len for a baseline dunk.

It was as assertive and confident as Howard has seemed in some time, a side the Terps could certainly use moving forward.

“That was Pe’Shon at the beginning of the year,” Nick Faust said. “He had two big plays. I was glad to see him get his confidence back. Hopefully it’s a boost that can get him going for the rest of the year. Pe’Shon, he’s always going to stay tuned. He’s a great leader for our team, guys still look up to him. He’s just going through a rough time right now. I think he’s going to be fine. He’s playing, made those two big plays.”

Since missing the Florida State trip with the flu, Howard turned in 14 minutes against Wake Forest (three assists, two turnovers) and 10 solid, mistake-free minutes at Virginia Tech. In between, Turgeon said, have been solid practices.

“His role is limited,” Turgeon said. “It’s not what it was. Can it expand in a certain game? Absolutely. If we have guys making shots, I just have to have shooters on the floor. It’s hard. It takes away some guys’ minutes. If he steps up, makes a shot like the layup, his time will expand a bit. I had to make some tough decisions to get us where I want to be at the end of the year. Doesn’t mean things aren’t going to change. But I was really proud of his minutes and the way he practiced yesterday.

“I think he’s playing well. I think he’s practicing well. I really do. He might even be more comfortable with it, to be quite honest with you. Takes a little pressure off him. Takes pressure off whether he has to make shots or not, which was a lot of pressure. Now he might go out and play, knock a few down.”

>> Arguably the most-hyped prospect among Maryland’s incoming freshman class, Shaquille Cleare has turned into a magnet for fouls recently. Against Virginia Tech, he played three minutes and committed four fouls, a startling rate of infraction.

Since ACC play began, Cleare is averaging 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes. So what gives?

“Now, I felt for Shaq the other night,” Turgeon said. “Just a little too aggressive. Couple bad bounces. The thing about Shaq is, he’s so strong. Kids run into him and they bounce off and it looks like a foul. I watch it in practice every day. They got to get used to reffing him. He can just be standing there and kids will hit him and flop off. He’s strong. As his playing time goes up and his career goes on, people will get used to reffing him and understanding that he’s just really strong. A lot of times, he’s not doing anything. People are just bouncing off it.”

Cleare’s teammates concurred.

“I think he’s a big, strong guy,” James Padgett said. “A lot of referees see him as a target. If somebody hits him or he hits somebody and they flop, they see it automatically as a foul. It has to do with his size.”

>> Free throws have obviously been a point of emphasis for Turgeon entering Sunday’s game against Virginia. Maryland missed 13 of 23 against Virginia Tech and nearly blew the game because it couldn’t hit from the line. A few players stayed late after Saturday’s practice to get a few up.

“I thought we continued to guard in the second half,” Turgeon said. “We just missed a ton of free throws in there. We just make some free throws, we stem the tide, we’re up eight or 10. Hopefully that was an aberration. Hopefully we make them down the stretch there.”

>> Sunday’s game will be the annual “Gold Rush” game for the Terps. The game, when Maryland wears its gold jerseys, is typically held against Duke, but apparently some special surprise (diamond-encrusted UnderArmour jerseys, perhaps?) is planned for when the Blue Devils come to town on Saturday.


Turgeon spurred Terps with halftime speech vs. Hokies.

– VIDEO: A chat with James Padgett.

– Cavs’ Justin Anderson was almost a Terp. Virginia is glad to have him.

Maryland vs. Virginia, previewing the game.

– Poll time! Terps vs. Cavs, who ya got?