Somewhere in the recesses of Comcast Center, Charles Mitchell wrapped Shaquille Cleare in a bear hug. Mitchell is 6 feet 8 and 260 pounds. Cleare is 6-9 and 256 pounds. Together, they weigh roughly the equivalent of a moderately sized adult grizzly.
The two freshmen are plenty jolly, especially when basking in a win. But Saturday afternoon was different. For perhaps the first time all season, both Cleare and Mitchell showed up together. In a 72-59 win over Clemson, Cleare turned in his best ACC game with the Terps. Mitchell, who’s snatched a little more glory and a few more headlines this year, sparked Maryland early with a blistering first half.
So when Mitchell embraced Cleare and the ground presumably shook ever so slightly, he thanked his classmate and said, “Man, you looked really good out there today.”
Especially with Alex Len laboring through another middling performance – nine points and eight rebounds, mostly in the game’s waning minutes – the front court’s supporting cast becomes vital to Maryland’s success. Cleare finished with 10 points and six rebounds, staying out of foul trouble while guarding Clemson center Devin Booker through 19 impressive minutes. Mitchell faded in the second half, but finished with eight points and seven rebounds, his sixth game this season with at least that many of each category.
“I always tell Shaq, they’re big and strong, but not as big and strong as you are,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He can wear them down. Shaq played really good, I was happy for him.”
Tuesday at Boston College, Cleare’s 20th birthday, matchup issues relegated the center to just five minutes, his second single-digit game over Maryland’s past four. He’s played fewer than 10 minutes on seven occasions this season. And while Jake Layman has inserted himself into the starting lineup, Seth Allen remains an electric force at guard and Mitchell keeps impressing off the bench, Cleare has endured a rockier start than his classmates.
“I feel like Shaq is a humble person,” Mitchell said. “He’s not getting down on himself. He’ll just move on. I’m getting on him all the time, on and off the court and in the classroom. We communicate every day. Shaq’s not the type of person who’ll get down on himself. He’ll do whatever it takes to get better, to make people notice that he wants to play and win. He’s not he kid who’s going to get frustrated and be a team player. He’s always a team player.
“He just continues working hard. He’s probably working hard right now. Probably in the gym after this game. Seeing him like that always motivates me, even though sometimes he’ll get less minutes.”
Having a confident and aggressive Cleare should do wonders for Maryland’s depth, both in this season and beyond. Even James Padgett, despite his 0-for-4 performance at the free throw line, finished with six points and six rebounds. Maryland’s four post players combined for 13 offensive rebounds. None had fewer than three.
“The other big guys [aside from Len] are all big and strong and capable,” Clemson Coach Brad Brownell said. “That’s rare to have so many. Miami has three but [Maryland] has four.”
The difference, of course, is that Miami’s front court features three seniors in Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson and Julian Gamble, while the Terps rotate two freshmen, a 19-year-old sophomore and Padgett.
Cleare hadn’t reached double figures since playing 22 minutes against Maryland-Eastern Shore, and has shuttled between the starting lineup and the bench ever since. Turgeon has publicly called Cleare his favorite player to coach, so it only seemed a matter of time before the freshman got going.
“Shaq never gets too high on himself, never gets too low on himself,” Layman said. “He always works hard. He’s just someone that we don’t really worry about with him feeling sorry for himself. He’s just the all-around great player.”
Of course, receiving more production from Len trumps anything Cleare, Mitchell or Padgett can give. The future NBA lottery pick failed to reach double digits for the second straight game, since dropping 19 points on Duke and Mason Plumlee.
“Yeah, he seems tired, doesn’t he?” Turgeon said. “Little fatigued, little dead-legged right now. We’ll take tomorrow off, hopefully Wednesday he plays better. We really went light, to be honest with you. Our guys are tired. Not only physical tired, but they’re mentally tired, so we really backed off. The one day we went after it, I separated Shaq and Alex. Shaq beating on you, that wears you down, so I have to stay away from that in practice more, so we can have Alex fresh as we move forward.
“He wasn’t himself, obviously. He’s been a little heavy-legged the past two games. And he has to change his mind-set. If he changes his mind-set, maybe that will help him.”
And what mind-set is that?
“I think he’s just go to pretend he’s playing Plumlee every game,” Turgeon said. “That might help. Just have that mind-set. You’re playing against a great player. To me, Booker’s a heck of a player and a tough challenge. He should have been a little more into it. But the great thing is that Shaq played and we were able to overcome it.”