The Maryland men’s basketball team officially opens preseason practice on Friday, even though the Terrapins spent weeks preparing for their August trip to the Bahamas — playing three games there — so really they’re just picking up where they left off.
Even so, with Maryland Madness at Cole Field House 21 days away, an exhibition against Catholic 37 days away and the season opener against Connecticut 42 days down the road, here are three quick story lines to monitor as Maryland guns for its first NCAA tournament berth in the Mark Turgeon era.
1) Point guard development: Ah, the burning question, and the one with the clearest answer. Maryland spun through Pe’Shon Howard, Seth Allen, Dez Wells and Nick Faust at point guard last season, with mixed results. When Howard transferred to USC, Turgeon handed the reins to Allen, and rightfully so. He’s a back-court sparkplug, arguably the ACC’s quickest guard, with a nose for breaking ankles and splitting double-teams into the open court.
He suffered through typical freshmen pains last season, notably six games of at least four turnovers, and missed the final two games with a broken wrist. That injury healed, Allen has earned Turgeon’s trust to operate the offense, and Terps fans should feel fine about his offseason improvement. Besides, the addition of heralded freshman Roddy Peters has progressed as planned, and the Suitland High School graduate should provide a valuable backup option behind Allen, until he eases into the college game and his minutes can expand.
2) The continued ascension of Dez Wells: It seems long ago, but Wells closed the 2012-13 season on as vicious a tear as any Maryland player in recent memory. His ACC tournament included 21 points against Wake Forest, a career-high 30 against Duke and 15 against North Carolina. His turnover rate slowed down, his three-pointer selection became more choosy and accurate, and whenever the Terps needed a quick burst, Wells stepped into the role.
He’s an all-ACC talent with NBA aspirations and team-leader status firmly in his back pocket, and there’s nothing to suggest Wells cannot fulfill whatever expectations Turgeon sets for him this season. He can be a slashing wing scorer, a back-down low-post option against smaller lineups and a lockdown perimeter defender. His ballhandling and turnover rate still must improve, but with so many offseason practices — few available for media consumption — who’s to say that hasn’t already bettered?
(A side note: How, if at all, will Wells’s pending lawsuit against Xavier University, his former school, affect him and the team? His lawyer insisted litigation would not interfere with his basketball duties, but the suit will still follow Wells around this season until its completion. Given the way he handled transferring to Maryland after his expulsion from Xavier, that shouldn’t be a problem, at least for him.)
3) Shaquille Cleare’s injury situation: Back in August, before the Terps prepared to fly to Cleare’s home country and compete against local Bahamian teams, Turgeon announced that his projected starting center would sit out with back problems. Those issues have lingered into September, Turgeon told ESPN’s Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg on a podcast this week, and his words seemed to suggest Cleare’s status is still in limbo.
“All the tests have been done structurally he’s fine, we’re just hoping that his back loosens up and he’s ready to play,” Turgeon said. Maryland’s front court, even if less necessary this season given the guard-heavy lineups Turgeon plans to roll with, is still thinned with only Cleare and Charles Mitchell back and Alex Len gone to the NBA. The Terps need Cleare’s physicality inside to body up opposing centers and anchor the paint. There’s no indication Cleare’s injury is anything more than a nagging issue, but if it lingers through preseason, it could hamper the post depth.