Mark Turgeon wants to forget last season and focus instead on the players who stood before the Maryland basketball coach on Tuesday — a freshman class with youthful arrogance, frontcourt bulk and plenty of promise.
Although he rarely confided it, Turgeon did not feel good about last season's prospects as the season began. In the coach's first year, the Terps didn't resemble a Turgeon team. They finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in defense, surrendering an average of 70.7 points a game. Turgeon's teams had always been known for defense.
He has a different problem in this year's preseason: trying not to inflate expectations for a team with four highly-touted freshmen and three transfers.
As they assembled on the Comcast Center court for media day, 6-foot-9 Shaquille Cleare and 6-foot-8 Charles Mitchell resembled heavyweight boxers.
"It just so happened that we signed a couple bigger guys — beefier guys," Turgeon said. "We have tremendous depth inside, which we didn't have last year."
Cleare weighs about 270. Mitchell weighs 262. And that's after slimming down over the summer. Maryland's staff put team members on diets to improve their movement and stamina.
Mitchell, who is from Georgia, said he cut out Southern fried foods. Cleare — who is from the Bahamas but lived with his coach in Houston — is geographically cut off from his favorite Texas seafood and barbecue restaurant.
What they lost in pounds, they make up for in moxie. Cleare and Mitchell both talked Tuesday of engaging in spirited, low-post battles with each other and with Alex Len, the 7-foot-1 sophomore center.
"Me and Alex battle every day in practice," Cleare said. "We throw punches, we do elbows. We pull on pants, we pull on socks — everything. We're making one another better. We're all macho."
When he played, Turgeon was a feisty point guard for Kansas. It's a quality he seems to seek in his recruits.
Maryland was ninth in the ACC in defensive rebounds last season, and Turgeon is intent on building a team that isn't pushed around in the paint.
"I've never been in a practice where coaches have to stop practice because we are pounding each other so hard," Mitchell said. "It's physically and mentally challenging because you want your teammate to get better, but at the same time you want to improve your game so it's crazy. It's a war sometimes down there in the post."
The freshman class also includes guard 6-1 guard Seth Allen and 6-8 forward Jake Layman. Layman, who can play inside but likes to shoot 3-pointers, honed his game this summer on USA Basketball's Under-18 team.
"Not that I felt like I didn't belong there, but I was just very nervous because it was my first time playing with players like that," Layman said of the national team. "Once I got on the court, I realized I could play with them."
Maryland opens the season Nov. 9 against Kentucky. Maryland Madness — the preseason pep rally — is scheduled for Friday night at Comcast Center.
Maryland, 17-15 last season, has not been picked near the top of the ACC by most pundits.
Turgeon said he picked up one basketball magazine and noticed that Maryland was picked 10th out of the 12 teams.
"That's the only one I looked at," the coach said. "That's all I needed. I've had teams that were picked eighth or ninth and made the NCAA Tournament. We're going to have a chance to be a postseason team."
Maryland's newcomers also include transfer Logan Aronhalt, a guard who can play immediately because he earned a degree from Albany. Another transfer, Evan Smotrycz from Michigan, has not graduated yet and must sit out the season.
A third transfer, Dez Wells, is awaiting an NCAA decision over granting him a waiver so he can play this year. Wells was expelled by Xavier after a sexual-assault allegation that a prosecutor said was unproven.
Wells and Smotrycz figure prominently in Turgeon's plans for the future.
"I think the national spotlight is coming. I think we all know that," Turgeon said. "I expect that to happen."
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