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Despite losing Alex Len, Mark Turgeon wants his Terps to stay big

Pro BasketballBasketballMaryland TerrapinsAlex LenShaquille O'NealMichigan Wolverines

For most of Mark Turgeon's first two seasons at Maryland, the focus has been on the lack of a true point guard and the problems he and the Terps have encountered as a result. As the third-year coach gets his team ready for the start of the 2013-14 season in a little less than a month, the focus has changed.

It has gone from the perimeter to the paint, from point guard to center. Despite the departure of Alex Len to the NBA after his sophomore year, Turgeon said Tuesday that he is leaning toward again using a traditional back-to-the-basket big man rather than being part of a trend to, as they say, go small.

It's a decision that is still weeks away — the Terps won't open the season until Nov. 8 against Connecticut at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — but it's one that Turgeon has been wrestling with since the day last April when Len announced he was turning pro.

"We're going to miss Alex," Turgeon said during his team's media day at Comcast Center. "If you followed us closely down the stretch last year, Alex was pretty special, especially on the defensive end. We don't have that this year. ... He covered up a lot of our mistakes."

Turgeon's decision ultimately will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is the condition of sophomore center Shaquille Cleare's back and the progress of his game. After being kept out of summer workouts and off the floor during a three-game trip to his native Bahamas in August because of lower back issues, the 6-9, 265-pound sophomore returned to the court last month.

"Shaq's been great," Turgeon said. "If we threw it up today and had a game, Shaq would be our starting center. There might be some teams we're playing that have a 6-5 center — like Denver, they had a guy who made four 3's, that might be a little bit different. But traditionally Charles [Mitchell] or Shaq will be our starting center throughout the year. We'll try to have a big guy on the floor most of the time."

Cleare, who was also plagued by a hamstring injury during the offseason, understands that Maryland fans might have been disappointed by his overall performance as a freshman when he averaged just 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 12 minutes per game. But, like his coach, Cleare is confident this season will be different.

"I don't think people have really seen what I can bring to the table," Cleare said Tuesday. "I've always been a dominant force, that's what I'm going to do this year. I'm just going to play my game. I'm not going to try to play the Alex Len game, I'm going to play the Shaq game. Do all the dirty work and be physical and defend. The offense will come. I'm not concerned about it right now."

When the Terps go small and Turgeon tries to get his five most versatile offensive players on the court, it could mean that Evan Smotrycz, a 6-foot-9 235-pound junior forward known mostly as a long-range shooter, will be Maryland's de facto big man.

Smotrycz presents some interesting options for Turgeon, but what appears certain for the Michigan transfer is that he will likely play a lot more and in a much larger role for the Terps than he did in Ann Arbor, where he averaged seven points in a little under 20 minutes a game while starting 42 times during his two seasons.

"He's a major weapon — he can really shoot it from deep, he has mid-range game and he can post up," Turgeon said of Smotrycz. "He can also really pass and he can really figure out how to get guys open in our offense. He's a huge asset that way. On the other hand, he can guard a big man because he had to do it at Michigan. He can also get out and guard the little guy. He's a pretty valuable piece in our puzzle."

Smotrycz, who shot a little over 40 percent on 3-pointers with the Wolverines, will open the driving lanes for perimeter players such as fellow junior Dez Wells and Nick Faust as well as sophomores Seth Allen and Jake Layman.

One of the reasons Smotrycz left was the possibility of seeing his playing time continue to decrease, as it did from his freshman to sophomore years. Another reason, ironically, was Smotrycz's reluctance to just be a designated 3-point shooter or being forced to play more inside.

"I just wanted to expand my game and have the freedom to create for guys, not feel nervous I was going to come out if I made a mistake," Smotrycz said Tuesday. "If don't hang your hat on one thing and have the freedom to play through mistakes, I think that's definitely a fun way to play."

With the opener looming, Turgeon and the Terps will use these next few weeks to figure out whether they will go with a more traditional lineup or, like everyone from high school teams to the two-time defending champion NBA champion Miami Heat, go small.

But the focus has certainly changed, from the perimeter to the paint.

don.markus@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Pro BasketballBasketballMaryland TerrapinsAlex LenShaquille O'NealMichigan Wolverines
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