By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun
4:00 PM EST, November 12, 2011
COLLEGE PARK —
It was still just the preseason, but this is what it had come to for Maryland's undersized, inexperienced, depth-challenged, work-in-progress men's basketball team:
• At a recent scrimmage, the point guard leaned on crutches, the center of the future was ineligible to play in games and was signing autographs, and the most compelling player may have been top recruit Shaquille Cleare — who is still in high school and was watching from the bleachers.
• The new coach, Mark Turgeon, blunt as ever, told reporters: "I'm just going to try to figure out who is going to score for us and stuff like that."
• A few walk-ons — barely an afterthought on most Terps teams of the past — appeared to have inched closer to becoming part of the playing rotation.
Could expectations possibly be any lower for the 2011-12 Terps?
With a nucleus of skilled guards and a highly ranked recruiting class led by the 6-foot-9 Cleare, there is reason to be optimistic about Turgeon's future in College Park. But, this season, the team has only seven members recruited as scholarship players who are eligible to play immediately in games. The season begins Sunday night against UNC-Wilmington at Comcast Center.
The roster is literally and figuratively thin. Berend Weijs — the 6-foot-10 center who was on a 5,000-calories-per-day diet to bulk up — said coaches have told him only half-jokingly: "Just don't get injured."
With scoring likely to be an issue, Weijs — a senior transfer who has made exactly zero 3-pointers in his Maryland career — said he has been hoisting up shots in practice from beyond the arc and making a high percentage.
Turgeon "wants me to shoot," Weijs said. "Last year, the plays were really not meant for me to shoot. This year, he actually runs plays for me to get a shot off. So I'm loving it."
The team lost Jordan Williams, the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading rebounder, to the NBA draft, and starting forward Dino Gregory to graduation. Then, in August, 6-foot-6 forward Haukur Palsson — who was versatile enough to play inside or out — announced he was leaving school to pursue a basketball career professionally in Europe.
On Nov. 2, Alex Len, a promising, 7-foot shot-blocker from Antratsit, Ukraine, was told by an NCAA panel that he can practice with the team but must sit out 10 games, apparently as a penalty for having played with a club overseas.
Even with the setbacks, Turgeon said the team — which began limited workouts in August — had seemed to develop an identity with slick-passing sophomore Pe'Shon Howard at point guard and fellow sophomore Terrell Stoglin (11.4 points per game last season) at shooting guard.
The idea had been to play a brand of "small ball" with a three-guard or four-guard lineup variously including Howard, Stoglin, freshman guard Nick Faust (City), senior guard-forward Sean Mosley (St. Frances) and perhaps sophomore swingman Mychal Parker.
But then Howard learned that the nagging pain in his foot was a broken bone. He may be able to return in 10 weeks, although a medical redshirt is a possibility.
"When I first got the report, the doctor — the first thing he mentioned was redshirt," Howard said. "I love college. I could be here forever. If they give me 10 redshirts, I'll be fine. It just depends on how we're doing."
The loss of Howard may have scuttled Turgeon's plans. "Small ball" — which attempts to use a unit's quickness to create mismatches — is an especially taxing style.
"The problem is that we just don't have enough guards. It will be really hard for us to go small a lot," Turgeon said.
With so few scholarship players, Turgeon must count on the maturation of several little-used players from last season.
As a group, Parker and forwards Ashton Pankey and James Padgett did not start a single game last season. But Turgeon needs them this year. He's counting particularly on the 6-foot-9 Pankey as a rebounder.
Pankey, who has endured a stress fracture and shin splints, missed almost the entire 2010-11 season. "It's been rough. I'm used to playing. I'm not used to being hurt," Pankey said. "Spots are open everywhere. I'm pretty sure I can come in and [make an] impact immediately."
All the returning Terps were jolted when Gary Williams retired as coach after 22 seasons at Maryland. Turgeon was hired in May.
"I came to Maryland because of Coach Williams," said Parker, who said he has grown two inches since he was recruited and is now 6 feet 7. "I kind of was like, 'Man, what if I don't like this guy that comes?' But I feel like it was a good fit. First thing [Turgeon] told me was I needed to get bigger and stronger. I picked up 10 pounds."
A handful of walk-ons have become part of the equation out of necessity.
On Sept. 2, the basketball office posted a notice on its website announcing walk-on tryouts five days later. "Candidates should report to Heritage Hall in Comcast Center at 7 a.m.," the notice said.
Early on the morning of Sept. 7, about five-dozen Maryland students showed up. The team ended up selecting five walk-ons — some picked from the open try-outs and others coaches already knew. One walk-on from last season, 6-foot-7 John Auslander, has been given a scholarship.
"We're going to have to play some walk-ons. That's the bottom line," Turgeon said.
The coach grabbed a microphone at the end of the Oct. 29 open scrimmage and asked fans to "stick with us."
"Nobody thinks we're going to be any good," he said. "But I think we're going to be pretty darned good before it's done."
Turgeon may well believe it. But the former Kansas point guard — who possesses a feistiness often associated with smaller players in a big man's game — is also realistic enough to know what his team has this season. And what it lacks.
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