Welcome to a second season of Morning Shootaround. We will follow the Terps throughout the 2013-14 season, but this year in this space we will provide a look ahead rather than looking back. We will try to analyze Maryland's strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of its upcoming opponent. We also hope to provide quotes and anecdotes from practices to give some idea of what Mark Turgeon and his team are doing.
Here are a few things to look for as the Terps open the season against No. 18 Connecticut tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.:
IS DEZ WELLS A POINT GUARD?
Turgeon said he was thinking about giving the 6-foot-5 junior time at the point, and possibly even starting him there down the road, even before Seth Allen went down with a broken foot last week. I think Turgeon realizes that Wells, a terrific athlete who can be at times a terrific basketball player, might have a chance to make the NBA only as a point guard because he doesn't have the range or consistency on his jump shot to be a shooting guard at the next level.
I still think Turgeon would have started the season with Allen at the point and Wells and Nick Faust on the wings. Wells basically has two games between now and when Allen returns in early January to prove he can handle the point -- tonight, when he faces the combination of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright of UConn and Dec. 4 when he matches up against Ohio State's Aaron Kraft.
Wells showed last season that he is a willing passer, but he clearly has to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio (113-108) regardless of what position he plays. At the point, it's even more essential that Wells plays under control and sets the tone for a team that has shown a tendency to play what Turgeon earlier this week called "street ball."
Asked Thursday if there was any way to simulate the pressure the Huskies will play, Turgeon credited junior Varun Ram, a former walk-on who played two years at a Division III school in Connecticut, for doing a pretty good imitation of Boatright. Ram will likely see some time against the Huskies playing behind Wells and freshman Roddy Peters.
"Varun gets in you, which has really helped us," Turgeon said of the 5-10, 150-pound point guard from Columbia. "Varun is a little bit like Boatright because he never gives up. Boatright can go for like 80 minutes without stopping, it looks like. We'll have multiple guys who can handle the ball, but our whole team as to handle the pressure.
CAN THE THREE-HEADED CENTER BE AS EFFECTIVE AS ALEX LEN?
A year ago, Len had his best game of the season against Kentucky in Brooklyn. He finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots and put himself in the conversation for being one of the top players taken in the NBA draft. An NBA scout told me last winter that even while Len struggled against many lesser players, his dominance over Nerlens Noel raised his profile considerably.
That is not going to happen Friday. Maryland does not have anyone as skilled as Len and Connecticut doesn't have anyone with the potential of Noel. Still, this is a huge game for the Terps in terms of their big men. I assume either one of Turgeon's sophomores, Shaquille Cleare or Charles Mitchell, will start. One of them, along with Dodd, will come off the bench against a team whose biggest player is 7-foot, 217-pound freshman Amidah Brimah.
Look for the Terps to try to pound the ball inside, maybe even before they start hoisting 3-pointers, just to see what they can exploit.
"This is a big role for Charles and me, we're the two biggest guys on the team," Cleare said Thursday. "We're not going to go out of comfort zone, we're going to do what coach needs us to do."
You can tell that Cleare knows the expectations are much higher for him this season.
"People are pressuring me to fill in for Alex, but I'm just going to come in and do what I have to do -- rebound, run the floor, block shots, screens, make the easy plays for my team," he said.
Cleare has had some setbacks because of nagging injuries during the spring and summer, but he seems ready for the opener. Already famous in College Park for his workout regimen, Cleare said he lost five pounds in the past few days after a disappointing performance against Division III Catholic on Sunday.
"The exhibition wasn't too good for me. I struggled a little bit. It motivated me," Cleare said. "I've got to put my team on my back. Alex is not here anymore. I've got to hold it down for my team this year."
WILL BROOKLYN BE KINDER THIS YEAR TO THE TERPS?
Turgeon and his team spent a lot of time the past few weeks talking about how different the level of maturity this year's group is compared to last year. I remember watching last year's game against Kentucky and thinking how nervous and out of sync the Terps looked.
Wells, who had just been cleared to play by the NCAA after transferring from Xavier, was emotionally exhausted before halftime. Faust hit the backboard more frequently the rim. If not for Len and Mitchell, who had 10 rebounds in 16 minutes, Maryland would have lost by 15 to 20 points instead of just three.
Connecticut might be a better team now than Kentucky was then.
It's interesting that the Terps have a chance to make it back to New York City late in the season, just as they did a year ago. One of the sites for this year's NCAA Sweet 16 is Madison Square Garden, where Maryland lost to Iowa in the NIT semifinals.
I'm not saying that the Terps are a Sweet 16 team. Given how difficult it's going to be for them as a lame duck team in the ACC this season, I think it's not a guarantee that Maryland is an NCAA tournament team. But I think Turgeon has the talent and has proven himself as a coach capable of taking his team that far.
Someone who works at Comcast Center mentioned to me that Friday's game reminds him of when Maryland played a nationally ranked Georgetown team at USAir Arena to start the 1993-94 season. The Terps were primarily a team made up of a good sophomore class and two talented freshmen -- Joe Smith and Keith Booth. The Terps won when Smith introduced himself to Othella Harrington and the rest of the country.
Exree Hipp, one of the sophomores, told me that I would eat my words when I wrote that I didn't think the Terps had a chance to be a Sweet 16 team. As Maryland celebrated its second-round NCAA tournament victory over favored UMass in Wichita, Kan., Hipp walked over to press row, picked up a piece of paper and handed it to me. It didn't taste as bad as I thought it would.