Welcome back to Morning Shootaround, which will be a regular feature this season the day after Maryland basketball games. While we can't bring you into the Terps' locker room after games – reporters haven't been allowed in there since the last couple of years under Gary Williams – we will recap what was said in the press conference afterward by Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and his players. We will give some of our own insight into what transpired on the court during the previous night's game and what the Terps will be working on at practice looking ahead to their next game.
Final score: Maryland 81, IUPUI 63 @ Comcast Center, Tuesday afternoon
The Terps looked as if they had their minds on Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Virginia Tech – when they came out for the opening tip against the little school from Indianapolis. It made for an interesting first half, with Maryland falling behind by as many as 11, 14-3, prompting Turgeon to call a timeout 21 seconds after what had been a media timeout.
"He just told us to get focused," sophomore swingman Dez Wells said. "You know they're not the caliber of the team we really like to play. We can't play down to their talent. We have to step on their necks. We have to be competitors. We have to compete every single play, night in, night out, regardless of who we're playing against. That was good. That motivated us. We pulled it out."
This is the kind of game that Turgeon's team might have lost last season, given that after he subbed out a starting lineup that had missed five of six shots and had committed a couple of sloppy turnovers, he wouldn't have had a second group as talented as the one he has now. The result was 12 straight points in a 20-4 run and a 41-34 halftime lead.
Starting the five players who he thought had played the best in the opening half, the Terps were never really challenged in the second half. But a combination of Maryland's slow start and spotty perimeter defense – IUPUI shot 24 of 54 for the game, the best any team had done against the Terps this season – will give Turgeon plenty of material to work on as his team prepares for the Hokies.
CLEARE'S COMING ON
I was a little hard on Maryland's top recruit early in the season, foolishly referring to former Terp bust Braxton Dupree in a comparison to Shaquille Cleare. While the performances are still inconsistent, Cleare is certainly working a lot harder than Dupree ever did during his two years in College Park (or his three at Towson).
You might be hard-pressed to find anyone on this year's Maryland team working harder than the 6-9 center from the Bahamas.
After playing his best half of the season Tuesday – he made all four of his shots in the second half, a couple resulting from great moves in the post and getting the kind of position 7-1 sophomore Alex Len was having trouble finding against IUPUI- I asked Cleare about what he has been doing to take what Turgeon said were three strong weeks of practice onto the court.
Cleare pointed to his work ethic.
"I just try to go to practice, work hard every day in spite of the games in the past," Cleare said. "I was in the hole for a little while, coach told me to keep working hard and good things will happen to me. The first few games, I haven't been playing the way people have known me for playing, I just decided to get back to the old Shaq. Physical, being aggressive and doing all the dirty work. "
Said Turgeon, "He's posting up harder, he's finishing, he wasn't finishing earlier in the year. He's getting in better shape. He's more confident. Guys like Shaq, they're happy throwing him the ball. They like when he makes plays. He's been dominant in practice. Nobody likes to go against him. When he hits you, he hits you. As we play bigger teams, I don't know what lies ahead, but I think it will be a good situation for him."
Cleare said the key to his play of late has been his improved conditioning. He said that he does conditioning every day, including on game day. On Tuesday, he came to Comcast Center and did a high-intensity workout callled a tabata – running or cycling at a high speed sprint for 20 to 30 seconds, then at a normal speed for the same amount of time.
Cleare said he did 60 tabatas.
"I just did it non-stop for about 30 minutes, got my legs going, my blood flowing," Cleare said.
One more thing: he was in the gym at 6 a.m. – nine hours before game time.
Talk about a New Year's resolution.
After following up a six-point, two-rebound, 17-minute performance last Saturday against Delaware State, Len was only a little better against IUPUI. He finished with nine points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
Len is certainly getting a little frustrated with the double and triple-teams that result from the opposition using almost exclusively zone defenses the past two games, but Len has not been nearly as assertive as he was before Christmas break. Turgeon said last week that Len had come back from break not in as good a shape as when he left.
When Turgeon was asked Tuesday whether it was a matter of teammates not looking for Len early enough in the shot clock, or Len not playing hard enough to get good position on smaller opponents, he had an interesting answer.
"Alex hasn't played well, so quite frankly, I'm not going to call a play for him if he's not playing well," Turgeon said, a hint of frustration in his tone. "He just hasn't played well. Shaq's down there swiveling, getting on bodies and we're throwing it to him and he's scoring [more] in less minutes or equal minutes. I'm not concerned about it."
Someone joked with Cleare that he has worn Len out in practice.
"Don't mind Alex, he's going to bounce back, he's a hard worker," Cleare said. "I have confidence in Alex. Alex has struggled the past two games, but knowing his personality, Alex is not going to stop. He's done. Trust me, he's not done. Alex is going to bounce back and dominate the ACC."
In fact, Cleare credits the double-teams Len has seen for allowing Cleare (eight points, five rebounds in 18 minutes, James Padgett (eight points and six rebounds in 16 minutes) and Charles Mitchell (seven points and five rebounds in 20 minutes as a starter) to get easy shots and dunks inside.
Given Virginia Tech's lack of size and depth – as well as the success Delaware State and IUPUI had in slowing down Len after in all but one of Maryland's first 11 games while averaging over 14 points- don't be surprised to see the Hokies come out in a zone on Saturday.
HOW GOOD ARE THE TERPS?
A year ago, Maryland was 10-3 going into its first ACC game. But Turgeon knew that the record was a bit bloated and the Terps had only one quality win – over a jet-lagged Notre Dame team in the BB&T Classic at the Verizon Center – to show for it.
The Terps don't really have any marquee wins in their 12-1 record. Kevin Dunleavy of the Washington Examiner asked an interesting question after Tuesday's game: would it be better if Maryland had beaten Kentucky in the season opener and was undefeated and nationally ranked, maybe even in the top 10?
"I'm glad we're not undefeated, I'm glad we're not ranked seventh or eighth," Turgeon said. "We're not the seventh or eighth-best team and we didn't deserve to win that night. I think it's kind of kept our attention. We've got plenty of chances the next few weeks to get ranked. Is that honest enough?"
Finally, the Terps are going to open their much-anticipated ACC schedule. Given the recent struggles of Virginia Tech, I'm not so sure that playing the Hokies is going to be much different than playing Stony Brook or George Mason. After starting the season 7-0 -- with wins over Iowa and then-No. 15 Oklahoma State -- under new coach James Johnson, Virginia Tech has lost its last two and three of its last five.
Aside from having the nation's second-leading scorer in Erick Green, Virginia Tech is struggling to find enough bodies (eight scholarship players) and much chemistry under Johnson, a former assistant under Seth Greenberg in Blacksburg. People are starting to question Johnson's bench coaching after the Hokies lost to Georgia Southern at home Dec. 15 and were blown out the last two games by Colorado State (88-52) in Las Vegas and at Brigham Young (97-71).