For Terps basketball, frontcourt play is center of attention

Clockwise from top left, Shaquille Cleare, Jonathan Graham, Charles Mitchell and Damonte Dodd all have had ups and downs this season for the Terps in the paint. Cleare is likely to start Saturday against Georgia Tech.

COLLEGE PARK — Mark Turgeon can't simply flip a coin, since he has four different players from which to choose. It also doesn't matter which side of the bed the superstitious Maryland men's basketball coach gets out of the morning of a game.

Not that the Terps' frontcourt options have made it easy on Turgeon. Going into Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference home opener against Georgia Tech (9-4, 0-0 ACC) at Comcast Center, Turgeon said he had yet to decide who will start for Maryland (9-5, 1-0) at center.


"It's a guessing game," Turgeon said after practice Friday. "I'm leaning toward Shaq [Cleare] starting, because their center [6-foot-11, 275-pound Daniel Miller] is so big. Shaq's my biggest, strongest guy."

The 6-9, 265-pound Cleare started the first 12 games for the Terps at center before giving way to 6-9, 240-pound freshman Damonte Dodd on Sunday against Tulsa and 6-8, 220-pound junior transfer Jonathan Graham (Calvert Hall) on Tuesday against North Carolina Central.


Charles Mitchell, a 6-8, 260-pound sophomore, is the only big man who has yet to start, largely because he was so productive off the bench for much of the season's first 10 games. Mitchell got the most time (22 minutes) against N.C. Central because he was the most productive (five points, seven rebounds).

"I think by playing all these guys, their mindset is more focused on what they need to do. They come early, they stay late. They're working hard and they've created some really nice competition," Turgeon said.

Said Graham: "We're going against each other every day in practice. That's how you make each other better. That's what great teams do, that's what good players do. They go at each other and make the other guy better."

Veteran college basketball analyst Dan Bonner, who played center at Virginia, said Friday that Turgeon has been forced into going with four different options in large part because of a lack of development at the positon.

"No matter how you spin it, it says, 'We don't have a guy who we have confidence to be our main guy.' That's the only thing it can possibly say," Bonner said.

Graham has benefited most from the competition, getting an opportunity to play the past five games because of his ability as a shot blocker and rebounder, something Mitchell and Cleare lack.

"That's my job — whatever role it is, whether it's as a starter or coming off the bench, I want to provide great energy for this team and be a threat on the floor," Graham said.

Graham, who had six points and three rebounds in his first start, conceded Friday that he had to adjust to not coming off the bench.


"With any game, if you're starting the season coming off the bench, and the next game starting, it's going to be different for anybody," he said. "It doesn't matter how long you're playing for. I've started games before [at Penn State], so it's not a huge difference."

Bonner said part of Maryland's turnover issues is due to its play at center. Cleare has 13 turnovers and two assists this season. Mitchell has 12 and five, respectively, and Graham has five and two. Dodd has four turnovers and has yet to register an assist.

"Given their current level of their skill development, they're people that have to catch the ball at exactly the right place at exactly the right time so they can make an easy move," Bonner said.

But sophomore point guard Seth Allen said Maryland needs to play "inside-out" to be successful, meaning that the ball should go into the post before it comes back to the wing for drives or jump shots by perimeter players.

"I've got full confidence in all our big guys," Allen said. "I don't hesitate to pass it inside, at all. If they have good position, I pretty much give it to them and let them do what they can do."

Bonner, who has covered a couple of Maryland games this season and will be courtside for Saturday's game, said the lack of inside production is not just on the big men.


"Maybe they haven't had the people who are capable of throwing the centers the ball in the position they can do the most damage," Bonner said.

"If you look at the guards Mark has had, for the most part, they've been scoring point guards. [Roddy] Peters seems to be a little different, but he's young and he's learning."

Turgeon said he is not looking for his center to score.

"As we go into tomorrow's game, I want our post guys to defend and rebound. If they get four or six points, or eight points, that's great. That's icing on the cake," Turgeon said. "But defending and rebounding is what I want out of them. That's why Shaq started for so long, because of his defense."

Bonner believes Maryland can win without its center putting up big numbers offensively.

"An old coach told me one time, if he had to pick between having inexperienced guards with an experienced center, or inexperienced big people with an experienced guards, he would take the experienced guards because experienced guards can make an inexperienced center look good," Bonner said.


NOTE: Georgia Tech starting forward Robert Carter Jr. tore the meniscus in his left knee during Sunday's game at Charlotte and is out indefinitely. The 6-8 sophomore was averaging 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds this season.