After dominating non-conference games, Terps take a step up into ACC play

Shaquille Cleare and the Terps expect to face much more resistance inside now that they've reached conference play. Their first ACC game is at noon Saturday against Virginia Tech.
Shaquille Cleare and the Terps expect to face much more resistance inside now that they've reached conference play. Their first ACC game is at noon Saturday against Virginia Tech. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — Losing is not the only thing Maryland has avoided since its season-opening defeat to then-No. 3 Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Terps have barely been tested during what has become a 12-game winning streak.

Second-year coach Mark Turgeon is not apologizing for the schedule that has helped produce the program's longest winning streak in more than a decade. Nor is Turgeon worried about whether Maryland (12-1) is ready for its ACC opener Saturday against Virginia Tech (9-4).

"I think we're prepared for league play. I don't know how it's going to go," Turgeon said Friday at Comcast Center, where the Terps will take on the the Hokies beginning at noon. "I think we have 10 guys playing pretty well, 10 guys playing with confidence. We still have a lot of deficiencies, but not as many as we used to have."

The lack of what Turgeon called "resistance" from opposing frontcourts could be one of the bigger concerns about how the season will play out for Maryland. Freshman center Shaquille Cleare showed the same honesty that his coach typically demonstrates when asked if he is looking forward to playing teams of equal size and ability.

"That's why I came to the ACC. I was tired of the JV games," Cleare said Friday.

Part of that uncertainty also surrounds the league itself and the disappointing non-conference performances of several teams — North Carolina in particular.

A year after many experts said they couldn't remember a season when what was once the country's top basketball conference had fewer quality teams early on, there appear to be even more doubts about this season.

"I'm not sure any league is as good as it used to be because of what I call realignment," said former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, now an ESPN analyst. "I think there are a lot of wins [available] in the league, but I think there are a lot of wins in most leagues, except for the Big Ten or the Mountain West."

Said Turgeon: "There's been some good wins and there's been some bad losses, but I think if you look around the country you can say that about every league. I just worry about Maryland and try to do the best we can."

Aside from top-ranked Duke, which beat three teams ranked in the top four in a span of 15 days in November, there are no teams in the ACC considered legitimate national championship contenders. Only one other team is ranked in the Top 25, North Carolina State, but the Wolfpack has dropped from No. 6 in the preseason rankings to No. 23 because it has yet to beat a ranked opponent.

After the 13-0 Blue Devils and the 11-2 Wolfpack, who will meet Jan. 12 in Raleigh, N.C., there seems to be a void to be filled by any number of teams, including possibly Maryland. North Carolina (10-3) came into the season ranked No. 11 and has dropped out of the Top 25 after embarrassing losses to Indiana (83-59) and Texas (85-67).

"How many times can you remember a year going into league play when you would say North Carolina is an if [to make the NCAA tournament]," Greenberg said. "Florida State [8-5] is a big if right now. A lot of people and their coach thought they were a Top 25 team, but they lost to Mercer and South Alabama at home. I would say that this is a year of uncertainty [in the ACC]."

Turgeon has followed the Tar Heels more than most ACC teams because of his relationship with North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

"They're young, they lost four [NBA] first-rounders, I believe. Unfortunately for Carolina, they're not supposed to be grouped in with the rest of us," Turgeon said. "Sometimes that's going to happen when you lose a lot of players, but they still have a lot of good guards. I think they're trying to figure out who their big guys are."

Greenberg thinks the difference for Maryland this season could be sophomore center Alex Len.

"I think they've got a legitimate low post presence and skilled 7-footer and not many teams can say that," Greenberg said. "Alex Len is a difference maker. He's got great hands, he runs the floor, he's gotten stronger, he understands what their scheme is all about and yet he has the skill set of a European player. I think he in himself is unique."

ESPN analyst and former Maryland All-American Len Elmore said he sees Dez Wells, the Terps' second-leading scorer behind Len, as "a Stevie Francis-type player who doesn't even know yet how good a scorer he can be."

Both analysts agree that Maryland has done little, if anything, to build its NCAA tournament resume in the non-conference schedule. Elmore said even the loss to Kentucky "could be considered a bad loss" given the struggles of the young Wildcats, who have plummeted out of the Top 25.

According to cbsports.com, the Terps are ranked 71st in overall RPI with their non-conference schedule ranked a dismal 283rd. The Sagarin Ratings have Maryland a respectable 37th despite its schedule being ranked 343 out of 346 Division I teams.

Greenberg was asked if there is pressure on Turgeon's team in the ACC — similar to many of his Virginia Tech teams that were eventually snubbed by the NCAA selection committee because of their non-conference schedules.

"I'm not sure it's pressure, but they can't afford a bad loss," Greenberg said. "The problem is that they're going to be relying on other teams to play well, too. They're going to need some Top 50, Top 100 wins, and where are they going to come from?"

Cleare knows that he and his teammates have a lot more to prove — and a different kind of pressure than what existed the first two months.

"I know a lot of people are going to look at our record and be like, 'Maryland's pretty good, they beat a lot of teams that were OK,' but now there's a lot of pressure on us to show people that we can be really good," he said.