COLLEGE PARK — — The buzz surrounding Shaquille Cleare has dulled a bit since the 6-9 power forward from Houston announced more than a year ago that he was coming to Maryland. The spring and summer of 2012 had all been about whether his former AAU teammates, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, would join him here next year.
Cleare, the centerpiece of Mark Turgeon's first recruiting class at Maryland, said he didn't seem to mind the spotlight going elsewhere. But now, with the Harrisons choosing defending national-champion Kentucky over the Terps, the buzz surrounding Cleare will certainly be back when he takes the court Friday night at Comcast Center for Maryland Madness.
Unlike the Harrisons and other high school stars who seem to covet the attention, Cleare knows it will find him if he performs as Turgeon — and former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who first recruited him — expects.
"Being a college athlete, you're going to be in the spotlight regardless," Cleare said Tuesday during the team's Media Day. "Attention is fine, but I just want to play basketball at the University of Maryland and hang [championship] banners. Attention will come with that. I'm prepared for it."
Cleare said he was hoping that the Harrisons had chosen Maryland and thought they might when he spoke to them the day before they made their announcement on national television last week.
"I spoke to them a lot," Cleare said. "They were speaking pretty positive of Maryland. They chose Kentucky and I'm happy for them. I wanted them to be here with me at Maryland. I'm proud of them and I wish them all the best at Kentucky."
It is difficult to understand how Cleare avoided the hype himself given where he is now. But then when he tells the story of coming from the Bahamas four years ago and only starting to play organized basketball when he settled in Texas, it seems to make sense.
"When I tell people I just picked up a ball four years ago, they're like, 'Wow, that's crazy,'" Cleare said.
It might have helped Cleare stay under the radar as his game developed.
Even Turgeon, who first saw Cleare play after his freshman year, wasn't sure what to make of him.
"The truth is, he was just really a fat kid," Turgeon said with his typical honesty Tuesday. "But I saw something there. He's become a much more confident player. Moves better, more athletic obviously, low-post game's improved, has become a better rebounder, has a better feel for the game, like most kids do. It's really a credit to him."
Along with Turgeon, one of the first to recruit Cleare was Williams. Cleare said that he was considering both Maryland and Texas A&M, where Turgeon was coaching, the day Williams announced his retirement in May 2011.
"When he was here, Maryland was my first choice and [Texas] A&M was my second choice," Cleare said. "After Coach Williams retired and Turgeon stepped in and took his place, I killed one bird with two stones right there by coming to the University of Maryland."
Asked whether he would have come to Maryland had Williams not retired, Cleare said, "That's a good question. Turgeon and his A&M staff were recruiting me pretty heavily. There was a good chance I would have come to Maryland anyway."
Williams said in an interview this week that Cleare reminded him of former Terps star Lonny Baxter, not only for his wide-body and his willingness to play with his back to the basket but also for his low-key personality.
"He was just a big, strong kid. A lot of big guys want to become jump shooters so they can play in the NBA, but he wanted to play inside," Williams said of Cleare. "I also liked him as a person. He's just a really nice kid."
Cleare joined Seth Allen, a 6-1 point guard from Fredericksburg, Va. who was Turgeon's first recruit. Jake Layman, a 6-8 shooter from outside Boston, became the third member of the class. Charles Mitchell, a 6-8 power forward from Atlanta, signed up in the spring. All four are expected to play significant minutes for the Terps this season.
Collectively, they are to Turgeon what Tom McMillen and Len Elmore were to Lefty Driesell in the early 1970s; what Duane Simpkins, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp were to Williams in the early 1990s — the first strong recruiting class to turn the Maryland program around.
But most of the expectations will surround Cleare, as the top-rated prospect in this year's class. Sophomore guard Nick Faust (City) understands what Cleare is going through, having faced the same type of pressure last year.
Faust thinks Cleare will have a much smoother transition than he did.
"Shaquille is very talented, [but] I think there's a difference between being a guard and a big [man], being the size he is and doing what he did in high school. I think he will be totally fine. For me I had to adjust and do some different things," Faust said.
Cleare has already had a different kind of challenge — trying to get in the kind of shape needed to play in the ACC. He said he came to campus this summer weighing a hefty 290 pounds, but lost more than 30 pounds at one point through a twice-a-day cardio program and a diet devoid of fried foods, rice and bread.
"When I came back from the Bahamas, I was like 259, Coach said I was getting too small for my position," said Cleare, who now weighs about 265 pounds. "[Before] I couldn't run up and down the floor that easily. I was struggling. I could still jam the ball. Now my hops are crazy. I can get up and down the floor much easier."
Said Turgeon: "He can now play above the rim."
Though he shares almost the same name as the former NBA superstar — it's actually Shaquille O'Neal Cleare — the Maryland freshman compares his game more with recent Ohio State star Jared Sullinger.
Asked what Maryland fans should expect of him this season, Cleare said, "Physical player down low, doing all the dirty work, basically whatever Turgeon needs me to do."
Said Turgeon: "Our kids love him, the way he dedicates himself. If you [asked] everybody who the hardest worker is, it's a close fight between him and Alex [Len]. Off the floor, doing the right things. The academic people love him, 'He works so hard.' He's one of those kids you hope great things happen to."
Cleare isn't into the hype, the kind that will accompany his former AAU teammates to Kentucky next season.
"People say they are expecting me to do great things," he said. "I just want to work hard and get better. The hype will come later."