Morning Shootaround: Analyzing Maryland's loss to Kentucky

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.

Game 1: Kentucky 72, Maryland 69 @ The Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y

As much as Turgeon hates to lose, the Terps at least gave notice that they should be solidly entrenched in the top half of the ACC this season. They came back from a nervous start that resulted in a 15-point deficit and nearly beat the defending national champions, albeit a team that had not returned a single starter.

The Terps didn’t get beat by any of John Calipari’s high-profile recruits, but by former walk-on point guard, Jarrod Polson, who Turgeon said was not even mentioned in the scouting report. “When he subbed in the game, I asked ‘Who’s that?’” Turgeon said after Polson scored three more points against Maryland (10) than he did all of last season.      

3-point shots

** Still replaying the last frantic moments of that wild 2012-13 season opener in your mind?  I’m sure  Turgeon has been up for a few hours already, wondering why Pe’Shon Howard didn’t get the ball to a wide-open Logan Aronhalt on the left wing. Aronhalt, who was brought in as a one-year transfer from Albany mostly for his ability to hit 3s, was inserted just for that purpose after the last timeout.

I was actually surprised that Howard was in the game given the fact that he isn’t a 3-point shooter and was 1-for-7 before that shot, the only make coming on a little tear-drop move in the second half. As he took the last shot, I knew it wasn’t the play Turgeon had drawn up, given the Terps had 7.7 seconds left after taking the ball out.

The risk of taking any kind of shot in traffic, let alone a 3-pointer to tie over 6-10 Nerlens Noel, is a not high-percentage move. Again, it speaks to Howard wanting to be the hero rather than the guy who makes the smart pass. It had shades of a Terrell Stoglin moment. There’s no guarantee Aronhalt makes the shot, but I would rather lose the game after missing a wide-open 3 rather than what Howard tried.

** Alex  Len put his name in the NBA Draft lottery discussion. Just as a relatively unknown freshman named Joe Smith introduced himself to the country by badly outplaying preseason All-American candidate Othella Harrington in Maryland’s upset of then highly ranked Georgetown in the 1993 opener at US AirArena, Len had a similar coming-out party by badly outclassing Noel, the most celebrated member of Kentucky’s freshman class.

If Noel is expected to be another of John Calipari’s one-and-done lottery picks next spring, what does that make Len? The 7-1 sophomore from the Ukraine finished with 23 points, 12 points and 4 blocked shots and showed much stronger hands, great body control around the basket and the ability to finish at the rim.

“I feel much more comfortable,” Len said after shooting 10 of 18 from the field. “I got a little bit stronger over the summer and I worked really hard to put on some weight and it helped me. It was special to play against Nerlens. He is one of the best big men in the country.”

Said Turgeon, “I am very proud of Alex.”

I take back everything I said about Len after a mostly disinterested performance in Maryland’s exhibition game victory over Division II Indiana (Pa.). Turgeon and Terps fans can officially now start fretting about whether Len will be around for his junior year.

The flip side of that discussion surrounds Shaquille Cleare. The top recruit in Turgeon’s first big recruiting class looks a bit lost by the speed and athleticism of the college game. Turgeon tried to dismiss Cleare’s debut against the Div. II team – he had a Matrix-like box score reminiscent of former Terp bust Braxton Dupree -- as a case of the nerves. I’m sure there was a lot of that against Kentucky -- and by Noel as well -- but except for one transition dunk by the 6-9 power forward, Cleare looks like he’s taken a step back from what he showed during the preseason practices and scrimmages.

It might be that Cleare isn’t used to his new body. I’m not seeing the massive strength that Kyle Tarp, the team’s Director of Basketball Performance (otherwise known as the strength coach) told me about recently, when he said that Cleare bench-pressed 185 pounds 29 times -- more than some NFL linemen. Fellow freshman Charles Mitchell was on the floor at the end of the game, not Cleare, and might be in the starting lineup before long. Cleare played seven minutes and had no rebounds against the Wildcats, while Mitchell had 10 rebounds and a big tip-in 16 minutes after getting 15 boards in the exhibition game.      

** OK, we’ve got to talk about Dez Wells. The good news is that Maryland almost beat the national defending champions with Wells barely a factor, the 6-5 guard scoring eight points on 2 of 12 shooting and looking out of sync and maybe a little out of shape based on him cramping up a number of times during the game. I am going to write off Friday’s performance as an example of Wells trying too hard, as well as one of a young player who has been through an emotional whirlwind the past few months from the time he was expelled from Xavier this summer to regaining his eligibility from the NCAA two days before the opener.

Wells is obviously a terrific athlete, and he started to make some plays toward the middle of the second half that shows he could be upstoppable at times this season. But the fact that everyone assumed -- myself included -- that he was automatically going to be Maryland’s best player without ever stepping on the court in a real game for the Terps might be an overstatement. Right now, Len is Maryland’s best player.

Bonus Points

Statistically, this is the kind of game that can make a coach both proud of the effort (especially on the offensive boards, where Maryland dominated) and concerned about the shooting. The Terps missed 17 of their first 19 shots, and would miss their first 14 from 3-point range. Faust was 4 of 15 and missed as badly on some as he did last season as a freshman. Where was that new, improved jumper Faust and Turgeon had talked so much about in the preseason?   

Speaking of Faust, it was interesting to see how much he sat after Maryland was in the midst of its second-half comeback. It looked like he also cramped up earlier in the game, but I wonder whether it was his defense and decision-making rather than dehydration that kept him on the bench for a long stretch.

I don’t think it was Turgeon sending him a message as much as it was going with players who were doing the job, and Jake Layman and Seth Allen seemed to be more active. In two games so far, Allen has 10 assists and no turnovers, including five assists in 25 minutes against Kentucky as well as two huge 3 point shots in the second half.

Looking Ahead    

Maryland plays Morehead State on Monday night at Comcast Center. As part of the Barclays Center Classic, the Terps get to play the other two teams. Morehead State, which upset Louisville in the NCAA tournament two years ago when Kenneth Farried was there, beat LIU-Brooklyn in the opener Friday night in Brooklyn, 77-74, snapping the Blackbirds’ 27-game home winning streak. The Eagles made 9 of their 23 3s. Milton Chavis led Morehead State by hitting 4 of 6 on 3s. I would not be surprised to see Allen, Mitchell and Layman see a bit more time, maybe with one of them getting a start in the near future.