Five Topics Before Tip-Off

The Terps open their 2013-14 campaign Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y., against Connecticut. Here are five questions facing UMD as it heads into the season opener.

So Mark Turgeon's Terrapins got off on the wrong foot last week.

Still count on a great season, starting with a big test Friday night with 18th ranked Connecticut in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In his third season at Maryland, Turgeon has his most experienced team. It remains to be seen how talented they are without Alex Len in the middle and with point guard Seth Allen sidelined for about 10 weeks with a broken foot.

There is the chance Maryland will look back at the next two months without Allen and think how it gave this shaky ballhandling team a chance to significantly improve for a stretch run later this season.

Then again, it could get ugly Friday night in the Barclays Center against a talented, veteran backcourt and the Huskies' hard-nosed perimeter-oriented style.

A win and the Terps should immediately move back into the national spotlight. Either way, Maryland has a good chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

Here's a closer look at the Terrapins' big issues on the eve of tip-off:

Point Guard Problem?

Maryland was 338th last season in the country in turnover margin, and that was with Pe'Shon Howard in the mix almost exclusively as a facilitator. The Terrapins' 15 turnovers per game were the most in the ACC, but conversely Maryland got better late in the year when Turgeon turned the guards loose to create more, especially Dez Wells, who had 15-or-more points in seven of the last 11 games.

But Wells averaged 2.8 turnovers per game on the season and now he's charged with running the show and involving teammates. "It's a challenge but that's basketball," said Wells. "Basketball is about challenges and being competitive, and competing against the best. At this position I will be able to compete against some of the best and see how I match up. I have some advantages over them and they have some advantages over me so it should be a really good test."

The good news is Wells doesn't lack for confidence, and it's a trait his teammates fed off of at key junctures last year, particularly in the postseason. A muscular 6-5, Wells will have a physical advantage over many point guards and he's quick for his size, though smaller, pesky guards will give him and the other Terps trouble just like they did last year.

Allen's injury is also perhaps a silver lining for freshman Roddy Peters, who should get more minutes now than he might have otherwise. You can almost see Peters' confidence growing during a game as he has success. He has been up and down through the preseason and he has some holes in his game – still learning defensively and without a consistent jump shot.

But he also has that angular 6-3 frame that plays taller, particularly in his ability to get to the basket and create. The more Maryland gets from Peters this season, the better they'll be.

The early season schedule seems a little more stringent – as it should be with a more veteran team—and there are pitfalls to trying to groom a new point guard against the likes of UConn, Ohio State, pesky George Washington and at Boston College before the late December parade of non-conference stocking stuffers.

Allen's absence means junior walk-on Varun Ram is No. 9 in the current player rotation and he might have to provide minutes if there are any further injury issues.

Bigs Better?

Along with Dez delivering, a big part of the success late last year – winning five of the last seven to go 25-13 – was Alex Len. Say what you will about a first round NBA pick that averages just 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, but Len was playing his best ball, too, as Maryland finally got the inside-outside game working consistently.

Len finished fifth in the ACC in rebounds and was tied for first with 2.1 blocks. Those numbers translated to Maryland ranking fifth nationally in rebound margin (+8.6) and 11th in the country in defensive field goal percentage (.385) with Len looming in the lane.

Now the Terps don't have a 7-1 presence in the paint but they've got sophomores Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell, both of whom look leaner and quicker this year. The both can body up foes down low – if the officials let them – and they can both board. Mitchell has always had a little more offensive game and he seems to bring a spark off the bench with that ability.

Both need to finish more around the basket and please, oh please hit free throws. Both big were below 60 percent at the line last year and that could be a stumbling block to the half court offense.

Damonte Dodd, a somewhat unheralded freshman, has a chance to help. Dodd plays taller than his 6-9 frame because of a 747-like wingspan and good footwork. He can block shots and look for Turgeon to work him in to ply that particular trait and change the frontline dynamics from time to time.

Stretching Out

Seeing Michigan transfer and "stretch four" Evan Smotrcyz in uniform and on the floor, he doesn't seem the burly power forward it seemed we were talking about. All along, his ability to stretch a defense by moving outside offensively has been the trait that separates him but how does that translate defensively where he might have to stay low and bang with big power forwards?

The jury's still out there. So far the 6-8 Smotrcyz has adapted his game as needed but he may be capable of taking over with his skill set. He had four assists in the exhibition win over Catholic but with a 51-22 rebounding edge against the Division III Cardinals, the Terps were essentially playing make it, take it, and Smotrycz attempted just one three, though he did shoot a game-high eight free throws (hitting seven). Maybe he's going to be a low post option?

No matter what, he'll make the half court offense more dynamic as a scorer and passer. Turgeon quietly lamented the loss of Haukur Palsson his first year in College Park, the stretch four-man he hasn't had until Smotrycz arrived. Turgeon thought with Palsson, he had an NCAA Tournament caliber team.

Then there's stretch wingman Jake Layman, who is perhaps tapping his vast potential right now. He had 23 against Catholic, including 11 points in a row when Maryland hit the gas to pull away. Layman makes the offense better in every way. He's the top three-point shooting threat and as teams overplay him off screens that should open up things for others.

Off the break, he runs the floor with purpose and he can nail a three or end up with a dunk. "He has no idea how good he is," said Wells. "The way he shoots the ball, how athletic he is. He just runs and doesn't know when he's tired. He has no idea how great he's going to be. He's capable of hitting 10 threes in one game. He's capable of blocking dunks or dunking, guarding anywhere from somebody 6-2 to 6-10. That doesn't come around too often, not in a guard."

With Wells running the point, Layman will often get the chance to lead the offense with those skills on the wing.

D-Fense! D-Fense!

It's ridiculous to talk about a Turgeon team and get this far into it without stressing defense. That's where the Terrapins, in a time-honored tradition that should make Gary Williams smile, hang their hats.

Defensive field goal percentage and rebounding were traits Williams valued, too, and they were keys for Turg's Terps last year. And that brings us to junior wing Nick Faust. It seems his evolution as a lockdown defender is so vital to Turgeon's vision for this team that no one is talking about Faust as a point guard option any more.

Faust certainly has the long body and quickness to excel in this role and has already had moments there. Coaches are counting on a natural progression among the returnees in the fundamentals of Turgeon's man-to-man schemes, and it's likely Maryland will mix in some zone to take advantage of their length on the wings and that bulk around the basket.

The one troubling part of last year's defense was how few turnovers the Terrapins forced. They were 11th in the ACC and 311th nationally with just 5.1 steals per contest.

Points off turnovers could elevate this squad. Every team needs a way to get easy baskets. Mitchell and Cleare will get some of that with stickbacks. Steals into layups and dunks are an area where this team should step forward and Faust looks like the likely candidate until Allen returns and allows Wells to play a more freewheeling style.

Faust also looks much improved in his judgment of what's a good shot and in picking his spots. Turgeon lauded him Sunday in that regard after the exhibition: "Nick was a whole different kid. He shot open shots. He passed the ball to open guys and he just guarded his tail off. That's a sign of maturity with our team."

Bottom Line

Defense and rebounding will win a lot of games. Explosive scoring from the perimeter from the likes of Layman, Smotrcyz, Wells, Faust and Allen can make a difference in a few more.

If Cleare and Mitchell come on offensively, that's a plus, too.

Improving last year's .679 free throw shooting could be important, as well. Get ready: there will be more fouls called in college basketball this season with the change in the hand-check rule and an emphasis on less contact defensively. Good teams will take advantage at the line on offense and be successful at limiting opponents' opportunities there at the other end.

Another question for Maryland: Where do you go in crunch time when you have to have a basket? The best option still seems the ball in Wells' hands and allowing him to create. Faust and Allen can do that, too, and when Allen gets back, the Terrapins still look like a team that may be better than expected in the expanded ACC.

There's another intangible that will make them better this year, one perhaps even strengthened as they play without the valuable Allen.

"They are good, smart players," said Turgeon unsolicitedly of his team Sunday. "I'm just really pleased with the improvement across the board with our players from last year. We are just so much more mature."

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