COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Last year's season opener was a blur for Maryland sophomore Jake Layman.
"I was definitely a deer in the headlights," he smiled, recalling the nationally televised opener at Barclays Center against Kentucky. "I thought the game went by just like that. I hit one three and that was it."
Fellow sophomore Shaquille Cleare remembered the atmosphere at Barclays for the big game. "The Terp fans got us up for the game, that was so much fun. That was the good part. The bad part was that we lost the game. I don't want that same feeling we had on the bus after the game last year."
Both Terrapins will get an opportunity to make more memories Friday night when Maryland is back at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., to tip off the season against 18th-ranked Connecticut, a 6:30 game again on national television on ESPN2.
"I think a lot of people are fired up for college basketball so it'll be great exposure," said Terrapin coach Mark Turgeon, beginning his third season at Maryland. "They're looking for games to watch and we'll be on. We're playing a really good team that's ranked with really good guards. That's great for us, that's what we want. We don't want to limp into a season, especially when we think we have a good team."
Maryland returns six of the top nine players off last year's 24-13 NIT semifinalist team, and while it's fun to remember that young team that started slow and then gave Kentucky a run in a thriller, these Terrapins are more like the team that won five games in the postseason, including an NIT quarterfinal at Alabama without Seth Allen.
"We're so much more mature, the guys that are playing –the guys that we're counting on – have been through a lot," said Turgeon. "The only ones that haven't are (freshmen) Roddy (Peters) and Damonte (Dodd), so we're much further along. We have good players, we practice hard and we're really committed to winning."
Of course, Connecticut, coming off a 20-10 season under coach Kevin Ollie in his first year, including three wins over ranked teams, is similarly committed. And the Huskies have preseason All-American Athletic Conference selections Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in a bountiful backcourt. The duo combined for 940 points and 260 assists last year, and can make life miserable for opposing guards.
The backcourt is an issue for Maryland, which will again be without Allen, who broke a foot two weeks ago and probably won't be back until Christmas. In the meantime, ACC all-tournament selection and the team's leading scorer (13.2 ppg), Dez Wells has moved over to point guard alongside fellow junior Nick Faust.
"(Point guard play) is getting better daily," said Turgeon. "But everybody around them is better. As a team, we make better decisions and that takes pressure off everybody. Tomorrow's a huge test. If we can handle their pressure with those little guys, then I think we'll be in good shape."
And if the Terps do handle Napier and Boatright's pressure, give some credit to junior walk-on guard Varun Ram, who runs the scout team as point guard in Maryland practices.
"I think our scout team does a great job, not just preparing for UConn, but every day," said junior forward Evan Smotcrzz, who will start up font alongside Cleare. "Varun, in particular, he gets after our guys like crazy and pisses them off."
"Varun is pretty good now," said Turgeon. "Varun gets in you (on defense) so that's really helped us. Varun's a little like Boatright, he never lets up. Boatright looks like he can go 80 minutes, watching on film."
Smotrcyz, the transfer from Michigan playing his first game for the Terps, will help the guards, too. He's a power forward that can handle the ball. Ditto Layman at small forward, and Faust, who played a lot of point guard the last two years out of necessity.
"We'll take turns, depending on who's guarding the ball," said Turgeon about handling Huskies' pressure. "We have multiple guys that can handle it. To handle their pressure, the whole team has to handle it, and I think we're equipped to do that."
Keep an eye on Smotrcyz, a hybrid who must work hard around the basket on defense, and who can stretch the opposing defense at the other end with his heady passing and shooting.
"Evan knows how to play," said Turgeon. "He covers up for some guys' mistakes. He's very smart offensively and then he's really smart defensively, which helps him overcome some of his limitations as an athlete."
The players who talked to the media Thursday after practice, all voiced a lot of confidence, about Friday's game and about a season that could be special. "I think we match up well with them," said Layman of Connecticut. "I think Dez and Nick can take care of Boatright and Napier with their length. That makes up for quickness. I'll be guarding the shooter, (6-7 senior Niels) Giffey."
Smotrycz, who could only watch last year as he sat out as a transfer, thinks the Terps learned some hard lessons as a youthful team in 2012-13, lessons that could pay off now. "I think we can be really good," he said. "We've got a lot more experience and we've been in enough close games and lost a bunch of them where we could come out on the other end this year. We create a lot of matchup problems with our shooting and our length."
"We're so much more prepared this year (than last)," said Cleare. "The six weeks of practice before the season starts gave us more time to work a lot of different sets, a lot of different principles. And the chemistry is great on the court and the chemistry is great off the court."
Cleare said the key against UConn is execution. Smotrycz said, "We're too good to give possessions away, we have to take care of (the ball).
All that said, make no mistake, the Huskies are a tough draw out of the gate. "We want to see where we are (as a team)," said Turgeon. "Personally, I think UConn is a little under-valued. I think with guards like that they should be ranked a little higher."
How Much Help How Soon?
Everyone is anxious to see how much Roddy Peters can help in this type of situation. The faster he comes along, the better the Terrapins will be, starting Friday when he enters his first collegiate game.
"The freshmen are ready, they've come along in great shape," said Cleare. "Roddy has come a long way. I'm so proud of him. Coach is just trying to get Roddy to make the easy plays instead of the homerun all the time. Roddy's a great scorer and a great defender."
In addition to Peters and the defense-oriented Dodd underneath, the Terrapins will have another newcomer available Friday. The program got word Wednesday that junior transfer Jonathan Graham would be immediately eligible for this season, granted a waiver by the NCAA. He has been practicing with the team but did not dress for the official exhibition last Sunday against Catholic, pending the ruling on his request for a waiver to be eligible this season instead of sitting out a year.
Graham, the son of former Terrapin great Ernest Graham, played in 57 games at Penn State the last two years, averaging 2.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 17.2 minutes. The 2010 Calvert Hall College High grad started 25 games for the Nittany Lions but was hampered by a knee injury last season.
"It gives us plenty of depth inside," said Turgeon. "That's the one position I felt we had depth anyway with Charles (Mitchell) and Shaq and Smotrycz and Damonte. It just adds more depth to us. With Seth out, I can play a bigger lineup more, and play Evan at the three. It allows us to play John some more. He had a great preseason but was kind of like a freshman. He had a whole new system to learn. He's been a great kid and a great addition."
Tighter emphasis on defensive hand-checking is a concern across college basketball as play tips off. Turgeon isn't sure how it will play out. It's up to the officials with the whistles but there could be more free throws, more foul trouble and longer games.
Turgeon brought in referees six times in the preseason, including the two scrimmages, trying to get the Terps ready. The coaches worked hard correctly what for most players is now habit.
"We worked really hard on it," he said of defending without hands on opponents. "We had referees six times, two for scrimmages and then four other times. We didn't foul a lot against Catholic but that's not the same animal we're running into Friday night. We really have worked on keeping our hands to ourselves on defense and getting help from another defensive player on the floor."
Turgeon also thinks the rule could be an advantage for Maryland, which will play with a big backcourt. Wells and Faust can both drive the basketball, and Smotrycz can, too, already with a demonstrated ability to get to the free throw line. Ditto Peters, as getting to the basket off the dribble may be the strongest part of his game.
If the game is called tight, Turgeon and the Terps think they have the depth to weather foul trouble but so does a Top 20 team like Connecticut.
"We have a lot of seasoned guys that are ready to go," said Layman. "We know that we can play with anybody."
Turgeon, practically giddy at the start of the season, was talking big picture and immediate concern Thursday. "We've got guys that get to play more because Seth's out and that's going to make us a better team when he comes back. I feel really good about our team. We practice well. We had the Bahamas trip, and we're ready. We're much further along x-and-o-wise than we were last year at this time."
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