COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The Terrapins bags are packed and they're off to the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas in the United States' Virgin Islands this weekend.
Great trip this time of year but it's hardly going to be paradise for a Maryland basketball team out of the gates at 1-2, the Terrapins' slowest hoops start since 2000-01.
"This is a business trip," said sophomore forward Charles Mitchell. "We're not focused on going to the Virgin Islands to have fun. We're going down there to handle business and win games."
Maryland plays Marist (0-4) at 4:00 (EST) Friday in the second game of the Paradise Jam. They'll get Northern Iowa (1-2) or Loyola Marymount (4-0) in the second round, and if the Terrapins found their defense and packed it up for the trip, some wins should come. Providence, Vanderbilt, Morgan State and LaSalle are also in the field of the four-day event.
"The first tournament we went to in the Bahamas (in August) didn't count, this is like a business trip," echoed freshman guard Roddy Peters. "These games are going to count. The key is going to be defense down there. That's all we've been working on in practice."
Through three games, Maryland is allowing 70.7 points per game, a figure that ranks 12th in the ACC in the early season. Defense-minded coach Mark Turgeon has taken that start hard, agonizing through each failed defensive possession --against talented Connecticut, pesky Abilene Christian and surprising Oregon State. Suffice to say he won't get any hammock-time at the beach.
"I just can't believe the way we're playing defensively," he said earlier this week. "That's the biggest thing – we've just got to get better defensively and hopefully this weekend we play a lot better on that end of the floor and figure out a way to win the games."
Turgeon said the Terrapins didn't adjust in Sunday night's 90-83 loss to Oregon State. Two Beavers combined for 60 of Oregon State's points, and the Terps talked about adjustments but they never translated on the court.
"That was the most frustrating thing," said Turgeon.
"I don't think it's a lack of effort, I think it's team defense, just helping each other out," said Mitchell. "We have to have each other's back, be in the right place at the right time."
Earlier in the week, Turgeon showed the team film of their closed scrimmage with Villanova from the preseason when, according to everyone who saw or participated, Maryland turned in a tremendous defensive effort.
"The Villanova scrimmage, there was nobody in the gym, but the intensity showed a big difference," said Mitchell. "It showed the intensity we can bring and the will. If we can play like that with nobody in the gym, we should be able to play with 17,000 people in the gym."
Opponents are shooting a whopping .476 from the field against Maryland this season – compared to .385 last year – and 48 percent from 3-point range, a figure that ranks last among all ACC teams.
"Not only individually were we bad but our team defense wasn't very good," said Turgeon of the Oregon State game. "We've scored 83 points and 77 points (against UConn) and lost in both those games. We just have to guard better. We can't let guys get into the paint like it's a walk in the park. It's got to be hard to get into the paint against us.
"We gave up 24 layups – 48 points in the paint (against OSU), and that's not counting the times they got in the paint and we fouled them so I've never seen a stat like that on one of my teams."
Defense was a given when assessing the Terrapins in the preseason. It was a constant that would help allow them to weather the loss of point guard Seth Allen, and would carry them through offensive ups and downs. But with that rug pulled out from under them, quite frankly, this isn't a very good team right now, and that's where maybe this trip is perfectly timed.
"It's great for us," said Turgeon. "Coming off a loss, (we) get to go to one of the most beautiful places in the world. We get to play three games in four days. We should improve a lot during this week because we're playing so many games. I haven't really studied the field a lot. My first concern is Marist."
The Red Foxes haven't been very good so far. They've lost four games by an average of 26.8 points, including a 93-48 loss at Providence Saturday, and they were tabbed fifth in the preseason Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference poll. Chavaughn Lewis, a 6-foot-5 swingman, is Marist's top scorer at 15.0 points per game, but he shoots just 39 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3-point range. All the Red Foxes are distance-challenged, shooting below 21 percent behind the arc as a team.
Maryland swingman Nick Faust will likely get the nod to guard Lewis, and he's one of several Terrapins -- all the Terps to hear Turgeon tell it -- that need to pick it up defensively. Turgeon did say Faust wasn't solely to blame for the 31 points Roberto Nelson pumped in for the Beavers Sunday night. It was more a product of poor transition defense, and poor ball-screen play, some of the things the Terrapins have to clean up as a team to get on back on track.
Still, Faust's starting job could be in jeopardy if Turgeon, as he hinted, starts Peters at point guard.
"I've given it a lot of thought," said the coach of putting Peters in the first five. "He has got to get better defensively for us. Everybody is telling him how well he played. OK, but there are two ends of the floor. It's not like football where you can play certain guys on one side. We'd be pretty good if I could do that, the old three-on-three Iowa girls' basketball."
Peters had 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting against Oregon State and also chipped in six assists and just two turnovers. Coaches like how his instinctive game allows Dez Wells to play more relaxed and opens the floor for the big guard. Truth be told, Peters probably has the best natural feel for offensive flow of any of the Terrapins.
"He wasn't scared of the moment and he's getting better defensively," said Turgeon.
"I'm starting to get into the flow and I'm starting to pick up the offense now," said Peters, who started against Abilene Christian when Jake Layman missed a practice. "I feel more confident. I've been watching film and I see a lot of things against Oregon State that I could have done better – locking up to the ball, keeping pressure on my man, and talking on the floor to my teammates."
Peters said Turgeon likes for him to push the tempo when he's on the floor, and the lanky guard's best moments have often been in transition. Peters said he needs to learn how to pick his spots better.
Also look for 5-9 junior Varun Ram to get more run as a reserve guard. He does defend and the Terrapins obviously need an object lesson in that part of the game, to say nothing of finding another guard to take some of the minutes Allen would have been playing.
If not Faust, who Turgeon still hopes will warm to the role of lockdown defender, then 6-9 Evan Smotrcyz, coming off his top scoring game, could sit in a move to a smaller, quicker lineup. Smotrcyz had 16 points, five rebounds and three steals versus the Beavers, but as much of a matchup problem as he is on the offensive end, larger and/or quicker opponents take advantage of him on defense, partly a product of the team's currently inept help-side defense.
The other possible change folks are looking for is Mitchell moving into the starting lineup for the ineffective Shaquille Cleare but that one might not come immediately, either.
"I do like having a spark coming off the bench, especially if you don't start well," said Turgeon of Mitchell's 12.3 points and team highs 7.3 rebounds and 63 percent field goal shooting. "Charles doesn't care. Charles plays. He finishes games."
Fellow sophomore big man Shaquille Cleare has been starting but is averaging just 2.3 points, 2.0 rebounds and shooting 33 percent. "I'm not going to say Shaq is practicing well because every time I say that…I'm tired of saying we practiced well," said Turgeon. "But our guys are getting better. We just didn't perform well the other night. It's disappointing because you don't get many opportunities."
Mitchell, as Turgeon has said many times, doesn't seem to care about coming off the bench. "I'm the type of player who brings that energy," Mitchell said. "If we're down or up, I'm still clapping, smiling, high-fiving, just to bring that whole camaraderie back and team chemistry, and make sure we're all together."
Mitchell said Cleare is the same type of player but "just has to loosen up a little bit and play his game."
Until Cleare can contribute more, giving him minutes early in the contest isn't a bad idea, and the tenor of the game, particularly on offense, does change when Mitchell enters the fray. Turgeon also vowed to get Damonte Dodd more minutes in the first half, hoping to help his progress. He sees big things ahead for the 6-9 freshman.
In responding to a question about missing Alex Len around the basket defensively, Turgeon was succinct. "I started a 6-7 center at Texas A&M and made the NCAA Tournament so I think rim protection is a little over-rated. Not everybody has it. We were lucky enough to have it with Alex. You just have to guard better. We have to guard better. Damonte will eventually be that guy. (Incoming 2014 freshman) Trayvon Reed will be that guy but right now (Dodd is) not completely ready and Trayvon Reed is not here."
Penn State transfer Jonathan Graham is another option up front for minutes, too. Turgeon said that he thought the Terrapins could have overcome their deficit down the stretch against Oregon State with fresher legs so there's some urgency to building the bench. It's another advantage to playing three games in fours days at this particular point. These guys are going to have to play meaningful minutes.
Those issues usually sort themselves out over the course of a season. It's all a moot point until Maryland recommits to defense like they played down the stretch last season.
"We hope just to get better in those three games and win all three games," said Mitchell. "Just get back to playing our hardest and playing Maryland defense."
By the way, the last time Maryland was 1-2, the Terrapins went on to win 25 games and reach the 2001 Final Four.
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