ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Maryland cut down the nets at the University of Virgin Islands' Sports and Fitness Center in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday after beating Providence, 55-52, to win the 2013 Paradise Jam Tournament. The Terps won three competitive and physical games in a four-day span, returning to College Park with a much-needed ego boost and their first regular season championship since 2006.
However, when the tans fade, what will the Terps take with them from the Tropics? Of course there were flashes, including a breakout game by junior Nick Faust, who has struggled to find his shot while trying to embrace his role as a "mark up defender." Junior Evan Smotrycz seemed to find his rhythm in the Tropics as he averaged 12.3 points and seven rebounds in the Terps' three wins, including a career-high 20 points in the Terps' semifinal game against Northern Iowa. Sophomore Jake Layman was, well, Jake Layman. The Terps' sharpshooter continued his hot shooting streak, despite drawing the full attention from the opposing defense.
But the Terps' biggest issues remain: post play and the point guard issue.
Sophomore Shaquille Cleare started off the tournament on a positive note with a strong second half performance against Marist in the Terps' 68-43 opening-round win. Against the Red Foxes, Cleare got things rolling for the Terps at the beginning of the second half, confidently demanding the ball in the low post, backing down his defender, and finishing the play with a smooth drop step layup reminiscent of the days of Jordan Williams or Lonny Baxter. Unfortunately, Cleare struggled to execute his post moves consistently, as did his counterpart Charles Mitchell.
Cleare and Mitchell could be the key to getting the Terps' offense going. Both possess the size and build to be unstoppable forces down on the blocks, but neither seem ready to dominate the paint. At times, Cleare showed his ability to back his man down, but at others he took too long to make his move, allowing opposing defenses to collapse and prevent a kick out or a strong move to the hoop. Other times, Cleare was just trying too hard, either putting too much juice on a tip-in or bricking an easy put-back off the glass.
Mitchell looks completely uncomfortable trying to get the rim with his back to the basket. When Mitchell does get the ball with his back to his defender, the possession typically ended with a traveling violation, a mishandled ball or a muffed attempt at facing up that sometimes, by shear luck, ended with the ball in the net.
Even in his post-championship excitement head coach Mark Turgeon couldn't ignore the team's glaring weakness.
"We got to get our low-post game better," Turgeon said. "Normally when you can't make shots you go to your low post, but we couldn't score in there either so we got to figure that out. Maybe it's posting our guards more."
Mitchell is at his best playing the role of the cherry picker as freshman Roddy Peters drives the lane and dishes off a no-look pass to a patiently waiting Mitchell under the rim. Both Cleare and Mitchell struggled to get back in transition -- albeit they did have three games in four days -- and were inept at corralling offensive rebounds or consistently securing second-chance points.
Smotrycz did showcase his ability to bang and make plays down on the blocks, but he looked more comfortable beating his man off the dribble or nailing a 3.
Freshman Damonte Dodd saw limited time during Maryland's three games in the Virgin Islands. The Terps might need to use him more to take advantage of his length and athleticism.
Maryland's other big issue this season has been point guard play. After Maryland's loss to Oregon State at home, Turgeon seemed to be paving the way for Peters to assume the role as the starting point guard.
In fact, just a few days before departing for the Virgin Islands Turgeon seemed to have made up his mind.
"Yeah, I've given it a lot of thought of starting Roddy, " said Turgeon during his weekly Tuesday media availability. "There's a good chance. I think it helps Dez [Wells], I think it helps our team. He was pretty good [in a] pretty big environment. I thought he handled it great. He wasn't scared of the moment and he's getting better defensively."
Turgeon stuck to his word, and started the former Suitland standout in the Terps opening round game against Marist, but the results did not exactly pan out. Maryland got out to a slow start, unable to get their offense going in the first half. Peters continued to attack the rim aggressively at times and showed flashes of his potential but -- in addition to his shortcomings on defense -- he struggles to take care of the ball and seems unsure of himself at times.
After a slow start against Marist, Turgeon turned to former walk-on Varun Ram. Ram, a feisty defender with a knack for causing turnovers rather than adding them, was key in the Terps' win over Marist in the opening round. The junior was called in for duty against a physical Northern Iowa team in the semifinal round, and played a key role in Maryland's championship game as well.
With Dez Wells picking up his second foul midway through the first half, it was Ram, not Peters, Turgeon turned to secure the win. Ram plays old-school Maryland basketball -- the kind Juan Dixon played when Gary Williams discovered him scrapping for loose balls in a local high school. It isn't always pretty, but he gives the team a spark out on the court.
But is he the answer long term?
That is probably not the case. Luckily for UMD, the junior Wells managed to balance running the point with his own game, and he played some of his best basketball this season during the trip (but more on that later). Peters has the potential, but remember, he was supposed to have time to develop behind sophomore Seth Allen. Right now, he is still adapting to the college game and it's unfair and unwarranted to rip a kid who is only about to play in his seventh college game. (I am going to start a campaign: "Patience for Peters").
Peters has already exhibited his ability to get the ball to the post players—Cleare or Mitchell—where they are able to score. Right now, neither big man can comfortably back a man down on the blocks, but Peters has done a great job getting them the ball facing the rim for the easy two points.
Now back to Wells, who averaged 12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and three assists during the three-game stretch and was named the 2013 Paradise Jam MVP. Wells finally seemed to find the balance of when to take over and when to get his teammates involved. I still don't see him as the long-term answer for the Terps point guard quandary, however, thanks to the play of Varun Ram, it's not all on him. Peters should develop in time and Ram's play seemed to settle Wells back into his game for now. But will he be able to withstand the test of tougher opponents?
That question remains. And with a trip to Columbus, Ohio, next week to face Ohio State (Dec. 4) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Terps could find out the answer to that question pretty darn quick.
Post Paradise Jam, Terps Still Have Concerns
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