UMD Improved But Has Much to Prove in ACC

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Critics can call this Maryland team many things, but naïve isn't one of them. The Terps (9-5) are well aware that two straight victories over mid-majors like Tulsa and North Carolina Central pale in comparison to surviving significant matchups in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Critics can call this Maryland team many things, but naïve isn't one of them. The Terps (9-5) are well aware that two straight victories over mid-majors like Tulsa and North Carolina Central pale in comparison to surviving significant matchups in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference.

They know first and foremost that finishing 13-1 in the non-conference portion of their schedule, as UMD did in 2012-13, carries little weight when your team founders the rest of the way. And they absolutely know how important it is to defend their home court, while stealing a few games on the road.

The Terps aren't thinking about March, but if this team has any shot of ending its NCAA tournament drought, it had better make quite an impression these next 17 games, starting Jan. 4 at 2 p.m. against Georgia Tech at the Comcast Center.

"We're not where we want to be that's obvious, but I like where … we're heading. We're looking forward to the ACC schedule, and we're 1-0," Terps head coach Mark Turgeon said Jan. 3. "But it's a different animal now .... It's a tough 48 hours here with Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh [Jan. 6], but we can't go 9-9 [in the ACC] again, that's pretty obvious. That's probably not going to give us a chance. We have work to do."

Yes, they certainly do. Though Maryland handled a solid NC Central team Dec. 31, 70-55, and before that survived Tulsa, there are still concerns that ACC teams can and will expose.

Namely, the frontcourt remains unstable, with Turgeon rotating through starting big men like the Cleveland Browns rotate head coaches. Sophomore Shaquille Cleare started the bulk of the games earlier this year, but after averaging 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds, he's seen his floor time cut. Classmate Charles Mitchell has played starters' minutes at times, but his defensive lapses have drawn Turgeon's ire.

Most recently, fireplug Jonathan Graham earned a start against NC Central, but he did not play particularly well, finishing with six points and three rebounds in 14 minutes. Even true freshman Damonte Dodd had a start against Tulsa, though he's still raw and figures to be purely a rotational guy heading forward.

"Guys, it's a guessing game," Turgeon said in regards to what the starting frontcourt will be. "I'm leaning towards starting Shaq [against Georgia Tech] because their center [Daniel Miller] is so big [6-feet-11] and Shaq is my biggest, strongest guy. …

"But guys have to produce. They have to produce in games and in practice. Charles produced [against NC Central] and he played 25 minutes, but the game before he had two turnovers and three fouls in eight minutes so he sat on the bench. Guys know what they're supposed to do – they just have to play better. But by playing all these guys, they come early, they stay late and it's created some really nice competition."

The good news for the beef is the rest of the squad is chock full of scorers, so the onus isn't on the frontcourt to fill it up. Turgeon even said he wants the bigs to focus mainly on defense and rebounding, and if they put up six, eight points a night, well, that would be great.

"We have so many weapons on the floor," Graham said, "It only makes it easier for us [in the paint] so we can concentrate on defense."

Of the four post players, Graham has proven to be the most rugged defender, what with a pair of three-block games while averaging 2.5 rebounds in just 11 minutes of action per night. Although he hasn't done enough to hold down a permanent spot, Graham said he's tried to be a true lead-by-example presence, while doing everything he can to help the team win. That includes challenging Cleare, Mitchell and Dodd every time the four take the court.

"[The frontcourt players are] going at each other every day in practice, that's how you make each other better," Graham said. "That's what great teams do, what great players do -- they make each other better."

While defense is the focus, the Terps do need to see some offensive improvement inside, because the team still would love to facilitate their sets through the post. Of the frontcourt quartet, only Mitchell has consistently (relatively speaking) scored around the rim, and he's averaging just 7.6 points per game, sixth best on the team.

Sophomore point guard Seth Allen, who just returned from a broken foot injury a week ago, said that while Maryland has shooters, the offense would be much more efficient if the paint players could put up points as well.

"If you play inside-out, it opens things up for everybody," Allen said. "If teams are playing zone, man-to-man, it makes the defense compact and draw in. It gives chances for me, Roddy [Peters] and Dez [Wells] to slash, and Jake [Layman] and Evan [Smotrycz] to shoot. It opens the floor for everybody."

Ironing out the frontcourt woes would go a long way in making a legitimate ACC showing. Getting Allen back to full strength would help even more.

Turgeon said Allen is about 75 percent healthy right now and is still a couple weeks away from returning to full strength. The sophomore, who is currently rotating in with freshman Roddy Peters, has played about 20 minutes these last two games, and Turgeon said that was still probably a bit too much.

Maryland's head man has tried to limit Allen's practice repetitions in order to have him fresh for game day, but Turgeon still only wants to play him "about 15 minutes" against Georgia Tech.

"He's nowhere near [ready], guys," Turgeon said. "Hopefully his foot will be better [Jan. 4]. It's not the bone, it's the muscles, the tendons around it. We'll try to make sure he's healthy on game day."

Allen said it's been very much "touch and go" at the moment. He's trying to practice as much as possible, while still being cognizant of his foot. In addition, he's still going through a full-scare rehab -- running on treadmills, lifting weights, working with resistance bands, and performing individuals cuts and basketball moves.

"I was off [my foot] for eight weeks, so I have to get my whole left leg back," Allen said. "I'm not 100 percent … it's a process that I have to go through."

The sophomore point said "he'll know" when he's back to 100 percent based on his in-game reaction time and certain moves he's able to perform. Right now, he's had to rely a lot more on his mental game than his physical one.

"I have to use my head more than my body right now," said Allen, who also mentioned that sitting out allowed him to become a more cerebral point guard since he spent so much time watching, listening and absorbing. "I would say my spot-up shooting is fine, but when it comes to defense, cutting and running that's where I'm limited. I'm trying to get that back."

Even though Allen isn't all the way back yet, he's already had a positive impact. He did say the team as a whole is still making too many "dumb mistakes," especially on the defensive end, but the offense, which had struggled most of the season, has looked more crisp with Allen running the show.

Through two games he's averaged 10.5 points, 3.5 assists and had just three total turnovers. Peters, by comparison, has shown flashes but is still turning the ball over more than three times a game, and hasn't played particularly well defensively.

"With Seth, there's less pressure on everybody with what Seth can give us. Guys are more relaxed," Turgeon said. "They're a lot more confident, and I think Seth gives us that confidence. … It's fun again. We have our full complement of players, guys are playing better, playing smarter."

Junior Nick Faust has been a primary beneficiary, as he came off the bench against NC Central to score 19 points and corral nine rebounds. Turgeon said Faust has seemed more comfortable with Allen on the floor, but he's been particularly impressed with his defense and rebounding uptick.

Meanwhile, Dez Wells has settled back into his natural two-guard role and is starting to revert to 2012-13 form. He had 18 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and just three turnovers against Tulsa (Allen's first game back), a vast improvement over his six-turnover outing the game prior against Boston University.

"We're getting better. Coach [Scott] Spinelli said at the end of practice we're getting better at the right time," said Evan Smotrycz, who is averaging 12.1 points and 7.1 rebounds this year. "The way we executed on offense today in practice was big for us. We're playing great D the past couple games too. We're where we want to be going into the ACC."

We'll see if that's the case against Georgia Tech Jan. 4. The Yellow Jackets are 9-4 and though they lost one of their best players in forward Robert Carter (torn meniscus), they're still a rough, physical squad. The aforementioned Miller is the conference's third leading rebounder at 8.2 boards per game, while the Jackets' offense features four players who can get to the rim and average double figures.

"Georgia Tech is a heck of a team. I know they lost Carter, but they still have got a lot of good players. They're a big, strong team. Not as big without Carter, but they're good," Turgeon said. "All we've talked about is rebounding. They get a lot of second chance points, not only their big guys, but their guards are getting rebounds … But we're big and strong too and hopefully we become a better rebounding team at 2 p.m. [Jan. 4]."

Smotrycz said getting a win against Georgia Tech would be "huge" for the team's confidence heading forward. He noted how the Terps already made some headway by securing a road ACC win against Boston College earlier this season, but netting a victory to start the true conference schedule could spur a Terps team looking to regain its swagger.

"There's a lot of good teams, and a lot of chances to get some good wins and build our resume," Smotrycz said. "We had some bad losses, but there's chances to bring our RPI up.

"We thought of 2014 as a fresh start. Right now we're 2-0 and we want to keep it rolling … Every game is big from here on out."

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