COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Maryland's lone senior, 6-foot-7 walk-on forward John Auslander, took a few moments before practice began March 8 and stood at center court to just … take it all in. Not only because the March 9 game between Maryland (16-14, 8-9 ACC) and No. 5 Virginia (25-5, 16-1) will be the last time he takes the floor as a player at the Comcast Center, but also because of the history surrounding the 12 p.m. bout.
As Terps fans are well aware, March 9 will be Maryland's final ACC regular season home game before shifting over to the Big Ten, and the school is landmarking the moment by handing out red T-shirts and newspapers, while decorating the student section behind the basket with a monument-sized "61," signifying 61 years in the ACC.
"It's awesome. Standing in the middle of the court and looking around," said Auslander, who has applied to graduate school at Maryland and hopes to be a graduate assistant next year. "Comcast Center is an amazing place, one of the best venues in the country. All the tradition, the big time names in the rafters -- seeing the shirts, banners, newspapers out. It's awesome."
Auslander's coach, Mark Turgeon, thoroughly agreed. Turgeon called it an "honor" to be coaching Maryland during its final ACC campaign and said there will be plenty of emotion heading into the noon game. He mentioned how all his players are well aware of the matchup's significance and what a win would mean to the fan base.
"Obviously with ticket sales being swallowed up, hopefully by all Maryland fans, it shows you that it means a lot to the fans," Turgeon said. "All this stuff in here, it lets our players know it's a pretty important game. One, because we're playing Virginia, a rival. Two, they're fifth in the country and No. 1 in our league. And three, it's our last regular season ACC game in 61 years."
It's also senior day, though it's a bit difficult to celebrate when the only graduating player you have barely sees the floor. Not to take anything away from Auslander, who was lauded for game preparation, work in practice and attitude.
Auslander saw action in a couple early-season games this season, but didn't suit up during ACC play. Turgeon would not totally commit to starting him March 9, though it is a possibility he'll get into the game.
"[Auslander has] meant a lot. He's a guy that brings it every day to practice, always communicating, always talking," Turgeon said. "He does the scout team, so he knows what the other team is going to be running all the time. He's always talking, helping guys, becoming better at communicating. He's been hurt, but he's battled through it and he competes… John has come every day and has been positive. He brings it."
While Auslander has been a leader in his own right, a theme this season has been Maryland's lack of take-charge attitudes. Turgeon acknowledged the leadership has been "in and out," but it has improved as the season has waned. He pointed to junior Dez Wells as having "really tried," while also giving some props to junior Nick Faust ("he leads in his own way"), junior Evan Smotrycz, sophomore Jake Layman and sophomore Seth Allen.
Next year, Turgeon said, all of those guys will be a year older and he'll have three or four seniors on the roster. The hope, then, is the team's maturity should increase and some of those close losses of late will turn into hard-fought victories.
"We haven't embarrassed ourselves since Florida State. We've been in every game, we've competed, we've been in it against the top teams," Turgeon said. "So that means your leadership is pretty good, and we continue to try when it could be very easy to not show up for a particular game."
Maryland showed up in the second half of its last game, and it was enough to knock off a struggling Virginia Tech squad, 64-47, March 4 in College Park. The storyline after that game wasn't the bounce-back victory after two straight difficult defeats against Syracuse and Clemson, however, but rather Charles Mitchell's emotional outburst.
The Terps' sophomore forward stormed off the court before halftime and had a confrontation with assistant Scott Spinelli before Juan Dixon calmed him down in the locker room. As punishment, Turgeon benched him for the entire second half. Many wondered whether the Terps' headman would discipline Mitchell further, but Turgeon declined to do so.
"I did discipline him, I kicked him off the bench [against Va Tech]. He paid his dues. He did a lot of homework on it," Turgeon said. "Charles goes to class, is on time for study hall, he does a lot of things right. He just gets a little too emotional in games. But he was embarrassed by it; hopefully he'll grow up a little bit, because he's had some really good practices. He's a good kid."
With Mitchell riding pine, sophomore forward Shaq Cleare stepped up in his place. The wayward big man scored six points, grabbed three rebounds, had a block and came away with a steal in just 17 minutes. After showing off some nifty footwork around the hoop, there's a chance Cleare will continue to see more floor time.
"I was really happy for Shaq. He responded and played well, so we'll see. He's practiced pretty well," Turgeon said. "He's gotten much more physical which is …what we need. He'll get first crack tomorrow with it as a starter or off the bench. He'll get a chance."
But Cleare, or the rest of the Terps for that matter, don't figure to have an easy go of things against UVA, which beat Maryland 61-53 Feb. 10 in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers, winners of 13 straight games and are a program-best 16-1 in the conference, boast the nation's No. 7 and the ACC's No. 1 defense. They give up just 54.8 points per game and hold foes to a 38.1 field-goal percentage. The Hoos are fifth in 3-point defense (31.6) and fourth in rebounding, though they are ninth in steals (5.57 per) and 10th in blocks (3.87 per).
Sophomore forward Akil Mitchell is seventh in the conference at seven boards per game, but Virginia doesn't have many individual standouts. They play solid, rugged, end-to-end defense and tend to grate on teams as the game wears on.
"They force you to take contested shots. They play a sagging defense but they can pressure too," Smotrycz said. "They're really good defensively, but we have some guys who can get good looks, and we were watching tape of the last game we had against them, and we got some good looks. We just have to knock down shots, and pass up good shots to get great shots."
Offensively, Virginia ranks 12th in points (66.2 per), but they're an efficient group that works the ball around and doesn't turn it over much. The Hoos shoot the ball at a 45.4 percent clip (seventh in ACC), and can 37.3 percent of their 3s, good enough for third in the league. They are not a great free-throw shooting team (65.9 percent; 11th), but are sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Senior guard Joe Harris is the ACC's fourth-best 3-point marksman at 41.7 percent, and he's second on the squad averaging 11.3 points per game. Harris had 19 points and four assists during the firist UMD-UVA bout.
Fellow guard, sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, who dropped 14 on Maryland Feb. 10, leads Virginia at 12.6 points per game and also shoots 39.3 percent from deep. Freshman point guard London Perrantes, meanwhile, is the ACC's 10th best assist man (3.8 per) and turns the ball over just once per outing.
On the wing, Mitchell can drain the 3 and had 13 points and six rebounds against UMD. Add in the likes of guard Justin Anderson (8.9 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game), forward Anthony Gill (7.7, 3.8) and center Mike Tobey (6.8, 4.1), along with others, and UVA can run out nine effective bodies. Indeed, the Cavaliers have just one player getting more than 30 minutes a game (Brogdon), and no one else sees more than 28.
"You play 35 seconds of defense because they grind you," Smotrycz said. "You have to make them work too. They're a patient team, and they don't make many mistakes."
During the first meeting, Virginia shot 47.1 percent from the floor, and Turgeon admitted his Terps need to guard better. Maryland's offense didn't perform poorly Feb. 10 (40 percent shooting), but Turgeon harped on how UMD needs to take its time, work the ball around and execute.
"To me this is the best team in our league," Turgeon said. "I just hope we play well, that's really what I want. We put a lot of emotion into [the first Virginia] game and came up short… I hope we play with the same emotion tomorrow that we did at their place."
Emotion should not be an issue. Not with a packed house at Comcast Center. Not with it being the final ACC home game. And certainly not on senior day -- even for a team that has just one.
"We've never stopped believing in ourselves," Auslander said. "We've played with the best teams, been in all those games. We really think we're starting to peak and play our best basketball. Everybody's confident. Virginia is a big chance for us to get some momentum going into the ACC tournament."
After 61 Years, ACC Chapter Closes at Comcast
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