COLLEGE PARK, Md. – After spending the last four years at North Carolina A&T, Maryland senior guard Richaud Pack admitted there’s a different feel surrounding this particular season-opener Nov. 14 at the Xfinity Center. More fans. More energy. A larger arena. A bigger stage...
Yes, Pack said, there’s certainly excitement in the air as the Terps embark on their 2014-15 campaign.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “I’m excited to play with this group of guys in front of this crowd at Maryland.”
The fact the Terps will be taking on Wagner Nov. 15 seems rather apropos -- or ironic, depending how you look at it -- considering the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder had played his entire career at a mid-major. And that's something that hasn't been lost on Pack in the days leading up to the opener.
“It’s kind of backwards,” Pack said when describing the difference in mindset between a mid-major and a major. “It’s funny, I talked to the guys about that. Here the nonconference is less of a deal, and the conference is supposed to be the bigger deal, but it’s vice versa for mid-majors. So I let my teammates know how important these games are to these [mid-major] teams, because I was that guy coming in saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do to this SEC school, this ACC school, this Big Ten school.’
“Those are [the mid-majors’] marquee games. Those players are going to come in here and play hard… You have a chance to get your school recognition, you have a chance to get yourself recognition. And you want to prove you can play at that level and that you should be there. I know that’s how I felt when I was scoring 20 points against ACC schools, SEC schools… You want to prove yourself, and you naturally give it your best.”
Barring a meltdown of epic proportions, however, Maryland probably isn’t in too much danger against Wagner. Which is a change from the past two seasons, when the Terps started with nationally televised games at the Barclays Center.
Evidently Maryland still had an opportunity to open this campaign in New York as well, but head coach Mark Turgeon declined.
“I’m tired of losing close games to open the season. We’ll go back to Barclays in a couple years,” the headman said. “Those [games] were good for our fans. We played good teams, but knowing what I knew coming into the season, with so many new players, we needed to get some experience under our belt before we start playing those [high-profile] games.”
So instead, the Terps will host the Seahawks, who have just one returning starter from a team that went 19-12 a year ago. Although Turgeon said Wagner will be a good test since the Seahawks spread the floor and have several potent shooters, which in effect makes them a Big Ten lite squad, UMD’s headman admitted “it’s more about us, and just getting better and playing in front of people.”
“But tomorrow night is different,” said Turgeon, who wouldn’t release his starting lineup Nov. 13. “It actually counts. There’s a little more pressure, guys will be feeling it.”
In particular the freshmen. Through two exhibition games, point guard Melo Trimble, shooting guard Dion Wiley and forward Jared Nickens have acquitted themselves well. Trimble, for the most part, has handled the offense effectively; Wiley has been knocking down shots and distributing; and Nickens has come off the bench to hit from downtown.
“You know, first college basketball game, they’re probably going to be a little nervous, a little excited. But that’s normal,” senior forward Jon Graham said of the first-years. “Their biggest thing is working on defense. There’s no question they have what it takes offensively, so I think if they keep working on their defense they’ll be a big help to us. And that’ll be great, because we need them.”
Wiley, for his part, has come a long way since arriving on campus back in the summer. Not only has he built up his body and added muscle, but his play has improved in almost all facets, according to Turgeon and the Terps. Pack said he’s been impressed with the Potomac (Oxon Hill, Md.) product’s feel for the game, and how he can be both a shooter and a creator. Turgeon, meanwhile, called Wiley’s progress “tremendous.”
“He had the furthest to come of all the guys that were new -- on the floor, off the floor,” Turgeon said. “And he’s been tremendous, [but] I expect him to be a little more aggressive for us. When the ball’s in his hands, he’s a pretty good decision maker. He can make plays for himself and others. But I’d like him to be a little more aggressive, and he’s reluctant to do that right now… We need him to be aggressive offensively.”
Trimble and Nickens drew their share of praise as well. Pack said the McDonald’s All-American Trimble has come as advertised, his passing on-point and his court vision superb.
“And he can score so well, too, and you have to honor his ability to shoot. Plus the way he creates for others,” Pack said of Trimble. “He makes this team better.”
Pack went on to laud Nickens’ ability to provide instant offense off the bench. Nickens still has to add bulk and improve defensively, but his shooting ability is not in question.
“He can hits those 3s -- spot up, in transition, off the dribble, pump fake. He even had a post move last game, I can’t forget that (laughs),” Pack said. “So he can really score the ball.”
While the freshmen have been ascending, so has a veteran who is acclimating himself to a new position. Junior wing Jake Layman has been forced into the “stretch-4” role normally occupied by senior Evan Smotrycz, who will be out a few more weeks with a broken foot.
Layman is still working through some kinks, but Turgeon said the Massachusetts native has become more physical and expanded his game. Moreover, Smotrycz’ absence has allowed Maryland’s headman to give rotational players like Michal Cekovsky, Nickens and Wiley more time since he’s had to juggle lineups.
“[Playing the stretch-4] has been great so far,” Layman said. “Offensively it definitely has more benefits for me. And defensively, just having to guard [transfer] Robert Carter and guys like that has definitely helped me.”
“It’s a transition. Jake’s not used to playing the ‘4,’ but Jake’s a smart kid and he can adjust,” Graham said of his teammate. “He’s still learning, but I think he’s done a good job with that so far through the first two exhibition games.”
Two other big men, Cekovsky and starting center/power forward Damonte Dodd, are developing as well. Both have had issues rebounding, while Dodd’s had some foul problems, so it’s imperative they continue honing their games through the nonconference schedule.
“I think [Dodd] and Ceko can both rebound better,” Turgeon said. “But Damonte is coming along … and Ceko had a really good week of practice. I expect them to be better…. [And] we’ve really worked hard with Damonte on not fouling. We feel like our ‘D’ needs to be more physical, so we get after it in practice. So [Dodd’s] developed some habits from that that we’ve tried to break -- and I think we have. He’s learning.”
But this season, and this Terps team, is more about how well the parts fit into the whole, rather than what each individual brings to the table. Team chemistry was a major emphasis this offseason after that all-important intangible went on hiatus for large parts of 2013-’14.
“I think we all fit together well so far, and I think that’s because we have a lot of people who don’t mind moving the ball. We have guys who will make the extra passes, and there’s not too many bad shots, so I think that’s helped,” Pack said.
“Basically what Coach Turgeon has been saying is if we work hard, work together, play together and play for each other, we can have a great season. … If we do the little things well, we can really have a great season.”
Rebounding certainly isn’t a little thing, but it’s something that’s been a point of contention for Turgeon thus far. Turgeon pointed out how Maryland allowed 16 offensive rebounds during its exhibition Nov. 8 against Bowie State, while the Terps failed to execute numerous box outs during both preseason scrimmages. Neither Bowie State nor San Francisco State were able to convert said boards into many second-chance points, but UMD knows it can’t get away with lackadaisical glass work against better competition.
“We definitely have been emphasizing rebounding,” Graham said. “We have a rebounding drill where we’re all kind of pinned against each other and have to box out. Boxing out, you can’t always depend on your jumping ability or height to get rebounds -- you actually have to get into somebody and go get the ball.”
“But this week in practice we’ve been doing a lot better,” chimed in Layman. “I think we’re prepared not to let that [teams get too many offensive rebounds] again.”
Despite the rebounding and defensive decision-making issues (another Turgeon bugaboo), Maryland’s head coach said his team is progressing well and has a solid feel for what it wants to do offensively and defensively. He acknowledged they’ve “kept it simple” in terms of half-court sets and different defenses (mainly man-to-man), but “we’re pretty good with what we do right now.”
“Considering what’s happened with Evan and losing him, to be where we are, I feel pretty good about opening night,” said Turgeon, who mentioned he will probably go with a seven to eight man rotation this year. “We’re nowhere near where we’re going to be, but we’re pretty good... I feel pretty good about where we are.”
Terps 'Ready To Go' In Season Opener
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